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Revolutions are traditionally marked by the year they began ― 1776, 1789, 1917, 1949 ― which elides the truth that it takes decades, sometimes centuries, for a radical break from the past to complete its tumultuous slow-fast processing through the sociopolitical fabric, with each challenge to the previous status quo just as likely to be rebuked as celebrated, undermined as enacted, co-opted as integrated. In this light, it may be more accurate to describe periodic progessive outbursts since the 1960s, from the Nuclear Freeze movement to Occupy to Black Lives Matter, as well as the reactionary responses to each, as major aftershocks of that (in)famous decade’s explosive Big One.
This makes perfect the timing of the publication of “By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution,” a fresh, deeply-reported examination of the radical activists and movements of a half-century ago. In conversation with Robert Scheer for this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” decorated journalists Margaret and David Talbot review the lessons uncovered by a re-examination of leading activists and movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.
After a global pandemic dramatically increased already untenable inequity overlapped with the radical reassertion ― in the streets and online ― that America is built on fundamentally false pretenses when it comes to equality, the Talbots provide a memorable blueprint for how individuals can continue the work even when the TV crews move on, by becoming leaders who emphasize organizing, action and coalition-building.
Scheer, himself a veteran of those struggles and now teaching Generation Z, notes, however, that some of the key factors that pushed 1960s youth toward radicalism, such as a universal draft during an unpopular war, no longer exist and the pressure to “sell out” has become even greater in a much tougher economic reality. “What did you learn from this project about keeping idealism strong and front and center?” he asks the authors. “How do you keep consciousness alive?”
[Legendary feminist activist and organizer Heather Booth also joins the interview for a portion.]
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a brother-sister team of two very famous journalists: David Talbot, who you should know as the founder and editor of Salon magazine, but he’s written some very important books on the Cold War, The Devil’s Chessboard, on actually the development of the CIA and our intelligence agencies; The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, Season of the Witch. Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker; she’s been that for the last 15 years, a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, and an executive editor of The New Republic.
And they’ve written a book which I think may be the best book on what happened in the tumult of the sixties and seventies. It’s a treasure, this book, because they actually interviewed the people who went through this; this was not some cynical reporter looking at a crowd. These turn out to be an exceptional group of individuals–we’ll talk about that–who were willing to sacrifice career, serve some time in jail, go to Mississippi in this Freedom Summer and register people to vote, in one of the more heroic acts of citizenship in this country.
But I want to begin with the subtitle. The title of the book is By the Light of Burning Dreams, and I think it’s a reference to the contradictions of a movement, how it eats its own, the unfulfilled promises as well as starting the important conversations. But the subtitle is The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution. That’s quite a claim to make for what happened in this country in the sixties, seventies. So either one of you begin by defending your subtitle.
DT: Well, I think that the aspirations and dreams of that generation of militant activists was indeed revolutionary. They wanted to extend the dreams of the first American Revolution, which they felt had been betrayed and fallen far short in terms of Native Americans, in terms of African Americans, in terms of women. You know, we quote John Adams, who of course was the second American president, writing from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776. And he was concerned even then that the revolution was unleashing all sorts–a whirlwind, as he put it, of aspirations and changes. Among women, who he fretted would soon want the vote; among African American slaves, who he said were now being insolent to their masters; among Native Americans, and working people of all types, who had an unequal voice. And so, you know, he called for a serenity of temper to be reinstated in America after the revolution.
Well, we’ve been fighting against this serenity of temper for decades, for many years–for over 200 years now. And the 1960s and ’70s–and you were part of this, Bob; you’re in the book, you know–was not just a time of great personal sacrifice, but it was a time of revolutionary, I think, dreams and aspirations.
MT: Yeah, I’ll jump in there. First of all, thank you so much, Bob, for what you said about the book, and it means a lot coming from you, so we really appreciate it. And yeah, I would just add to what David said, that I was surprised in the reading and reporting and archival work and interviews we did for this book, to find how many activists of this era did draw on the rhetoric of a kind of, what they saw as patriotic protests, based on the idea of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution–that these were unfulfilled promises, unfulfilled ideals, and that we needed a second American Revolution to complete them. And just to cite one example, some of the earliest pickets by gay Americans, open demonstrations asking for a recognition of their rights, were carried out in Philadelphia in Independence Hall, with the specific idea that gay Americans were being denied their natural rights and their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So there was a consciousness, there was an awareness of the use of this rhetoric that was quite interesting to me, and I think has not necessarily been picked up on that much.
RS: You know, let me jump in here as somebody–you know, I’m considerably older than you children. [Laughter] And by the way, the book is called By the Light of Burning Dreams. I’m one of those who had the dream. And I want to explain what it was like to be alive coming out of World War II. I was born in 1936; as people who listen to this show know, I’m a real old-timer. But we came out of World War II with a delusion, a conceit, about America. We didn’t recognize that we were late to enter the war; we thought we won the whole war, we ignored the sacrifice of everyone else in Western Europe and certainly in Russia.
