Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Jon Wiener: What Aaron Sorkin Got Wrong in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

The historian, who wrote 'Conspiracy in the Streets' on the subject of the Netflix film, sets the record straight on this week’s 'Scheer Intelligence.'
“Chicago 8” Top, from left: Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis. Bottom row: Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, John Froines, David Dellinger [Original illustration by Mr. Fish]

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The Trial of the Chicago 7,” an Aaron Sorkin film that recently aired on Netflix, brought an important chapter in the history of American activism to screens around the globe. Based on real events, the film dramatizes the 1969 trial of eight activists who were arrested during the Vietnam War protests that took place in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale were all charged with attempted incitement of a riot after the Chicago Police Department, under orders from then Mayor Richard Daley, brutally repressed the summer demonstrations. Jon Wiener, the author of “Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven,” joins Robert Scheer on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss the case and the Sorkin film. 

The historian says that one of the most egregious changes the filmmaker made in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” happens in one of the final scenes. Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne) reads out a list of the names of American soldiers who’d died in Vietnam since the trial had begun. In reality, that scene played out very differently, Wiener explains. 

“In real life, this didn’t happen at the end of the trial, it happened at the beginning of the trial; well, that’s not such a big deal,” says the historian. “In real life, it wasn’t Tom [Hayden] who read the list, it was Dave Dellinger who read the list; well, that’s not such a big deal. But the list that Dave read at the beginning of the trial included Vietnamese names. That was the whole point: Americans and Vietnamese are dying in this war. And for Sorkin, it’s only the American lives that matter.” 

The omission is one that both Wiener and Scheer argue speaks to one of the United States’ government, culture, and many of its people’s biggest sins: the inability to value the lives of non-white people, whether at home or abroad. The two point out that while Sorkin does include the heinous mistreatment of Bobby Seale–who was gagged and physically restrained in the courtroom for several days–he doesn’t extend the same respect to the Vietnamese lives lost in the very war the film’s activists were protesting. Scheer contends that the same sin can be found at the heart of the Vietnam War itself, as well as other conflicts such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Listen to the full conversation between Wiener and Scheer, who knew many of the people involved in the trial and was very active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and who adds his unique perspective to the film and Wiener’s book throughout the conversation. The historian also talks about his two books on Beatles icon John Lennon, “Come Together,” and “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files,” as well as his most recent book with Mike Davis, “Set the Night on Fire.” The latter, which is a comprehensive look at the everyday heroes involved in the activism of the 1960s, is the subject of another episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” which you can listen to here

Credits: 

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Introduction:

Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:

Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a historian that I respect enormously, Jon Wiener. Emeritus now–I don’t even know what that means; I guess it means they don’t pay you anymore–University of California at Irvine. And I, you know, I don’t want people to think I’m desperate for guests, but I did do Wiener, if the name sounds familiar, for his most recent book with Mike Davis on L.A. in the sixties, an incredible book. I don’t know, the only thing I held against it, it’s 800 pages, but very readable–and I had to read them, that’s sort of my commitment here. 

Fortunately the current book, and the reason I’m bringing him back, is a book on the Chicago Seven that I actually read when it came out back in 2006. And it was interesting, and it was an easy read, because it actually was mostly a version of the trial, the famous trial. And then he wrote the introduction, had an interview with Tom Hayden at the back, and it’s a good selection of the trial. The reason it’s back in the news–and indeed he was recently interviewed on NPR by Terry Gross, you know, a high order of respect–is because of the Aaron Sorkin movie on the Chicago Seven, which is getting some attention on cable, and you know, it brings it back to life. And I thought, well, you know, I want to revisit that subject also. 

But I do want to start out with a caveat here. I did not like the way it was set up on Terry Gross. And it was basically a quote from you, so I can’t blame Terry Gross. And it was about bringing Trump up, you know; is this a warning about Trump, and so forth, which you had said something in The Nation. But the interesting thing about the Chicago Seven trial–and everybody forgets, when we feared fascism previously, it was around a time with a Democratic president. Yes, the trial itself took place once Nixon was president, and it was his decision, you know, to go ahead, one could assume. But you know, the turmoil of the sixties, and particularly the opposition to the Vietnam War, was really against two Democratic presidents. You say in your interview with Terry Gross it was mostly Lyndon Johnson, but no, John F. Kennedy is the one who really started that war, and did it on a false premise, and we can discuss that. And then Lyndon Johnson inherited it after Kennedy was assassinated, but it was a mess, a real big mess in Vietnam, and it was very difficult to just blame Johnson for it, you know. But it was a Democrats’ war. 

