By Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 28, 2008
William Graebner, Patty's Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s
America, University of Chicago Press, $20.00.
On February 4, 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army abducted Patricia
Hearst, the "heiress," as she would be described in countless
articles, to the Hearst publishing fortune. In due time, Patty
emerged as "Tania," a willing member of the SLA, blasting away at a
sporting goods store and brandishing an M-1 carbine in a stick-up of
a bank in San Francisco.
This was one of the biggest stories of the 1970s and in Patty's Got a
Gun William Graebner provides a brisk account for those who weren't
there, weren't paying attention, or who have not read Every Secret
Thing, Patty's own account. The book is particularly good on the
trial, what "expert" witnesses, particularly psychiatrists, had to
say. Graebner brings to his analysis the decline of authority, the
fragile self, the sense of victimhood and "the survivor," the
Stockholm Syndrome, and of course paranoia.
He also ties the story into popular culture, but for Graebner, also
the author of The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the
1940s, the response to the story was "less about Patty than about
what Americans wanted to believe about themselves." And what would that be?
"That they were a resilient people, possessed of free will, capable
of transcending the malaise that was settling over the nation,
capable even, as Patricia Hearst had not been, of heroism."
There is doubtless something to that and, though the author does not
say so, since the Hearst trial, Americans have indeed proven
resilient, surviving inflation and the energy crisis. They survived
the Carter Era, which proclaimed the "malaise," and in numerous
conflicts, including those going on right now in Iraq and
Afghanistan, have shown considerable heroism. Americans are also
forgetful, with the attention span of a hummingbird. Mr. Graebner's
book will remind them of what went down in the seventies, a
particularly violent decade.
The Symbionese Liberation "Army" that grabbed Patty Hearst, had only
11 members, mostly white and female, from decidedly bourgeois
backgrounds. That was also true of other American revolutionary
groups claiming to speak for the people, and to fight "the violence
inherent in the system." As Graebner notes, membership in the Weather
Underground, according to a joke making the rounds, required a credit
check on a prospective member's parents.
Only SLA "Field Marshall," Donald DeFreeze, nom de guerre "Cinque
Mtume," was African American, as was one of their victims. The SLA
gunned down Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland
schools, but the SLA tagged him an uncle Tom and a fascist for
proposing the idea of identification cards. Even other violent
radicals of the time, such as Bernadine Dohrn, married to Obama
confidant and former Weatherman Bill Ayers, saw no sense in the
action. The SLA, however, weren't the only violent infantile
leftists, even in the vaunted Bay Area.
Graebner is familiar with the Black Panthers, but does not get into
their murderous conflicts, internal and otherwise. He also mentions
the New World Liberation Front, connected to at least 70 bombings in
northern California. The NWLF put Dianne Feinstein, then a San
Francisco supervisor, on a death list for "horrible crimes against
the people." The group attempted to bomb Feinstein and shot out the
windows of her vacation home. In response, the future U.S. Senator
from California began packing a .38 in her purse.
Graebner takes note of Jim Jones, whose mass suicide in Guyana just
passed its thirtieth anniversary, but does not show how the Marxist
preacher of the "People's Temple," became a political celebrity in
San Francisco. But it does emerge from Patty's Got a Gun that violent
political cults and terrorism were common in 1970s America. That is
good to keep in mind as the nation enters what shapes as a re-run of
the Carter years, which emboldened America's enemies, at home and
abroad. The SLA is long gone, but Americans have good reason to be
resilient, to transcend a malaise settling over the nation and, when
called upon, to perform acts of heroism.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the
Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood
Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s