And we were drunk on this idea that we were the revolution that had succeeded, and now we were going to help, out of a sense of charity, the rest of the world, you know, with the UN and aid programs and so forth. And it’s amazing when you think back at that conceit, because after all the war was fought with a segregated American army. Truman didn’t desegregate the first branch, the Navy, until 1947. So we endorsed segregation in this army for freedom. Women had a very decidedly secondary role; yes, they had gained the vote, but they were marginalized in the workplace and their rights within the family, everything else. And we can go through a whole series of issues unresolved; the treatment of Native Americans, I’m not going to go through that.
What was amazing about that time, going right through the fifties and the Harriet and Ozzie, you know, television programs and all that, was this continuing American celebration. We had the good life, we had earned it, and now maybe the rest of the world could learn how to be free and wonderful. And what happened was that we already saw the cracks. We saw serious income inequality in America; we knew that it wasn’t just the South that was segregated; we knew racism was the inherent sickness, the evil of the society was beginning to emerge. But what that movement … and certainly [people were realizing the] restrictions on U.S. empire and imperialism throughout the world…
And what that period in the sixties and seventies, people, young people primarily, beginning in the South in the Civil Rights Movement but extending, often people who had gone to college, who were going to college, who had some privilege, had been raised in families, even some of the people in the early Civil Rights Movement had come through the traditional Negro colleges and so forth. And suddenly they were saying, no–it’s hardly perfect, and in fact, it has its evils that have to be dealt with. And they showed an incredible idealism. Why don’t we begin with that? Because your book shows yes, it was a revolution of contradiction, unfulfilled promises, all sorts of things; it’s very realistic, I think the best thing that has been written on the sixties and seventies, I want to be clear about that. And you get the complexity, but you also get the idealism in a way that has been denied by more cynical observers.
DT: Well, thanks. Thank you, Bob. It was important for Margaret and me as journalists, and for me as an activist, who I was–I’m younger than you by about 15 years, but I was still there for a lot of this history, and I was part of it. And it was important to us to talk to as many people who participated in these movements as possible. And that’s what we did, as journalists. You know, I interviewed Dennis Banks, the cofounder of the American Indian Movement, on his eightieth birthday, shortly before he died. And so to me, that was almost a spiritual kind of obligation we had to represent these people. And it’s not hagiography, as you say, by any means, because I think we need to learn these lessons. Not just us, but the younger generations, in fact, it’s even more important.
But yes, great personal sacrifice. You know, Bobby Seale started the Black Panther Party when he was about 30 years old; he wasn’t a kid. And he was an engineer working in an aerospace factory in Oakland. He could have gone on to have a very happy, upper middle-class life, and yet he started the Black Panthers, and within months, within weeks of doing that with Huey Newton, was on the streets confronting cops in Oakland, racist cops with guns, in a lawful manner. You know, Tom Hayden called it a crisis of the elders; Tom was on a road to become, you know, a good sort of product of student government, someone who would enter American politics and so on. And yet he was derailed by what he called a crisis of elders: the Vietnam War, American imperialism. He felt that he had to take a stand. Dolores Huerta from the United Farm Workers, she was a school teacher. Her mother had been a successful businesswoman, owned a hotel and a restaurant. Her father was a state legislator in New Mexico. So Dolores obviously could have gone on to have a very happy life without doing the enormous sacrifices that she took as a leader of the United Farm Workers Movement, with Cesar Chavez, putting her body and her children’s lives in danger in doing that, to organize workers in the field.
So, yes, these people, I think one of the great lessons of our book is that leadership matters; personal sacrifice matters. We didn’t do a very good job protecting these leaders, by the way. A number of them were assassinated; we can talk about that later. Yes, leaders need to be accountable; yes, some of these leaders self-destructed, got involved with drugs, gangsterism in some cases, and so on. But they were subjected to enormous pressure from without by the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the federal government, different police agencies. Their lives were constantly in danger. As Martin Luther King said, it took a crazy kind of courage to stand up the way that he and many other leaders did. And leadership matters; I know it’s not very fashionable these days, but I think good leadership does matter, visionary leadership. It needs to be accountable, it needs to be democratic, but we need leaders.
RS: Let me comment on that, by the way. What was wrong with the leadership was to the degree that it was male-dominated, and white male, often. And the book captures an insurgent feminist consciousness, and an insurgent consciousness from Third World people, and also from marginalized groups such as gay people, which really didn’t get serious treatment until the seventies, largely ignored in the sixties part. And I want to ask Margaret about that, because this is the strongest–because of the profiles you have, one of whom is, full disclosure, my ex-wife Anne Weills, who currently is an attorney in Oakland, who really more than any other person exposed the horrible conditions of Pelican Bay prison in California, with people in solitary confinement for 20 years or what have you, and got federal court to change that. But you have Heather Booth, you have other very strong women. And I would say one of the achievements of this book is it finally pays credit, gives credit to the women who really took control of this movement. So I don’t know whether you agree with that, Margaret, but I think we should note that. You give them their due for, I think, the first time as really the sort of leading, in a fuller sense of the word, progressive element.
MT: Well, I’m so glad to hear that, and I do feel that that was one of our goals in the book, and that women were often particularly important in the kind of coalition-building between movements. We have Heather Booth, one of the heroes of the book, on the call now as a special guest, and–
RS: Oh, she just joined? Oh great, oh great, yes.
