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Book Review : The Undoing of America's Radicals

February 18, 1988|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Chicago '68 by David Farber (University of Chicago Press: $24.95, 328 pages)

"Chicago '68 was seen by almost all who participated in it and by most of those who watched it on TV as more than just another protest marked by violence, intolerance, and excess," writes David Farber in "Chicago '68," his account of the making (and, in a real sense, the unmaking) of the American political counterculture during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. "Chicago '68 marked a crisis in the nation's political and cultural order."

Farber's meticulous account of the planning of Chicago '68 makes it clear that the demonstrations and street battles were, as advertised, "a gathering of the tribes." Chicago attracted every shade of political activism and cultural outrage, from hard-line SDS militants armed with oven cleaner in spray bottles to zonked-out hippies who conceived of dropping acid as an act of political expression.

Two Major Sponsors

But Farber suggests that the two principal sponsors of Chicago '68 represented the yin and yang of the American political counterculture--the Yippies, under the exuberant and intentionally outrageous leadership of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the Mobe (National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam) under the more serious and considered political leadership of Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis and David Dellinger. Each movement offered a different style of politics--indeed, a wholly different conception of what constituted politics--and each, in its own way, failed miserably.

Farber points out that the Yippies--or at least the creators and publicists of the movement, such as Hoffmann and Rubin--self-consciously imitated the techniques of Madison Avenue to encourage a kind of counterculture consumerism of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

"Abbie Hoffman . . . went on a campaign to regularize the spelling of Yippie," Farber points out. "As Abbie Hoffman later said, 'Yippie was conceived as an advertisement for a new society,' and just 'as Coca-Cola is always spelled the same way,' so shall it be with Yippie!" (Indeed, I learned for the first time that Yippie! was coined as a collective singular noun with an exclamation point appended, a usage Farber insistently and rather annoyingly adopts.)

A Radical Contrast

The Mobe, by contrast, offered a radical critique of the American political and cultural Establishment, and a vision of a utopian "participatory democracy" in which war and racism would be replaced by peace and justice--"a joyous society where everyone is fed, where everyone is educated . . . has a job . . . has a chance to express himself artistically or politically or spiritually or religiously," in the words of one participant in Chicago '68.

Both factions engaged in spontaneous verbal excess that now seems silly and stupid rather than outrageous: "We expected concentration camps and got Bobby Kennedy," Jerry Rubin wrote as the convention approached. "I am more confident of our ability to survive concentration camps than I am of our ability to survive Bobby."

Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis vowed that a half-million demonstrators would march on the Democratic convention, "pinning the delegates in the International Amphitheater until a choice is presented to the American people."

Hayden as Hero

Hayden emerges as a hero of Farber's story, although I suspect that the author would deny it. "Tom Hayden could take credit for founding and directing the development of the American New Left. Not that he would lay such a claim--that was not Hayden's style," Farber observes. "Tom Hayden was the New Left's busiest worker, most forceful thinker, and best-traveled man behind Communist lines." Farber presents Hayden as the Thomas Jefferson of the New Left, the principal author of the 1961 Port Huron Statement and its ringing phrases: "We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation," Hayden wrote. "A participatory democracy . . . has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community."

A Baffled Mayor

The adversaries of these youthful self-styled revolutionaries are, in many ways, pitiable. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, baffled by what was happening in the streets of his city, and fearing more rioting of the kind that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a few months earlier, reacted with bluster and bravado: "No one is going to take over the city," Daley vowed. "We'll permit them to act as American citizens and no other way."

His police, equally befuddled by the antics of the Yippies and the earnest radicalism of the Mobe, indulged their own fears in a spasm of televised violence. Farber shows us that Daley and the police had a rather narrow and old-fashioned conception of how American citizens should act--the police beat a Newsweek correspondent and terrorized a group of ministers who had joined the demonstrations, as if to castigate them for joining the protesters.

"At Chicago, the rage and the hope, the certainty and the fear, the willfulness and the self-righteousness of both protesters and protectors of the social order were put on display," Farber writes. But who prevailed? Who endured? Not the Yippies, not the Mobe. "The Yippies . . . played the game of fascism when they estheticized politics," Farber writes. "They turned what could have been a visionary experiment into what was often a corrupt self-aggrandizement that led nowhere."

And the more serious radicals of the Mobe and the SDS failed, too: "The radicals' desire for polarization in Chicago marked the end of the dream of a participatory democracy," Farber concludes. "At Chicago, the movement displayed its courage and its heart even as it revealed its unworkable politics."

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