The Magazine

When Bobby Met Eli

Radical Chic on the streets of New Haven.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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These are the words of a terrorist organization. To a certain extent, it is not surprising that slavery and Jim Crow infected their victims with some of their own depravity. Far more puzzling, however, is why untold thousands of young, white, well-educated, middle-class protesters identified more with a violent revolutionary front than with an established order that protected their right to speak, assemble, and protest. It is imperative to understand the motivation of such white radicals because it was they, and not other blacks, who provided the Panthers with their political clout.

As Bass and Rae take care to point out, black New Haven resented the threat of violence and property damage that Panther-led protests brought to their city. In addition, black New Haven ruthlessly criticized the white radicals whose allegiance made the Panthers so dangerous. The community's leaders wrote that "the white radical, by frantically and selfishly seeking his personal psychological release," effectively exploits blacks in an essentially racist manner. So were the black leaders right? Was white radicalism a perversion of white middle-class guilt? And why did it affect almost exclusively the young? Kingman Brewster, an arch-liberal, rejected all that the radicals stood for--although he handled them with a light touch in order to defuse their penchant for violence. The New York Times editorialized that support for the Panthers had "plunged campus activism into new depths of irrationality."

Admirably, Bass and Rae never let their fond memories of the past cloud their judgment of the Panthers' young, white fellow travelers. "Panther mania," they write, "crossed the wires of normally lucid young people's brains." But why did such wires get crossed? Given their extensive research and intimate familiarity with the radicals of the era, Bass and Rae might have given more consideration to the ideas that animated their protests, rather than focusing so much on the details of their actions. Although the story of the Panthers in New Haven is undoubtedly worth telling, the reader may want to know what its lessons are for today.

One potential lesson to take away from the story of Alex Rackley's murder is that America today is not nearly as polarized as journalists and politicians often say it is. In spite of furious disagreements about the war in Iraq, the tepid antiwar movement of today doesn't march under the insurgents' banner, the way that the protesters described by Bass and Rae carried the flag of the Viet Cong.

Yet in some quarters, the American left still glorifies the Panthers and what they stood for. In June 2001, an arts festival in New Haven brought together a panel of former Panthers and Panther supporters to reflect on the events of May 1970. Bass and Rae report that "the mostly white, Yale-affiliated young audience cheered [the panel] as they presented a portrait of a heroic party destroyed by an evil government." Even one of Kingman Brewster's erstwhile lieutenants told the audience to follow the example set by the Panthers. The only panel member who spoke out against this return to irrationality was Warren Kimbro. He told the audience, "I don't want you to pick up a gun like me. I want you to do this revolution by getting into Yale Law School."

Should we be concerned that America's best students are educated at institutions where Bobby Seale (who was on the panel that day) is welcomed as a hero? Probably not. Ignorant nostalgia is very different from true radicalism. These days, Seale is hawking books about his prowess at barbecue--or, as he calls it, "BobbyQue." The enterprising chairman has even composed a "Barbeque Bill of Rights." And campus leftism today has mostly lost out to the kind of well-behaved liberalism that King man Brewster would have en dorsed. It may give students some strange ideas, but election day 2006 notwithstanding, it hasn't prevented conservatives from winning elections, either.

David Adesnik, a policy analyst in Washington, is the editor of OxBlog.com.