MT: And so I just wanted to say, going back to what you were saying, Bob, earlier, and David was saying about, you know, the risks and sacrifices people took, and you know, obviously that was true for, so true for Black civil rights leaders who built that movement. Also for the, you know, white volunteers who went down there. And so many of the later movements were really sort of seeded by and built by people who went through that crucible, Heather Booth being one of them who really learned so much about organizing and about what was worth taking risks for, violating the law for, in other movements that they went on to build, like the women’s movement. So I don’t know if–Heather, are you there? Can you jump in?
HB: Oh, I am, though I’m enjoying listening to all of you and the conversation, and Margaret and David, I’m so grateful that you wrote this book to share the lessons from the past, and the big lesson that if we organize, we have changed this world, and we can change this world, but we need to organize. And so I found that lesson from the whole book so inspiring. And Bob Scheer, though our paths haven’t crossed in many years, you’ve been such an inspiring figure, writer, speaker, of the movements for so long, I feel we’ve been movement partners even at a distance. So, good to connect with you now.
RS: Let me ask you a question, Heather, because I am a coward. I have to admit. [Laughter] I grew up in the Bronx–really, I grew up in the Bronx, and my parents were garment workers and my father, who was a very brave guy, had been a Wobbly, and he was a strong union organizer when I was growing up. And my father always said, you know, don’t let the cops get ahold of you, they’ll take you to the 77th Precinct, get you in the basement, they’ll beat you around the head, you’ll be funny-headed and no good for nobody, OK. That was what I was raised with. Don’t expect justice, you got to fight, but pick your fights.
And I went to the South in 1960, and I was with a couple of people who were trying to desegregate bathrooms and so forth–I was scared out of my mind. I was with my first wife, Serena Turan, she can testify to it. And I thought wait a minute, we’re going to get killed here–and I hated traveling through Mississippi, Louisiana, you know, Georgia, the way we did, and trying to do some of the stuff that they were doing. And you went there a few years later, Mississippi Freedom Summer and all this. Tell us about it. Because you know, the heroism of that movement, of people, many middle-class people in the colleges in the north, white and Black, giving up their privilege, really, to go South–I mean, I teach at a college now. I wonder if we had a Mississippi Summer now, whether people would even go. So why don’t you talk about what drove you to do this, and it’s so–it’s really actually the important narrative of what happened.
HB: Sometimes you just feel like you have to do the right thing. And when I heard the stories about the courage of people in the South, poor Black people who were facing death themselves, when they tried to register to vote or just to speak up or to get a few more cents per pound in the cotton that they were picking, I thought I’d go down and lend support, since they were asking for that support, in 1964 in the Freedom Summer project. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of the great leaders of the project; we’re talking about women’s leadership, there’s always been remarkable women’s leadership. One of the wonderful things about the early Civil Rights Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was that it recognized the important role of women’s leadership and local leadership, like Ms. Hamer, who was the co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
And I lived with a family in Shaw, Mississippi, with Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins; very briefly on their story, because they stood up for civil rights–in fact, not only taking in volunteers in the ’64 project, but they sued the town of Shaw, Mississippi, to say there have to be equal facilities in the Black part of town as there was in the white part of town. In the Black part of town there were no paved roads or indoor plumbing or street lights. And the result is their house was firebombed, one of their sons was killed and two of their grandchildren, and later Mrs. Hawkins was killed.
And so this question, Bob, that you raised–there certainly were things to be fearful of. Part of my greatest fear was what would happen to the Black community when the white students, the allies, left. And this struggle still goes on. The last comment I’ll say to this particular question is you said, what about a Freedom Rides now–I actually think maybe we should think about Freedom Rides in 2022, or Democracy Summers, doing the voter registration that we need to do as the very laws we won in the sixties are being threatened again.
DT: Yes. You know, Bob, if I could jump in just to second that sentiment. I think many of the things that Heather, and other people that Margaret and I profiled in the book, were fighting for back in the sixties and seventies, we’re again having to fight for today. As Heather was saying, voting rights again being imperiled in so many states. Reproductive rights. You know, when I was doing the chapter on the Black Panthers and interviewing Bobby Seale and others, Kathleen Cleaver and others for that chapter, I reread–of course I read years ago the Ten-Point Party Platform that the Panthers wrote, that Bobby wrote and Huey Newton. And you know, most of those demands are still very much not met, whether it’s in the police violence in the Black community; whether it’s reparations for slavery; whether it’s the end of mass incarceration of African American citizens, or equal access to good employment and housing and so on. These are things we’re still fighting for today. So yes, we did have revolutionary demands back in those days, and we need to extend the American Revolution 50 years later.
RS: Let me raise a question here of some controversy, potentially. It seems to me the important thing that unified the sixties and into the seventies in this movement was a notion of integrity. Don’t sell out, don’t be coopted. And people forget that the government at that time was a government not very different than the government we have right now on the national level, with a Democratic Party-controlled government; it was certainly the lesser evil. I didn’t always agree; I thought Eisenhower was not the worst president, he was a pretty good Republican. But nonetheless, the argument was always advanced, these are–I ran for Congress in Oakland, for instance, and my opponent supported the War in Vietnam; I opposed it. But everybody said he’s better than some Republican.
