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That Seventies Show 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 and 1940s.


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