For some unexplained reason, I have read a disturbing number of New Left alumni biographies, collections, histories, and apologias—books like Fugitive Days, Flying Close to the Sun, Ravens in the Storm, Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don't, Utopia or Auschwitz, Family Circle. It is a strange habit, I suppose, because the typical memoir of the self-righteous revolutionary is meant to exculpate, and as such tends to be as self-serving as a presidential memoir and as illuminating as a David Irving book on the Holocaust.
But New Left leader Mark Rudd, the force behind the violent protests at Columbia University, has now admitted something he long denied. While predictably hedging his apologies about "revolutionary struggle," Rudd's recent memoir Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen now acknowledges that it was his group that destroyed ten years of research conducted by liberal historian Orest A. Ranum, then an associate professor at Columbia and mild critic of SDS's tactics, and not the New York City Police Department.
Via Arts and Letters Daily, John Castellucci, a former reporter at The Providence Journal, produces a fascinating account of the SDS takeover of Columbia, the group's motives and internal power struggles, and its destruction of Ranum's bourgeois accumulation of knowledge:
Now a key participant in the Columbia rebellion has made a startling confession. Mark Rudd, who was chairman of the SDS chapter during the disturbances, acknowledges that a fellow radical, John "J.J." Jacobs, set the fire in Hamilton Hall, and that he, Rudd, went along with the plan. The confession, a depressing postscript to the 1960s, solves a four-decade-long mystery. It offers a grim testament to just how mean things got at Columbia, and a sobering reminder that not all student radicals were starry-eyed idealists. In more than a couple of cases, they were power-hungry extremists jostling for control of the student-protest movement. And Ranum had the audacity to get in their way….
The papers were irreplaceable. They dated back to Ranum's time as a student at the University of Minnesota, where he got his Ph.D. in history. The notes were going to lay the basis for a textbook on early modern European history that he had been commissioned to write for a series edited by the British historian Sir John Plumb….
The fire should have turned public opinion against the protesters, but some liberals were so awed by the radicals, and guilt-ridden about their own inaction, that they went into denial. The literary critic Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New York Review of Books, said that while he found the arson "base and disgusting," he doubted that SDS was responsible. He went on raising money for the organization, from which, within a year and a half, the violent Weathermen faction would emerge. On March 6, 1970, three members of that group, making bombs in a town house in Greenwich Village, accidentally blew themselves up.
Ranum was touched when experts working on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to try to restore his papers, but he declined the offer. "I just felt my stuff wasn't important enough," he said.
As they say, read the whole thing.