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On Contact: The second American revolution

On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the Second American Revolution with author David Talbot.

The populist uprisings of the Progressive Era, labor militancy of the 1930s, and the sweeping social and cultural transformations of the 1960s and 1970s constitute America’s second revolution. These movements sought to complete the unfinished work of the first revolution, enfranchising those the founders of the nation had condemned and thrust aside: black people, women, Native Americans and the poor. The second American revolution, embodied in its final phase by Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, spawned a series of powerful movements including the anti-war movement, the black power movement, the women’s movement, the American Indian movement, gay and lesbian movements, the United Farm Workers union, the Weather Underground and a radical, alternative press embodied in publications such as Ramparts magazine. But the promises of these movements have been largely obliterated. The ruling elites mounted a sustained, often lawless and successful campaign to crush these expressions of popular yearning and popular discontent.

Salon founder David Talbot and New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot look back at this moment in our history in their book ‘By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution’ to ask what happened and what, finally, went wrong. The authors use portraits of radical activists, including Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Heather Booth and the Women of Jane, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Russell Means, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono as a lens to look at the inner workings and inherent flaws in the Second American Revolution.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the Second American Revolution with the author, David Talbot.

DT: I was a foot soldier in these movements, and I was a radical activist in Santa Cruz where I was in school, UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s.  And I remember very well the feeling of anger, of fury, of hopelessness that young radical activists like myself had at the time.  They had killed one leader after the next, who was the last--people who we thought were the last hope for America, John F. Kennedy, of course, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Fred Hampton.  One leader after the next, either jailed or assassinated.

CH: The populist uprisings of the Progressive Era, labor militancy of the 1930s, and the sweeping social and cultural transformations of the 1960s and the 1970s constitute America's second revolution. These movements sought to complete the unfinished work of the first revolution, enfranchising those the founders of the nation had condemned and thrust aside, Blacks, women, Native Americans, and the poor.  The second American revolution, embodied in its final phase by Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, spawned a series of powerful movements, including the anti-war movement, the Black Power movement, the women's movement, the American Indian Movement, gay and lesbian movements, the ecological movement, the United Farm Workers Union, the Weather Underground, and a radical, alternative press embodied in publications such as Ramparts magazine.  But the promises of these movements have been largely obliterated.  The ruling elites mounted a sustained, often lawless and successful campaign to crush these expressions of popular yearning and popular discontent.  Salon founder, David Talbot, and New Yorker writer, Margaret Talbot, look back at this movement in our history in their book By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution to ask what happened and what, finally, went wrong.  The authors use portraits of radical activists, including Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seal, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Heather Booth, and the Women of Jane, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Russell Means, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono as a lens to look at the inner workings and inherent flaws in the Second American Revolution.  Joining me to discuss By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution is David Talbot.  So you use various aspects of resistance, the celebrity aspect of John and Yoko, for instance, the organizing of farmworkers by Cesar Chavez, the, of course, Black Power movement embodied in the Black Panthers with Huey Newton, the Weather Underground resistance, a spectacle by Jerry Ruby--Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.  Looking at all of those different facets, what would you say is the connecting tissue between them?

DT: Well, I think you go to the heart of it.  I think these movements saw themselves as a unified whole.  And often the people actually participated in more than one movement.  Tom Hayden, of course, got his start by being a civil rights activist in Deep South who was beaten up and jailed.  Heather Booth, who you mentioned, started The Jane Collective, the feminist underground abortion collective in Chicago.  She too got her start as a civil rights worker in the Deep South during Freedom Summer, 1964.  So these movements saw themselves a unified whole.  Most important, I think Martin Luther King saw the potential, the revolutionary potential of uniting all these movements.  And that's what he was all about 1968 with the Poor People's March on Washington.  That was not just going to be a one-day event.  He planned to occupy Washington with Black Panthers, with civil rights workers, with the anti-war activists.  It was as broad a revolutionary coalition as he could muster.  He reached out to Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers.  I had known that before I interviewed Bobby Seale for the book.  And he planned to occupy Washington until Congress agreed to divert funding from the Vietnam War to domestic--urgent domestic issues.  That was a revolutionary goal, and I think that's one reason why he was killed, Martin Luther King, before he could accomplish that goal.  So these movements saw themselves, I think, the best strategists, the best leaders in these various movements saw themselves as part of a unified whole, and they often work together.

