The Weather Underground’s Lasting Victory
I know, I believe, more than the average person about the New Left. I grew up in its heartland—which is not, contra the impression Jay Nordlinger leaves the reader, New York City but Northern California. My mother, who served as a career criminal prosecutor in two counties in that region, tried some New Left figures and personally knew and faced off against Faye Stender. I attended or was affiliated with more than one institution that either incubated or suffered from New Left violence—in most cases both.
Fascinated by the subject from an early age, I sought and read the literature, original as well as secondary. The best account by far remains Destructive Generation by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, which is both: a firsthand retelling by direct participants who later became disillusioned with the entire movement and sought to explain what went so disastrously wrong, augmented by interviews, original reporting and research.
The first two-thirds of Nordlinger’s piece offers a fine, if well-trod, overview of the Weather Underground, one of the New Left’s most notorious groups (its only real competitor in infamy being the Black Panthers). Yet Nordlinger brings to light something I didn’t know. 18 West 11th Street—the house a few Weathermen (and wymyn) blew up on March 6th, 1970 while in the basement building a bomb intended to kill soldiers and their dates at a dance—once belonged to the founder of Merrill Lynch.
“Merrill Lynch” is today—owing to mismanagement leading to its near-collapse in the financial crisis of 2008—only a name, a brand owned by Bank of America. But for almost a hundred years it was one of Wall Street’s biggest and most profitable brokerages and, for a time, the largest securities firm in the world. Nordlinger mentions that suggestive bit of Greenwich Village real estate trivia in order to link the bombing to a poem, but otherwise passes over it without connecting any other dots or noticing any other patterns. Thus he misses what is really the most important lesson to be gleaned from his subject.
By the time I came of age and started reading about the New Left, nearly all of Haut California assumed that the whole ordeal was behind us—an interesting subject for KQED documentaries but otherwise confined to the past. At that time, the state’s former conservative Republican governor was president of the United States. He would be succeeded by his own vice president, who would in turn be succeeded by a “New” (read: centrist) Democrat. “The Sixties,” or at least their most radical aspects, were well and truly behind us.
Not the cultural parts, of course. Free love and dank weed were here to stay—in moderation for the professional classes, more or less unlimited for the upper and lower orders, but in any case, without judgment for any. The violence, though—that was passé.
Or so some of us hoped.
Nordlinger’s piece is historical, so it might seem unfair to judge it by its failure to look the present (and future) squarely in the face. But when the past bears so directly on the here-and-now, I don’t see how the criticism can reasonably be avoided.
A telling fact Nordlinger does not mention is that the biological son of one of the villains of his story, Kathy Boudin, and the adopted son of two others, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, is now the elected District Attorney of San Francisco County. It may be reserved to God to visit the sins of the fathers unto the sons, but what of those sons who, like Michael Corleone, enthusiastically embrace the family business—and then expand it into the corridors of power à la Damien Thorn?
Chesa Boudin differs from his parents, biological and adoptive, in one respect only: rather than fighting the system to inflict harm, create chaos, and do evil, he puts the system to work toward those ends. It’s not just that Boudin works to make everyday life more awful by refusing to enforce what he dismisses as mere “quality of life” (e.g., open drug use and public defecation) and “victimless” (e.g., burglary and auto theft) crimes, so that San Francisco now has the highest property crime rates and arguably the worst quality of life of any big city in the nation. Boudin is also against using the powers of his office to go after what even he is forced to admit are non-trivial offenses.
On his second day in office, the brand new radical-chic DA fired his seven most-experienced prosecutors because they were too good at their jobs. Two weeks later, he ordered his office never again to request cash bail for any offense, guaranteeing that dangerous criminals would roam the streets and that many would never face trial for their crimes. Earlier this year, a parolee plowed a stolen car into two pedestrians, killing both. The “driver”—Troy Ramon McAllister—had been arrested by the SFPD five times in the prior eight months, only to be released without charges on Boudin’s orders every single time.
As Boudin has redefined his role, it is no longer to convict criminals but to further “social justice.” He favors babying the violent with so-called “restorative justice.” It’s unclear what, exactly, “restorative justice” entails; it’s easier to say what it’s not: punishment or deterrence. Early in Boudin’s tenure, after two (nonwhite) young men assaulted an elderly man (also nonwhite) who was collecting cans to recycle, the SFPD did its job and arrested the assailants. The DA, though, declined to press charges. This pattern has since been repeated enough times—including, most recently, the homicide of an 84-year-old—that local media and the intelligentsia realize they can no longer ignore it. And so, to cope, they blame … “white supremacy” and Trump.
