Today, we are cock of the walk, king of the world, all our vices made virtues, and all us sinners, saints. While you were out trying to make your way in the world, earning a living, being responsible, raising a family, paying your taxes, we infiltrated your every institution: the schools, the law, Hollywood, the culture, the government. We learned to train your own weapons upon you and, while you weren’t looking, we shot you in the back with them, metaphorically speaking
And sometimes literally. The Cold Civil War, in its early stages, was marked by repeated clashes between the visionaries among the Baby Boomer youth (my dad, the sainted “Che” Kahane, was of course one of them) and their parents, between students and the pigs, between the Free Speech Movement of Mario Savio and the other Berkeley protestors, and the university deans and presidents who at first resisted them but quickly and cravenly capitulated to hordes of unwashed goliards and — at Cornell in 1969 – to an actual armed takeover of the school’s Willard Straight Hall on, fittingly, Parents’ Weekend, by gun-toting black students. Heck, we (and I’m talking Movement here, since I had yet to make my debut and missed out on the whole thing) even got our heads proudly bashed in on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention.
Those were heady early days, marked by the Left’s generational blitzkrieg against an unprepared and astonished Establishment. To hear my dad tell it, our side couldn’t believe how easy it was. I mean, here we were, ready to almost lay down our lives for what we believed in – and what we believed in was basically nothing, disguised as “protest.” We were the bastard idiot children of Rousseau as filtered through the nihilists of the 19th century (no wonder we all read the Russians in those days, for Dostoyevsky spoke to our suffering souls as did no other 19th century novelist, certainly not the overrated bourgeois Dickens or the impenetrable Thomas Mann), seething with rage against the Burroughs Soft Machine, but otherwise pretty much clueless as to what, exactly, we were protesting – except, of course, the draft; “Hell, no, we won’t go,” was our ultra-patriotic battle cry. We sure knew what that was about. And yet we rolled through our parents’ and grandparents’ generation like the Panzers through Poland.
In retrospect, it’s almost tempting to feel sorry for them. They capitulated so quickly and so completely – especially the academics, who made the French in 1940 look like the heroic Warsaw Ghetto fighters under Anielewicz in 1943. That was the moment when we realized that the universities, far from being instruments of the oppressor, were actually ours for the taking and a natural nesting place for the long term, pretty much in perpetuity. Even after we so clearly provoked Mayor Daley’s coppers during the convention, and later during the “Days of Rage” – “direct action” was our euphemism for violence and vandalism – the Walker Report blamed it all on the fuzz and said what happened in the streets was a “police riot.” Can you believe that? By May 1970, what had begun on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC-Berkeley just six years earlier was essentially over, and we had won.
Alas, as is our wont, we didn’t know where or when to stop. One thing you can say about us is that we just can’t help ourselves, cannot control our appetites or inclinations in any way; try as we might, animosity, snark and rage are in us, and they’ve got to come out. And so it was the Cold Civil War moved to the trenches with the last battle of the shooting war, which came at Kent State in May 1970.
You remember that: it was in all the papers. Shortly after Nixon (who had replaced Johnson in our eyes as the chief villain) announced the outrageous and illegal Cambodian “incursion,” students at the Ohio university protested and demonstrated. There were the usual brave calls to “bring the war back home.” On the first day of the troubles, liquor and the late hour predictably ignited into a street riot that was finally quelled by the cops. But tempers and nerves were on edge, and so the National Guard was sent to “maintain order,” and the governor called the kids “un-American.” Unbelievable!