Commentary Magazine


The Question of Repression

A few weeks ago, the News of the Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times, showcase for protests, proclamations, declarations, denunciations, affirmations, and appeals for money, carried a full-page advertisement headed: “It’s 11:59 P.M.” The ad began:

“When the Nazis attacked the Jews,” said Pastor Martin Niemoeller, “I remained silent because I was not Jewish.”

When they destroyed the Communists, the Social Democrats, the Catholics—the good pastor continued his silence.

Finally, when he knew he had to speak up—it Was too late.

There was no one left.

Pastor Niemoeller’s society ran amok.

Can it happen again?

The lengthy message did not leave that question hanging. “It,” we were notified, is already happening here: “Big Brother is making his list. And you’re on it.” In order to stop the clock at 11:59, readers were asked to join in various emergency actions or simply to send a check to the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

Now, the practiced skimmer of Section 4 skipped from the headline to the coupon at the bottom of the page, and so spared himself the lament and exhortation in between. It has been apparent since the 1969 inception of the New Mobe—among whose “coordinators” one finds Rennie Davis and David Dellinger, two of the heroes of Chicago—that its main business has not been to protest against the war, as its name might suggest, but to engage the sympathies of the war’s opponents for a broad-spectrum attack on American society: a sensible strategy for a marginal group onto a popular cause. The New Mobe exists in order to organize demonstrations; between demonstrations it vanishes. Its members, who occupy positions on the fringes of the nation’s political life, tend to scorn the political process in general and liberals in particular; they do their thing in the streets. That they should now be reading the time at 11:59 P.M. is not astonishing. For them it has always been 11:59 P.M. It always will be.

But the one-minute-to-midnight melody has lately been taken up by persons outside the New Mobe cabal. Like some low-down number that makes it from the rock joints into the drawing rooms, the tune is in the air. One hears it wherever fashionable folk gather. In his recently published book1 on the transfer of power in the Justice Department from Ramsey Clark to John Mitchell—first printed not in the New York Review of Books, but in the New Yorker—Richard Harris leaves us with the warning: “When the people finally awaken, they may find their freedoms gone, because the abandonment of the rule of law must bring on tyranny.” Cocktail-party conversation in liberal circles starts from the understanding that those who are out to get us are well along in the process, and proceeds to further calamities.

Unhappily, the events that have brought so many people to this state of alarm are real enough—and they are not inconsequential. Some are tragic; all are troubling. The question that bears more attention than it has received is whether these events force one to the conclusion that the people are asleep, that our freedoms are going, that the rule of law is being abandoned, that tyranny is in the wings.

Here are the main counts in the indictment:

  • The Black Panthers have been victims of murderous police assaults, and have been marked down in many places for continuous harassment. They have been arrested on cooked-up charges, and have been treated with gross prejudice by the courts.
  • Students have been killed at Kent State and at Jackson State. On other campuses, they have been gassed and beaten.
  • The government has cracked down on the Resistance. The trials of Dr. Spock, et al. and of the Chicago Seven, of dubious legality to begin with, were conducted in vindictive fashion. Sentences handed out to draft protesters and evaders seem to be growing more severe.
  • The administration’s proposals for dealing with crime include such innovations as “preventive detention” of certain defendants for the period between arrest and trial, and permission for police to bust into suspect premises, in quest of narcotics, without knocking. In addition, the Justice Department is not averse to using wiretapping on a broad scale in cases involving organized crime, the national security, and who knows what else.
  • The Vice President has been going up and down the land delivering his colorful attacks on administration critics, and the President personally embraced a delegate from New York’s construction workers after they ran wild on the streets of the city.

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Those are the five main charges. (I have omitted the rumor that Mr. Nixon is planning to call off the 1972 elections.) Each of the charges is serious. Even if true as stated, do they cumulatively represent a diminution of the right to dissent? Do they portend curtailment of our freedoms? To questions like these, a combination of temperament and political predilection more often than not provides the answer. We all tend to believe what we find most congenial, and a remarkable number of people enjoy pretending that they are being oppressed. Since the beginnings of the country, Presidents have been charged by their opponents with tyrannical tendencies. (Contemporary New Left scholars appear to be divided on the issue of whether America has always been the most vicious of nations, or only since 1945 or 1965 or yesterday.) Citizens in their middle years can still remember the accusations of dictatorship directed at Mr. Roosevelt from the Right. During Joe McCarthy’s brief run, the air was clogged with complaints that one could no longer complain freely, and that period is still talked about as though the Bill of Rights had been suspended.