And we’re now about to have a Democratic president again, in Biden, Joe Biden. And I want to begin with that. Really, because people forget the Chicago Seven trial–and you can lay it all out any which way you want, but it was basically the rebellion of a generation of young people over a Democratic-inspired war. And a number of our recent wars have either been started by Democrats or supported by Democrats. President Biden did support the war against Iraq, even though it was a Republican president, George W. Bush. So take it from there. You’re the historian. Put it all in perspective.

JW: Well, first of all, let me say thank you very much for bringing me back, even if you didn’t like the Terry Gross interview. It’s a pleasure to be here with you, because you actually–this is your life, even more than it is my life. Chicago ’68, the war in Vietnam–you were one of the first people to write about Vietnam; you were one of the first journalists to go to Vietnam. So you are the man when it comes to Vietnam protest. 

And yes, the Aaron Sorkin film is about the trial; the trial was about the protests at the Democratic–I agree, underline it–Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. And the protests were about the war. And in fact, there were two different groups that applied for permits to protest against the war. One was the National Mobilization Committee–we called it the Mob–headed by Dave Dellinger, but also involving Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden. And they wanted to have the kind of traditional protest march on the convention, calling on the Democrats to end the war, that you rightly said the Democrats started. 

But then there was a second idea, second protest, second organization, the Yippies–Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Their plan and their applications were to hold a festival in the park–they called it a festival of life–which they posed as an alternative to what they called the festival of death at the Democratic National Convention. The Democrats were holding a festival of death, they wanted to hold a festival of life. And the police, of course–the city wouldn’t give anybody any permits, the courts wouldn’t give any permits, the police attacked everybody. So in the end, the two protests became one protest, and were on national TV, and the whole world was watching. 

RS: Yes, but let me cut to the chase here. And I found that it was great that Aaron Sorkin made that movie–and by the way, I think it’s good that Terry Gross interviewed you; I’m all for a thoughtful discussion and examination of these issues, so I’m not putting down either. But the problem is–and it goes to this question of the whole world is watching, is the distortion of media, really, and when we try to understand these historical events. And I want to challenge the premise of, in a way, of your book, but certainly of the way it was treated in the Sorkin movie. That there were two movements, there was a cultural movement, the Yippies and so forth, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and then there was a political movement, of Mob, of Dave Dellinger, who had actually come out of a traditional pacifist background, and Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, who did come more from SDS and from a political movement. 

But there was no clean separation. The thing that was true about the sixties–and I think you capture it in your book on L.A. in the sixties–is that a whole generation of young people were galvanized. Not all of them in the same way; some actually became conservative. They were galvanized. And what galvanized them were two things that were happening that affected them personally. One was a civil rights movement that could not be ignored, because it was domestic. It entered every activity, every part, whether you lived in the North, and certainly whether you lived in the South. And it put you on the spot: where do you stand in relation to segregation and ending it? Amazing that we were fighting about that at a time when we thought we were the center of the free world, and had the arrogance to think we had enlightened leadership. But the other was this question of making wars all over the world, which we actually still do, and have done ever since we attacked the Native Americans and committed genocide. 

But the thing that unified it, the war and the Civil Rights Movement, is that people could not avoid it. And the reason they couldn’t avoid the war–as they can now; we’re at war today–the reason they couldn’t avoid it is we had this thing called the draft. And everyone, whether they considered themselves a youthful Yippie, rebelling or examining life or political, whatever they thought, the fact is their number could come up, and they could be called to fight in this war, and to kill and maybe be killed. So let’s go to that thing. I deny the separation there. And by the way, I didn’t mention a very important book you did on the FBI’s attempt, the U.S. government’s attempt to destroy John Lennon. And a very important book you did, which I’d like to discuss, but that illustrated it. Certainly John Lennon of the Beatles was a cultural figure, and into a certain kind of–I don’t know if it was called dissent, but a certain cultural engagement with people. But he also came to be very strong against the war and imperial adventure. So why don’t you tie–it’s really more about your life than my life–let me throw it back at you, and particularly your life as a historian. 

