I just finished watching a documentary called The Weather Underground. It’s about 90 minutes long, and covers a small set of radicals (the inappropriately named Weathermen, since leadership included a number of women) who split off from the 60s organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), declared that violent means were not only necessary but preferred as a way of bringing about revolution in the United States, went into hiding, destroyed property in symbolic solidarity with a dizzying array of causes (but didn’t as a group kill anyone, although after the group broke up a few members went on to kill people), then gave it up as the 70s came to a close.
I recommend this documentary to you not because it definitively makes the case that the Weather Underground was morally right or morally bankrupt. It’s a great documentary because it captures so well the starkly different ethical shades of 30-40 years ago. Both law enforcement and activists make arguments and assumptions that wouldn’t make sense today, or at least wouldn’t seem to. In interviews, former members of the Underground are reflective and self-critical to varying extents about their involvement. Todd Gitlin, who usually bugs the shit out of me for his paternalistic “let me tell you about how we did it in the sixties, younguns” schtick, really nails one facet of the Weather Underground when he speaks in this DVD: a group of insulated, self-referencing people who become so convinced of their rectitude that they become willing to engage in methodological violence to achieve substantive ends, and who did not grasp the irony of their choices until too late, if at all.
This is not a propaganda film, it’s not a documentary meant to make you believe anything. It’s much more shaded than that, much more shaded than the Weather Underground itself. For the first time in a long time, I’ve been provoked into a serious spate of thought by something I’ve seen on a television screen.