It is a stimulating conceit to think of oneself as holding the thin line against oppression—“Can we stop 1984?”—and today’s publicists have no trouble in adding to the free-floating angst that clouds the American landscape in the best of times. It’s part of the ecology problem. The favored tactic, as evidenced by the New Mobe’s recent summons to hysteria, is to lump events together for maximum impact, leaving to others the work of sorting them out, of going over each charge to determine whether indeed there is a pattern of concerted repression here that warrants comparison with Germany in the 1930’s or—although this comparison is not made within New Mobe precincts—China in the 1970’s.

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The Panthers. The Panthers burst upon the public consciousness most dramatically. In paramilitary garb and dark glasses (shades of the Tonton Macoutes?), with much talk of guns, and real guns too. Insofar as they possessed a program in their original incarnation, it was concealed within their slogans, among the most popular of which was “Off the pig!”—Kill the cops! At their meetings, it was an incantation. It was taught to small children. Policemen, not famous for their patience with tough young blacks, took offense. The Panthers wanted it understood, by other blacks as well as by whites, that they were dangerous, and the police (and judges too) were more than willing to believe it. Indeed, they would have been derelict had they believed anything else. They lacked that finer sensibility which enabled some Jews to file the anti-Semitic utterances of the Panthers under Black Rage and contribute to their cause. The cops were merely angry. There were street-corner encounters, sniping incidents or alleged sniping incidents, and arrests for various plots. There were shoot-outs. The anger increased, and then came the bloody reaction.

This capsule account is not intended to gloss over the actions of the police in Chicago and elsewhere who participated in the anti-Panther vendetta of 1969. They are culpable, and it is a disgrace that they have not been brought to justice. The circumstances leading up to the assaults on Panthers, however, are relevant to the argument that they are similar to the attacks on Communists in Germany in the 1930’s. There is scant resemblance. Far from being a threat of any dimensions to the regime in Washington, the Panthers’ political strength is negligible. They brought on attacks not by their politics but by their pose. Although one would not expect to find much enthusiasm among policemen for the class-struggle, Third-World, honky-baiting goulash that passes as a Panther program, the police reacted to the Panthers less as menacing revolutionists than simply as ghetto toughs or smart-aleck niggers. There is no evidence, except perhaps in Chicago, that the raids were planned at any level higher than a city police department. Most seem to have been fairly spontaneous cases of spleen-venting—with perhaps discreet encouragement from the FBI. The suggestion that having finished with the Panthers, “they” are ready to take on the Reform Democrats requires a New Mobe order of imagination.

The police forays have not gone unprotested. The Panthers have been defended most vigorously, and not without success. (It ought to be pointed out, I suppose, that the arrest of a Panther is not of itself necessarily an act of police oppression; nor is the conviction of a Panther for some crime per se an act of injustice.) The police have not had a good press. Even in Chicago, with the help of the Tribune, they were unable to convince anybody of their story. The nation has been given a lesson as to the value of police testimony regarding such unpopular defendants—and that should have an inhibiting effect on vigilante cops. The investigation continues. The courts in New York and New Haven seem to be giving Panther defendants a fairer shake than they had at first (and the defendants are better behaved). What has this to do with Hitler Germany?

As for the Panthers themselves, rather than being suppressed, they may have an interesting future. It seems to have dawned on the brightest of them that there is not much that they can do for their people in Algiers or in jail or in the grave. Within their ranks, along with the bluff and bluster, are youths of courage and commitment, and some at least appear to be playing down the muscle-flexing while they try to make contact with sympathetic whites and to work out programs for the ghettos. It may be only a matter of tactics, but they don’t yell about “pigs” quite so much any more in public—and that ought to have a calming influence on all parties.

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The Campuses. What combination of panic, hate, incompetence, and Southern tradition resulted in the killings at Jackson State and Kent State, we cannot hope to know. One can only join in the grief and the anger at the spectacle of young Americans shooting down young Americans at their places of learning. But those who now cry “Repression!” after having been cheerleaders to every student excess, no matter how destructive to their schools and how dangerous to the students themselves, owe the young and the rest of us an accounting.

Sorting out events and allocating responsibility for college disruptions is not easy. Was the administration too tough or was it too soft? Were the police or the National Guard called in unnecessarily? Did they seek out opportunities for brutality? Were they provoked beyond endurance? Did they respond like animals? The answer usually seems to be Yes and No. Our men in uniform have shown an unhealthy relish in beating students, and there is not much doubt as to who was responsible for the spring tragedies. But the story always begins before police or guardsmen are called in.

