Days of Rage


An interview with Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage, about leftist extremist groups of the 1970s resonates for me today.
These groups were largely the product of the civil rights movement which had begun in the early part of the century, but had begun coming to fruition in the late 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s it had begun to make real strides, and to influence many young people in particular.
Nor were all these young people black. Some whites felt the black cause to be significant and became Freedom Riders in the South. Some of them got killed or injured, just like the black people standing up for their rights. Some formed their own groups, especially in the wake of the Free Speech Movement centered around Berkeley. Besides the primarily black organizations like Martin Luther King’s Southern Leadership Conference, the Black Muslims, SNCC, and others, there was SDS, a primarily white organization, and would shortly be organizations for feminism and gay rights. I lived through that era, but hadn’t been paying close attention, especially before the 60s. I was quite surprised when I viewed a documentary showing the relationships of one movement to the others.
Anyone of my age knows that a different and more decent society was supposed to result from the protests and other actions of these groups, but it didn’t happen. Assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X were largely instrumental in that. Burrough’s book is about underground organizations of the 1970s who mistakenly thought that the country, having seen protests not only about segregation but Vietnam, the most senseless and ill-managed war of our history to that time, was on the brink of revolution, and wanted to help it along.
Most whites were unaware of the black community’s general view of civil rights. Dr. King’s nonviolent approach deservedly got the most publicity, but there was always an element in the community that felt blacks should have the right to defend themselves from persecution. That sounds like an issue the NRA ought to support, but it seems unlikely they ever will, since they recently banned guns from one of their meetings, and because the rights white people demand are usually prohibited to blacks–especially when they’re about carrying guns.
The leadership of the SDS, known as the Weathermen, decided to go underground in the early 70s, with the idea of fomenting violent revolution. They intended to do this by assassinating policemen, whom they saw as the people most actively persecuting the black community. Fortunately, an accident killing several Weathermen leaders largely disrupted that plan: they decided they couldn’t kill innocent people (though that happened sometimes anyway), so turned to bombing symbols of corporate power, like banks. Most such bombs were set off at night, when there was minimal chance of hurting anyone.
There were two primarily black organizations doing similar things at the time. The more publicized was the Black Panther Party, who stood for the right of the black community to arm and defend themselves, though that wasn’t all. They also put together programs for child care and feeding people to help the community in nonviolent ways. But powerful whites were alarmed, and either killed or imprisoned many of the Panthers, including most of the leadership.
Much less known (the author says there was actually a debate at the time as to whether or not they existed) was the Black Liberation Army. Their tactic was much the same as the Weathermen: to assassinate policemen. How successful at that they were, I don’t know, but the author located one of the original founders of the group, who commented that it would have been more effective to assassinate the bosses of the police.
None of these groups realized that violent revolution was the last thing most Americans wanted. In fact, their activities created a huge backlash. Many current Republican leaders were either growing up in the sixties, or not long after. They deplored (like older Republicans) the apparent lack of patriotism, and became more extreme themselves. Some also turned to violence ( Timothy McVeigh was the most famous of these), but found this was no better received than had been the leftist bombings. Others decided to organize.
There are some ironies here. The gay rights movement began at about the same time as the conservative resurgence. Their respective messages were mostly opposite, but their tactics weren’t: they organized to spread their message and challenge the laws they didn’t like. No one growing up the sixties could have imagined that gay rights would be so well accepted as to make gay marriage legal. Few from the sixties would have imagined how anti-democratic the political atmosphere would become, either.
I sympathized with the the concerns of the revolutionary groups at the time, but not with their aims or tactics. Having been reading about Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, my take was that violent revolution was not an appropriate aim, with the possible exception of REALLY extreme circumstances. You’re too likely to get a worse result than the status quo. And though this country never came close to a violent revolution, the reaction to its leftist revolutionaries did bring out the worst in the left’s conservative adversaries.
After the Vietnam war had been lost should have been a perfect time to reflect on our country’s mistakes, and resolve to change our policies to encourage more and better democracy. The opposite happened. Conservatives became energized, and began successfully opposing liberal causes. Nobody wanted to hear that this country had made mistakes that it needed to fix. And when mistakes aren’t fixed, their consequences pile up. That’s pretty much where we are now, statistically no longer the “greatest country in the world”. We probably never really were, but a hundred years ago that was more generally believable than it is now. We’re still the richest country in the world, but that wealth no longer seems unlimited. Pollution marks the end of the frontier.
So we’re a country built on a revolution with a meaning that no one ever entirely agreed on. The southern states wouldn’t agree to submerge their autonomy in the constitution without concessions regarding slaves. Slaves were the plainest symbol of how the best aspirations of the revolutionaries only applied to a few populations at best.
A recent article suggests that, from the perspective of minorities, this country would have been better off staying with England. Not because England was perfect, but because in general they treated minorities better. Fewer massacres, and less stealing of land. And slavery ended sooner in the British Empire.
The emotions roused by slavery on either side in this country are nothing short of amazing. The Civil War remains the most destructive war to our nation that we’ve fought in, and it isn’t over yet: the emotions are still powerful.
Racism was still powerful in the 1960s when civil rights bills were passed and were only effective on the surface, as we see today. Black people are still being killed by police and others with impunity, as they have been for our entire history. Propagandists encourage black and white hatred with as much virulence as they ever have.
White radicals in the 1960s and 70s wanted to change the country for the better, but used unwise tactics. So did some black radicals. They created a backlash that has been successfully trying to change the country for the worse, at least from my perspective. Conflict seems to be almost inevitable, but it certainly does get old. I’m reminded of a sign I saw in a picture of a protest sometime ago: “Do we have to protest this shit AGAIN?” Apparently we do.


