The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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You Don't Need a Weatherman to Write the History of the Weathermen
Daniel J. Flynn - 02/18/08

When COINTELPRO, the diablo ex machina in the New Left’s narrative (just as “McCarthyism” had been in the Old Left’s), is not blamed for Wilkerson’s excesses, her credulity is. Wilkerson claims that she felt “blindsided” when her Weatherman cohorts bombed a statue memorializing the policemen killed in the Haymarket Square attack of 1886. “Could it be possible that someone in Weatherman had done it?” The Days of Rage, the scheduled Chicago riot in which police arrested Wilkerson for assaulting one of their number with a club, caught her off guard too. “To my astonishment,” Flying Close to the Sun maintains of the fall 1969 rampage, “the march leaders and many others were smashing windows of stores and cars as they ran full speed down the street.” Pictures of her on day two of the Days of Rage with a motorcycle helmet atop her head and a club in her hand belie claims of innocence. When the mayhem permanently crippled mayor’s aide Richard Elrod, an associate of Wilkerson’s penned a parody of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay”: “Lay Elrod lay / Lay in the street for a while / Stay Elrod stay / Stay in your bed for a while. . . . Play Elrod play / Play with your toes for a while.” Without quoting from this or other similarly vile rhapsodies, Wilkerson imagines such songs as “exaggerated caricatures,” and wonders whether they were “parodies of our excesses.” “I was coming to accept that the slogans ‘Off the Pig,’ or ‘Smash the State’ were meant to challenge people to think creatively,” she maintains, “but I assumed they were not meant literally.”

With indictments from the Days of Rage looming, Weatherman held one last hurrah in Flint, Michigan, in late December 1969 before becoming Weather Underground. Wilkerson recalls movement sex symbol Bernardine Dohrn’s praise of the Manson Family as “satirizing the public’s prurient interest in the murders” or perhaps evoking the “spirit” of Franz Fanon’s “cleansing and resurrecting violence.” Rather than an isolated bit of lunacy, Dohrn’s rhetoric reflected the hard Left’s glorification of Manson, whose “family” so closely resembled Weatherman in everything from finding meaning in meaningless rock lyrics to stripping its members of their identities to prophesying a cataclysmic race war. At the Flint “War Party,” Weathermen employed a split-fingered greeting to symbolize the fork with which the Manson Family stabbed victim Leno LaBianca. Victim Sharon Tate’s name, alongside the names of other “pigs,” was spelled out in bullets. A banner touted “Charlie Manson Power.” The cell of Kathy Boudin and Diana Oughton even nicknamed itself “The Fork.” None of this, however, makes the final edit of Flying Close to the Sun, omissions lending themselves to the notion that Dohrn’s remarks were an abberation.

One wonders whether Wilkerson was gullible then or believes her readers to be so now. “The intention, as far as I know, was not to cause carnage but chaos, the disruption of life as usual,” she writes of the Weatherman’s plot to bomb a soldier’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Why not, then, target an empty building rather than a makeshift dance hall? Why stockpile dozens of sticks of dynamite? Why pack the dynamite with nails? “With little discussion we agreed,” she writes. “I was thinking that even if the dynamite didn’t cause much damage, at least the nails would go into the lights and walls and curtain and make a mess. The nails would wound people, too, and, in their suffering, perhaps they would develop more empathy for how the Vietnamese felt when the United States dropped daisy bombs, the antipersonnel bombs that had been dropped in huge swaths across Vietnam. Maybe this experience would set some limits on the willingness of GIs to violently interfere in other people’s lives.”

The most persuasive reason to take Wilkerson at her word about her naïveté regarding the bomb’s effect on despised GIs was her naïveté about the horror it ultimately unleashed upon her beloved comrades. Former boyfriend Terry Robbins was so obliterated that the identification of his remains came only through a Weather Underground communiqué. Ted Gold, who had ironically championed the go-slow “praxis axis” against Mark Rudd’s “action faction” before the Columbia student strike of 1968, was crushed to death. A headless Diana Oughton, the idealistic Bryn Mawr graduate who had heeded President Kennedy’s call for service abroad by working as a missionary in Guatemala and President Johnson’s call to create a Great Society at home by toiling at an experimental school in Ann Arbor, was identified by a severed finger. When Wilkerson rallied behind the slogan “Bring the War Home,” she didn’t realize how close to home she would indeed bring it.

Boudin, showering upstairs, and Wilkerson, ironing sheets, began to sink. “A blast reverberated through the house and in place of the ironing board, a mountain of splintered wood and brick rise up all around me. Plaster dust and little bits of debris blew out from everywhere, instantly filling the air. . . . For a fraction of a second I worried that . . . the hot iron might start a fire.” A bare-foot Wilkerson and a nude Boudin emerged onto West Eleventh Street. After Henry Fonda’s ex-wife helped clean and clothe the pair, they were gone—deeper into the underground.  

It is Wilkerson’s unique, first-person account of this most audible coda to the 1960s that separates Flying Close to the Sun from other Weatherman histories. Wilkerson relates the story of the townhouse explosion in a compelling manner unmatched in previous accounts. Whereas Bill Ayers, emanating a juvenile defiance, boasts in his memoirs, “I regret nothing for myself,” Wilkerson reflects with horror: “Like most people, I was corruptible, able to be seduced by power and everything that went with it,” she concedes. “I was ashamed to admit that I now shared qualities with those who I had considered implacable, myopic, and selfish, with violent human beings, Nixon and Kissinger among others. My comrades and I had chosen to ignore whole chunks of reality so that the rest would fit nicely into our theory of change.”

It was the fear of being a “good German,” Wilkerson insists, that spurred her to drastic action in the 1960s. But by going along to get along—as her fellow Weathermen directed her to steal purses, bed another woman, and transform her father’s townhouse into a bomb factory—Cathy Wilkerson became Weatherman’s “good German,” never publicly questioning the idiocy of the group’s schemes or the immorality of their violence. Not until half a lifetime later, in these memoirs, and then only incompletely.

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