August 06, 2003

New Boss, Old Boss

Oliver Kamm has a couple of good posts (here and here) on the Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Fraction. They were provoked by a post from that Beatnik Salad guy from Manchester, who somehow managed to come away from the recent Channel 4 documentary on the subject with a favorable, romanticized view of the terrorists' "ideals," and an equivocal view of their actions. (The post, amazingly, was entitled "Long Live the RAF! Down with the pig system!")

Kamm's excoriation of this fellow is apt, unassailable, though it brings to bear several times the rhetorical force required by such a small, easy target. Whether or not young Ryan from Manchester is the "stupidest blogger alive," he is clearly out of his depth, and it's not particularly difficult to see, with or without the full-spectrum Kamm treatment. Still, "fisking" aside, Kamm's posts contain some interesting, little-noted details (including some links to the more recent writings of Horst Mahler-- follow them if you dare); and his overall assessment of the RAF is absolutely correct and well-stated. Well worth reading, as usual.

My interest in the Baader-Meinhof gang specifically was sparked by Paul Berman's masterful essay on "The Passion of Joschka Fischer" in the New Republic a couple of years ago. I suppose my long-standing fascination with 60s terrorist groups and the moral/intellectual midgets who apologize for them ultimately stems from the circumstances of my upbringing: growing up in the Bay Area in the '70s, the SLA, the Manson family, the Weatherman, Che-worshippers of every stripe, faux-Maos, as well as ordinary folks who found it aesthetically pleasing to incorporate dashes of hippie politics into their suburban lifestyle, contributed to a cultural complex, an underlying, hard-to-pin-down ethos that exerted tremendous influence on day to day life, in ways that only became apparent to me much later.

"Ethos" is the wrong word, really: in its diluted, mid-70s suburban Bay Area form, it was more like a conglomeration of aesthetic judgments, choices about which cultural symbols and rhetorical platitudes would best express the vague aspiration to be part of some wave of the future, any wave, any future; rather than the imagined hide-bound, sexually-repressed, boring, close-minded, intolerant, un-hip, stick-in-the-mud past, which, as far as I can tell, never actually existed to any great degree in the Bay Area. (Ironic that, of course, since this aesthetic-masquerading-as-ethos was, in retrospect, very clearly on the way out, not the wave of any conceivable future except as a curiosity to be observed in the form of tiny remnants trapped in Berkeley's amber; at the time, and to a kid, though, it wasn't clear quite how much it owed to nostalgia and sentimentality.)

An important element of the complex, I've often fancied, is a general psychological condition that fetishized and aggrandized ordinary, adolescent rebellion against parental authority, and invested it with universal significance, making it and its concomitant sensations the focus of life and politics, to such a degree that experiences that do not include the sensations are found lacking, unexciting, inauthentic, suspect; the flame of sticking it to the old man had to be kept alive, and neither the absence of an actual old man to stick it to, nor the fact that one has become an old man oneself, has much bearing on the matter.

Maybe I'm way off base with this psychological stuff, but it does seem to me that, for my generation, something like this spirit, though often muted or diluted or rationalized in a new, non-drugged form, animated many (most?) of our elders (parents, teachers, priests, et al.) And in later life, the older, fringe denizens of the punk rock world, many of whom were themselves aging '68-ers or sympathizers, continued the tradition. I absorbed the lessons all too well, perhaps, as I often adopted a contrarian attitude towards the contrarians, a habit that continues to this day. There's no great harm in it, in itself. Being required to read (and love) Catcher in the Rye each year from age eight to eighteen by adults who effectively stood around you with expectant, frozen, desperate smiles, shivering with excitement each time you turned a page; or listening to bands who lifted their lyrics in toto from subliterate articles in the Revolutionary Worker and were granted a reputation as dangerous, deep-thinking intellectuals in return; or sitting through endless coffee shop discussions about "the Revolution" amongst other children playing political dress-up, none of whom were capable of noticing any irony in the situation-- other than boredom, we're not talking about any great hardship. "Question Authority" isn't a bad motto, even if those who brandish it often seem mysteriously to exempt themselves from the questioning process.

