The movement's meaning: rigidity or righteousness? Protest: Two major figures in the American tumult of the Vietnam War era see the experience and the purposes as diametrically different.


February 09, 1997|By David Harris | David Harris,Special to the Sun

David Horowitz, the quite successful biographer of America's rich and powerful family dynasties, has now written his own story. Its fulcrum is his account of his journey through the Sixties and out the other side, moving from left to extreme left until a sudden epiphany at the era's end and then rapidly across to America's right intellectual edge.

During much of the time period covered in Horowitz's account of his passage from red diaper baby to Black Panther Party functionary to Ronald Reagan devotee, I was a student leader and an organizer against the Vietnam War, a founder of the draft resistance movement who eventually spent 20 months in Federal prison for refusing my orders to report for military service.

I never knew Horowitz back then, though I knew some of the people he writes about and I reported on others among them when I eventually became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so the setting of his "Radical Son," (Free Press, 468 pages $27.50) is familiar to me and I inevitably bring something of my own history to his attempts to recount it.

I found Horowitz' s memoir overstated at best. This quality was most obvious in his insistence on framing his chronicle of himself as the story of the "Generational Odyssey" proclaimed in its subtitle.

As a member of that generation, I took that elevation a little personally. Horowitz's journey may be of interest but it isn't even within commuting distance of being "generational." In truth it represents little outside Horowitz himself.

David Horowitz was the child of communists, a social critic from birth, someone for whom the execution of the Rosenbergs was a big event and distrust of the government was an adolescent given. The generation he claims to embody, on the other hand was a bunch of former Boy and Girl Scouts for whom the World Series was a big event and who had been raised to support the government at all costs.

When they eventually threw off the trappings of that support in disgust at what was going on out in the tall grass near places like Da Nang and the DMZ it was a genuine transformation.

In those days, Horowitz was doing what his parents fantasized about while the rest of us were engaged in what our parents never imagined was possible. The difference was enormous.

His circumstances were unique as well. Most of this generation was defined by the Vietnam War and what they were going to do about it when it came for them. David Horowitz had been out of college more than two years before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution officially opening the Vietnam War was even passed and was exempt from conscription throughout the war's ensuing 10 bloody years; few of his generation could say the same.

He was also far from a representative figure in the political uprising in which he claims membership. During the seminal years of "The Movement" - including the Mississippi Project, the Free Speech Movement, Black Power, the first anti-war demonstrations, the Watts riots, the draft card burnings, Haight-Ashbury, Stop the Draft Week, the march on the Pentagon, and the Tet Offensive, Horowitz was in England, working with European leftists, in a comparatively doctrinaire, Marxism-driven environment that had relatively little in common with the far more spontaneous and experiential stateside New Left uprising.

When Horowitz did return home, he returned to Berkeley, a campus town that resembled nothing else in the universe. There, he fell in with the communal Red Family leftism around Ramparts magazine during the last days of the Johnson administration and kept at it until becoming a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party during the waning days of the Panther icon, Huey P. Newton.

It is understatement to describe his experience as esoteric, even by movement standards. To me, his dilemmas seem less those of a generation than those of a few neighborhoods within walking distance of Telegraph Avenue.

Talk Mao

Horowitz has much more to say if he just lets his experience be His experience rather than Our experience and tells us what happened to him. As a source of observation, there is much on which we agree.

Certainly his characterization of the circles he ran in resonated for me. He returned to Berkeley about the time the national draft resistance organization with which I worked swore to stop bothering trying to organize there. It was a place that both talked and listened only to itself.

Horowitz stepped into a profound mutation in what had heretofore been a political awakening relatively free of ideology, and no location mutated more than Horowitz's hometown.

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