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Generation on Fire: Voices of Protest From the 1960s: An Oral History (review)

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Abstract

Jeff Kisseloff was an adolescent in the late 1960s, too young to take a direct part in the great protests against segregation and the Vietnam War, but old enough to be aware of what was going on. He admired the activists slightly older than he who "had what I didn't have—the courage to stand up and be heard, to say no to the things that were wrong" (3), and he now offers his book as "a tribute to those Americans who stood up and said no to war, greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, pollution, censorship, lame music, and bad haircuts" (1). Kisseloff's hero worship animates his interviews, but it also clouds his perspective. Kisseloff's awe for the protesters of the 1960s led him to track down participants in a variety of causes, from civil rights and the antiwar movement to feminism, gay rights, and the underground press. Some prominent activists, such as Bernard LaFayette and Daniel Berrigan, share space with lesser-known figures. The book consists of fifteen interviews, each introduced with a brief essay about the narrator's past and present conditions. They are presented as polished narratives, without the interviewer's questions or any explanation of how they were edited. In his acknowledgments, Kisseloff notes that he conducted several more interviews not printed in the book, but he does not indicate if recordings or transcripts are available to researchers. The stories that do appear are articulate and vivid, offering details that give a sense of just how much was at stake personally for each of these activists. Civil rights organizer Bob Zellner explains what it feels like to have an irate segregationist try to pry out your eyeball. Elsa Marley Skylark, a founder of a California commune, tells of the helpless hunger of a group of city-bred hippies in a new, rural home. Their first winter they ate newborn puppies; the second year they depended on salmon handouts from neighboring Indians. And in a heartbreaking joint interview, the mother and boyfriend of Allison Krause, killed at Kent State, describe not only the shock of her death but also the abuse they endured at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others who called Krause a traitor whose death was deserved. Kisseloff is clearly sympathetic with his narrators, all of whom were in some part of the political left. It seems not to have occurred to him that conservatives of the era also fought for what they believed was right, and his book lacks the broader perspective of Rebecca Klatch's A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s (1999) or Christian Appy's Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), both of which include interviews with activists on opposite sides in the 1960s. Kisseloff missed the chance to draw parallels between clashing worldviews. A more serious problem with Kisseloff's reverence is that it kept him from challenging the people he did choose. Though Kisseloff does not print his questions, the responses indicate that they were likely softballs, and his narrators, while often humble, are rarely self-critical. As a result, many interviews include rehearsed anecdotes or conclusions that beg for interrogation. In particular, Kisseloff and his narrators too often assume that the protests achieved something more than annoying a handful of censors, jailers, and draft board members. Peter Berg, a member of the Diggers, boasts of a street-theater routine that tied up twenty blocks of traffic in San Francisco and then concludes that such events made America a more open society. That may be so, but there is not much evidence here to persuade a skeptic. Only occasionally does a narrator offer doubts, as when Skylark admits that while she "played revolution" in California, real Maoists in China were torturing and killing (163). The great exception to this rule, and the standout interview in the book, is the conversation with Lee Weiner, one of the lesser-known members of the Chicago Eight. Typically, Kisseloff regards him with starstruck wonder, describing him as "the Energizer bunny on atomic power" and "warm and funny and still magnetic" (83). But Weiner himself is more reflective, conceding that...

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