Explaining the Weather Underground.

The history behind current events.
June 6 2003 9:49 AM

Notes From the Underground

A documentary about the Weathermen shows how far we've come since the '60s.

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For decades, the '60s has haunted all aspects of our politics, culture, and society. But watching The Weather Underground, one wonders if we have finally entered a decisively post-'60s period. The massive opposition to the war, the public appetite for social reform, the heady feeling that positive change was just around the corner—all now seem dim. And after Sept. 11, whatever romance was once attached to these hard-core militants seems all the more shallow, a symptom of a distant historical moment.

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Yet a montage near the film's end also complicates any easy lessons. The filmmakers commingle images of a gloating Ronald Reagan, snippets from a Jane Fonda workout video, and a tape of Abbie Hoffman mocking apathetic '80s students and warning us not to trust anyone under 30. The revolutionary energy of the 1960s, in the end, was defused rather easily—perhaps too easily. Something is lost when a political culture lacks a vibrant left. Of course, the Weather Underground was never that left-wing. On the contrary, with their glib rationalizations, their equation of bad government with irredeemable government, and their casual terrorism, these radicals mostly just helped to finish off the left.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.