[Photograph: Cambodians standing over the skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, 1975-1979.]
Somewhere in Argentina, old Nazis still gather in cozy restaurants with black-and-white photos on the wall to reminisce over old times. The types of movies made about them, ‘The Boys of Brazil’ and ‘Notorious,’ tend not to be very flattering at all.
The old Nazis may sip their stale beer and mourn the wonderful world that could have been if all their dedicated young men willing to kill millions had not gone down in defeat, but their counterparts in Hollywood have largely the same obsession.
The entertainment industry helped turn the young radical into an exciting figure, and it still cannot let go of his old worn self. The old leftist radical who still struggles to retain his passion is as common a figure in movies and television shows as the old Nazi; but while one is a despised villain, the other is a reluctant hero.
The difference between them was never a matter of means. The American left has a long history of treating radical killers like heroes. From the Haymarket bombers to the Weathermen, the willingness to kill has long served as a mark of revolutionary sincerity. Much of the American left closed its eyes to Communist atrocities in Russia and China; not only ignoring the minor details of their means because it agreed with their ends, but even using the murderous scale of the means to validate the revolutionary sincerity of the ends.
The central myth for the modern left is that the Sixties was a decade of enlightenment that then sold out to the grim corporatism of the Eighties. This delusion of a period when real change was possible through committed activism before it was swallowed up by greed and consumerism finds its avatar in the old radical who goes underground and still somehow holds on to his principles.
The old radical, unlike all his contemporaries who moved from their idealistic digs in Greenwich Village lofts (now running to $2,000 per square foot) to the suburbs while working at marketing firms and college campuses, emerges as a principled “voice of conscience” to remind them of what their youth was really about.
The spectacle of it is every bit as cheap and repulsive as the old Nazis getting drunk together and singing the Horst Wessel Lied. It’s the amoral nostalgia of people with no conscience who confuse murder with idealism and youthful anger with principles.
But the artistic idealization of the old radical is even worse. It’s not a spectacle of old Nazis getting drunk together, but people who wish they had stayed Nazis waxing nostalgic at the smell of stale beer and the Horst Wessel Lied.
When Neil Gordon wrote “The Company You Keep” in 2003, the time was perfect for another revival of radical nostalgia. The Iraq War and Bush’s popularity, like the triumph of Reaganomics, sent the left into a fit of longing for the bad old bomber days when instead of winning elections, the left set off explosives.
Back then the LA Times review gushed that the book was grounded in “the passionate conviction that the radical opposition in the ’60s to the Vietnam War represented the high point of American idealism, the best dream America ever had.”
Ten years later the reemergence of “The Company You Keep” as a Robert Redford movie is not unexpected. As the Sixties left ages, those who approved of the deeds of the Weathermen, who appear thinly disguised as the heroes of the book representing the titular “Company,” grow only more nostalgic for the killing fields that might have been. For the change that might have happened if only the left had never compromised.
Even Obama isn’t enough for them. The true reds long for the red blood to flow.
“There is something undeniably compelling, perhaps even romantic, about America’s ’60s radicals and the compromises they did or didn’t make,” Variety writes. And that is indeed the point. What the left truly mourns for is the lack of total ruthlessness. Its conflation of the willingness to kill with principles exposes the dark rotten heart of the left and of its liberal fellow travelers.
The anti-war movement was not against war. The crowds chanting, “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh/ NLF is going to win” were not against war. They were against America winning.
In the mythology of the left, the Weathermen and the Black Panthers were a reaction. The truth is that they were not a reaction. They were an action.
“’The Company You Keep’ is streaked with melancholy: a disappointment that the second American Revolution never came,” Time Magazine writes. The nostalgia is for that leftist Third Reich that never came about. The melancholy mourning is not for those murdered, but that the violence of their murderers fizzled out without accomplishing anything that its perpetrators wanted to see done.
In the leftist mythology the many deaths, those of Americans murdered by Weathermen terrorism and the millions dead in Cambodia, represent a lost idealism. The Sixties nostalgia industry cloaks all these bodies with a soft haze of idealism, but underneath that haze lie miles of corpses.
As chronicled by David Horowitz and Peter Collier in “Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties,” the period was not a lost radical Eden, but a national implosion overseen by activists and gangsters bent on tearing the country apart. The lie has been sustained by a revisionist history which glosses over the casualties and replaces real events with imaginary tales.
“The Company You Keep” is another contribution to that imaginary history of the Sixties in which the Weathermen were misunderstood heroes and the only thing wrong with the radical decade was that it somehow failed to go on forever.
The reason why the left and its fellow travelers prefer the imaginary history of “The Company You Keep” to the real history of David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s “Destructive Generation” is that the real history exposes the old radicals, not as passionate and committed intellectuals, but as liars, idiots and murderers. The radical agendas of those days didn’t implode because not enough people believed, but because of the inherently self-destructive nature of the radicals and their cause.
The left’s goal is to set up the Sixties as the model of activism and terrorism for every future generation to emulate.
Every decade is to be measured against that “great period.” The 1960s have become to the left what 1776 once was to the old America. Each protest, down to Occupy Wall Street, is mythologized as a rekindling of the spirit of the Sixties.
Each act of national destruction is celebrated as a return of the revolution that nearly brought down the country and that the radical myth-makers wish would finally come back to finish the job.
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