A Documentary on Amy Winehouse


I got to see a recent documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was very impressed–to such an extent that I started crying halfway through. I knew what the ending had been, and had begun to see it coming.
Hers was a sad, but not unusual story these days. She was just more visible than most people going down the road of excess. Prior to the film I had heard her name, and had someone explain to me that she was a singer with a bad drug problem. I don’t remember how soon it was after that she died. But until the movie, I had never seen her picture or heard any of her music.
The movie starts in exhilarating fashion: a teenage girl playing guitar and singing songs she’s written herself. The guitar playing isn’t distinguished, but the music is solid enough, the lyrics outstanding, and her singing even better. At one point she sounded like Billie Holiday to me, but I’d have to listen a lot more to tell if the resemblance is consistent.
Her musical career takes off pretty fast. We see snippets of interviews and her fronting bigger and bigger bands. She looks happy and alive.
But as her career progresses the picture turns darker. Her father, who had left her mother and her when she was nine, returns, and it seems clear that it’s because of the money she makes. Part of an interview with her mother tells us that she was strong-willed and determined to have her own way from the time her father left. Her mother also tells us she was bulimic.
Her mother apparently didn’t realize, as many parents probably don’t, what a serious problem an eating disorder can be. It was both the psychic and physical manifestation of the unsoundness of her foundation.
In her early twenties she remains relatively healthy physically. But there are psychological signs that all is not well. Her relationship with her father is one. Another is her relationship with her husband.
Before him she had been rather promiscuous, as if sex was a sort of pastry. With him, other things were happening. He goes back to his girl friend, then returns to Amy, and they get married. The movie states flatly he turned her on to cocaine, and that may not be all. A blood specimen is mentioned in which cocaine, heroin, and PCP were found. She also liked to drink.
Around 2005-6 going to rehab was suggested, but not followed up on. Her rising trajectory continued–for awhile. Her bands got bigger and better. When she was healthy she could still write and perform good songs.
Her husband was busted for obstruction of justice (I don’t recall the details) and went to prison for awhile. That might have been a good thing for her. It equally might have been a trauma. But later in the move is part of an interview with him that I think sums up how much he was worth: he says that he’s good-looking and dresses well, so he doesn’t need to waste time with Amy.
Amy, meanwhile, has begun to get erratic, but hadn’t entirely lost control. She’s been told she has to get straight before a US tour, and does so. One of the touching scenes (possibly from during that tour) was with Tony Bennett singing a duet (he was doing duets with various artists for an album). She starts out very nervous, trying to work with one of her idols, and he tries to get her to relax, almost like the father she never had. He also says to an interviewer that she’s a real jazz singer. A moment in her life I wish could have lasted longer. They made beautiful music together literally, not figuratively.
Later on she spent about six months on an island without access to drugs. She still had access to alcohol, though. As bad as illegal drugs can be, it seems the combination of bulimia and alcohol is worse.
From the island she was supposed to come back, and begin a tour in Belgrade. Maybe she had wanted the tour, maybe it was arranged with minimal input from her, but when the time came, she didn’t want to do it.
She went onstage to a real sea of faces, and refused to sing. I think music had been her healer, and now no longer was. With all the expectations from those around her (her father seemed fatter every time he appeared) music had become a burden instead.
Was it before Belgrade or after that pictures were taken of her at her house? I think before. There’s little light in the photos, and she looks almost dead, her eyes barely alive, her lips turning blue.
After Belgrade she wanted to return to her friends, and told them so. But by then she must have been both fearful and in great pain psychically, and maybe physically too. That was when she died. I think I remember that no drugs were found in her system, only alcohol. The movie explains that alcohol can cause the bulimic heart to stop. No doubt she felt she needed something to ease the pain. She had wanted to come back, but had gone too far.
This isn’t such an unusual story, but I found it poignant. One reason was her talent, which was enormous. A shame to see it snuffed out so soon. It may be unfair of me to find her case more affecting than that of someone less talented and less physically beautiful. She was gorgeous, and we (males especially) tend to be drawn more to the beautiful than the plain.
That leads to another possible reason: she closely resembles one of my friends, He (“She looked like they could have been sisters,” according to a mutual friend), and this friend encouraged me to write, for which I am grateful.
Her name is Heather Maria Ramirez, and she’s published several novels without making much money from them. Is she less talented than Amy was, or just not as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time? I can’t say.
But Heather’s road diverged sharply from Amy’s, as did my wife, Michelle Scala’s. All three had disordered childhoods, and both Heather and Michelle could have turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain they must have felt, just as Amy did. They were stronger, though, experienced the pain, took responsibility, and grew from it. If either were to become famous, they might be more capable of dealing with it than Amy was. Fame, unfortunately, destroyed the wonder Amy found in her music, becoming a burden more than a means to an end. Ultimately, she was, even with all her beauty, talent, and generosity, pathetic, and that’s a real shame. I feel sorry that she couldn’t have made better choices and learned to be happy. Her story is dramatic, but I wish it could have been less so, and that she could have survived.
There are many people who destroy themselves in similar ways, but aren’t as visible as she was. There are also many who undramatically make better choices, survive, and become a blessing to people around them. Heather and Michelle are two such people. There are many more whom we know nothing about unless we know them personally. Heroes need not be dramatic. But what a shame about Amy and so many other self-destructive people. She gave the world beauty. I wish she could have given us more of it.

