November 22, 2009

Chuckling Through the Revolution


I was, perhaps mistakenly, trying to teach a group of twenty year-olds about the militant revolutionary college students of the late sixties and early seventies. After asking them to read some Situationist pamphlets, I showed them The War at Home—a swell documentary about the birth, evolution and explosive end of the anti-war movement at the University of Wisconsin. Then I gave a sparkling lecture about the state of the world in 1968. By the time I opened up the floor to discussion, the students had reached two general (if not necessarily unanimous) conclusions.

            “These people,” as one student put it, referring to the bomb-throwing, traffic-blocking radicals from forty years ago, “just seem like a bunch of lazy whiners who didn’t want to work.”

            (And this, mind you, was coming from an art student with very wealthy parents. I kept that small observation to myself.)

            Then, when I asked if a similar kind of widespread, grassroots protest movement could happen today, I was informed that there was no point in such a thing, since everything’s pretty hunky dory now, and if things are hunky dory, why would you want to go messing with them? Besides, I was further informed, if there’s anything that isn’t hunky dory, President Obama will fix it right up.

            Yes, well.

Their response caught me a bit off guard. There were a few dissenting voices, but not many (and even they seemed kind of hesitant about the idea). What the hell? These weren’t just college students saying these things—these were art students! Aren’t they supposed to be crazy radicals by definition?

Not that I’m some old misty-eyed hippie pining for the old days—far from it. I hate hippies. But still, the whole scene made me think something had gone terribly wrong.

            I attended the University of Wisconsin—Madison about fifteen years after the events portrayed in The War at Home. At the time (circa 1984), there was still a very lively protest movement on campus, and for a while there at least, I was an active participant.

            Here’s the thing. The Vietnam war was over. The draft was no longer an immediate threat. Reagan was in office, and that was reason enough to be pissed (there would’ve been no eighties hardcore if he hadn’t been elected), but to be honest, not a whole lot was happening. The country got involved in the occasional minor (even laughable) military scuffle, but it was never anything that directly affected any of us. As a result, we had to start making up things to protest.

There were marches to protest covert US operations in Central America. We blockaded the administration building to protest CIA recruitment on campus. We built impromptu shantytowns on the grounds of the state capitol to protest something or another. There were street battles with the cops, smashed windows, and occasional dollops of teargas, mostly for reasons I can’t even recall.

When several hundred students stormed and occupied the state capitol building, the ostensible reason was to protest the millions of dollars the state of Wisconsin had invested in South Africa, where apartheid was still the law of the land.

            Now, if you were to sit down and seriously interview the students who were camped out in the capitol rotunda during the two weeks we were there—and I mean seriously question them—you probably would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone in the group who really deep-down gave a good goddamn about South African investments. I was there. I know these things.

            So why run the risk of arrest and personal injury fighting the cops and The Man if there weren’t some deeply held ideals involved? Why did I jump on a cop’s back one sunny Thursday afternoon, and get trampled in the doorway of the admin building?

Well, part of it was fake nostalgia. We were at the University of Wisconsin, and so such things were expected of us. We had a reputation to maintain. The real reason, though, was that it was just plain fun.

            We were young, we had lots of energy, and honestly, Madison in and of itself was not that interesting a town. Sometimes we had to create our own fun, and if that fun happened to include throwing bricks at policemen and storming government buildings, well, so be it—who needs a reason?

            I think that’s something that holds true not just for the early eighties, but for protesters of all stripes across the ages, whether or not they had something real to protest at the time. Running wild in the streets and wreaking a little havoc is fun.

            This is an admission rarely heard from reminiscing sixties activists. Not that they didn’t have something real and tangible to deal with—a serious threat to their lives and the lives of their friends—but at the same time, it was a party. This they keep silent about. They tend to stay so stone-faced and sanctimonious about what they were doing and why they were doing it that it’s no wonder students today don’t react to it. I wonder if this is part of the problem, because in my own case it was the sanctimonious types in Madison who finally convinced me to abandon the protesters.

            I was walking at the front of a march down State Street one afternoon, holding up one end of a huge cloth banner. I don’t remember any more what was written on the banner. I’m not even sure I knew at the time. All I knew was that I was itching for a fight, there were a couple of thousand people behind me who felt the same way, and we were headed toward the capitol. But then this Earth Mother type next to me made some self-righteous crack—some smug condescending remark about my violent attitude—and I realized that I hated the people I was marching with as much as the people I was protesting. I handed off my end of the banner to the smug woman, left the march, hooked up with my friend Grinch, and shortly thereafter we formed the Nihilist Workers Party. At least the NWP was honest enough to admit that we really didn’t believe in anything at all, and were happy to fight for those ideals. And that made it all that much more fun.

            Which all leaves me wondering again about these kids. What have they lost? It’s not ideals. I don’t care about ideals. It’s something deeper than that. They seem to have lost their vitality, their imagination, and their willingness to create their own realities. Which is much sadder than losing ideals, believe you me. Man, the future is going to be so boring.


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