It wasn't till I read Berman's piece, however, that it really dawned on me just how much and how completely the spirit of the New Left and '68ers, in their period of unwitting decline, had influenced and shaped the world in which I grew up, and the degree to which this might have been something like a more generalized Western experience. The SLA loomed large in my childhood, as a news item and a not very well understood topic for imaginative speculation, as did the Manson clan (who, it seems to me, differed from the "political" terrorists/murderers only in that, for whatever reason, they failed to dress their lunacy/psychopathology/nihilism/apocalyptic delusions in malformed faux-Maoist pseudo-academic jargon-- an affinity that was demonstrated by the Weather Underground's explicit endorsement of the Sharon Tate murders, the "Year of the Fork," etc.) And it's really pretty astounding how few degrees of separation there were between the SLA and the ethos which motivated and spawned them (and which they "perverted" to some degree certainly) on the one hand, and, on the other, the spirit animating the much more benign, provincial, well-meaning, dippy, even occasionally right or beneficial, would-be alterna-establishment that made up the Authority for Bay Areans to Question, if they were so inclined. Am I exaggerating this affinity? Probably. But I think it's there. And the fact that quite a few otherwise relatively benign, if addled, 60s people continue to indulge, excuse, romanticize, and equivocate when it comes to groups like the Weather Underground, the SLA and the RAF seems to bear that out.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang were like a less inept, slightly larger, and, strangely, more popular, German version of the SLA. The "twist" on the pattern was a more pronounced focus on an ill-disguised, "classic" anti-Semitism, not particularly surprising given Germany's history and the socio-pathology and instability of these particular actors. There are several good books on the subject, including Hitler's Children by Jillian Becker. This website is a good, extensive introduction. As Kamm points out, quoting Berman, their Leftist rhetoric hid their affinities with an earlier generation of thugs (Nazis) only from those who wished to be deceived:

A new suspicion was dawning on these people [West Germany's New Leftists] - a little tardily, you might complain, but dawning nonetheless. It was a worried suspicion that New Left guerilla activity, especially in its German version, was not the struggle against Nazism that everyone on the New Left had always intended. It was a suspicion that, out of some horrible dialectic of history, a substantial number of German leftists had ended up imitating instead of opposing the Nazis - had ended up intoxicating themselves with dreams of a better world to come, while doing nothing more than setting out to murder Jews on a random basis: an old story.

Strangely given their archaic nature, the RAF, the SLA, and their ilk continue to pop up, their distant words and deeds causing bizarre reverberations amongst their mercifully few, pathetic, misguided apologists and requiring remedial commentary by civilized critics in response. Kamm:
the issue of political terror is too important to our own security and the values of a free society to forget, still less romantically mythologise.

Quite right. Yet there are those who, for reasons of their own, seem determined to get fooled again. And again.

UPDATE: Kamm adds his final comment on the inter-blog sniping amongst the small fry sparked by his post.

Posted by Dr. Frank at August 6, 2003 08:26 PM | TrackBack

Interesting post; allow me to ramble a bit. I've always figured that a good deal of your conservatism sprung from a reaction to your Bay Area surroundings. I was born some miles and a few years removed from you, in St. Louis in 1974, and the kinds of people you describe as culturally dominant during your upbringing simply had no place in mine. My parents had vague hippie trappings - mostly the hair and the pot - but radical politics did not figure into their world at all. (One of my Mom's friends sported a Solidarnosc button in 1981, the first such political gesture I ever noticed.)

So the "cultural complex" you describe had little influence on my early life, and I never developed your knee-jerk reaction to the New Left and leftism in general. As I grew up and confronted the obvious - that the world is full of enormous problems and unnecessary suffering - the ideas and iconography of the left had no whiff of stale conformity. For me, socialism pointed toward a new way of looking at the world, a new way to explain the decay I saw around me - and this was all after the Berlin Wall came down, mind. (Remember that republican democracy had been dead for over a millennium before the Declaration of Independence; careful in pinning the "outdated" tag on any body of ideas. They don't always stay dead.)