Enforced Orthodoxy


In a recent column, Same-sex marriage is only the beginning, conservative columnist Cal Thomas expresses fears that just may come true. He is, of course, talking about the recent Supreme Court decision making gay marriage legal nation-wide.
He observes that it will still be legal for Christians and other religions to preach against homosexuality, but that gay activists and secularists will almost certainly challenge that right in court, since their “goal is to drive religious people out of the public square.” In the next paragraph he intones, “Minorities rule.”
The message about driving Christians out of the “public square” is an interesting look in Thomas’s mirror. “Christians” and other groups have a whole list of people and groups THEY want to drive out of the “Public Square”, but I don’t think you’re going to hear about them often from Thomas.
Minorities have often ruled in human history, sometimes by “Divine Right”. The idea of majority rule is fairly recent, it doesn’t seem to actually work that often, and we find that majorities can be as
tyrannical as minorities.
“Christians”, of course, justify their tyrannies by morality, saying they are the will of God. Homosexuality has been treated in this way, supposedly because of a few Biblical passages (though, you will notice, Jesus Christ had nothing to say about the practice, which suggests it’s not quite as sinful as current “Christians” insist), but I think clearly because the practice makes more than a few people uncomfortable.
It’s not entirely clear why this should be. Gays don’t insist everyone be homosexual, as some straight people insist about heterosexuality. The extravagant treatment reactions of many ministers and politicians indicates that homosexuality is something they take very personally. Sexuality is certainly a personal matter, but why should it matter to anyone what other people do, as long as they don’t harm anyone?
Of course that’s the argument frequently advanced, that gay marriage will undermine and destroy “normal marriage.” I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of why.
Thomas adds that the next thing will be for activists to go after tax-exempt status for churches, and after bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. It seems to me that tax-exempt status ought not to be guaranteed for churches supporting hate-speech and terrorism. This principle seems to be well-understood when it’s Muslims supporting terror, but not with Christians, for some reason. The problem with bakers refusing service was seen in the Jim Crow era in the South. Many devoutly believed that dark-skinned people were inherently evil, which made for a conundrum: if dark-skinned people were citizens, and the Constitution had been amended to say they were, how could anyone justify not serving them? Another portion of the Constitution enjoining equal protection under the law said (or at least strongly implied) that those claiming to serve the public would have to serve the WHOLE public, much to the dismay of some.
That activists are willing to sue churches and businesses that disagree with them Thomas calls “enforced orthodoxy of a different kind”, thus tacitly admitting that segregation was also enforced orthodoxy, but not condemning it, leading me to believe that enforced orthodoxy is just fine, as long as it’s the right kind.
The rest of the column is a condemnation of the Supreme Court for indulging in “legislation”. The Court currently seems able to please neither liberal nor conservative. He ends by revealing Jeb Bush’s plan (assuming he gets elected to the presidency) to ensure that any nominee to the Court is a REAL conservative. I wonder what he’d say if a liberal president examined nominees to make sure they’re liberal enough. In any case, he thus further underlines the idea that enforced orthodoxy is just fine. I had thought this country was founded to prevent such enforcement, but apparently I have been mistaken. Mr. Thomas’s opinion makes it clear just how much conservatives value democracy.