Boudin is hardly alone in his anti-anti-crime fervor. Indeed, we may say that the full consolidation and institutionalization of “The Sixties” is happening only now, as “prosecutors” all over America, elected with Soros money (am I allowed to say that?), eliminate bail, empty jails, refuse to prosecute nonviolent offences, undercharge violent ones, replace punishment with “counseling,” and racialize enforcement (and non-enforcement), all the while vindictively hectoring the law-abiding over trivialities. In most American big cities, and in an increasing number of Blue precincts, government does not effectively protect life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. It rather works—from the same ideological zeal that inspired the Weathermen—to make people vulnerable, afraid, and miserable.
Nordlinger says nothing about any of this. He mentions last year’s mass riots—in scope and scale, if not in blood (that distinction belongs to the New York draft riots of 1863), the largest in American history—only to insinuate that there was nothing particularly unusual about them.
Really? Leaving aside their unprecedented scope and scale (underappreciated because deliberately underreported), when before has an entire ruling class sided with the forces of evil, ponying up billions to fuel the fire, all the while preening over its superior morality for supporting death and destruction?
The answer, so far as I know, is never. The very idea is unthinkable without the mainstreaming of the Weather ideology. Nordlinger touches on this when he mentions the rehabilitation of Ayers and Dohrn—both now academics in good standing—and the pardons promiscuously handed out to other New Left figures by “New Democrat” Bill Clinton. Nordlinger quotes one of Bill Ayers’ more pungent statements but leaves out his most notorious of all. On September 11th, 2001—the very day of an event another Weather Underground terrorist could finally see clearly as “kindred” to her own activities—Ayers, close pal of a future president, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”
That “feeling” has infused subsequent generations—not least because of the extent to which Weather ideology was allowed to take over not just elite academia but, more sinisterly, schools of education, through which it has taught and continues to teach generations of high school students to hate their country. Nordlinger hints at that important detail only by stating Ayers’ current job title. Then he pulls back from a full realization of its implications with a 2017 quote from, of all people, Noam Chomsky: “[violence] is a major gift to the Right.”
Chomsky, whom Nordlinger rightly notes “has never been overly squeamish about violence,” must be pleased at how far the country traveled in a mere three years. For violence most certainly was not a major gift to the right in 2020—quite the opposite. Violence helped the left assert or consolidate power over institutions throughout the land. Violence defanged law enforcement from coast to coast (“defund the police”), yielded an avalanche of public and private money (corporate America pledged more than $1.6 billion to BLM in 2020 alone), and an outpouring of official sympathy to organizations and individuals fomenting violence (the future vice president of the United States intoned last September that it was “critically important” that the
riots “protests” continue). Seemingly ad unno tratto, violence managed to stigmatize as unsayable formerly common-sense truisms about the value of human life and public order while elevating noxious falsehoods to dogma.
The Attractions of Violence
Most disturbing of all, 2020 may have been the first election in American history—certainly the first national one—in which violence net attracted rather than repelled votes. It used to be taken as axiomatic in American politics that law-and-order issues favor Republicans. This is, apparently, no longer the case. Millions have become so convinced of their own and/or the surrounding society’s inexpungable guilt that, to assuage their consciences, must vote against order and life as a way to expiate sin.
Perhaps the supreme moment of 2020 was the sight, in Washington, D.C.’s richest and most liberal suburb, of a mass of overclass winners bowing and begging forgiveness from a group of people none of them had ever harmed. The clear—and only—visible distinction between the penitent and the righteous was demographic. Both groups fervently believe in Manichean wokeness; the only difference is that the righteous feel not guilty but aggrieved. They want revenge. This, let’s call it, Dom-Sub coalition is the heart of the modern Democratic Party, and is a direct legacy of the Weather Underground and New Left insistence that America and Americans (or to be more precise, a certainly part thereof) are irredeemably evil.
Which brings us back to Mr. Merrill. On one level, it was surely a coincidence that the former home of a Wall Street tycoon ended up housing a leftwing terrorist cell. Yet on reflection, it’s the kind of detail so perfectly attuned to contemporary reality one almost suspects a sentient Fate of engineering it, the way a good novelist ties together disparate elements of his plot to help readers see the bigger picture.