JW: You know, you are right about the Aaron Sorkin movie, that it makes a lot of faulty arguments. But I think, let me just say about the Aaron Sorkin movie, it is not intended as a documentary. It is an Aaron Sorkin drama, which means you’re going to have characters with character arcs, and they’re going to give speeches to each other, and they’re going to come to certain insights about themselves and their enemies. So we don’t–the problem is these are about real events, and the characters have the names of real people who you knew and I knew. And we feel that there are certain obligations, when you’re using real people’s names, to get it right. For instance, Jerry Rubin was one of the leaders of the stop the draft movement, and was one of the organizers in Berkeley–you were there too–of trying to stop the troop trains in Berkeley. This was not a, you know, Yippie stunt; this was not a clever media event. This was a very serious move. And Jerry Rubin was also involved in electoral politics. I know when you ran for Congress in, what was it, ’66? He was–

RS: ’66 in Oakland, Berkeley, yes.

JW: And he was part of your campaign, wasn’t he? 

RS: He was one of my campaign managers, and let me just say, by the way, he was an organizer, but I organized him. A guy named Frank Bardacke, who went on to do–long did interesting political work, and in many ways much more important than you or I; he was very involved with the farm workers, and a lot of struggles–but we met Jerry Rubin when he was a new graduate student at Berkeley who had come over from Israel with his younger brother. His parents had died in an automobile accident in Israel, and he had the responsibility of his brother, and he wanted to study, I believe, with Seymour Martin Lipset in sociology. And we met him in the library stacks at Cal, at Berkeley, and we got him in, Frank and myself, we got him into the Vietnam Day Committee, into politics. 

And that’s really my point, you know; the SDS that Tom Hayden was involved with, they also were pranksters; they also raised cultural issues; they also identified with a lot of the emerging music. The difference really came up in the courtroom scenes, as you describe. The Yippies were determined to put on a theater, because they thought you couldn’t really get a straight trial. And Hayden and Rennie Davis and, to some degree, Dellinger, thought you could, and you could find justice in the court. And then Bobby Seale, that we have not talked about, who was dragged in, showed that certainly a Black person was not going to get justice in that Chicago court, and was bound and gagged, horrible what was done. And let me, by the way, defend the Sorkin movie. I enjoyed it as a movie, and I thought basically it was an accurate–accurate in terms of the tone, the tension, the desperation of the moment, of the trial. So I’m not criticizing, and I’m not criticizing Terry Gross. I’m just talking about how difficult it is to put labels and define and analyze. 

And I do think the key thing about what happened at Chicago–but what happened in the sixties was that suddenly American lives were at issue, and white lives, too. Because of the draft, because of the civil rights protests, disruptions and so forth, you couldn’t ignore it. And what we’ve seen in the age of neoimperialism is you can fight wars all over the world–we got the longest war going in Afghanistan right now. And when Donald Trump had the temerity to say he wants to end it before he leaves office, whether he’s serious or not, you got all these respectable Democrats saying oh, you can’t just do that! Right? And the reason nobody cares is because they’re not going to be drafted to go fight in that war.

JW: You know, this is part of what the Left–the Left, you know, a lot of our friends on the Left really are upset about this Sorkin movie for its inaccuracies. And there is one that touches on what you’re saying here about white lives versus the lives of everybody else. The climax of the Sorkin film has a Tom Hayden reading a list of the names of American soldiers who were killed in Vietnam, and everybody rises to their feet in the courtroom and cheers, and this is a heroic moment: that Tom is confronting the judge with the fact of deaths of American boys in Vietnam. In real life, this didn’t happen at the end of the trial, it happened at the beginning of the trial; well, that’s not such a big deal. In real life, it wasn’t Tom who read the list, it was Dave Dellinger who read the list; well, that’s not such a big deal. But the list that Dave read at the beginning of the trial included Vietnamese names. That was the whole point: Americans and Vietnamese are dying in this war. And for Sorkin, it’s only the American lives that matter.