And the struggle for integrity–and this really came up with Martin Luther King in particular, who after all is honored with being responsible for the Voting Rights Act and so forth, but ends up being basically driven to his death by a Democratic administration and the FBI that went out to smear him. There was this whole issue about “don’t sell out.” And this wonderful chapter in this book on the farm workers, Cesar Chavez takes this position, he doesn’t even want to take the money from established big foundations, because it’ll corrupt you. And he had a view coming out of his Catholicism and his community-based organizing: I’m not selling out.
And Heather, you know a lot about that language. Yet your husband, a great leader of this movement, Paul Booth, and yourself, you went on to do work that, you know, with established unions; in your case, around reproductive rights and so forth, where you worked within the system. And right now I find, as someone teaching in an American university, the whole notion of not selling out–people want to know, sort of, how do you sell out? But on the other hand they want progress; they know things are not working. So then we look to Apple, we look to Google for examples, we look to Warren Buffet for examples of how we can do better. That would have been considered heresy in the sixties and seventies, no?
DT: Well, yeah. [Laughs] I’ll just say very quickly, I remember when Jefferson Airplane sold a song to, I think, Levi’s. And it was done without their permission; I think their management just did it. And that was a huge controversy back in the 1960s. And now of course, today that’s routine, where actually musicians want to have their music played on TV commercials and so on, because it helps get a wider audience for them.
But that, I think that notion, and Margaret can speak to this as well, because I know we’ve both thought about this a lot, personal integrity was very important, and heroism, and sacrifice. And today, you know — I do see it, though, Bob; I disagree with you a bit, among younger people. I have two sons who are both young; my older son, Joe Talbot, directed The Last Black Man in San Francisco. That was based on the story of another young man, Jimmie Fails, who starred in the film, who lived with us for a number of years. And it was important to Joe, and it continues to be important to Joe, even though he’s down in L.A. now working in the system, to make movies that have integrity. So I think that kind of value system is alive and well among many young people who I know. I know it’s true of Margaret’s kids, too.
MT: Yeah, I’ll just jump in and say that I agree with David about that. I do think maybe there is a little bit of a difference with this, the current generations of activist and social justice-oriented young people, that maybe they feel a little less sense of agency and optimism and efficacy than the sixties generation did, even in the moments when they were doing things that were very risky. Maybe there was, strangely — at least for most of the sixties, maybe not at certain moments towards the end of that era of activism — but there was a feeling that going out on the streets was going to make a difference.
Now you see that here; I mean, I think the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer were a moment where people felt, and rightly so, some efficacy going out in the streets, and did. But there seems to be a little feeling of, I don’t know whether it’s just sort of the diffuseness of the media culture or what it is, but a little less feeling that when you do something daring and bold like that, it’s going to have the impact. So that, I don’t know how you address that exactly; I think that’s partly just the mediated world we live in. But I’d be interested in what Heather has to say about today versus the earlier era of activism.
HB: It’s an interesting area you’re raising. I think the real north star, and the real basis for integrity, is doing what is morally right towards actually improving people’s lives, changing the relations of power and building people’s power, so that we are stronger after any one struggle for the next struggle that comes in the future. And so the question of outside inside, which we did make that distinction in the sixties, we’ve also learned that some of our folks even have gone inside. I mean, we know in terms of government–or for example, Bob, had you been elected, and I wish you were–you would have been inside. But then you’d be working, in kind of a co-governing and movement-building. And right now we have an opportunity, especially since we’re faced with really almost a threat of fascism on the right, and holding on by this remarkably thin margin, I think it’s up to us to say we do need to win the victories that we can actually win, working both inside and building our power outside, so we’re stronger for the fights ahead.
RS: OK. Now, I’ve got to control myself here because I’m accused of talking too much anyway on these shows. [Laughs] And I do say the intelligence comes from my guests. But I do want to raise this issue again. Because look, come on–Richard Nixon was, you might not have called him a fascist, but he was certainly considered very menacing. The Republicans at different times were considered very menacing. And you know, my goodness, I interviewed Bobby Kennedy the night he was shot, OK? I’m the last reporter to talk to him, and I understand he was influenced by the farmworkers, you know, in that he had his better side of his nature, and he was learning. But the fact is, Bobby Kennedy went along with the FBI’s effort to drive Martin Luther King to suicide, OK? So there’s a radical insight that existed in the sixties and seventies, and it’s there; it’s certainly there in Black Lives Matter, it’s even there with prominent people and sports stars and others who really are quite tough in their analysis of the failings of the system.
I do think there’s a lot that’s going on that’s very positive, but it can be co-opted. And I want to deal with that word. You know, the free speech movement, which doesn’t get a lot of attention in your book, but the slogan there was, you know, where they used to use these IBM cards, these punch cards — we’re not a card, you know, we’re human beings and we have passions and feelings. The other element, which we haven’t mentioned, there was a draft. And in terms of the American empire and its crimes, it wasn’t just an abstraction. You were going to go be one of those soldiers. I mean, after all, when I was doing my stuff, I was still 1-A. You know, I took the position I would go in; I wasn’t a draft resister like David Harris, who I did a podcast with a couple weeks ago. But I said I would follow the Nuremberg rule and not commit war crimes, and they didn’t want to have that test case. But every individual of a certain age, male, certainly faced: would you be willing to kill, or be killed for, this cause. And it wasn’t an abstraction.
