I attended part of a January 20 “day workshop of interventions” — aka “a day of dialogic interventions” — at Columbia University on “Radical Politics and the Ethics of Life” (see below for program). The event aimed “to bring to light… the political aporias [sic] erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s.” (See below for the postmodernist context indicated by the language.) Hosted by Columbia’s Anthropology Department, workshop speakers included Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground, historian Jeremy Varon, poststructuralist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a dozen others. The panel I sat through was just awful.
What seems to be happening is that veterans of Weather are on a drive to rehabilitate, cleanse and perhaps revive it. (Consider, too, Bill Ayers’s 2001 book, Fugitive Days; also the 2002 film, “The Weather Underground,” which while well intended seems to offer the viewer a Hobson’s Choice between Weather and Todd Gitlin. I didn’t know whether to shit, or go blind!) Despite the substandard product that Weather veterans are peddling, a sympathetic response to a bowdlerized Weather may not be so hard to achieve in the present frustrated mood of the left. In addition, many undergraduates, graduate students and faculty have been infected by postmodernism in this, its terminal phase, and therefore have little concern for concrete reality. Weather can be discussed in appealing-sounding abstractions, without reference to the destructive inanities of their role at the June 1969 Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society, the October 1969 Days of Rage, the bombings, the bombing fuck-ups, etc. (Nobody wants to talk about Bill Ayers’s classic September 11, 2001 New York Times interview lauding Weather violence, published under the headline, “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.”)
Bernardine Dohrn served up all the hoary platitudes about the everyday violence of the standing order — all true — leading inevitably to a justification of violent response by a minority substituting itself for a mass movement; at the same time, she offered a rhetorical parenthesis rejecting armed struggle. Neither the efficacy nor morality of Weather tactics were scrutinized, nor any inquiry made into how you construct a majority radical democratic movement by denouncing and writing off the majority. Dohrn’s defense of Weather included the remark that in the face of terrible oppressions and injustices, it is necessary “to do something about it, it almost doesn’t matter what.” But it does matter, if we are interested in building rather than tearing apart a new left. Clearly, almost forty years after the Weather disaster, she hasn’t gotten it. Indeed, she says that the actions of the Weather Underground “made people smile.”
Weather killed and buried Students for a Democratic Society — a catastrophe for the left. Dohrn passes lightly over this, saying that SDS wasn’t worth saving by the time Weather came on the scene. An anarchist in the audience made the important point that how you make the revolution will affect the kind of revolution that you get. Partly agreeing, Dohrn insisted that, while underground, Weatherpeople not only practiced participatory democracy, but also got closer to the working class and to various minorities.
As I mentioned above, the discussion of the Weather Underground lacked concrete specifics. If we look beyond the abstraction to those specifics, Weather is a tragic laughingstock. It’s the postmodern mood that allows such weird and empty discussion. How wonderful: we have lived to see Weather’s posthumous rehabilitation in pomo hands. But we need a new left today, and the evasion of realities of past, present and future won’t help to build this left.
There was much to laugh about, and much to weep about in all this. But the funniest moment came when Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli recalled that when she was invited to speak on urban guerrilla groups, her first thought was that her brother is a primatologist.
1. I don’t think that inclusion as a speaker in the conference necessarily implied approval of the Weather Underground, nor of Weather. I have commented only on the session I attended, where the speakers were Bernardine Dohrn and Beth Povinelli.
[JESSE LEMISCH is Professor Emeritus of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He was a member of SDS at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, 1963-1969. A revised version of this paper is to be published in New Politics, Summer 2006.]
day workshop of interventions
Scheps Library Friday Series
January 20, 2006
614 Schermerhorn Hall
9:30 am- 7:00 pm
Urban guerrilla groups have brought into focus key political and ethical questions about the relationships between violence and humanism, violence and politics, and violence and the ethics of life that have been raised and remain unanswered since the October Revolution.
This one day event will stage a series of encounters between activists, theorists, and students in order to bring to light and to explore the political aporias erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. Up for discussion will be the relationships between pedagogy and activism; law and resistance; race and the struggles of black and white worker’s movements; and the relationship of the individual to law, aesthetics, ecology…and an ethical commitment to peace. What recourse to resistance do we, as citizens of liberal democratic states, have when we observe those states disregard and break the law and engage in actions and tactics for which they have no mandate?
Join Bill Ayers (University if Illinois), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia University), Bernadine Dohrn (Northwestern University), Georgy Katsiaficas (Wentworth Institute of Technology), Panama Alba (Revson Fellow, Columbia University), Sally Bermanzohn (Brooklyn College), Felix Ensslin (Playwright, Berlin), Felicity Scott (University of California, Irvine), Robin Kelley (Columbia University), Ritty Lukose (University of Pennsylvania), Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University), Maria Koundoura (Emerson College), Stathis Gourgouris (UCLA), Jeremy Varon (Drew University) and students for a day of dialogic interventions on this important question.
9:30- 9:55 Introductory remarks Neni PanourgiÃ¡
10:00-11:15 Sally Bermanzohn and Robin Kelley
Facilitator: Jeremy Varon Film: The Greensboro Massacre
11:30-12:30 Panama Alba and Georgy Katsiaficas
Facilitator: Maria Koundoura
LUNCH BREAK 12:30- 2:00
2:15- 3:15 Bernardine Dohrn and Beth Povinelli
Facilitator: Stathis Gourgouris
3:30- 4:30 Bill Ayers and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Facilitator: Ritty Lukose
4:45- 6:00 Round Table Discussion Participants: Felix Ensslin, Ritty Lukose, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Felicity Scott, Melanie Brazzell, Daniel Shaw, Richard Kernaghan
Facilitator: Georgy Katsiaficas
6:15- 6:45 Closing Remarks Jeremy Varon