RS: Well, that’s an important point. And I was not aware of that, by the way. And even though I was in Chicago, not at the time of the trial, but during the protests. Let’s talk more about that, because you know, that really–that’s serious.

JW: Yeah, well, you know, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis had been to Vietnam, I think the year before the trial, ’68 or maybe even ’67. Rennie in his closing statement–which is also not part of the movie, by the way. The movie says only one of the defendants gave a closing statement, and that was Abbie. And it was very–it was wonderful, it was Abbie, you know. What did you do from your birth until 1960? He says: Nothing; your honor, I believe it is called an American education. You know, it was stuff like that in his statement. But there was, a second member of the defendants was put on the stand to testify, and that was Rennie Davis. And he talked about his trip to Vietnam. And as part of his testimony, he described how anti-personnel weapons dropped by American bombers worked. That they exploded, sent thousands of pieces of shrapnel that killed every living thing. He brought to the courtroom an unexploded American anti-personnel weapon that had been given to him by a Vietnamese woman who said every other member of her family had been killed by weapons like this. The defense moved to enter it as evidence in the trial; the prosecution objected and said your honor, the Vietnam War has nothing to do with this trial. And the judge said, objection sustained. And the anti-personnel weapon was not allowed to be part of the trial record. 

RS: Yes, and we’re going to take a break right now, and be back in a minute. But Jon, when we come back, don’t pound the table the way you’re doing. 

JW: OK, no more pounding! I get excited.

RS: OK, all right. [omission] So we’re back from our break, and I’m talking to historian Jon Wiener, who back in ’06 wrote a book about the trial of the Chicago Seven. And they conveniently forget the eighth, which was Bobby Seale, who was brutalized in that trial, tied to a chair and everything else, and then cut from the trial. But you were making an important point, I thought, which is once again this Aaron Sorkin movie, which is getting a lot of attention–it all is an American drama. And the fact that Robert McNamara at one point said over 3 million people died in that war, they were mostly civilians, Indo-Chinese–that number really is closer to 5 million if you take in Cambodia, take in Laos, at least. It’s one of the major crimes against humanity in world history, a war that no one can defend now. And the idea that it was all about the inconvenience or trials or actions of Americans, which is legitimate for an American audience, but really no attention whatsoever in that movie to the genocidal, barbaric attack on innocent civilian farmers who were still using oxen to till their field. I happen to have gone there, both north and south; I went there early, when Kennedy was president. And you know, to my mind, I never could understand this contemptuous indifference to the people that we dropped more bombs on that area than we did in World War II in Europe, against the whole Nazi enterprise.

JW: Ah, yeah. Sorkin–you know, Sorkin has certain kind of principles that have made him a successful director. And Sorkin films and Sorkin TV shows are about sort of debates between white men, who are eloquent and moving and smart, and there’s not–you know, women sort of listen to the men giving speeches to each other, and that’s also true in this movie. The only exception is the outrageous treatment of Bobby Seale does get full attention in the Sorkin movie. We see him in chains, we see him gagged, we see him struggling. And even though in real life it lasted for four days–I mean, they’re not going to do that in a movie; they make it a single incident that comes to an end. But I think Sorkin did appreciate the drama of the Black man in chains in an American courtroom. But aside from that, it’s a story about American men debating each other. 

RS: Yeah, and–which is fine when they debate each other about, you know, whether you kill millions of other people; I think that’s legitimate, and I respect the people who are on trial, obviously. But the real issue is–and this goes again to the whole question of the role of art, media, whatever, to miss the point. To miss the point. I mean, you know, be writing about Germany and the war and missing the Holocaust or something. I mean, you deliberately went out, they had this idea, the Viet Cong guerrillas are swimming like fish in a sea of the population; we have to drain the population by napalming, by destroying, by carpet-bombing, by dropping more bombs than we did in World War II on this tiny country. And on Cambodia, on Laos, and so forth. And you know, come on, that’s the real big takeaway from Vietnam, was the splendid indifference by Americans, the American culture, to the havoc they wreaked upon people of Southeast Asia. And which they have continued to do in other areas of the world. This is a savage culture that we’re part of.