The same thing with what Heather did going to the South. Once you went to the South, you put yourself on the front line. And people were killed, right, in this activity. So you took that step, it was no longer an abstraction, it was no longer just a debate. And I do think, I’m not putting down young people, I think the students now are better than I’ve ever encountered; I think the internet has a positive side, they listen to this show, they can check you all out, they can read your book more easily, they can follow these debates, they can be conversant with the history very quickly. So I think we have a lot of tools out there now, and clearly we saw it during the demonstrations in the midst of a pandemic, in which you had people of all colors and genders and so forth participating. But I do think co-option, which was a big concern in the sixties, remains the menacing force in a consumerist society.
DT: Well, let me jump in–yeah, Bob, I think you’ve raised a lot of interesting points, Heather and Margaret as well. I think Heather’s kind of slogan of “inside and outside” the right way to go. I think that’s what we learned from the sixties and seventies, and in fact, I know you had some disagreements with this, but Tom Hayden’s run for Senate in 1976 on a platform of economic democracy–essentially socialism–predated Bernie Sanders’ run for president as a socialist by many decades.
So, look, we–and Bobby Kennedy, I don’t want to get dragged down or bogged down in debating Bobby’s ethics. But Bobby Kennedy as attorney general was a very different person than Bobby Kennedy running for president several years later, after his brother was assassinated. And even as attorney general, both Kennedys were fighting for civil rights, sending troops to the south to Ole Miss, you know, risking fracturing the Democratic Party, which they did, over the issue of civil rights. So they were taking stands then, as well as later. Now, Bobby Kennedy later, when he was running for president, was meeting with Tom Hayden, was meeting with Staughton Lynd; he gave you an interview. I think Bobby Kennedy was very much trying to figure out how he could be an effective voice for peace and end the war in a way that was politically sound. And I think he would have ended the war had he been elected and not been assassinated in 1968.
I think today–and she’s inspired by Bobby Kennedy–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is another example of a person who works both inside and outside the system. Obviously is a member of Congress; she has to work within the Democratic Party under Nancy Pelosi and so on. But she pushes against those limits all the time, and she knows that she has a grassroots movement back in her district in New York. So that’s the kind of thing we need.
Let me just repeat, I think, some of the lessons of the book, because Heather has touched on some of them, but I want to make them really clear. I think leadership is very important; accountable leadership, solid leadership, visionary leadership. Number two, organization, organization, organization. Number three, coalition-building between groups. And number four, something we haven’t talked about but we’ve touched on, is the culture of resistance. Because that’s what kept us together over the long haul in the 1960s and ’70s.
And I lived in a socialist, feminist, lesbian commune in Santa Cruz in the late sixties and early seventies. And I know how important that kind of lifestyle was to sustaining myself over time. Because we all shared similar values; we all were doing similar things, whether it was starting a women’s health clinic or doing guerrilla theater. And the culture of resistance, I think, is very important as a framework with which we work and live over time. Because you can’t just work 24/7 on political, you know, struggles; you burn out. You burn out, you need the culture of resistance, you need the people who all share your values living together, working together, and so on.
And music; music and theater. You know, we have a whole chapter about John Lennon, the former Beatle, who became very political, very revolutionary, I think, when he came to the U.S. with Yoko Ono in 1970, ’71. We talk about his year of living very dangerously, trying to overthrow the Nixon presidency and end the War in Vietnam with Yoko. And becoming very close to Black Panthers and anti-war leaders in the process. United Farm Workers had El Teatro Campesino, the theater group led by Luis Valdez. That was very important, the music and theater that came out of these movements was very important to sustaining people, inspiring people, and allowing them, giving them the energy they needed to work and struggle over years.
RS: Margaret? Heather?
MT: [Laughs] Yeah, Heather has had to leave the call, she joined us for–
RS: Oh. But she didn’t leave in anger–
MT: –no, no, she did not–
RS: –it was prearranged–[Laughter]
MT: –no door slammed, no, no, it was prearranged. She was actually meeting and organizing and carrying all this on, so she had to get back to the meeting. But I want to thank her for joining us. She is a character, a person in the chapter, our chapter on feminism and women’s liberation. And particularly her role in founding the Jane Collective, which was an underground abortion service in Chicago that provided about 10,000 abortions for women, you know, before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal, for people who badly needed this reproductive care. And these were women who trained themselves to provide the abortions, and had an incredible safety record doing so. And also did a lot of, you know, consciousness-raising, feminist self-care kind of help for women who went through the service.
And Heather actually started it as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she had come back from the Freedom Summer and she was in her dorm and she got a call from a friend whose sister needed an abortion, and she had no idea where to start. But she wanted to help her, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so she actually found a doctor who had been a … was a Black obstetrician who had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the South and came up to Chicago. And he provided them at first, but it was done in a secretive way, with women brought blindfolded to street corners to be picked up. Eventually it became a much more sort of collaborative, collective feminist enterprise. But kind of an amazing thing, and as we face perhaps the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the next Supreme Court term, you know, some of these kinds of alternative institutions, alternative ways of doing things, may have to pop back up; we’ll see.
