Weatherman: “White youth who know what has to be done”

My last post dealt, tangentially, with a political cult, but the NBI was mainly preoccupied with spreading its message. It had no ulterior  agenda and its cultish focus on the person of Ayn Rand was incidental to the belief that Objectivism (and its author, by extension) was correct. It was not a primarily political organization, although it was probably quite politically influential. It didn’t have a specific plan of action, it didn’t agitate for any specific causes, it didn’t really have much of a direct effect on anything but its own membership. On that level, it was somewhat benign; it certainly didn’t fight street battles with the police, attack government buildings, or conduct bombing campaigns. It was not, in short, the Weather Underground Organization.

Weather on the march at the Days of Rage, Chicago 1969

A white street-fighting force: Weathermen on the march at the infamous Days of Rage.

The founding of the WUO, initially called Weatherman, was in answer to the calls of black nationalists for white people to organize movements within their own communities to fight racism and socioeconomic disparities. As leading Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn put it,

The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build a fucking white revolutionary movement.

Weatherman was one of the splinter factions of the Students for a Democratic Society, and part of the revolutionary left of the 1970s, open and avowed Communists who supported any revolt against the United States. Audacious and childish, grandiose and ineffectual, idealistic and violent, comic and tragic by turns, Weatherman was the most radical part of the youth and student New Left, which was itself a phenomenon unmatched since its implosion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s hard to imagine today’s college students turning out in the hundreds of thousands in support of causes, organizing politically and passionately for direct action on such scales, and staging mass college protests that effectively took over whole campuses. It’s also hard to imagine them aligning with America’s enemies and flying their flags, orchestrating planned battles with police, and forming terrorist cells to make their points with explosives. For better or for worse, the student youth of today seem mostly preoccupied with getting their diplomas and keeping their heads down. Maybe idealism has turned to cynicism and apathy, or maybe the economic demands they face are too great to risk anything else. But if youth-led political action for positive change ever becomes possible on that scale again, it would be good to understand the pitfalls of fanaticism, doctrinal splintering, isolation-born groupthink, and idealism outshining reality. If there was ever a textbook case of idealism gone wrong, practically and morally, it is the Weather Underground Organization.

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The Triumph of the Bill: Ayn Rand’s Worst Kept Secret

Last Friday, the long-delayed, nearly fabled, movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged was released, to less than rave reviews. Yet, as Roger Ebert noted, the movie got a four star rating from readers on the internet before it had been publicly released. Rand’s epic clearly has a certain power to fascinate. It’s even ensnared me: as left-leaning as I am, I can’t help having a soft spot for Atlas Shrugged, in the way that bad movie buffs think fondly of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I read it several years ago, and felt as if I had discovered a sort of master codex to the dysfunction of American politics. I’m putting my ideological cards on the table so that the reader will be able to gauge what size grain of salt to take this with, in case the title was not warning enough. If I seem overly biased against the author on ideological grounds, let me say that I think Rand was a competent writer of nonfiction. A very bad storyteller, given the odd placement of a detailed and well-written tract explaining her philosophy near the climax of a novel and unconvincingly passed off as character dialog, but the infamous Galt Speech was serviceable at clearly explaining her ideas.

The issue that brings me to the keyboard today concerns a suspicion I have had ever since reading the Galt Speech, the seed of an insight which grew more and more  plausible as I thought back over the events of the novel. This blooming suspicion cast its shadow beyond the novel the more I read about Ayn Rand, her life and ideas, the much remarked-upon pseudo-cult that formed around Rand in the 1970s, and her adolescent crush on a child killer. These are often treated as “exceptional” items in Rand’s biography, unfortunate extremist phases or passing fancies. I can’t accept these excuses, though. My suspicion is that these episodes are integral to Rand’s entire worldview, in ways unrecognized by most commentators, and probably by Rand herself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in terms of theme, the only thing separating Atlas Shrugged from The Iron Dream is irony. Ayn Rand was one of the great stifled totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.

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Review of “Before European Hegemony”

Cover of "Before European Hegemony"Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Amazon link), tells the story of globalization before globalization, of a system of international trade that predated industrial capitalism, centered on the Indian Ocean, and in which Europe was at the periphery and the Americas were unknown. Rather than writing a tightly-focused study of a specific historical circumstance, Abu-Lughod takes the ambitious approach of studying the economic history of all of Eurasia over (title notwithstanding) several centuries.  While flawed in some respects, it is a worthwhile and interesting read.

It is, however, a challenging book for the student of history. Written as a sociological text with an historical focus, it lacks rigor in its citations, which unfortunately has the effect of making the book fascinating but suspect. The standard for citations she uses makes it difficult to trace her sources: she occasionally uses an inline notation indicating an author, year of publication, and page range, which the reader must cross-reference with the bibliography. Quite often, though, no citation is given for some of her claims. This would not be so bad if Abu-Lughod were completely reliable, but some of her unsourced claims are either extraordinary and suspicious (e.g., that Muslim navigators from the Middle East may have visited the Americas) or flatly mistaken (e.g., that the Battle of the Golden Spurs was fought between the French and an English invasion force aided by local militias of Flemish commoners), leaving the reader with a sinking sense of uncertainty.

But in fairness, these unsourced claims are mostly parenthetical, or marginal to the overall point. When Abu-Lughod carefully quotes and cites her sources, and writes about the central focus of her analysis, her book can both inform and amaze; she frequently goes into impressive detail and makes thought-provoking connections and comparisons. Abu-Lughod describes what she calls a “world system,” an integrated system of trade and cultural exchange that connected almost all the major societies of Eurasia in the high middle ages, as an analog to the modern Eurocentric world system created by European colonialism and capitalism. Her narrative focuses on a series of cities from Europe, to Central Asia, through the Middle East, along the Indian Ocean, and terminating in China, all of which participated in this exchange and were (directly or indirectly) connected with each other. While this leaves a lot of ground uncovered (for example, little is said about Africa, Japan, or northeastern Europe, not to mention cities nearby to her foci), a truly comprehensive study could probably take up many volumes. The sketch she outlines is detailed enough to make her point.

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“As someone who studied history…”

I recently came across (more accurately, found in my inbox) a strange item about Thomas Jefferson, which you can probably find for yourself by googling the phrase “Thomas Jefferson was a very remarkable man.” The essential gist of it is: conservatives are right, because Jefferson says so.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole thing is how it runs down the Founding Father’s resumé of academic accomplishments, repeatedly stressing his knowledge and broad study. What inspired this post is its reference to Jefferson’s study of history. The message is, this man Studied History, so he Knows What’s Up. Actually, that’s almost literally what it says:

Thomas Jefferson knew because he himself studied the previous failed attempts at government. He  understood actual history, the nature of God, his laws and the nature of man. That happens to be way more than what most understand today. Jefferson really knew his stuff.

This chain email is not really all that interesting, in and of itself. It’s just another viral tract floating from inbox to inbox. But its focus on history is something one often sees in political discourse. And phrases like “actual history” fascinate me. Its use gives insight into how history functions in public discourse, and provides a launch-point for explaining my view of how the field should so function.

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