In today’s America, capital—economic no less than political and social—is openly aligned with the hard left. It used to be wary of the left’s more radical elements, muttering empty dodges about “not condoning but understanding” violence. Now capital doesn’t merely understand violence; it underwrites it. (It’s worth noting in this context that the last recorded sale price for the rebuilt 18 West 11th Street was $12 million; its current asking price is $19.9.) Elite opinion, power, and money are on the side of—downright encourage—rioting, looting, arson and death, insisting that the resultant turmoil is necessary redress for past and present grievance.
If Nordlinger sees any of this, he says nothing about it. Instead, he concludes with a weak dodge of his own: both sides have committed political violence throughout American history, therefore both are to blame. The unspoken but unavoidable implication: if both sides are to blame, then everyone is, and if everyone is, no one really is. Certainly not the left.
The pose appears to be “let he who is without sin,” etc. Except that Nordlinger definitely casts stones—to his right. He is a member in high standing of that part of the “right” in whom actual conservatism is hard to detect but from whom attacks on conservatives, assertions of moral equivalence, and excuses for leftist excess abound. How else could a piece ostensibly about the Weather Underground culminate in the risible calumny that the gravest threat of political violence facing America in 2021 comes from “white supremacist violent extremists”? Was that who torched 220 American cities and killed some three dozen people last year?
To “support” this absurdity, Nordlinger cites some heated rhetoric (none of it even remotely “white supremacist”), protests at which some people were armed (though he declines to mention: no shots were fired and no one got hurt), a selective list of recent mass shootings cherry-picked to show left-right equivalence, culminating with a reference to “carnage” at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
An Unfolding Crisis
No doubt Nordlinger and I differ on the significance of that event. What he seems to believe was a genuine attempt to overthrow the government, I saw more as the inchoate, imprudent and counterproductive culmination of decades of frustration, finally ignited by weeks of irresponsible rhetoric.
But even if one accepts the worst possible interpretation of that day, the root of “carnage” remains the Latin word for “flesh,” connoting bodily harm. Five people died at the Capitol. Four of them were protestors. One, the unarmed Ashli Babbitt, was shot by a Capitol Police officer. That’s carnage. Another, Brian Sicknick, was himself a police officer. But contrary to initial “reports” that he died of blunt force trauma from a protester, the cause, according to his family, appears to have been a preexisting medical condition. Of the three others, two also appear to have died of preexisting conditions and one was accidentally trampled.
This, then, is the “carnage” that Nordlinger equates with mass left-wing terror—which accounted for at least 2,500 bombings in one eighteen-month period alone. Whatever true or moving things he says about the Weather Underground in his essay’s first part, Nordlinger undermines in its last third.
To make sure we get the point that the right is every bit as bad, if not worse, than the left, Nordlinger ends with the laziest and hoariest faux-comparison of all: Kristallnacht. The fact that he had to go back in time 82 years, and overseas 4,300 miles, just to find an example this inapt should have caused him to rethink his thesis. This is to say nothing of the fact that the very regime, and people, Nordlinger accuses of being so prone to rightwing violence are the same regime, and descendants of the same people, who overthrew the regime responsible for Kristallnacht.
It would be one thing, though hardly original or illuminating, to assert that political violence waxes and wanes, that in some eras there’s a lot of it and in others very little, and sometimes it’s more prevalent on the left, at others on the right. That alone would not prove equivalency: one side could still be more prone to violence over the long haul. At any rate, that’s a historical question. The urgent practical questions for statesman and citizen alike are: how much political violence is being committed right now? And by whom?
The answer is obvious enough: a lot, and the left. Less than last June to be sure, but a lot more than last March. 2020’s mayhem and the ruling class’s excuses and encomiums for it “legitimized” political violence in a way and to a degree that the Weather Underground in its heyday could only have dreamed of.
By equating this massive, nationwide wave of leftist violence with a handful of right-inspired incidents and a farcical protest that physically harmed no one (as far as the currently known facts can establish) beyond a few of its own participants, Nordlinger not only distorts the truth, he does so in a way that (at best) unwittingly advances leftist ends. With a “right” like this, no wonder the left rolls from victory to victory, using whatever means it chooses, fair or foul, peaceful or violent, without effective opposition.