Had I grown up stultified by poseurs and hypocrites waving red banners, who knows? I'm glad I didn't. I've long felt like more of an Old Leftist at heart anyway - the New Deal/Popular Front era is the most inspiring and fascinating time in U.S. history, from where I sit. But like you, I'm also intrigued by the sad antics of the '70s "armed struggle" crowd, and indeed politically extreme grouplets of all stripes. What strange creatures we humans be, eh?

Posted by: Jason Toon at August 6, 2003 10:16 PM

It goes without saying that one's environment determines one's politics. To truly understand the miserable failure that is socialism put into practice one must simply experience it, live it and judge for oneself how it measures up to its ideals and promises. But then also escape it before one's fully grown and permanently (and completely) damaged by it. But to be an American socialist is, to me, probably one of the easiest things in the world. There's never the actual danger of the real intruding on the ideal, so one can actually spend one's whole life in this blissful fog of political fantasy. It's not an unpleasant state to be in, certainly, it's a very human experience. But, ultimately, it's an extreme self-indulgence.

Posted by: JB at August 6, 2003 10:57 PM

Great post. The "New Left" is surely a sad story in many respects. I think there's still value in some of the Frankfurt School folks though... Anyway, great post. And that bit about Catcher in the Rye is hilarious. In some ways I think I had the experience with mtx records that teenage persons are supposed to have with Catcher in the Rye--"oh my god, where did this come from? it's so true!" and so on...Only I didn't start listening at 8 or stop at 18...Franny and Zooey is decidedly the better novel in that oeuvre though, imo. Another one I'd submit to the list of oppressive sacraments of the convinced is Apocalypse Now. It's just terrible.

Posted by: spacetoast at August 7, 2003 02:35 AM

Uh, whatever you say, JB. I certainly don't feel like I live in a "blissful fog," and frankly my self could use a little more extreme indulgence, but you sound as if you know better. Yes, we American socialists sure have it easy, unlike American conservatives, whose lives are full of frustration and voicelessness.

I take it you've lived under a socialist system that you "truly understand" as a "miserable failure"? So was it Sweden? North Korea? Canada? Cuba? New Zealand? China? Were you "damaged" by the experience? How can one escape similar "damage" inflicted by capitalism? Is it really valid to consider capitalism - a distinct social form that is only a few hundred years old - the baseline default human experience against which all others should be judged, eternally?

And might your opinion of capitalism be different if you'd been born in the US in 1880, or Haiti in 1980? Our environments determine our politics, indeed -- unless you've read a couple of Ayn Rand books, which apparently transform you into a creature of pure disinterested reason. All the better to condescend to you with, my dear!

Posted by: Jason Toon at August 7, 2003 05:10 PM

Well done. As one of those father's hovering around his son while he read "Catcher," I thinnk you have it about right.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at August 8, 2003 05:19 PM

> Is it really valid to consider capitalism - a distinct social form >that is only a few hundred years old - the baseline default >human experience against which all others should be judged, >eternally?


Maybe I'm reaching here, but I've always felt free-market capitalism has existed since the beginning of time, much more than a 'couple hundred years old'. I consider it the bartering of goods/services between individuals or groups of individuals outside any sort of governmental regulation. We didn't need Adam Smith to lay it out for us for it to have been going on beforehand.

For that reason, I would also challenge JB's statement about the "failure of socialism." Free market capitalism does not recognize human rights. If you're one of the UPOs (unfortunate powerless ones), you're outta luck. As, for example, the slave trades throughout history have shown, if economics says it's better to hire men to lash whips than pay your slaves a decent wage, then it only makes sense where that will lead. Goodness knows how much human misery have a capitalist origin (as I define above) if we start looking at more cases throughout human history and get our myopia out of the 20th century 'collectivist carnages' (which I am aware of, and unrepetantly denounce). Any time a person got killed, oppressed, or otherwise inconvenienced in the name of capitalism, I don't know why that doesn't qualify as an example of the "failure of capitalism" if standards of decency/morality that apply in our criticisms of "socialism's failures" are also in effect.

I've become a lot more enamored of free-trade politics as of late, but I don't see why the compassionate individual in me needs to put his ethics on the backshelf and refrain from criticizing stuff I feel goes beyond the pale morally.

