Fat Steve's Blatherings

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Perlstein on Hershberger on Fonda: a Lesson in the Difficulty of Understanding

Summary:

        A book review illustrates how hard it is to truly understand those who you have fundamental disagreements with.

At Length:

        For those of you who don't know him, Rick Perlstein is a left-liberal who writes for the Village Voice, and is the author of a great book about the 1964 Presidential campaign, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus which I reviewed on Amazon and gave five stars.

        The reason a righty like me admires Pearlstein is his fine prose, his thoroughness, his goodwill towards all, and his sheer intellectual integrity.  He disagrees with almost everything Goldwater and his supporters stood for, as far as I can tell, but he writes about them with insight, and doesn't rant about how wrong, wrong, WRONG! they were.  He wants to understand the point of view of those he's writing about, and in the Goldwater book he almost always succeeds.

        I'm on Pearlstein's mailing list, and recently he sent us a review he'd done of a new book, Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon by Mary Hershberger.  The review shows how hard it is to understand people when you disagree with them on fundamentals.

        Perlstein begins:
        You don’t know America if you don’t know the Jane Fonda cult.  Or rather, the anti-Fonda cult.  At places where soldiers or former soldiers congregate, there’ll be stickers of her likeness on the urinals; one is an invitation to symbolic rape: Fonda in her 1980s ‘work-out’ costume, her legs splayed, pudenda at the bulls-eye.  Every night at lights-out midshipmen at the US Naval Academy cry out ‘Goodnight, bitch!’ in her honour.  They’ve learned, Carol Burke writes in her study of military folklore, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane and the High-and-Tight, what you learn at all the service academies: ‘that being a real warrior and hating Jane Fonda are synonymous.’*  When Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built on the Washington Mall, well-organised veterans who criticised it as the ‘gook monument’ – Lin is Chinese-American – were allowed to open their own kiosks nearby.  These became the cult’s temples, the places to buy its sacraments and phylacteries; bumper stickers, for example, saying ‘Jane Fonda: John Kerry with Tits’.  Phyllis Schlafly and Tom Wolfe have both described the memorial wall as a ‘monument to Jane Fonda’.

        Yeah, I'd say that the paragraph gives a pretty good picture of how much Jane Fonda is hated by the U.S. military, and by conservatives like me (although personally, I don't find Fonda important enough to go out of the way to think about, most years.)

        When it comes to the question of why Fonda is so hated, though, Pearlstein just doesn't get it.  He talks a lot about Richard Nixon, about Pentagon propoganda, about urban myths, about loss of support for the war.  If you find the Fonda story interesting, you might care about this stuff.  Even if you don't care about Fonda, you might find it interesting if you care about the Viet Nam war.  But if you want to figure out why Fonda is hated, you should go here, here, and here.  There you'll see Jane in Hanoi, sitting on an anti-aircraft gun used to shoot at U.S. warplanes, having a high old time with the enemy gun crew.  She's even donned a helmet for the occasion, just like the North Vietnamese are wearing.

        Now, I'm not a lawyer, and I have no opinion on whether, legally, Jane Fonda's actions in N. Viet Nam constituted treason.  (Hershberger apparently says no, but lawyer Henry Mark Holzer says yes, her acts met the legal definition).  What I do know is which side I'm on, and when U.S. servicemen are fighting a war, and someone sides with those who would kill them, I say she's a traitor, and I say she can go to Hell.

        The problem Pearlstein has is that he doesn't feel that visceral repugnance.  So how do I communicate it?  Let me try this:
        On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers—a 21-year-old black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were murdered near Philadelphia, in Nashoba County, Mississippi.  They had been working to register black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and had gone to investigate the burning of a black church.  They were arrested by the police on trumped-up charges, imprisoned for several hours, and then released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who beat and murdered them.  It was later proven in court that a conspiracy existed between members of Neshoba County's law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan to kill them.

        The FBI arrested 18 men in October 1964, but state prosecutors refused to try the case, claiming lack of evidence.  The federal government then stepped in, and the FBI arrested 18 in connection with the killings.  In 1967, seven men were convicted on federal conspiracy charges and given sentences of three to ten years, but none served more than six.  No one was tried on the charge or murder.  The contemptible words of the presiding federal judge, William Cox, give an indication of Mississippi's version of justice at the time: "They killed one ni---r, one Jew, and a white man.  I gave them all what I thought they deserved."

        Now, the way Pearlstine probably feels about the Mississippi cops and state prosecutors, Judge Cox, and the Klansmen is the way we feel on the right feel about Fonda.  In fact, we'd mostly say they're all morally about equal.  I'm not surprised that myths have grown up around Fonda, but the undisputed truth is enough to condemn her in my eyes, the eyes of conservatives, and the eyes of the military.

        And Pearlstein, as I said, tries hard to understand right wingers.  Many on the left (most? almost all?) don't make any effort at all.  I don't know if Pearlstein and I will ever see eye to eye on many political issues, but the difficulty of communication this one illustrates is daunting.

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