The year of reliving dangerously

Our generation was so torn apart in 1968 that some people's memories went permanently screwy -- Stephen Talbot's for example.

Published September 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Maybe Steve Talbot really doesn't have an answer to my critique of his '60s "documentary," and that's why he needs to call me so many names -- "narcissist, arrogant, self-obsessed, ideological blow-hard, polemicist for the right" -- in his reply. All this because of my suggestion that he might have included a dissenting voice from the ranks of the left as a critical on-camera authority, instead of the obvious targets of opportunity he did choose: Buchanan and Bork. The idea that my comment "Me, for instance," was intended as a serious complaint about having been left out of his film rather than an obvious rhetorical device for introducing my own perspective in the article I was writing is laughable. After all, I'm not the only New Leftist to have gone off the reservation. How about Camille Paglia instead of Barbara Ehrenreich? Or Eugene Genovese instead of Pat Buchanan?

If Talbot had called his film (and column) "The way I saw the '60s at the time," instead of presenting his views as a historical perspective, I would have no quarrel with what he produced. I'm sure that in 1968 he saw the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy the way he presented them -- as blows to his innocence. But I'm just as certain that Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin and Ehrenreich, whom he invokes in the film and in his column as authorities for the movement's view of itself, did not. More importantly, the movement he was just joining as a 19-year-old did not. And this is the truth he owes us, if he is going to provide us with a documentary history rather than merely his personal diary of the time. Nothing that Talbot says in his "response" to my article even comes close to challenging the validity of the observations I made.

Talbot writes: "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." Well, Talbot has thrown a lot of different years and different movements into this statement, but let's recall what was happening in 1968 with the movement to which Hayden, Ehrenreich and Gitlin belonged. The Weathermen -- America's first urban political terrorists -- were being elected to the leadership of Students for a Democratic Society (an organization that Hayden co-founded and that Gitlin was once president of). The Weatherleader, Bernadine Dohrn, famously proclaimed upon her own election to the presidency of SDS, still the largest student protest organization in the nation: "I am a Communist and a revolutionary" (or "I am a revolutionary Communist" -- I forget which). Hayden, whom Talbot anoints in his documentary as an authoritative leader of the movement he is celebrating, was at the time busily organizing a riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention and preparing his followers for guerrilla warfare. In American cities!

If Talbot wanted to emphasize the liberal elements of the movement -- the followers of Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy -- he should have brought liberal authorities before the camera and made a film about them. I'm sure someone like Adam Walinsky or Marty Peretz would have made himself available.

What really piques Talbot, I'm afraid, is that at the end of my article I called him out on his self-presentation as a freedom fighter in the war against the Soviet empire, when in fact he made 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?"

I regret now that I made this observation so pointedly personal. My intent was to put a check on the hypocrisy of the authors of this line of apologia, Paul Berman and Gitlin. It is they (and now Talbot following their lead) who have attempted, lately, to rescue themselves from the embarrassment of having been (mostly) on the wrong side of the Cold War. Talbot defends himself by claiming that the African National Congress and the rebels in Namibia whom he promoted in his PBS documentaries were not tools of Moscow. Well, we're going to have to disagree about this. The ANC was run by the South African Communist Party, which provided its administrative apparatus, its political strategy and the leadership of its military force. The SACP was a Stalinist party whose perspective on the world had hardly changed since the 1930s, and was the most subservient of all the Communist parties to Moscow's authority.

At this point in time, these are hardly controversial observations, but I also had personal experience of these realities, having interviewed several ANC and South African Communist Party leaders, as well as leaders of other political factions in South Africa, in 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The post-apartheid statesmanship of Mandela and the less-than-radical behavior of the ANC are the direct results of the collapse of their Soviet patron and do not reflect any reality that Talbot may have filmed in the 1980s while the Soviet empire was still on the offensive and the Cold War was still raging.

Talbot doesn't like being reminded that while he was supporting Soviet-supplied guerrilla armies in the final conflicts of the Cold War, the reviled Oliver North was struggling to arm the largest peasant army in the history of Latin America and to support its efforts to topple a Marxist dictatorship in order to gain back the land that had been taken in a Sandinista collectivization program inspired by the Soviet and Cuban collectivizations of the past. Sorry for pointing this out. Talbot also objects to my calling the Afghan forces that resisted a Soviet scorched-earth invasion that killed 1 million Afghanis "freedom fighters." What would he call them?

After accusing me of narcissism one final time, Talbot says "when [Horowitz] 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." Well, I claimed nothing of the kind, nor was I particularly interested in whether Talbot followed King or not. The point was that the student left he joined had long written off King because of King's nonviolent, integrationist perspective and attachment to the Johnson Administration.

Since Talbot makes some reckless charges about my misrepresenting the facts, let me quote the actual passage: "'I experienced King's assassination as the murder of hope,' writes Talbot, speaking for them all. Gitlin, whose history of the '60s first announced this theme, remembers his thoughts at the time: 'America tried to redeem itself and now they've killed the man who was taking us to the mountaintop.' There's something extremely distasteful in this false memory of Gitlin's." In other words, it was Gitlin's memory I challenged -- Gitlin who had failed to vote four years earlier because he was too busy making a Marxist revolution, and yet pretended to be appalled because Hubert Humphrey got the Democratic nomination instead of Bobby Kennedy. Gitlin who was not following King, because the New Left had already embraced Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who referred to King as "Martin Luther Coon." Earlier in my piece, I did point out that Talbot was a good deal younger than Gitlin or Hayden, and that he may indeed have had such illusions. But that doesn't excuse him for not attempting to check his own impressions of the time against the reality of those who were leading the movement he had joined. The fact that Talbot -- whatever his reasons for doing so -- joined a movement led by political radicals like Gitlin and Hayden is evidenced by his selection of them to be the on-camera authorities for his film.

All in all, and despite the uncharitable smears -- seemingly indispensable accouterments of the left -- Talbot produces very little that would persuade someone to see the year 1968 the way he presented it in his documentary. For leaders of the '60s political left, like Tom Hayden, the Vietnam War, the political assassinations, the riots in the streets were not unexpected and regretted occasions that made them radical, but welcome confirmations of a radicalism that was already their creed. Understanding this is the beginning of an understanding of what the left -- the left of Gitlin, Hayden, Ehrenreich and myself -- was about. To be sure, there were other voices and other movements of the time, but Talbot's film and column are not about them.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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