CH: Yeah.  And Cornel West put out a great book called The Radical King, because King was a radical for the reasons you just mentioned, but that radicalism has largely been erased in the effort to sanitize and create a King that's been frozen in time with the I Have a Dream speech.

DT: Absolutely.  I agree with Cornel and you on my understanding of King and what he was all about, particularly the last year of his life.  The year between his speech, which is a radical speech every American should read, at Riverside Church exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis.  And in that speech, a very strong, not just anti-war speech but anti-imperialist speech, in saying America is in danger of losing its soul because it's spending more money in killing people that is on teaching people.  And that's a radical statement.  You know, as we point out, and I think Cornel pointed out in his book, the title of his last sermon that he was scheduled to deliver in Atlanta at his church before he was killed was Why America May Go to Hell.  That was the title of King's speech.

CH: I want to talk just--this is an aside but I loved it.  Martin Luther King once told his young aide, Andrew Young, that only "Certain people were crazy enough," these are in quotes, "To do what I do.  To take on the federal government, to confront violent cops, sheriffs, and the counter protesters to organize disruptive actions that upset the majority of Americans."  Reinhold Niebuhr writes about exactly this quality, calling it sublime madness, and saying that this sublime madness is fundamental to anybody who is brave enough or foolish enough to take on the system.  And I would say that sublime madness probably defines almost every person you write about in the book.

DT: Absolutely.  And I know, Chris, you knew some of these people personally as I did.  I was fortunate to interview some of them who are still alive.  I knew others like Tom Hayden, who had recently died when I started working on the book.  And there was kind of a crazy courage that all of them had.  And, look, when you just think about all the heat they took from the federal government, from various police agencies, the jailings, the beatings, the assassinations, Fred Hampton, arising, charismatic, young Black Panther leader in Chicago, shot--drugged and shot to death in his bed next to his pregnant wife by a death squad.  By a death squads from the Chicago Police and the FBI.  This was the kind of threat, the kind of abuse and constant death threats that these people had to stand up against.  This is a violent country.  Much more violent, much more bloody than we realize often.  And, you know, to stand up for your rights, to lead movements that are directly confronting authority in 1960s and '70s put you in danger.  And I don't think, frankly, these movements did a good enough job protecting our leaders, and many of them were cut down before they--in their prime.

CH: And many of them are still in prison.  I mean, great resistance leaders, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, especially if they're Black are 40 years later still incarcerated.  I want to talk about the issue of violence.  There was a strong attraction to violence.  First of all, among the anti-war leaders, people like Hayden, there was a kind of deification of the North Vietnamese.  There was a split.  Hayden didn't join it.  The Weather Underground embraced violence.  The Black Panthers embraced violence.  The American Indian Movement embraced violence.  And you quote Tom Hayden who said that he understood the sinister attraction of violence.  I think he's right.  And King, of course, at the end of his life, was alienated from much of the younger elements within these movements because of his steadfast commitment to nonviolence.  Was it the embracing of violence that caused much of the disintegration within the left in your opinion?