Posted by: Buzz N. Skeeter at August 9, 2003 12:40 PM

I grew up in Texas and Chicago, in a fairly (but not excessively) conservative household, and became an angry leftist as a teenager. I got most of it from listening to politically-inspired rock and roll, movies, books, and newspapers.

I also had a lot of aging hippy friends.

So while my upbringing doesn't look much like yours, Frank, I'm still often rather astonished by how much you say that I quite agree with. The idolization of the '60s and its "rebellions" permeated much of the press that I read and the music I listened to in the 1980s. Lots of kids my age even loved the thought of the 1960s and wished we'd been born earlier so we could have experienced it. I usually thought of it as a time of innocence and love and an urge to make the world a better place, one that somehow got corrupted by the corporate machine and cynicism.

It was with a shock that I first read Horowitz' Radical Son and I finally began to realize I'd bought into a pipe dream. And still, I see people like Bernadine Dohrn and Elaine Brown treated like simple "misguided idealists." It's horrid and, while it's finally changing, it's still out there.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at August 9, 2003 12:46 PM

I lived through that era in the Bay Area. The left had quite a bit to say about America's problems. In fact they were the most vocal in demanding redress. Many of us learned later that it's solutions were the cause of even more serious problems.

Racism, the aftermath of WW2, the inequities of capitalism, the plight of the Third World, the remnants and toppling of colonialism, and Vietnam were in the wind every day. The Red Army Faction got a lot of sympathy if not actual support because it seemed like one day many more might need to go the violence route if the system refused to change.

So to be sympathetic to those groups in those days was not so far fetched given the social conditions of the time.

Then we had the Vietnamese boat people, the Vietnamese massacres, the Vietnamese re-education camps, the Cuban boat lift and reality started to seep into the faith in leftist solutions.

On top of that America went a long way to change it's racism and attone for it. Along came the personal computer. Then came the collapse of the USSR. Any one now alive who fails to see the adaptability and productivity of our current system is blind.

The one glaring current problem I see is the prohibition/prison/industrial/injustice complex. Even that is starting to get the attention it deserves.

Posted by: M. Simon at August 12, 2003 05:37 AM


To compare capitalism to some imagined utopia is hardly a fair way to evaluate it.

What you have to look at is not the "powerless ones" as a static situation but how capitalism over time has empowered the powerless ones.

Think of the so called "digital devide" of the late 80s through the late 90s. Remember there was going to be a group of digital have nots? That talk is long past now that you can buy a 1.5 GHz machine for about $800 or less. If you are willing to settle for a Pentium 100 you can get it for free. Capitalism did that.

The price of all commodities including food and metals has been faling for at least 200 years at a fairly steady clip. Capitalism.

What you really need to pay attention to is not the faults, it is the trajectory.

People want to trade for their mutual advantage. The man with the oil trades with the man with iron and they both have motorcars. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Posted by: M. Simon at August 12, 2003 05:56 AM

As for Apocolypse Now - I have never been able to watch the whole movie start to finish. I always liked the part where the Bunnies landed with Bill Graham.

In any case the Seargent who loved the smell of napalm in the morning was embilmatic of a military that had not learned the lessons of WW2 well enough to apply them effectively. All that was important to the military of that era was winning on the battlefield.

Our WW2 experience showed that to win on the battle field is not enough. You must win the peace as well. Fortunately we seemed to have learned the lessons of WW2 and Vietnam. I like what is happening in Iraq and the ME.

Posted by: M. Simon at August 12, 2003 06:14 AM

As far as these things go, the protest movement (which I guess, is my shorthand for the Leftism described in the essay above), is a perfect breeding ground for Incestuous Amplification ("A condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation").

This tendency of those who are locked in a state of adolescent rebellion which is now coming home to roost in the schism between the "Left" and the Demcoratic Party.

(Shamless plug to essay here). While this kind of reinforcement is not new to American politics, it is the mythologizing of folks like the SLA and the RAF that has proven to be a persistent problem for democratic governments around the world.

Posted by: Anticipatory Retaliation at August 12, 2003 05:48 PM