JW: And you’re right that the war in Afghan goes on, although it looks like Trump will pull out almost all American troops by January 15, five days before Biden takes the oath of office.

RS: Yeah, well, you know, but why–that war started basically under Jimmy Carter. They don’t take ownership of it, but old Zbigniew Brzezinski, you know, we got to give the Russians an example of their Vietnam–I mean, it was a foreign policy calculation to meddle there. And just as the Russians, the Soviets made a foreign policy calculation to meddle. But the lives of the people who were living in a whole other culture and generation and way of living, which is really what Vietnam was–everybody forgets that, you know. And that you have the right to just tear up these societies and destroy them, and treat them as your war toy. And now it’s almost like a video game, nobody even has any sense at all that the carnage goes on. It’s like nobody you really care about is getting killed. And that is one of the problems of that trial. The people on trial–and I would put Abbie and Jerry, I’d put them all in the same group–they all cared. They all knew–I knew these people very well. And Abbie, by the way, a fairly highly educated person, I knew him when he was a TA at Berkeley–

JW: [Laughs] Oh, my gosh.

RS: So these were, you know, scholars, they were smart people; Yippies were not dumb, and they were not just drugged-out. You know, that’s another thing the movie–but I must say, the movie treated Abbie fairly; he came across as an intelligent, thinking person, and that was good. But I think what’s forgotten, these people were not at a parade or a party or a happening. They were all very deeply concerned about what Vietnam represented to American culture, what it was doing to our own culture; but more, they knew of the savagery. They were not naive about it. And the movie misses that. This was not a happening, to use a term from the sixties. This was a legitimate, necessary response to the carnage of a war that never made any sense, that was an act of extreme chauvinism and savagery by the United States.

JW: And to go to that demonstration, to protest the War in Vietnam on the occasion of the Democratic National Convention, did mean you were going to have to fight the Chicago police. Mayor Daley had made it absolutely clear; he’d in fact a couple months before given this shoot-to-maim order for arsonists, and shoot-to-kill order for somebody else. And he amassed this huge force of National Guardsmen and army soldiers and Chicago police. So it was clear–I mean, this was actually one of the smaller demonstrations of the war, because the dangers of fighting the Chicago police were so great. You know, the first big antiwar demonstration SDS called in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1965, we think 25,000 people came to that one; Chicago was only something like 15,000 people, because Daley was threatening to shoot to kill and shoot to maim. So you really had, you really had to be ready to fight the police if you were going to go to Chicago to protest the war. So they were going to extract a price from the people who said no to this war. 

RS: Yeah, and so I want you to connect it with John Lennon and the book that you wrote about him. Because right now, you know, we’re in an age of surveillance. People forget, though, that surveillance, which has been very much enhanced and made treacherous by the existence of an internet where–you know, people could know, if they want to, that I ordered your book on Kindle, and how far I read into it. Whether I did my homework, and notes I sent about it, and emails I wrote about it. But your book on John Lennon, which I think was so important–and what is your connection with the movie? You know, tell us about that whole thing. Because you went through all the Freedom of Information files and everything. And it relates really to what happened to Martin Luther King, the attempt to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide, which is totally overlooked these days.

JW: Yeah, well, our time is flying here, but you’re absolutely right, there was an important book called The FBI and Martin Luther King, written by a historian named David Garrow, who got–was the first person to do this as a serious historian–got Martin Luther King’s FBI file after he’d been assassinated, and found the FBI had incredibly close coverage of every day, every hour, what Martin Luther King was doing. Gold mine for historians; of course you have to remember that a lot of what the FBI does is lie or get things wrong. 

And I wondered if you could do the same thing for John Lennon. So after Lennon was murdered in December of 1980, fortieth anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks, I requested the FBI files on Lennon if there were any. I knew there should be some, because in 1972 Lennon planned to do a national concert tour to encourage young people to vote against Nixon. In fact, he was going to do the tour involving speeches by a lot of members of the Chicago Seven. Abbie and Jerry were very interested in this tour; Rennie was going to come on it; Bobby Seale was going to give some speeches. And Nixon ordered Lennon deported to silence him, basically–to prevent him from taking this tour. 

