Men at Work, Revolution, Theatre

And now, a word from #1 Son about the Weather Underground

(A response from #1 Son to my post earlier today.)

I’d like to address two things I found in the comments beneath the previous post. Firstly, Valerie’s discomfort with her perception of an “Us vs. Them” dichotomy in the teaser video that my mother so kindly posted. And secondly, my mother’s use of the word “anarchist.” (Sorry for calling you out, mom! But the word did strike a chord for me.) I’m going to begin with addressing both by using an excerpt of a speech that Paul Potter, President of Students for a Democratic Society, gave in front of the Washington Monument in 1965.

“But the war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make. I do not believe that the President or Mr. Rusk or Mr. McNamara or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten year old child they would shrink in horror but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people.
What kind of system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its?
We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over—all the time.”

(The full text of the extremely excellent speech can be found here.)

To my mind, none of the ideals presented in this speech are either anarchistic or indicative of a community in which barriers are erected to separate the “saved” — or enlightened, or what have you — from the unworthy. There was an “Us” and a “Them,” to be sure; but this was a dichotomy that had been put in place by an unjust governmental system. SDS and other similar movements has not created it, but as Potter said, they needed to acknowledge it to be able to change it.Of course, Mr. Potter was not a part of The Weatherman Underground, the group of exceptionally intelligent, driven, and passionate revolutionaries who split from SDS later in the 60s, and on whom my play is focused. The Weather absolutely did isolate themselves from those who could have been their allies, and absolutely to their detriment. SDS completely crumbled in the years after Weather splintered themselves off. The WUO also came very rapidly to the conclusion that the only way to effectively battle an inherently violent system was to turn to violent acts themselves. This conviction came from deep wells of passion within them, I believe, and from a true desire to make the world a better place for those who seemed constantly oppressed by any number of governmental parties and societal mechanisms. Of course, it was their status as largely wealthy, well-educated white kids that gave them these opportunities to rebel in the first place. And what did their violence actually achieve? Well, three of their members died when a bomb they were constructing was detonated prematurely. Several more were involved in the death of two policemen and a security guard – later, in 1981 (and, it’s worth noting, after they had ceased to consider themselves members of Weather and created a new underground called the May 19th Communist Organization) – during the robbery of an armored car in upstate New York, in an operation carried out in conjunction with members of the Black Liberation Army. That entire event is both fascinating and horrifying. I could go on about it for ages, but… not right now.

Finally, at the end of the day, the Weather’s underground status made it relatively easy for them to be demonized as an insidious, leftist radical bogeyman to be deeply feared, without being able to defend themselves in the public sphere. Shoot, Glenn Beck is still getting some serious mileage out of this, decades later:

And this helped lead — indirectly, but still clearly, it seems to me — to the desire for complacent middle-class safety and security that was one of the cornerstones of the Reagan era. Whatever you might think of those times.

If I seem a tad ambivalent about these people and their actions, it is because I most definitely am. And so is our play, “home/sick,” as a whole. This is not a one-sided celebration of violent revolution. What I am not ambivalent about is that original impulse they had, however much and in whatever fashion it was corrupted along the way. They so desperately wanted to fix a world that they saw as imperfect; a country they saw that needed to be saved. I know I see the signs of what I consider to be injustice almost every day, living in this country. And I know that I would never be able to bring myself to do a fraction of what they did. Probably this is for the best. Probably.

Sorry if this is all completely obvious brain-vomit, or the ramblings of a complete naif. I didn’t came even close to living through any of these events, after all. This is just where my brain has been for the better part of the past year, during which we’ve been developing our show. And I felt like our teaser video (and my amusingly crazy-eyed Facebook mugshot) called for a touch more context.

– #1 Son

2 thoughts on “And now, a word from #1 Son about the Weather Underground”

  1. Yes, Songbird, he's totally your son! I love reading the way his mind works and seeing the DNA of you in it. Break a leg on the play, #1!

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