In the summer of 1969, I attended a summer orientation program at the University of Wisconsin where I was starting my freshman year in September. While there I saw a notice for a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I'd read about the SDS in Newsweek magazine (as well as in the much more radical Ramparts magazine to which I subscribed at the time) and since I was against the Vietnam War decided to attend to see what it was like.
I don't remember much about the meeting except that after a few minutes I realized there were two factions in the room arguing. One called themselves Trotskyites, the other referred to themselves as Stalinists, and they were furiously denouncing each other as deviationists. I thought it was pretty bizarre to see two groups of American college students fighting over which mass murderer was better and left the meeting.
Three months later, SDS splintered and the most radical faction, later known as the Weather Underground, embarked on a path of violence with an avowed goal of establishing a revolutionary communist dictatorship in the United States. They were quite clear on their strategy:
"The most important task for us toward making the revolution, and the work our collectives should engage in, is the creation of a mass revolutionary movement, without which a clandestine revolutionary party will be impossible. A revolutionary mass movement is different from the traditional revisionist mass base of "sympathizers". Rather it is akin to the Red Guard in China, based on the full participation and involvement of masses of people in the practice of making revolution; a movement with a full willingness to participate in the violent and illegal struggle."In October 1969, the Weatherman indulged themselves in a three-day tantrum of violence in the streets of Chicago known as the Days Of Rage. Their last open meeting was in December 1969 at a War Council in Flint, Michigan, where one of their leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, celebrated Charlie Manson's recent murder spree, gleefully remarking "First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the pig Tate's [Sharon Tate who was 8 months pregnant at the time] stomach! Wild!". (Dohrn) With that the Weathermen went underground to pursue their war against AmeriKKKa. (as they called it). We thought these people were completely insane.
The Weathermen and allied factions went on to have glorious (again, in their view) careers planting bombs in the US Capital, Pentagon and police stations, robbing banks and armored cars, murdering policemen and building a nail bomb to take to a dance near Fort Dix, New Jersey where they knew American servicemen would be present (fortunately it blew up prematurely killing the bomb makers, including Bill Ayers' then girlfriend, Diana Oughton, along with two other gang members and completely leveling the Greenwich Village townhouse they were in).(Ayers)(Oughton)
Over time the FBI and local police ran the various Weathermen factions down with the last remnants captured in 1985. I have some familiarity with this final episode as one day the FBI showed up at the offices of the company I worked at in Cambridge, MA and shared with us intelligence they had gathered when they made the last arrests, including hand drawn maps of our building showing potential locations (marked with an X) for placement of bombs - among the locations was the mailbox on the sidewalk outside my office and in the drop ceiling of the men's restroom that I used. They told us that while they believed the remaining gang members had been captured, they could not be completely sure, and advised us to improve security. We took their advice.
All of this is by way of introduction to the new movie by the multi-millionaire ski resort owner and retail catalogue mogul, Robert Redford, The Company You Keep. Fortunately, since it is a Redford movie, not many others will see it either because his movies aspire to be profound and nuanced but they're just boring. The Company We Keep is apparently his romantic paean to the idealists of the Weather Underground. Although I was vaguely aware of the movie, I had not planned to write about it until coming across a fawning interview with Redford on ABC News with George Stephanopoulos in which he says "I was very much aware of the movement. I was more than sympathetic, I was probably emphatic because I believed it was time for a change". In response to George's question "even with the bombing?" he replied "movements have to be extreme to some degree".
I then started looking around for some of the early reviews.
Variety's review included this gem:
"unabashedly heartfelt but competent tribute to 1960s idealism . . . There is something undeniably compelling, perhaps even romantic, about America's 60's radicals and the compromises they did or didn't make."
The Hollywood Reporter tells of a pivotal scene in the movie in which a young character interviews one of the radicals and "gives him some understanding of the commitment and idealism of the 70s radicals . . . shows regret for the mistakes that were made but refuses to repudiate her convictions" and that the film depicts "a generation with fire in its belly that has had to adapt to a different world or find other ways to channel their impassioned ideas."
And the New York Daily News called it "an old-fashioned movie about ethics".
Did I mention that these "idealists" hated America, described themselves as Leninist revolutionary communists and despised most of their fellow Americans so much that they were planning to establish "re-education" camps for millions of their fellow citizens if their revolution had ever succeeded?
In addition to the other crimes recounted above, the summer after I left U Wisconsin some other "idealists" backed a truck containing an ammonium nitrate bomb up to the Army Math Research Center, which was located on campus, and blew apart a six story building, killing a grad student who was married with two young children.
The movie is the latest in a series of attempts to rewrite history and obscure how malignant and despicable these people were and are. The technique is to mush all anti-war types together and pretend that the Weathermen were just a little more "activist" (another meaningless term from the 1960s that has infiltrated our language) than the others.
