Tuesday, February 16, 2010
There is a lot of nostalgia for the culture of the sixties. The music, the art and the news are suitable fodder for the nostalgia movement. When I see young people wearing clothing with peace signs on it, I feel like filling them in on the real deal. I have told my own children of my regret at having taken part in the antiwar movement back in the sixties.
Promoting antiwar demonstrations was a part of a strategy during the sixties and seventies by communists in America and abroad to politically "tie the hands of US imperialism." I used to attend communist meetings at which that was discussed. When the Young Socialist Alliance declared a "full mobilisation", the local office of the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) was full of Trotskyists, young and old stuffing envelopes and answering phones. The People's Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) enjoyed strong support from the Communist Party.
When Pnom Penh and Saigon fell in 1975, everyone knew what happened. Cambodia turned into a hermit kingdom in which about two million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime under the notorious dictator Pol Pot. In Vietnam, thousands of ethnic Chinese were pushed into leaving Vietnam in rickety boats.
While America went through its turbulence in the sixties, China went through a catastrophic upheaval, in which radical students trashed universities and the economy of China was thrown into turmoil. The goal was to erase memories and records of prerevolutionary China. Many students sorrowfully remember denouncing their own professors, destroying library books and other "revolutionary" acts.
America too has its own chapters of shame from the radical sixties. Does anyone remember Mark Rudd? He was one of the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, which figured in a lot of headline grabbing campus violence. Back in 1968, when radical students took over Columbia University, there was considerable vandalism to university property. There was one particularly saddening episode that even shamed the SDS at that time. That was the burning of a manuscript by Columbia University assistant professor Orest A. Ranum, who angered SDS radicals by sympathising with their aims and criticising their tactics. During the takeover of Columbia, his office was broken into. A manuscript representing ten years of research for a textbook on European history were purposely burned. The Chronicle of Higher Education describes the loss as follows.
"The papers were irreplaceable. They dated back to Ranum's time as a student at the University of Minnesota, where he got his Ph.D. in history. The notes were going to lay the basis for a textbook on early modern European history that he had been commissioned to write for a series edited by the British historian Sir John Plumb.
After the papers were burned, Ranum withdrew from the book project and returned the small advance he had received from the publisher. He left Columbia for the Johns Hopkins University, where, now 76, he is an emeritus professor of history and one of the country's best-known experts on 17th-century France."
In one particularly touching footnote to the burning of Ranum's manuscript, scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary who were working on the Dead Sea Scrolls offered to attempt a reconstruction of the destroyed manuscript. In his typically self effacing style, Ranum turned them down out of the conviction that his manuscript was not important enough.
For years, the thug who burned Professor Ranum's manuscript enjoyed anonymity. Now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the name of the perpetrator has been revealed. the Chronicle of Higher Education reports as follows of the recent revelations in a detail laden article on the events at Columbia University in 1968.
"SDS has always denied responsibility for burning Ranum's papers. For more than 38 years, Rudd didn't correct the record. Then, suddenly, he confessed, saying that only he and Jacobs—who died of skin cancer 12 years ago—knew who burned Ranum's papers, and that both had kept it a secret from the rest of SDS. In a 2006 speech at Drew University, Rudd issued a lengthy apologia, not only acknowledging complicity in the arson but also taking the blame for the strategy that he believes destroyed the New Left.
Rudd confesses to approving the setting of the fire but denies that he knew or approved of the burning of Ranum's manuscript. Years later, Rudd regrets having acted in secret, and not having put the plans to commit arson in an occupied building up for a vote.
"At Columbia we felt ourselves at war, and once war is declared, the limit on tactics and weapons gets blurred very quickly. So does the definition of participatory democracy, on which SDS prided itself, since it was J.J. and I who made this decision alone, without democratic consultation of any sort."
Rudd has come clean in speeches and in his book which he is promoting, "Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen."
My emotions are mixed. On the one hand, Rudd is setting the historical record straight. On the other hand, he is not doing so solely out of altruism. The radicals who became household names were shameless self promoters who knew how to get on the news and on the television talk shows of that time. Mark Rudd is no different. If he donates his book royalties to Professor Ranum, or to the cause of those who were hurt by student radicals, I will believe that he is sincere. But so far, all I see is that he has cleaned out his filth encrusted conscience and found something he could wash off and sell.
We should not let the real history of the sixties fade. The memories of the players in that dramatic time should be encouraged to leave their memories to posterity. As repulsive as some of them might indeed still be, we need collective remembrance to guide us in the future. Sphere: Related Content