DT: Yes, but it was a two-way street, because they were confronted with such violence.  Let's take the Black Panthers as an example.  In my chapter about the Panthers, I interviewed Bobby Seale who's a co-founder of the Black Panther Party.  And he performed for me because he's a former standup comedian and jazz drummer.  He performed for me.  And it was an active performance.  When they were confront by Oakland Police for the first time on the streets with guns, the Black Panthers, he, Huey Newton, a dozen others.  This to Bobby was an important moment because it electrified the Black community.  They confirmed the cop in a very popular entertainment district of West Oakland where Black couples often went to be entertained, to have dinner, and cops routinely shook them down, harass them, beat them up, took them to jail.  And the Black Panthers on this one night said, "No more.  This is not going to happen anymore.  We're going to protect our community."  So they abided by the law.  They read the law very carefully.  Huey Newton was in law school at the time.  He knew how far they could stand away from the police officer who was arresting someone.  They observed him.  The cop, of course, got very upset because suddenly these young Black people were confronting him with guns, but they did it lawfully.  They did it according to the law books.  And Bobby Seale, his intention was to capture the imagination and the attention of the Black community, which he did.  As you can imagine, a big crowd formed around them that night and he told them, "Ladies and gentlemen," after the cop sped away, "I'm Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party.  This is my friend, Huey Newton, who's Minister of Defense.  Come to our meeting tomorrow."  That began to mobilize the Black Panther Party.  That show of force.  So I would support that.  And Bobby Seale's intention then was--after getting the attention of the Black community to pivot to electoral politics.  He himself ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973.  Ran a very strong campaign but he lost.  That was his intention.  Huey Newton, unfortunately, was a different person, and Huey was more prone to, I think, violent theatrics.  And I can't say to this day what they did to Huey in prison.  He was put in solitary for months.  He was, I think, subjected psychological torture.  The Huey Newton who came out of jail was not the Huey Newton that went in.  So that's the other thing you have to factor into this, the kind of abuse that these people withstood from authorities.  But the Panthers tragedy, as you say, is that they couldn't pivot away from guns.  Guns were the things that got people's attention and the media's attention, certainly, and the police's attention.  And they could never then survive the kind of violent assaults they had to withstand from police departments throughout the country as well as the FBI.  So I think, tragically, they became captives of their mystique, their violent mystique.  Now, the American Indian Movement is different.  They start with guns at Wounded Knee, and we can talk about them.  But by the end of their lives, Dennis Banks, Russell Means, the founders of the American Movement--Indian Movement were quite different.  They embrace Standing Rock, Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, the leaders at Wounded Knee in 1973.  They had guns there at 1973.  They were way outgunned by the federal forces surrounding them.  But they did have guns, and they defended the use of those guns because they said they were protecting their people, men, women, and children who were camped out at Wounded Knee in 1973.  But Dennis Banks came around to--and Russell Means was much more mellow in some ways to the idea that you couldn't affect change, radical change in this country by violent means.  And they rejected guns, and they embraced, I think, a more peaceful strategy at the end of their lives.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we will continue our discussion about the systemic campaigns to crush popular yearning and popular discontent with the founder of Salon and author, David Talbot.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the systematic campaigns to crush popular yearning and popular discontent with the author David Talbot.  So before the break, we were talking about violence.  And I think the point that you were making is very valid.  I saw it in the wars that I covered in El Salvador and the former Yugoslavia where people are pushed to a point where there really isn't much alternative other than to pick up a weapon.  But as I explained at length in my first book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that doesn't save you from the poison of violence, which I think King understood.  I want to just speak briefly about the Weather Underground.  This was a White, privileged, middle-class--I mean, there was great animosity between the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, interestingly enough.  And that, for me, is one of the great tragedies because students for democratic society had organized massive around the campuses.  Mark Rudd writes a good book about this, a powerful anti-war movement.  And then Nixon begins the bombing of Cambodia and the movement had self-destructed because the leadership had gone underground.  Just talk briefly about the Weather Underground.

