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September 16, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 37
Attica: the death of ’60s radicalism
By Clark Whelton
There are three treatments for cancer — radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. All three poison or mutilate the body and may even kill the patient before the cancer does. But the most skillful of physicians can only try one of these three scourges if he wants to attempt a cure. As destructive as they are, there’s nothing else.
The State Prison in Attica, New York, is nothing but a different kind of cancer. The police attack on rebellious inmates there was ugly and bloody, but as destructive as it was, was there anything else?
There are many treatments for the various sicknesses of human society. Each political group prescribes its own special remedy and poultice, each blames its curative failures on somebody else. Doctors bury their mistakes, politicians alibi them. In the 1960s, American practitioners of radical politics expanded the theory of the alibi into an illusion of collective innocence. Sixties radicalism recognized that all available cures for social ills, like the cures for cancer, involved the use of harmful and possibly destructive methods. To govern, to be in power, inevitably means resorting to force to solve social problems. It shouldn’t, but it does. In order to avoid choosing between the evil of the disease and the evil of the cure, ’60s radicals kept themselves suspended in a presumption of innocence. They avoided the problems of government by not governing, by not assuming for themselves the responsibility of deciding the fate of other people. For a while it seemed as though it might work out, that flowers, goodness, righteous thinking, and political showmanship might actually be an antidote to the toxic effects of government. Even the advent of Weatherman bomb tactics, Panther militancy, and the auto-hypnosis of “armed love” somehow kept alive the illusion that the cure for society’s ills was only a matter of doing away with the doctors who kept society sick.
The explosion of blood and violence at Attica has ended that illusion and stripped away the insulating alibis that kept it intact. In assessing the blame for the sordid murders at Attica, no person or group will bear the heavier burden of guilt than the contemptible ’60s radicals who in their role as members of the mediating committee tacitly encouraged the prison inmates to go on thinking they were political prisoners engaged in a struggle of conscience instead of civil criminals engaged in a struggle against their keepers. Sixties radicals like William Kunstler — who have no experience with the realities of governing other men — should have known that amnesty could not possibly be granted by Governor Rockefeller or anyone else. By sticking with the radical theory, the pathetic and intoxicating ’60s rhetoric which insists that radical believers are innocent victims of a fascist government, they pushed the prisoners deeper into delusion. By stating that unlimited quantities of time were available for negotiating, Kunstler demonstrated his perhaps willful ignorance of basic government which must consider the effect hat a siege has on other prisons and on the rest of the population.
The state had to act. Five days of talking is an extraordinary length of time for the negotiations to have continued. By not arguing against the political fantasies of the prisoners, the ’60s radicals on the mediating committee were leading them, and the hostages, to inevitable death and a useful place in the propaganda pantheon of the left.
It shouldn’t be that way, of course. Governments should be composed of human, loving, decent, honest people. But they’re not. Governments are composed of people like you and me. They are imperfect, they make mistakes, they don’t have the answers for society’s problems any more than the radicals who criticize them. But the radicals never have to answer for their own ignorance. By keeping their hands off government, they never have to face up to the fact that ideas, in themselves, are worthless. Only by implementing social ideas through government can they be tested and judged.
The prisoners of Attica formed a government during the five days they controlled cellblock D. Armed with the ideas of ’60s radicalism, they put some of them into practice. Among their first decisions was a death threat against their hostages.
Sixties radicals stayed away from government so they wouldn’t be faced with political decisions like the ones made by the prisoners of Attica, the way a doctor might turn to faith healing in order to avoid the pain of slicing away huge sections of the human body to remove malignancy. But social progress is made through government, just as medical progress is made through the application of imperfect remedies. To persist in the floating innocence of ’60s radicalism is to delay and deform any chance at social progress. An early demand of the Attica prisoners was transportation by plane to a “non-Imperialist” country. Nothing could symbolize the over-the-rainbow dreamworld of ’60s radicalism better than this request. Where did the prisoners think they were going to? To North Korea? To China? To Cuba, Russia, Albania, police states all? There is no escape. The problems are everywhere, the cures have yet to be discovered. But the day of discovery can only be delayed by hollow political ideas like those of the ’60s radicals who repeatedly point out that the people driving the country are drunk and dangerous, but who refuse to put their own hands on the wheel.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 31, 2010