The strategy of campus radicals, of the Movement, has worked. For obvious reasons, our campuses—anti-war, anti-Nixon, anti-racist, anti-pollution—are most inviting sites for protest. That, after all, is where the young are, home ground; there, angry at the advertised failures of their elders’ society, attuned to the impulses of their coevals, they can vent their frustrations in generational solidarity and make their strength felt. Relying upon this volatile force, the radicals make a demand. If the administration concedes, the demand is escalated. When the administration resists, the protest is escalated. When police are called in, foreign troops, hundreds of students (along with some faculty) can be counted on to rally to their cadre of militant fellows, and “radicalization” takes place.

What happens to the university in this process? In the program of the radical strategists, the university is but an arm of a diseased society. Let it wither. They seek not peace but power; not scholarship but politicization, sometimes called “relevance.” Turgenev recognized them—those students of chemistry who “cannot distinguish oxygen from hydrogen, but are brimming over with destructive criticism and self-conceit.” Their demands are in fact non-negotiable because they win either way—and because their interests are elsewhere. The tactic of confrontation is purposefully designed to discredit the university. Repression is the objective. To the extent that a crisis passes without violence, to that extent the militants have failed. As soon as police or guardsmen set foot on campus, the militants have won a partial victory at least. In Isla Vista, California, near the campus at Santa Barbara, students keep setting fire to a bank—“Isla Vista belongs to the people!”; the police move in and club everybody in sight. A famous victory. There are, of course, other victors—the most reactionary elements on every level of political power. (A Gallup Poll taken after the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State found that favorable opinion toward students had touched a new low.) The immediate losers are those who value a free university—and the youths who get in the way of the billy clubs and guns.

As Alexander Bickel recently pointed out in an article on how the New Haven Panther trial was used as a pretext to disrupt classes at Yale,2 there have indeed been instances of repression at our universities—doors barred, offices wrecked, classrooms invaded, fires set, teachers and administrators and students pushed around, speakers hooted down—and they have been the work not of the reactionary Reagan or the high-spirited Hayakawa, but of the Movement. Have those who now warn us that we resemble Nazi Germany spoken out against such strong-arm tactics? As I write this, there appears a report in my local newspaper that Professor Douglas Dowd of Cornell, a co-chairman of last November’s New Mobe rally in Washington, speaking to Westchester Women for Peace about students who engage in violence, said, “God bless them. I will not join them, but God bless them.”

Must the nation endure another Kent State or Jackson State? Must the universities become seasonal bedlams in the name of protest against conditions which they did not create and cannot cure? Will there be more police called to campuses and more guardsmen and more blood? What alternative may we look for, as long as the strategy of radicalization seems to work? Of one thing we can be certain: when other students are injured or killed, those who give their blessing to violence as long as it originates on the Left will be early and loud with their cries of “Repression!”

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The Trials. The “conspiracy” statutes under which Dr. Spock, et al, and the Chicago Seven were indicted and prosecuted are flagrantly open to abuse by officialdom. The trials were not models of judicial procedure, and were scarcely designed to bolster the right to dissent. It does not strain hyperbole to call them, as Jessica Mitford does in her book, The Trial of Dr. Spock,3 “political persecutions.” But is Miss Mitford being judicious when she goes further to write of this as “an era in which the courts are increasingly used by government to silence the discordant voices of protest”? Are the courts being so used? Have the voices of protest in fact been silenced, or even noticeably subdued?

Although the reversal by a higher court of several of the convictions in the Spock case has been criticized for its narrowness, for not dealing with the larger issue of “conspiracy,” the defendants did win; none of them has gone to jail, and the prosecution has lost interest. For that Miss Mitford must surely be grateful. Evidently, the John Birch Society is right; our courts do still uphold the rights of objectionable characters. The Chicago case is on appeal, and perhaps it is not too much to hope that a higher court will find grounds for reversal in that exhibition.

