Those who repeat History are bound to be ignorant. That’s the single, best, and probably the only good reason to hold aging radicals at arm’s length. I don’t blame Tom Hayden and all the others for doing what they did in Chicago and Hanoi, man, I’m just a bit suspicious when they turn up again: Just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things... they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service. Marx was suspicious, too. Hayden and a host of others have started a website aiming to become a movement. The title, tellingly, is “Progressives for Obama,” and there are very good reasons why radicals should work with Obama to achieve common goals; but it’s less obvious why radicals should work for Obama instead of with him, and Progressives for Obama doesn’t seem to be ready to clarify the difference, and you can tell because Hayden, for one, seems to have his strategic thinking on automatic pilot:

The other day I was talking to a friend, a Sixties revolutionary, about the Obama movement, who laughed and recalled that at the beginning of the Southern Civil Rights era there were progressives sitting around arguing that demanding a hamburger and a cup of coffee wasn't radical enough.

But as Charlie liked to say, closer consideration of this historical conjuring with the dead reveals at once a salient difference. At the beginning of the Southern sit-ins when you saw black folks sitting in the white folks’ place at Woolworth’s you didn’t sneer: if you were progressive you shuddered at the thought of being them and walking down a lonely road at night.

Pull out your hankies. Or not, because others have pulled them out and argued that the difference between endorsing Obama and sitting at the lunch counter taking taunts from peckerwoods is so great in terms of courage and commitment that to compare one with the other is a kind of blasphemy. I don’t buy it. Perhaps Hayden’s friend had friends like that, but as a matter of record in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties if you were progressive you argued that the sit-ins worked. Anyone further to the right (and this included blacks as well) was going to say these kids had gone too far, they only harmed the cause. So the question Hayden skips is the same one skipped by his radicaler-than-thou critics: not whether Progressives for Obama is brave enough, or left enough (who cares?), but whether it’s going to get the job done. And what job is that? Hayden again:

Some of us believe in the greater possibilities of the Obama campaign as a vast social movement - the unprecedented rise of a new activist generation linked together with a unified African-American community.

Is this an LSD flashback? How is this “activist generation” going to “link” with an “African-American” “community” that’s “unified” by what? Hayden apparently hasn’t figured out something most of us knew by 1965: that the African-American community was unified by well-defined common goals, and there was no question of “linkage” but of working with white radicals when it worked for them and when it didn’t, not. That must be when the expression “dumb honkie” came out, because the dumbness of the radical left is, and certainly was, that most of the time they couldn’t define their goals and because they couldn’t define their goals they couldn’t define tactics and strategies, let alone defining the value of a sit-in or march in any terms beyond how brave and macho it made you look. Hayden seems to think that blacks have some kind of magic mojo and all he needs to do is dust off the afro wig, and that’s the worst part because today blacks obviously form a different community with different and far more splintered goals than fifty years ago.

And that’s his biggest blooper: misunderstanding how the Civil Rights Movement worked. When Hayden speaks of “the beginning of the Southern Civil Rights era” he means, I think... Well, I don’t know what he means by “the beginning,” but let me help him out. In 1908, Kelly Miller, who co-edited The Crisis along with W. E. B. Dubois, wrote,

The progress of all peoples is marked by alternations of combat and contention on the one hand, and compromise and concession on the other, and progress is the result of the play and counterplay of these forces.

The point is not that Miller said so but that he and other black activists and leaders developed a long-term game plan that was carried out with considerable success in the Civil Rights Movement, much of it by design: the point was not what you did in the abstract but what you did in relation to what others did or did not do. Even right-wing creeps have grasped this, that’s why they feel entitled to suggest (as David Brooks just did in the New York Times), that Martin Luther King’s true friend was the KKK because they decided not to shoot him, and that his true enemies were the Black Panthers because he was for nonviolence and they weren't. But as William H. Chafe pointed out in Civilities and Civil Rights, it’s only because the brothers were burning down the place that the deacons were invited to discuss The Problem with the white power structure: the Civil Rights Movement worked because it worked, more or less consciously, like a gigantic Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, with people like King as the Good Cop and people like Huey Newton as the Bad Cop and people like Brooks as the patsy. As the man said, By any means necessary. Including even, presumably, the boring stuff like voting and nonviolence. Including all the other stuff. That’s the main difference between what Hayden’s trying to do and what the Civil Rights Movement achieved: it’s not whether you vote or don’t vote, or trash or don’t trash. Progressives for Obama have flashed the carrot. I can’t for the life of me find the stick.


- PW.