DT: Well, though--when--as you say, the Weather Underground was a splinter from SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, which under Tom Hayden's leadership and others like Todd Gitlin, had managed to mobilize, as you say, masses of people, particularly on campus against the war.  So it was a great tragedy when SDS was splintered in 1969, partly by the Weather Underground.  Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, the leaders of Weather Underground had decided that America was hopelessly corrupt, that you couldn't hope to mobilize people because they had bought into the American empire, they were enjoying the fruits of empire, the White working class and so on.  And so the only path left was a terrorist path to go underground and declare war on the Nixon government and in various police agencies, which they did.  They made a point of trying not to kill people with their bombs, although the first bomb was intended to be exploded at Fort Dix at a dance party, where they would have killed a number of people.  Instead they blew themselves up in a townhouse explosion in 1969 in New York City.  But from then on, they pretty much followed a kind of symbolic terrorism, blowing up buildings and targets that didn't cost in human life.  Not intentionally.  I still think that was the wrong path.  And Tom Hayden was briefly, because I think Bernardine Dohrn for some was kind of a sex symbol and Tom and Bernardine were briefly involved as we pointed out in the book, but Tom did consider going underground.  He thought, at Chicago, a trial--that he--where he was on trial would result in long prison sentences.  Bernardine Dohrn would say on this, she said his only option was to go underground.  Fortunately, Tom did reject that.  He then went to a collective in Berkeley, The Red Family, which was very famous at the time.  He was evicted, ejected from that collective.  And he ends up in Los Angeles, mobilizing the anti-war movement at a time when the anti-war movement had really gone to sleep.  And I think Tom Hayden deserves more credit, and Jane Fonda, and the movement they built of church groups, religious groups, Middle Americans across the country, unions, and so on, to finally cut off congressional funding for the Vietnam War at 1975.  I think it was because of this movement led by Tom Hayden that the Vietnam War finally ended.

CH: Hayden--and I knew Hayden in his later iteration.  He was trying to recruit me when Obama was first running into a group called Progressives for Obama.  I wasn't buying it.  Didn't join it.  But he does have some very trenchant comments on your book.  He wrote that he's writing about the end of this period, Weather Underground.  And he said, "Everything around me continued to decay," at a time with, "Our lives spiraling towards some personal and political abyss.  I felt something akin to what the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton terms death immersion."  That's a really powerful statement.

DT: Yeah.  And, look, I was a foot soldier in these movements, and I was a radical activist in Santa Cruz where I was in school, UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s.  And I remember very well the feeling of anger, of fury, of hopelessness that young radical activists like myself had at the time.  They had killed one leader after the next, who was the last--people who we thought were the last hope for America, John F. Kennedy, of course, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Fred Hampton.  One leader after the next, either jailed or assassinated.  And by the time I was in college in 1969, '70, '71 at Santa Cruz, we were very angry and we were very militant.  And I wasn't prepared to go the Weather Underground path but I can really relate to what Tom was writing about, that feeling of fury, of hopelessness.  That this was a lost cause, and America was a lost cause.  And, look, I'm going to be 70 soon and I still feel that sometimes.  I still feel that America never got back on the right path, the path that John Kennedy and Martin Luther King had in mind for the country.  I think we went off the path 50 years--over 50 years ago.  And, you know, even the coverage.  We can talk about it.  The war in Afghanistan, the fall of Afghanistan, to Afghanistan, basically, was dismaying to me, because America, the New York Times, your former employer, corporate media in general is still wedded to this idea of America as an empire, and it's--I think, a very tragic vision for the country, and it's only going to bring us more sorrow.

CH: Well, David is worse than that.  They're wedded to the idea of American virtues, American exceptionalism that we're good people without any kind of reckoning with--for instance, take Afghanistan, the terror and the devastation and the 70,000 civilians who were killed in the 20-year occupation.  The--I just--we'll briefly highlight COINTELPRO, which was this FBI-run program, all sorts of illegal tactics, infiltrators.  You know, I think there were nine informants or FBI agents--maybe not agents but informants in the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated, including the first person to get to him.  And then there's a pretty strong evidence that the assassin worked with complicity with the FBI and was therefore never prosecuted.  So all of that was true, that the pressure--I mean, King himself.  They tried--J. Edgar Hoover tried to drive Martin Luther King to suicide, sending recorded messages King had several adulterous affairs, the FBI record it, and then called up his wife and played those recordings.  So all of that is true.  The pressure was intense, and we can't minimize that.  You mentioned Fred Hampton, of course, assassinated.  But you also write that there was internal dissension.  You're writing about the Panthers.  But, really, there was internal dissension within most of these movements which contributed to their own destruction.  Can you speak about that?