And that’s what the John Lennon FBI files are about: the Nixon administration’s planning and then monitoring of Lennon to silence him as a spokesman of the antiwar movement, and to try to get him out of the country before the ’72 reelection campaign went into high gear. The hundred most important documents are in another book of mine called Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, along with a hundred-page history of the litigation thanks–I always thank the ACLU of Southern California. Mark Rosenbaum, with the help of Dan Marmalefsky, who brought this case–Wiener v. FBI, it’s called–through the courts. Eventually the Clinton administration agreed to give us all the documents that we were seeking, and I was able to publish them in this book. 

But yes, it’s a direct connection of the FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King. It’s one of the great examples of unjust use of the immigration law. You know, we complain a lot about how Trump has made a political tool out of immigration, but Nixon was there in 1972 trying to deport his critics and enemies. Of course, I mean, Woodrow Wilson tried to, did deport Emma Goldman in, what, 1919.

RS: And so did Harry Truman, you know, come on.

JW: Yeah, so this is–I mean, we’ve seen this kind of misuse of the immigration power. But yeah, surveillance, the use of the Freedom of Information Act to try to expose government misconduct, we need journalism and we need the government to stop this kind of harassment and surveillance. And you know as much about this as anybody, because it was you and Narda Zacchino who helped me get this book published in the first place, and thank you for that.

RS: I forgot that. What did we do?

JW: You connected me to Random House, to your–you were a Random House author at that point, and–

RS: [Laughs] Yeah, Jason Epstein.

JW: You introduced me to Jason Epstein, and he published my book, and then Narda Zacchino was the editor at the Orange County edition of the L.A. Times back in its glory days, and she put the story of the young historian who sued the FBI on the front page of the L.A. Times. So basically, you and Narda made me what I am today. Thank you for that. 

RS: Wow, there you go, that’s a nice compliment. It was Narda more than me. But I do want to say, you really demonstrated in your life why history matters, you know? And we have a whole movement now in this pandemic: why do we even need anything but the science and math and things like that, or maybe things that might get you into law school. And when we lose history–maybe we can wrap this up, but when we lose history, we lose any sense of our own culpability, any sense of self-criticism. You know, the whole idea that the winners write history, the losers don’t–well, we’ve done–you know, why don’t they? Why isn’t that an obligation of any culture, that for its own sanity, to understand what it’s done wrong, what it should avoid doing again? And why don’t we close with that? I mean, we’re in a season now where Trumpwashing gets everybody else off the hook. You know, so torture for instance, which went on recently, in an expanded way, shocking way, we can attribute to Republicans. But you know, Democrats controlled some of the committees that had all this information. And it was very late in the day when we learned anything about it. We even had torture in Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson, quite systemic, widespread. So really, let’s end with an editorial from you about the value of historical objectivity and accountability.

JW: Well, you know, they say the sad part of being a historian is that your work is always made to be replaced by future historians. And it certainly is true. When I was in school, the word genocide was never used in connection with the Indian wars. You know, cowboys and Indians were not a matter of genocide; this was just America being great. 

RS: And Indians not being people.

JW: And Indians not being people, yeah. So history–there may not be progress in politics, but there seems to be–history is in a good phase right now of reminding us that Trump isn’t our only problem. In fact, I believe you know as well as I do that Obama deported more people than Trump did–that Obama invented the drone wars, which Trump hasn’t been pursuing with the same frequency or intensity that Obama did. And that’s why you and I are concerned about bringing back some of Obama’s foreign policy team, is going to bring back some of the bad parts of history that we’re now going to need to remember. 

