Bonnie And Clyde Was The Most Important Text Of The New Left”

Or, maybe they just thought Faye Dunaway looked smokin’ hot brandishing a .38 snubnose in her cashmere sweater and beret.

Making the rounds to promote his new book Nixonland, Rick Perlstein tells Reason:

reason: You like to mix cultural history with political history. Bonnie and Clyde is one of the central texts in the book.

Perlstein: My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys–you cannot underestimate how strange and fresh that was.

The 1967 release of the movie certainly coincides with the period where traditional liberalism and the far left began to merge; not coincidentally, this was also the period where traditional morality began to break down. The next year would be 1968, a year the left is alternately trying to recreate, or is permanently trapped in, or both. Mick Jagger’s lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” called the philosophy of the day “heads is tails”, and whereas liberals once worshiped science and progress, they soon found themselves admiring the Black Panthers and William Ayers’ Weatherman group, and tossing both modernism and hope for the future under the bus.

1968 was also the year that, only a few months before his death at the hands of a young radical, Bobby Kennedy told a college audience:

“I am also glad to come to the home state of another great Kansan, who wrote, ‘If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vision and vigor then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.'”

Orrin Judd reviews Perlstein’s book here, and makes a great observation, which dovetails perfectly into Perlstein’s Bonnie & Clyde reference and the breakdown of the mid-1960s in general:

I’m only in the early stages of reading Friend Perlstein’s book but am struck by a potentially fatal flaw in his thesis that’s implied in the review above. With his expected honesty, Mr. Perlstein initially identifies Nixonland as the sort of Red America that the Adlai Stevenson eggheads found themselves stuck in ad unable to comprehend in the 50s. That this part of the metaphor endures–is indeed a seemingly innate part of the culture–is reflected not just in his own essays about contemporary politics but in books by his friends and fellow Brights, like Thomas Frank’s unintentionally hilarious, What’s the Matter with Kansas.

On the other hand, the sort of violent divisiveness that he associates with Nixonland rather conspicuously developed at the exact time that Richard Nixon was not a central part of the national political scene. Inner-city riots, assassinations, student demonstrations, radical Left terrorism–all of these social plagues arose during the Johnson/Great Society years, the pinnacle of the Left’s ascendancy. Even the initial violent reactions were led by Democrats–like LBJ sending federal troops into Detroit or Mayor Daley breaking up protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention. If anything, as Mr. Douthat suggests above, the return of Richard Nixon –a liberal Republican–in 1968 might be seen as an attempt by American voters to restore the social calm and consensus of earlier eras. Richard Nixon, at least in his final incarnation, should probably be considered an effect of the social breakdown of the Liberal 60s, rather than a cause of anything much.

As president, Nixon was no conservative, particularly in his domestic governance, which much more of an extension of LBJ than any sort of warm up act for the Gipper. (And Nixon’s poor handling of the economy directly paved the way for the disastrous Carter years, which spawned the economic trainwreck that Reagan and Paul Volker would miraculously right.) But to the America of 1968 that didn’t think that Bonnie & Clyde “were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys”, no wonder both Nixon’s association with the relative calm of the Eisenhower years (at least in comparison with what was to come afterwards), and his promise of law and order sounded remarkably appealing. In that sense, perhaps Nixon’s entirely unplanned timeout from the national scene during the mid-1960s wound up serving him remarkably well.

(Originally posted at Ed; Perlstein quote found appropriately enough here.)

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