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Not everything memorable has found its way into David Talbot’s catchy San Francisco retrospective.
of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City
By David Talbot
(Free Press, 452 Pages, $28)
ONE OF MY FAVORITE STORIES from the late 1960s, not told here by David Talbot, is set on the campus of San Francisco State College, then suffering from the longest student/faculty strike in U.S. history and besieged by various radical groups, some of them armed.
The hero of that story, also not mentioned by Talbot, is Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, an internationally respected semanticist (later a U.S. senator), named acting president of the college by desperate trustees. Hayakawa had made a simple promise: He’d restore order to the campus, so that students and their parents would get the educations they were paying for.
In a famous scene once shown coast to coast but ignored by Talbot, a band of thugs, the usual contingent of Bay Area militants and a good sprinkling of SF State faculty, milled around a truck parked at the college entrance. On the body of the truck they’d set up a sound system, into which various speakers shouted their demands.
Then Hayakawa appeared, just as he said he would, pushing briskly through the demonstrators, a small man, 62 years old and 150 pounds at the most. He climbed up on the truck, knocked several militants aside, and disconnected the wires of the sound equipment.
He brushed his hands, climbed off the truck, shouted back good-naturedly at several militants who’d shouted at him, told them all to get back to their studies, and returned through the crowd to his office.
Later he would blame much of the campus unrest on the faculty, especially members of the English department. During one demonstration, the writer Kay Boyle shouted at Hayakawa, “You are a fascist.” “Kay Boyle,” he shouted back, “you are a fool.”
Many of the problems on campus, he said, could be blamed on “inflamed literary imaginations.”
And that, in a nutshell, is one of the problems with David Talbot’s book, an amalgam of colorful retrospective reporting on the plague years of the late 1960s to the early 1980s that touches on the Manson family, the Symbionese Liberation Army and kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the Zodiac murders, Jim Jones and the mass suicides, the murder of Harvey Milk, race riots, AIDS, the San Francisco 49ers’ championship year-all rendered in vivid if sometimes overwrought prose, and informed by a somewhat jarring and at times incongruous advocacy for causes that one suspects have little place in the author’s real life.
Talbot, founder of Salon and author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, a must-read for leftist conspiracy theorists, brings to his chronicle a literary imagination shaped and informed by that curious California blend of old hard-left mythology that still lives on in places like Hollywood and Los Angeles, where he grew up and where Stalinist heroes and heroines are still honored; and San Francisco, where he always wanted to live, with its curious blend of radical left politics, celebration of the bohemian life, and dogmatic insistence on the rightness and desirability of all things once considered perverse-a way of life that in the age of Stalin would have led to a one-way ticket to Siberia. There are no drag queens in Soviet poster art.
Talbot’s view is reflected in the figures from the past he celebrates as well as those, in addition to S.I. Hayakawa, he chooses to omit. Among his heroes are radical San Francisco lawyer Vincent Hallinan and the black newswoman Charlotta Bass, who ran in 1952 for president and vice president on the ticket of the Progressive Party, whose first candidate in 1948 had been Henry Wallace, viewed by many as a Stalinist dupe. By the time Hallinan and Bass ran, the Progressive Party was in great part controlled by the Communist Party USA, which in 1952 was still taken seriously in Moscow and funded by the Comintern.
Other heroes mentioned: W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, both winners of the Stalin Peace Prize and welcome in Moscow. Du Bois, especially, was a strong and eloquent defender of Stalin to the end. Harry Bridges, the wharf rat-tough Australian Communist and longshoreman, gets space here, but there is no mention of Eric Hoffer-also a longshoreman-the self-taught philosopher and elegant essayist whose essentially conservative writings captured the unique point of view of the non-Marxist working man. There’s also much about Allen Ginsberg and praise for the Beats, but nothing about the chief Beat, Jack Kerouac, who loathed leftists, both old and new.
During the years of Beats’ influence and of their hippie successors, San Francisco billed itself as the City of Love. But that dreamy softness was replaced by a hardness, drug-induced and often violent, with the flower children making easy prey for a new breed of predators.
INEVITABLY, THIS HARDENING involved race. Expectations had been raised, often unrealistically, along with the liberal mindset that requires us to believe not only that black is beautiful, but also accept that it’s better. Also, especially among academic white liberals, there was an added element of fear.
As Senator Hayakawa put it, “White liberals, in their hunger for humiliation, will take as revealed truth anything an angry black man says.”
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