RS: Well, on that note–[Laughs] it’s not a great optimistic note. Let me ask you one last historical question, seriously. What happened–as I began with this interview, what made the sixties special, particularly in the foreign policy element, but also because civil rights was, as we’ve seen now with Black Lives Matter, it’s a domestic issue that you cannot ignore. Or if you ignore, it comes back to focus your attention and haunt you. But both in relation to the war in Vietnam and to the Civil Rights Movement, you couldn’t push it aside. You know, you couldn’t put it in the closet, and you couldn’t treat it as a video game. And what I’m worried about now is that we don’t have any sense of accountability for our historical actions, to learn from them. That certainly is true of the Black Lives Matter. You know, you mention reparations, you mention the obligation we have to people of color for their mistreatment and so forth, and people even now look at you like you’re crazy, you know. And you try to defend affirmative action, you try to defend policies that level the playing field, and people just say well, that’s ancient history, and so forth. And with war, it’s a video game now. We have no responsibility for the empire, even on the issues of waste and global warming and so forth. The extreme involvement in the U.S. and wasteful consumption, and hurting the environment and everything, overconsumption. There’s no accountability. And so I kind of, again, I’m asking for an editorial here. But you know, there’s some power to your punch here as a historian that I’d like you to evoke.

JW: [Laughs] Well, I can only echo what you’ve said, that it’s, you know, this is why we need the independent journalists. It’s nice to have billionaires who own the Washington Post and the L.A. Times right now, but you know, I’m not sure that’s really the way to go. It’s much better to have our own media, our own podcasts, our own journalists reminding us about our own history. And you know, we’re entering a new chapter now, and we’re going to need that as much as ever. 

RS: Well, there you go. But anyway, since we–I was going to get you to stress history. Read Jon Wiener’s books. What is your relation to the documentary on John Lennon?

JW: Well, so there’s a documentary called The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which is sort of–I was a historical consultant to that; it’s based in large part on my book about the John Lennon FBI files. And I also appear as one of the many, many talking heads in that movie, along with lots of others, your friends and mine: Ron Kovic, Gore Vidal, you know, lots of good people in that movie, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which is available on many platforms.

RS: Good. And so I want people to read, to really read that. Because you’ll see–and you know, here’s a major commercial success–come on, John Lennon was as big as you get, the biggest really, I don’t know, certainly of the Beatles and everything. And look at what government did to him, and look at what government–good government, supposedly, Democratic government–did to Martin Luther King. And it sounds the alarm bell about who gets to define reality. And what you’ve done, what Jon Wiener’s done with his work, including his book on the Chicago Seven we’re discussing, his book with Mike Davis, which you should read, much more recent, powerful book that’s out now, L.A. In the Sixties, and the politics and the cultural life of the community. And you know, it’s a good thing we have historians like Jon Wiener who remind us why getting history right is necessary for getting the future right. 

So on that note, that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, who gets these things put up. And I want to thank KCRW, the great FM station in Santa Monica, for hosting this program. We have Natasha Hakimi Zapata who writes the introductions, Lucy Berbeo does the transcription, Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence. And I want to really thank the JWK Foundation, which gives us money to help put these programs on, in memory of Jean Stein, a terrific writer, a great human being, and somebody who certainly was very important in trying to sound alarms about racism and unnecessary wars during the period that we’re discussing. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 

4 comments

  1. Good interview as always.
    I agree that the political and cultural movements were not really separate – especially in the Bay Area, where the hippies were political and the politicos had long hair and dropped LSD.
    My biggest problem with the movie was Sorokin’s efforts to airbrush Hayden and Davis as though they were liberal Democrats trying to work within the system to end the war.
    We utilized a variety of tactics in the 1960s. I worked hard on Ron Dellums’ first campaign for Congress in 1970. But we were very out front with our politics.
    Hayden and I often spoke at anti-war rallies together, and we sometimes tried to outdo each other. I recall once in November 1969 after I had made a somewhat longer speech at a San Francisco rally, Tom got up and said, “In other words, the only response to violent repression is violent revolution.” Then he sat down.

  2. hippies political? LOL
    anti war? farcical
    the Marxist social historian, Christopher Lasch described 1960’s protests as a “fear of death movement”; when military conscription ended so did the protests, yet US genocide continued in SE Asia for 3.5 more years
    these petty narcissists all became politicians and lawyers; there was no integration w the working class; indeed as Richard Sennet demonstrates, liberals most supported the Vietnam War, not the “conservative hard hats”

    1. I applaud your courage in exposing your utter cluelessness. You have the guts to speak with conviction about matters of which you know absolutely nothing. Gotta admire that.

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