Hidden in the Stacks

Thanks for Zoë Carpenter’s article “Librarians vs. the NSA” [May 25]. There is a story behind the American Library Association’s advocacy of privacy issues related to the NSA. The ALA is an organization of 57,000 people with a huge number of subdivisions and a governing council. The most prominent advocate against the USA Patriot Act and NSA abuses and for the protection of whistleblowers has been the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT). Although the ALA has several intellectual-freedom bodies, it has been more timid than the article suggests.

ALA opposition to the Patriot Act has been limited to Section 215, commonly known as the library-records provision. In contrast, the SRRT advocated opposition to the entire act. The SRRT has advocated support for whistleblowers by name, but the only response by the ALA has been general resolutions that articulate nice principles. The SRRT’s initial resolution in support of Edward Snowden was actually passed by the council, then revoked a few days later at the urging of the intellectual-freedom bodies and the council’s legislation committee. Apparently, they thought the resolution would interfere with the ALA’s normal lobbying activities in Congress. It has been very difficult to get the ALA’s Washington office to lobby for a number of successful SRRT-initiated resolutions, including opposition to the Iraq War, torture, and government disinformation.

My point is that mainstream organizational leadership will rarely take bold positions without being pushed by grassroots activists. That point was left out of your story.

Al Kagan
ALA SRRT councillor
champaign, ill.

Wounds of War

When I was in the US Army in Germany on VE Day, they scoffed when I said it would take 50 years to understand fully what was going on right then. The pungent summary by David Nasaw, “The Fruits of World War” [May 25], is an excellent example of what I meant. First come aggressive impulses and the thirst for profiteering in support of the extraordinary potentials of war. Then there is the tooling up for engagement and the conflict itself. But with the termination of war, somehow profits morph into costs. This article is a useful summary of the appalling, lingering, mostly unreported suffering that happened as millions struggled to get back to some semblance of normal life—or at least something more than just survival following the war.
Stan Carnarius
lititz, pa.

Heavy Weather

As a fan of Eric Alterman’s media commentary, I was disappointed by his May 4 column, “Days of Crazy,” which turned a lukewarm review of Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage into an ugly and gratuitous polemic. Although frustrated with Burrough, Alterman is far more irritated with the book’s historical subjects, especially the leaders of the Weather Underground. (Full disclosure: My father was a founding member.) Alterman ponders the knack of “the most extreme, however nutty…to hijack movements purporting to fight for social justice.” His emphasis is on the word “nutty,” just one in a slew of pejoratives that also includes “stupidity,” “ignorance,” “arrogance,” and “lunatics.”

The claim that a small group of extremists hijacked the entire movement is hardly a historical argument. Any serious assessment of the collapse of the New Left must include other pressures, ranging from doctrinal conflicts to FBI infiltration and brutal police harassment. To reduce it to a matter of individual personalities is precisely the type of “he said/she said” reporting that Alterman regularly—and rightly—despises in mainstream political coverage.

Alterman would have benefited from the example of one of his predecessors, a reporter whom he has described as “America’s most prominent independent journalist”—the “late, great I.F. Stone.” Writing just weeks after the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, Stone took a more nuanced position in a remarkable editorial entitled “Where the Fuse on That Dynamite Leads.” No apologist for the Weathermen, Stone—unlike Alterman—could nonetheless empathize with the idea of insurrection: “I must confess,” he wrote, “that I almost feel like throwing rocks through windows myself.”

The point is not to agree with the actions and ideas of the Weather Underground, but only to comprehend the larger context. This is what Stone did, ascribing ultimate guilt to American leaders and their genocidal policies, not to the activists who had been driven to rage—yes, crazy rage—by the results of those policies. “Until the war in Southeast Asia is ended,” Stone concluded, “until the Pentagon is cut down drastically, until priorities are revised to make racial reconciliation and social reconstruction our No. 1 concerns, the dynamite that threatens us sizzles on a fuse that leads straight back to the White House.”

Thai Jones
new york city

Alterman Replies

Here we go again. Mr. Jones is confused about a few things. In the first place, nowhere did I claim that “a small group of extremists hijacked the entire [antiwar] movement.” They did, however, hijack the SDS, and that requires not only understanding—and I explicitly criticized Burrough for leaving out the politics of Vietnam in his analysis—but also condemnation, given their proclivity toward both terrorism and idiocy. Nor did I “reduce it to a matter of individual personalities,” though a thorough analysis would address the question of why some antiwar protesters turned to terrorism while the vast majority did not.

I don’t blame my late friend Izzy for wanting to throw a few rocks over Vietnam. I’m sure I’d have felt the same way. I would have blamed him, however, had he actually thrown those rocks. Instead, he did his best to tell the truth about what he saw his government doing and put his faith—good “Jeffersonian Marxist” that he was—in democracy rather than revolution.

As for the role of the White House, the FBI, etc., I did not write an essay about US policy in Vietnam or official attempts to subvert the antiwar movement, though I did mention both. Rather, I wrote a column about a bunch of left-wing terrorists whose lunatic actions and arguments had the effect of allowing the opponents of the larger antiwar movement to discredit the honest, peaceful, and democratic opposition. For those who are interested in my views on the larger issues, feel free to read my book (based on my PhD dissertation) When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, which delves deeply into the causes and repercussions of the war, both at home and abroad.

Eric Alterman
new york city