Thursday, March 05, 2009
Historical Revisionism of the Weather Underground
Now, Life on Mars is set in 1973 in New York City. At least part of the appeal of the show is it inhabits a real point in American history, a very specific milieu. Real historic events are often used as "color" for the characters' interactions and, in this particular case, a plot device.
In point of fact, as far as I know, only one death is attributed to a deliberate Weatherman bombing and even that one may not have been the Weathermen. The case was never solved and the Weathermen never claimed credit for it.
The manipulation or distortion of documented factual truth in service of drama is nothing new or unusual. TV shows are entertainment, not documentaries. Yet there is something to be learned here about historical memes and control of populations.
Today, signing an online petition to bring back a Victory garden to the White House is considered an important form of activism. Contributing money to MoveOn.com for lobbying and advertising is considered radical activism in some circles. Actually, these activities are merely normal, conventional and long-established ways of appealing to government for change. There is nothing remotely "radical" about such tactics. They are "feel-good" tactics, unlikely to significantly change things but, rather, to make the individual feel like they are demanding important change.
It's difficult to imaging a time when such mild tactics were sneered at by a sizable percentage of 16 to 30 year olds. Yet in a period where over a million Vietnamese had been killed in a "preemptive" war* and tens of thousands of US soldiers had been killed or maimed, it was considered very urgent to stop the US government from continuing the war in Vietnam. Anti-war protests seemed to be having no effect on US policy in 1970 when the Weatherman organization was at its peak activity level.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, political radicals were being arrested and some were being shot dead. For example, Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers was drugged, probably by a police informant, and killed in a police raid. The FBI's COINTELPRO was actively attacking leftist groups, usually by covert means but also through local police departments.
There isn't a lot of popular support today in the USA for the tactics of the Weatherman Underground, for the bombing of military recruitment offices and police stations. Yet there is almost always a context for such actions, a philosophy behind the tactics. The Weathermen didn't spring out of nowhere, a mad radical group flailing wildly without goals or reason.
I personally wouldn't endorse such actions but I'm also not unsympathetic to the impulse. Our political establishment is ponderous, difficult to affect, massively influenced by corporate money and lobbyists. Petitions and rallies don't change things. Elections rarely change things significantly or quickly.
This brings me back to the issue of historic revisionism in popular culture. Life on Mars writers opted to rearrange actual events. The motive behind the bombings in the episode isn't political, it's a personal vendetta. Superficial political trappings fall aside to reveal simple personal revenge, and misdirected revenge at that. In one fell swoop, the episode discredits the Weathermen as petty, misinformed and misdirected. It attributes historically inaccurate killings to the Weathermen, boosting the boogeyman factor of the group. Because if the group is illogical and murderous, people won't look too deeply at the historic record.
There is a strongly articulated view today saying all that '60s protest stuff was just silly self-indulgence by pampered white college kids. It wasn't important. It wasn't significant. It was immaturity run rampant.
I don't believe this view. I highly recommend reading some of the manifestos that came out of the time period in the USA. You might be surprised and inspired.
The Black Panther Party - Ten Point Platform & Program (October 1966)
Port Huron Statement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), (June 1962)
*The Domino Theory foreign policy rationale of the 1950s-1960s is roughly equivalent to the "Stop the terrorists there so we don't have to stop them here" rationale for US intervention in Iraq.