DT: Yeah.  There was schisms.  There was egos.  There were--these weren't--it's not hate gag that my sister, Margaret, and I are writing here.  We talk about these leaders, flaws and all, works and all, and often they are brought down by their own tragic demons, like Huey Newton becoming addicted to drugs and gangsterism when he was still leading the Black Panther Party, and that led to the breakup of the Black Panther Party.  The American Indian Movement was subjected to thousands of infiltrators, provocateurs, agents over its history.  Dennis Banks, the leader of the American Indian Movement, his own ex-wife turned out to be federal informant.  His bodyguard was an agent working for the FBI.  So this was the kind of paranoia that they sowed within these movements.  Yes, there were egos.  Yes, there were factions within these groups.  Some would have torn themselves apart anyway.  But I don't think you can separate that from the COINTELPRO, the FBI counterintelligence programs that was meant, designed very, I think, kind of, you know, corruptly and cynically to divide these movements, to turn them against one another, often violently, by the way.  There was an activist, an African-American who smuggled himself into Wounded Knee during the amazing 71-day siege there in 1973, and he was immediately a suspect.  How did he get through these lines, police lines, the federal, marshals, heavily fortified, to the camp?  And he ended up being shot during an altercation.  And maybe he wasn't an agent.  Maybe he was.  So this was the kind of violence that the FBI, I think, really intended to provoke.

CH: I want to talk about the society of spectacle.  As you know, my father was involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement.  Later in his life, he was a Presbyterian Minister of the gay rights movement, a firm supporter of the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, et cetera, King, this nonviolent element.  And one of the things they didn't like along with the drugs and the flirtation with violence by many on the left was also this notion of protest as spectacle.  Abbie Hoffman would perhaps be the best exemplar of this.

DT: Yeah.  You know, look, I'm from Hollywood so I have a different maybe view of this than you do, but I have a great respect for the religious leaders like the Berrigan brothers, and Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, who drew on the teachings of the church and almost have a spiritual power that they brought into these movements.  Martin Luther King, obviously, himself a preacher and so on.  So I don't...

CH: Well, and Malcolm--let's not forgot Malcolm X.  Malcolm X came rooted out of a religious tradition.

DT: And Malcolm--well--that's right.  That's right.  And I think it did give these people a kind of crazy courage, as you said earlier, to do what they did.  But, look, I'm divided about this politics of spectacle.  On the one hand, the Yippies throwing, you know, dollar bills under the floor of the Wall Street exchange, running a pig for president, and so on in 1968.  Yeah, they're laughable and they were clowns.  And Jerry Rubin turned out to be a kind of a Yippie, you know, stockbroker and entrepreneur at the end of his life.  Abbie Hoffman stayed true, I think, to who he was throughout his life.  So they were different.  Now, John Lennon, who we write about, the ex-Beatle, and Yoko Ono, his wife, were both artists.  And they brought that kind of sensibility to the movement.  And they put up signs all around the world and Times Square, "Now, this war is over if you want it to."  Now, you can say that's a silly thing, or his Bed-in for Peace in Toronto, and so on, but John Lennon really, I think, sacrificed himself more and more.  And we write about one year in particular when he lived in Greenwich Village with Yoko Ono and became very connected to the Black Panthers, went up to Harlem to do a benefit for the families of the prisoners who've been slaughtered by Governor Rockefeller's forces at Attica State Prison.  You know, John was doing something very radical, going on TV.  No other radicals could get on TV.  Bring Bobby Seale and Jerry Rubin with them on The Mike Douglas Show, which was a very popular afternoon syndicated show at the time.  He was getting his message out to a much broader audience, to Middle America in a way that he knew was manipulating the media.  So, look, do you put that down, you say that's, you know, an empty strategy, yes, in a way it is.  It's superficial.  It's trivial.  But, on the other hand, I watched John Lennon on those shows at the time and I also watched him later in research for my book, and Yoko Ono.  And the messages that he was putting out we're not trivial.  Messages about feminism, about Native American liberation, about Black liberation.  No other person had the access to the media that John Lennon did at the time who could speak the way he did, and he was speaking truth to power.

CH: Great.  David, I've got to stop it there.  You do in the book quote Lennon, looking back on figures like Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and being extremely critical of them and of the movement because, as he said, they don't know how to talk to middle class people.  But we're going to--people can buy the book and read it.  That was author, David Talbot, who with co-author Margaret Talbot wrote, By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution.

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