Which Protests Matter to the Left?

It’s hard to believe that the hip author of the bestselling Freakonomics in a New York Times blog post, “How Much Do Protests Matter?,” would miss the gun-toting, swastika-bearing “mobs” at town hall meetings and tea parties. His was supposed to be a book about trends, but does Stephen Dubner not know about this latest trend, of “misinformed” middle-aged “extremists” and addled senior citizens who will not sit quietly for the White House’s reality check on health care “reform”? Does he not know about them challenging the expert opinion of congressmen who, after all, have held the office for nearly thirty years?

Instead, Dubner asked several people “who have thought a lot about this topic” to weigh in.

Sophisticates “have thought a lot about this topic” -- from the safety of their penthouse suites or academic offices -- since the 1950s and 1960s. The hip novelist Thomas Pynchon, in 1966, the year after the Watts riots, mused in the New York Times Magazine about the “balletic quality” of the event. He pondered that within the milieu of Watts, violence is “an attempt to communicate, or to be who you really are.” For writer Norman Mailer, too, violence towards the weaker was a sign of black men’s “authenticity” -- something white men should emulate. He said this in his 1957 pamphlet, “The White Negro.”

Indeed, many of those Dubner called on to comment are people who have “thought” a lot about the topic. Among these is a professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, Howard Zinn. His reference to protests on behalf of labor, rent control, and New Deal programs are predictable given that his widely taught A Peoples History of the United States could just as easily be called The Proletariat's History of the United States. Two other thinkers, Chester Crocker and Juan E. Mendez, focus on protests in other countries.

But as an expert thinker on domestic “protest,” Dubner brings in Bernardine Dohrn, co-founder, with now-husband Bill Ayers, of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) splinter group Weatherman. Dohrn and Ayers are still under investigation for the 1970 murder of San Francisco police officer Brian V. McDonnell. The police union will not let it go away.

Weatherman infiltrator and FBI informant Larry Grathwohl in his book about the period, Bringing Down America, describes the young Dohrn at a council meeting. Dressed in a short miniskirt and see-through blouse, she “stood erect, like a high priestess waiting for her followers to quiet down.” She “radiated confidence and displayed a poise that can be acquired only from countless public appearances.”

But once the crowd quieted down, “her words belied her feminine appearance. At one point she praised Charles Manson, the freaked-out cultist who killed movie actress Sharon Tate and seven others. ‘Dig it,’ Bernardine said of the Manson attack. ‘First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. Then they even shoved a fork into one’s stomach. Wild.’”