But I just wanted to say one thing about the alternative institutions, and the culture of resistance that David talked about, which is just that you know, I am 10 years younger than David; I was born in 1961, he was born in 1951, and we have a sister who was born in 1953. They lived together in the Santa Cruz feminist socialist lesbian collective in a big, old Victorian house in Santa Cruz, and I used to go up there, and just as a little kid, feel so kind of inspired, and feel so much regret that I was not, you know, part of it at the height of, at the appropriate age for me. But I did really, I loved being part of that scene, and in a way writing this book with David was sort of a homecoming for me, or a way for me to kind of immerse myself narratively in the sixties that I kind of just missed. So that was a fun and rewarding aspect of doing this book.
RS: So you know, I like this discussion, and we’re not really — you may have to go somewhere else, but let me pursue this a little bit. First of all, I’ve never been a purist about, you know, whether you run for office or support — I’ve voted for lesser-evil people most of my life, often to my regret. But I want to be clear about one thing. And David knows this, and you know it, Margaret, because you’ve worked in mass media in this country; you’ve been in the press, so have I; I worked for the L.A. Times for 30 years, 29 years. My wife was a vice president and associate editor, Narda Zacchino; she’s mentioned in your book. I want to be clear about something, because I think co-option is the name of the game here.
And I want to tell you, I started life having a Jewish mother and a German Protestant father, both of whom were immigrants. And later I spent a lot of time [in] Germany with my old relatives. And I had to really struggle with the question of how did one part of my family end up being in an army that killed the other part of my family. It’s a question I’ve never been able to escape, and I had to deal with the notion of “the good German.” I liked my uncle Ludwig, and I spent many hours talking to him, and he was wounded at Stalingrad in the German army. And oh, well, [he said] “We were just farmers here; we knew nothing; Hitler was a voice on the radio,” and so forth. And so I really struggle with that question. I struggled with that question when I went to Vietnam as a journalist in ’64 and ’65. And you know, I don’t want to blame the American GIs or anything, but the fact of the matter is we were engaged in genocide and barbarism.
And so I think the real issue is not whether you run as a Democrat or not — and by the way, in terms of my own experience running in Oakland, Ron Dellums came up to me one day; he was working for another candidate, I was running; he says, you got to go again, I’ll work for you. I said no, you got to run, I’ll work for you. Ron Dellums became the congressman, now Barbara Lee after Ron Dellums, who also worked for Ron Dellums, is now the congresswoman, I think they were the two best people in Congress on the issues that I cared about. So I’m not — and I would never say they got co-opted or anything of the sort. And so my feeling is, though, the culture is one of co-option. The culture is one of marginalizing people with real dissent. And how do you withstand it? A sort of Mad Men meets Heather, you know. And we know it; we know money talks. We know, you know, you got the good billionaires now, even though they don’t pay taxes, but they pretend they’re going to give away their wealth.
And I want you guys, I want to end this by talking about this world that you two know–not that you’ve corrupted or you’ve sold out, you’ve written a book of great integrity, By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution. I think we’re now in the midst of a third American Revolution. We have great issues of income inequality, of racism, treatment, gender bias and so forth. Very real issues, and hopefully we’ll succeed better than we did in the sixties and seventies. But I also know the ghost of co-option is there, and it’s there every hour; it’s in every book contract, every record contract. So please, talk about that.
DT: Well, let me just say something based on my own life experience, and then Margaret can jump in. And then, yes, I have to leave too, leave the room. But you know, Bob, you know some of this history; I ran something called Salon. Salon.com was one of the pioneering online magazines; we were there before most others, there before even I think a lot of the big corporate media back in the mid-nineties, we started in 1995. And as Salon grew, we were there first, the inmates were running the asylum; it was journalists [who] really controlled it; the investors didn’t know what the hell we were doing. The corporate world didn’t know, but they wanted to catch up, of course, so they were sending emissaries all the time into our office to check us out.
We had an early meeting with Jeff Bezos, and I remember that as a turning point; I write about that in my memoir, Between Heaven and Hell, which came out last year. And Jeff Bezos, at one point we suggested an alliance between little Salon and Amazon; Amazon was not the behemoth it is today, but it was quickly growing. And he said, I might as well stick a gun in my fucking mouth and blow my head off. He was an asshole. And then we explained to him how it would work to his benefit, and he turned around and said, well how much are you worth? Maybe I’ll buy you. It was that kind of arrogance, I think, and you know, kind of bullying that I didn’t want to be part of. And I knew that if I sold out to Jeff Bezos and Amazon at that point, he would lay off half my employees; he would take over Salon; and Salon would not be the voice of independent journalism that it was.
So I forfeited perhaps, what, millions of dollars’ worth of stock. I’d be a wealthy person today; my family wouldn’t be grubbing for money the way we still are. And yet I don’t regret it for a minute that I didn’t sell out to Jeff Bezos. Now, that’s the kind of, I think, value system we have to, I think, impart. I’ve tried to impart it to my own sons; I think they have that value system. They’re not selling out. I think Margaret and her children have imparted the same values. And as a movement, that’s what we did back in the sixties and seventies. We knew when someone was selling out. We knew when someone crossed the line in terms of their own personal integrity, in terms of the values of the movement. We knew. And you know, it’s like pornography, the Supreme Court justice who famously said he knows it when he sees it. You know it when you see it. You know, you smell when someone sells out.
