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The Revolutionary Who Boogied : THE THIRTY YEARS' WAR: Dispatches and Diversion of a Radical Journalist 1965-1994, By Andrew Kopkind Edited by JoAnn Wypijewski (Verso: $27.95; 514 pp.)

August 06, 1995|Richard Goldstein | Richard Goldstein is executive editor of the Village Voice

Andrew Kopkind came of age in the postwar years, when none of the events he alludes to in "The Thirty Years' War" seemed possible. Neither the rise of a rock 'n' rolling left, nor its replacement by a let-them-eat-laptops right, were imagined in his philosophy. As Kopkind tells us in the prologue to this ample collection of his journalism, he grew up in a world in which capitalism was a genteel presence and socialism was subsumed under the rubric of such utopian pursuits as psychotherapy.

As a member in training of the Eastern Jewish sub-elite, he was groomed to be a "correspondent." The profession suited his temperament: writerly but not too literary, political but not tendentious, social but no snob. In short, the perfect cog in the Time magazine machine.

But something happened to Kopkind, as it did to so many of us who jumped the track we'd been fated to ride. It was the nascent spirit of the '60s, with all its churning chaos and grand refusals. And there was another force driving him to embrace the ch-ch-changes of his time. In the summer of '64, Kopkind was busted for "running afoul of the sexual perversity laws," as he puts it. His employer threatened to fire him if he didn't "change tracks." But this being the age of optimism, the young miscreant was urged to enter therapy. The doctor, as Kopkind recalls, would help him practice pick-up lines to use on women. The company paid the bills.

When he died of cancer last year at 59, Kopkind was a very different person from the West Coast correspondent for the world's most important magazine. He played a major role in keeping America's premier progressive weekly, The Nation, from succumbing to the weight of its politics. And, from his rambling farmhouse in Vermont (or his cheap-chic apartment in the meat packing district of Manhattan), he was an unwavering presence on the "gay-agit-media" scene. Yet it is precisely Kopkind's affection for all his former selves, and his unerring ability to synthesize pleasure and perversion, mischief and critique, that gives his work its memorable edge.

"Thirty Years' War" reveals its author to be not just a great radical journalist but a major repository of that enduring American ideal Walt Whitman called the "Democratic Vista." Kopkind's signature, apparent in these pieces from a variety of publications, including Mayday (later Hard Times), which he co-founded, is his ability to infuse progressive politics with a sense of the popular and vice versa. He was the subversive who loved to shop, the revolutionary who insisted (along with Emma Goldman) on his right to boogie.

So it's no surprise to find that one section of this book, consisting of pieces from the late '60s, includes a paean to Joe Namath alongside a dissection of the tension between Jews and blacks. Or that a detailed account of the strains within the white left (you'll never find a more sober examination of the violent Weather Underground) begins with the author's arrest for disorderly conduct. Or that he has a Movement perspective on Woodstock ("For people who had never glimpsed the intense communitarian closeness of a militant struggle [this] must be a model of how good we will all feel after the revolution"). Or that all these pieces, along with a daunting dispatch on the politics of Vietnam, appear under the heading "Bad Moon Rising."

According to Kopkind, that apocalyptic anthem by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a perfect description of "The Repression." He means the Nixon years. By grounding a popular image of free-floating dread in an emerging political reality, he reminds his readers of what lies ahead. Sifting through the culture around him with infinite patience, Kopkind does precisely what a radical Democrat in hard times should: He nudges us toward clarity.

"The Thirty Years' War" offers ample evidence of that technique, with its expert blending of cultural and political symbols, so that they interact as in life. In Kopkind's journalism, the social historian meets the gifted amateur and the impatient partisan is restrained by the reluctant skeptic. Remarkably, the skeptic never won, even though Kopkind lived to see the demolition of his "revolution" and the marginalization of his movement, not to mention the intensification of racism and the triumph of the "angry white male." But there is much in this book that speaks to the central question posed by the left, in good times as well as bad: the old what-is-to-be-done?

Radical journalism provides no answers: It merely enables them to occur. And as an acute practitioner of the craft, Kopkind leaves us foraging for clues in the unlikely connection he makes between politics and such unholy acts as dancing, dishing and having sex. In "The Dialectic of Disco," he reminds us of the subversive potential in degraded forms: "unpredicted and unpredictable, contradictory and controversial."

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