Days of rage (cont.)

Filmmaker Stephen Talbot fires back at David Horowitz over his PBS documentary '1968.'

By Stephen Talbot

Published September 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

My greatest transgression, it seems, was not including David Horowitz in my article and documentary about 1968. "Me, for instance," he volunteers when proposing the '60s veterans I should have interviewed. Talk about narcissism! And Horowitz doesn't even have the excuse of being a baby boomer.

It reminds me of the joke his former colleagues tell. Back in the '60s David had a reputation for being arrogant and self-obsessed. And now that his politics have flipped 180 degrees, he's still arrogant and self-obsessed.

Once a polemicist for the left, now a polemicist for the right. Some things never change.

Not that Horowitz hasn't made some valid points. His perspective on the revolutionary delusions and excesses of the New Left, after 1968, and his revelations of thuggery within the Black Panthers are important to understanding the full story of what happened to the protest movements of the '60s. In fact, if PBS or anyone else offers me funding to do more films on the '60s, especially the late '60s-early '70s period -- what Todd Gitlin calls "the days of rage" -- I would like to interview Horowitz and other ex-revolutionaries.

On the subject of 1968, however, Horowitz is so focused on his personal odyssey from red-diaper baby to anti-communist crusader that he misses the significance of the year for most young people who were involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements. As a self-described "pre-boomer," Horowitz by 1968 may have been a cynic trying to manipulate innocents like me -- certainly I remember reading his tomes denouncing U.S. imperialism and being influenced by them. But when Horowitz claims "we had declared war on ... the democratic system," he's talking about himself, not the thousands of young, idealistic activists who sought to end the war in Vietnam by campaigning for Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy or marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to end segregation in the South.

Horowitz's diatribes would be more convincing if he got his facts right. For instance, he accuses me of making films "into the '80s celebrating Communist insurgents who were busily extending the Soviet sphere in Africa. America, bless its generous heart, has already forgiven Steve Talbot for that. So why lie about it now?"

What on earth is he talking about? What lie? I have made two documentaries about Africa -- one about Nelson Mandela's African National Congress ("South Africa Under Siege," 1986) and one called "Namibia: Behind the Lines" (1981), about that country's struggle for independence from South Africa. Both films are straightforward and honest and were praised for their reporting. One awful mistake that Horowitz's hero Ronald Reagan made was to assume, incorrectly, that the ANC was a tool of Moscow and as a result he allied U.S. policy with the apartheid government. Even Newt Gingrich came to see that Reagan was on the wrong side of history -- too bad Horowitz never saw the light.

In fact, Horowitz is still praising Oliver North (of all people!) and the Afghan "freedom fighters" -- a phrase he might want to modify in light of what the Taliban are now inflicting on women and non-believers, and the revelation that one of those CIA-sponsored "freedom fighters" is the infamous Osama bin Laden.

Horowitz is less concerned with the narrative of 1968 than he is with his personal "God that failed" story. And when he gets so many details wrong it makes me suspicious of everything he writes.

For instance, how does he know whether I was "following" Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968? Without a shred of evidence, he claims I wasn't. In fact, I was devoted to King's cause -- which is why I was so distraught at his death. Among other reasons, I was deeply impressed by King's courageous decision to speak out forcefully against the war in Vietnam -- a move strongly endorsed by Horowitz's own Ramparts magazine. It's true that many young blacks in urban areas of the North, and some leaders of the New Left, were growing impatient with King's nonviolent strategy. Even King had doubts and was despondent. I said so in the documentary.

Horowitz's fantasy that Tom Hayden destroyed the Democratic Party in 1968 is preposterous. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Daley and Hubert Humphrey bear the lion's share of that burden. Cold War liberals were afraid to admit that they had made a tragic mistake in Vietnam. Horowitz and I agree that both sides, the protesters and Mayor Daley's police force, were spoiling for a fight at the Democratic Convention that year -- and that many people in the anti-war movement stayed away from Chicago for fear of violence. But while some radicals were eager to riot, most of the demonstrators were not, including anti-war leaders Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis. Mayor Daley's cops didn't mind whether they clubbed a Yippie, a McCarthy delegate, a reporter or Hugh Hefner.

There is one sentence in Horowitz's rant that I find encouraging. "It would be nice," he writes, "if we could use this 30th anniversary of the events of 1968 to end the cold war over our past, and start restoring a sense of the tragic to both sides."

Surely there was tragedy on both sides of the Cold War, and there is enormous room now for reconsideration and changed opinions. That's exactly what Todd Gitlin did in his excellent book reassessing the '60s and his more recent writing decrying "identity politics." In my documentary Gitlin even says he was wrong not to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

If Horowitz were more honest himself and less of an ideological blowhard, he might make a useful contribution to this ongoing reevaluation of the '60s.

Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot is a producer for ITVS / Independent Lens, based in San Francisco.

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