And you know, so that’s what the movement taught me. And as an entrepreneur years later, as a media executive, I could have easily sold out again and again and again. Jeff Bezos wasn’t the only opportunity. And I didn’t. I didn’t because I had–they were the people I had done politics with. They were the people I was in the streets marching with. They were the people I lived with as a young person. And my staff, and the people I cared about who worked for me at Salon, I couldn’t sell them out. And I think that if it comes down to that, that feeling, I think you promote that feeling through a culture of resistance and through building a movement.
MT: I think that was very well said, and I would just add, Bob, your phrase, the culture of co-optation, I think is a very kind of relevant one, and a very pointed one. And it’s true that we live in a system of capitalism that is amazingly adaptive, protean, powerful. And it’s, you know, it’s very difficult to be in the sort of belly of that beast, so to speak, and to maintain integrity. I do believe in, still, in the power of journalism; I believe in the power of local journalism, people who try and report about, for example, the private equity firms and the richest Americans who are not paying taxes. I mean, you have to start by exposing the truth; I still believe in that. So that’s the building blocks of change, and you know, we go from there.
RS: So let me as a personal favor ask you to hang in for another five minutes, is that OK?
DT: Of course.
RS: OK, because I think we’re at really an important point. And I don’t want to be simplistic here, and I want to reiterate by the way, I’m very hopeful for this young generation or I wouldn’t be teaching at the age of 85. And even with the pandemic, I just had a couple of hundred students that did marvelously well in terms of their work, their output, their understanding of issues, and it wasn’t because of me, it was because of the Black Lives Matter movement; it was because of the protests about — everything that’s been going on. And they get it.
And the internet can — you know, let me commend Salon. Thanks to people like David, who did use the internet in a great way, you know, we’ve had a lot of great journalism despite the odds. And people can get educated if they don’t, you know, knock off net neutrality and everything else; you know, the internet’s still the Wild West in many ways, getting to be less so because there’s a lot of demands for censorship. But nonetheless, I’m not disparaging any generation; I’m not one for glorifying past generations. People are very smart about a lot of these issues, and particularly by the way, for the first time, we’re discussing class and economic privilege. I just saw a statement by Bernie Sanders, how you know, the wealthy have gone from, what, $300 billion to $4 trillion in their wealth, the top group. You know, it’s astounding what’s happened to the concentration of wealth here and elsewhere, including in places like China, where four of the largest internet companies are. And by the way, when I talk about co-option, it’s not necessarily geared to our kind of capitalism. I suspect in China, and we’ve got thousands of Chinese students at USC, there’s the same kind of co-option: go along, get along, and you’ll get the rewards, and you’ll be part of an emerging middle class.
But the integrity — integrity is difficult to attain. Now, there is sort of an old Protestant notion, and I guess you can find it in every religion, that you’ll be right with God and you’ll have a conscience. But that’s not generally the way it works. And that’s why I brought up the German experience. Here was the best educated population, concerned with civic responsibility, and they became the greatest monsters of modern history, as a people. As a people, OK. So we have to really deal with America as we know it; it’s [a place] of enormous contradiction, enormous. And the reason you have a Donald Trump is because the system has failed, but you can’t just attribute it to his charisma or something. The system has failed; there’s a lot of unhappiness out there. And I want you guys to just take a few minutes, I know I’ve gone on a bit too long, but you’re wise. You know how power works. And it can’t just be an act of raising our own children — you know, yes, one of my sons helped get the minimum wage raised to $15 here in Los Angeles county and city, you know, Peter, he’s great. But that can’t be just passing it on to your children. And we don’t have the draft to mobilize people. So where does consciousness — and you interviewed all these people; how do you keep it alive? Let’s end with that. Tell me, what did you learn from this project about keeping idealism strong and front and center?
DT: Well, again, I would go back to the lessons that we have reiterated. Leadership is important; not dragging down, canceling leaders, which I think there’s too much of a tendency to do today. There’s, you know, Todd Gitlin, who you know, is a former president of SDS in the sixties, later became a prominent sociologist; Todd at Tom Hayden’s memorial service — you were there, too, Bob, at UCLA. Todd said the right is serious about power, the left isn’t. Tom Hayden was serious about power. Whatever criticisms you want to level at Tom Hayden, he was serious about taking political power as a movement. And that’s what we need to do, number one. So leadership, organization, and a culture of resistance over time that can call people out. Because yes, I think the canceling thing has gone too far in this generation, tearing each other down. But we have to hold each other accountable, too.
And I think there’s more positive ways of doing that. I think what we were trying to do with the book was to show that there were leaders once upon a time who were visionary, who were courageous, who as Martin Luther King said, it took a crazy courage to do what they did, and yet were supported by an entire movement behind them. By thousands and thousands of unsung men and women who were also taking great risks themselves, by going into the streets, by risking arrest, by risking physical injury. And so the book is not only an homage to the leaders, you know, the ones we’ve mentioned–and Heather coming on the call, who was a great hero in the sixties and seventies, and continues to be a hero. She got off the call, by the way, because she’s fighting to campaign to support President Biden’s efforts to tax billionaires, what we’ve been talking about. This kind of crazy kind of economic distortion that’s happened in our system.