In truth the anti-war folks (of whom I was one) consisted of three different groups, a distinction that became clearer to me over time. The first, and by far the largest group, were those of us who thought Vietnam was the wrong war for America to be involved in. The second, much smaller, but consisting of a disproportionate number of the movement's leadership, believed that the Communists were the good guys in the war and deserved to win (one of these was the current Secretary of State, John Kerry) and then there were a very tiny sliver who believed in bringing the war home in order to impose a Communist revolutionary dictatorship upon the United States. This last group included the Weathermen, the people that Robert Redford is intent on glamorizing as flawed idealists.
Liberals have gotten sloppy over the years thinking of these people as just a little more excitable brand of folks, but basically just like them. They were not, and they despised liberals. Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers believe that Sirhan Sirhan is an unjustly incarcerated political prisoner since his only "crime" was to quite rightly (in their view) kill Robert Kennedy in retaliation for his vote to sell military aircraft to the Zionist Israeli state which has no right to exist and they included Sirhan as one of the people to whom they dedicated their 1974 book Prairie Fire (published while they were still hiding from law enforcement).
This sloppy thinking also obscures the historical truth that at the time most liberals, and leftists, for that matter, despised the Weathermen and similar nut cases. They weren't seen as just another group of "passionate" or "idealist" anti-war people. A few years ago, I was exposed to a fine example of this sloppiness when, on a sunny September morning, I was making my weekly trip to our town's garbage dump (oops, I meant to say transfer station) and listening to NPR's Saturday morning show with Scott Simon. I was shocked to hear him interviewing Bill Ayers. My first thought was "what rock did this scumbag crawl out from under?" Ayers was plugging his new book, Fugitive Days: A Memoir. Now Scott Simon seems like a very nice guy but he is also clueless and let Ayers get away with portraying himself as just another anti-war activist who may have gotten a little bit carried away at times. It was appalling to listen to. Ayers' bad luck was that the interview was broadcast on September 8, 2001, the publication date for his book was September 11, and the country was not in the mood to read the memoir of a bomber who hates America.
Many of these people have been allowed to insinuate themselves back into society. Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn married and with the help of Ayer's wealthy father (who was Chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison) were integrated back into Chicago society and politics (they even held the first political fundraiser for a young politician, Barack Obama, in the early 1990s and Obama blurbed one of Bill's book). Today, Bernadine Dohrn is an Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School (yes, you read that right) where she was the former Director of the Children and Family Justice Center and Bill Ayers recently retired as Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, a field he went into because he thought it offered him the opportunity to mold young minds in a revolutionary direction. The fact that he is considered quite reputable and influential in the field explains a lot about the plight of education today, particularly since both Ayers and Dohrn still describe themselves as revolutionary communists. Ayers takes great pride in his background, boasting "guilty as sin, free as a bird" (Federal charges against both of them were dropped because of illegal wiretaps). (Ayers a few years ago)
Another member of the Weathermen crew has also been in the news recently, Katherine Boudin. Kathy Boudin had been on the lam after last being seen fleeing the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970. Then, in 1981, she and three others robbed a Brinks Armored Car in Nyack, NY, in the course which two Nyack policemen and a Brinks guard were shot and killed. Waverly Brown (the first black policeman hired in Nyack), Edward O'Grady and Peter Page were all combat veterans with nine children between them. Boudin was eventually caught and convicted but then paroled in 2003 in a controversial decision.(Boudin)
Today, Boudin is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work and was recently named Scholar-in-Residence at NYU Law School. Her son, Chesa (whose father was David Gilbert, another of the Brinks robbers) was raised by Ayers and Dohrn while she was in prison. Chesa attended Yale, received a Rhodes Scholarship, ardently supports Hugo Chavez, approves of his parents being "dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world,” and says “I’m dedicated to the same thing”, and writes that his parents "paid a heavy price for their radical politics" while the truth is the price they paid was for their involvement in a triple murder. I hope the children of Brown, O'Grady and Page have been provided the same opportunities as Chesa.
What is particularly troubling about all of this is that the distinctions liberals, and even socialists, made between themselves and communists and revolutionaries (as well as the vile and insane) forty years ago are being slowly eroded away in a massive rewrite of history (see, for instance Showtime's Agitprop) with the cooperation of our educational institutions. It leads to grotesque movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, a recent film romanticizing Che Guevara, who in reality was a murderous Stalinist thug.
Some liberals still exhibit common sense about these warped human beings. In 2010, Bill Ayers was retiring from his professorship at the University of Illinois and had been proposed for Emeritus status which required approval by the University's Board of Trustees. One of the trustees was Christopher Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy's sons. In an impassioned speech to the Board, Kennedy said he could not confer the title "to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father." The trustees agreed.