RS: And he’s going to not do it, because people like Jeff Bezos now own the Washington Post. And Warren Buffet can distribute large amounts of money. And this–come on, let’s–let me–
DT: Let’s say it, Bob. I mean, when has ever power conceded anything? You know that more than I do. You’ve been at this longer–you edited Ramparts, which was I think the Salon of its day; it was the great dissident journal. It inspired me, it inspired many other younger people to get involved. So look, power never gives up anything without a fight. But, so, instead of whining about that–and yes, I agree with Margaret, we have to expose it; when billionaires don’t pay any taxes, it’s an outrage. And then you mobilize, and you fight, and you fight politically. Yeah, sure, President Biden’s going to be pushed by the biggest Democratic fat cats. And we push back. And at some point, either they listen or they don’t listen. That’s what FDR famously said–“make me”–when labor came to put pressure on him to take the right steps about organized labor in the 1930s. He said, “make me.” And the left was organized enough in the thirties and forties to make a sitting president do its bidding. So that’s what we have to do, instead of this whining about power, whining about these billionaires–
RS: It’s not a question of whining–
DT: –we have to push back.
RS: OK, but let me just put a little literary note here. We had two dystopian novels, one written before the war, Huxley’s Brave New World, and one, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I want to ask Margaret and conclude on this, but sometimes issues need ventilating. And then you had Huxley and you had Orwell’s more totalitarian, naked power model of control. And it’s ironic because in China now, I think they’re moving very rapidly towards Huxley’s model of a drug and a notion of freedom, defining freedom as consumerism and the right to shop and so forth. And realize the harsh totalitarian suppression gets you a bad media–we have more PR students at the Annenberg School at USC than we have journalism students, as far as I know, or it’s a rival number. Manipulation, advertising, PR, you know; what you see on so much of social media, paid advertisements for something posing as individual opinion.
We have a culture of disinformation. I guess that’s the thing I’m trying to focus on, that the menace really now is not a lack of virtuous leaders or their being torn down. The menace really is you have a dominant culture of co-option financed by, you know, these centers of power, whether they’re state-centered or they’re market-centered powers. And you bring up this compelling example–this interview was worth it for your description of Jeff Bezos alone, you know. I mean, it’s really startling that he in fact–you know, and if he ends up shooting into outer space for 15 minutes as his current plan, he even becomes a folk hero. And the fact of the matter is, it is the ultimate distraction. And you know, because you come out of kind of a Hollywood family. You know that distraction is the name of the game, that’s really what Huxley was talking about, more so than Orwell.
MT: Yeah. I mean, look, I probably less than either of you guys, am not particularly a fan of the internet. I see that it, you know, obviously there’s a lot of good reporting, there’s a lot of good information that’s passed along, and it’s a way of communication, and people have organized movements and demonstrations through the internet, and whatever, there’s plenty of good things to be said. But there’s a lot of terrible things about it, and terrible things about how it’s colonized our minds, and in this very sort of diffuse way that’s kind of very hard to reckon with and to recognize the centers of power in; it’s like this power mist. So I do think it makes organizing and kind of just personal and political agency a lot more difficult and complex than it was.
But I guess a countervailing tendency, ironically, that is something that a lot of people have pointed out over the last few years, is that you know, Trump did in a way–and Trumpism is showing us how fragile the democracy is. And sometimes it’s when you see something in peril–I mean, I think people in the sixties saw democracy in peril as well, and especially under Nixon. And I feel like that has been a kind of blessing in disguise, as many people have noted, of Trumpism. Maybe that will be–maybe this is just my wanting to look for the hope in our moment. And there’s certainly plenty that’s not hopeful; we didn’t even talk about climate change or the environment. But you know, I do feel that our recognition of the fragility of our democracy over the last few years is a salutary thing, and I do draw some hope from that.
RS: Good. Well, that’s a positive note on which to end. [Laughter] And the book, by the way, is very positive. First of all, it’s a joy to read. And it’s a joy to read because you’re telling the stories of people that have a right to have their stories told. These are people who mostly sacrificed, despite being leaders–not really well-known; I don’t think Heather Booth is a name that everybody knows, but she is an incredibly heroic figure, what she did, a young woman going to the South and risking her life, and what she did after. And the work of all of these people, you know, we mentioned some of the more famous, mostly male leaders, but really it was the average person in the sixties and seventies that were out there. They were the true heroes, and they were not written about and so forth. And you capture a lot of that in this book. The book is called By The Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution. Read it, and then maybe you’ll want to participate in the third very needed American Revolution.
DT: Right on. [Laughs]
RS: David Talbot and Margaret Talbot. And we’re going to end with that, but I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, for posting these and making them available to other, hopefully, NPR stations. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who makes sense of all this and designs it. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the intro. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And I want to have a shout-out to the JWK Foundation, which in memory of Jean Stein, who was a terrific independent journalist, helps fund these casts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.