But just as these trials may be seen as political cases, so Miss Mitford’s reference to “the discordant voices of protest” that are allegedly being silenced is a political argument, and a popular one, especially for journalists tempted to celebrate their subject out of all proportion. The argument, which in its crudest exposition plays hard on the fate of the Communists in Nazi Germany, is that protest is indivisible. Dr. Spock and his co-defendants are not to be thought of as persons who, for better or worse, publicly and proudly advised young men to scorn the draft laws, but as “protesters.” The defendants in Chicago must not be thought of as men who incited people to violence, but as “protesters.” The picture presented is that all protesters against the war are in the deepest sense together against a repressive state, that we are all in the same boat with Dr. Spock and David Dellinger, that they stand for the rest of us. “The handwriting is on the wall in letters of fire,” we are notified by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, an Old Left component of the New Left. “If we do not read its meaning fully and wisely, and unite in defense of the immediate and chief victims of the terror, we will ourselves become victims of the fire.” Since the Chicago trial, the defendants and their leading attorney, William Kunstler, have carried their campaign to the university and suburban circuit and been cheered for it. Right on! They are using their case as they have from the beginning, as a political weapon. (The Panthers are doing much the same thing. Miss Mitford includes those accused of involvement in bombing and murder conspiracies among her “discordant voices of protest.” Discordant to a fault.)

In situations of this sort, the liberally-inclined citizen is always under pressure to defend more than he feels comfortable defending, or less than he knows he ought to defend. On one side stands the prosecution, trusting that our antipathy to Abbie Hoffman will enable us to blink away violations of his rights. On the other are Kunstler & Co., advising us that our fate is inextricably intertwined with theirs, that their cause is ours. There is no reason why anyone need succumb to either of these lures. It is possible to defend the rights of the accused, yet know exactly what and who it is we are defending and the points at which our beliefs diverge.

Has there in fact been any chilling of dissent as a result of these trials? The Chicago affair, brought to us by Mayor Daley in conjunction with Attorney General Mitchell, has already proved an embarrassment to the government (though public opinion undoubtedly remains on their side), and among the dozen or so books that will be coming out on the subject this fall, I find not one that promises to be anything but thoroughly condemnatory of the prosecution. (Spiro Agnew will have no trouble making a prima facie case that New York’s publishing industry is engaged in a conspiracy against Judge Hoffman.) The defendants have not been deterred from doing their stimulating things on campuses and elsewhere. Protest has accelerated since the Chicago trial, partly because of it. Is there any citizen who really fears to speak his mind on Vietnam or anything else as a result of these trials?

As to the harsh treatment being accorded draft resisters around the country, one cannot fail to note the stink of vindictiveness in some of the comments from the bench—sour age getting back at disrespectful youth. (The great majority of draft evaders, as distinguished from resisters, far from being harshly punished, simply get away with it.) The young men who choose prison over war command respect and support—but it is a dubious type of support which, with abusive language and incitements to adventurism, rouses the nation against them. In the ongoing revision of the draft laws, efforts should be made to widen the provisions for conscientious objection (continuing along the road recently taken by the Supreme Court)—and it is not too early to begin thinking about amnesty. Any move toward more generous treatment for the young draft resisters will require a great change in the nation’s emotions, a great lessening of existing fears and animosites. This change is not likely to be brought closer by a political tactic that presents Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts as symbols of protesters against the war.

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Crime Legislation. The administration’s anti-crime program contains no balm for civil liberties, and Richard Harris has done a service in analyzing it and helping to bring it to the public attention. There are not many policemen to whom one would lightly entrust the power to keep suspects in jail without a trial or to break into a home without a warrant, and Attorney General Mitchell has not earned membership in that minuscule group. Yet when Harris suggests that these proposals are being foisted upon us while we sleep, he is merely indulging in a convention of the exposé.

The reason that crime legislation will pass, probably in a form objectionable to civil libertarians, is not that the population is asleep, but that many people are not sleeping so soundly as they once did, owing to muggings and burglaries in their neighborhoods. Since the Left has shown itself incapable of making an approach to the problem, beyond the excellent observation that crime is a symptom of social pathology and will no longer bother us when we have gotten to the root of things, the Right has been free to make political capital. Harris understands this, yet he takes a familiarly wavering line here: no matter how frightened city dwellers may be, crime is not, statistically speaking, all that great a problem; anyway, most offenses are committed against black people; anyway, Ramsey Clark had splendid plans for improving the quality of police forces; anyway, the Nixon administration has not come up with its promised solutions; and so forth. On the Left, it has been considered a form of indecency, a betrayal of the black underclass, to acknowledge that indeed people are frightened, with cause, and to address oneself to the problem of getting criminals off the streets before the millennium. Have not the Panthers taught us that every conviction of a black man is a demonstration of racism, and that every black prisoner is a political prisoner? Paralyzed by inhibitions, the Left has watched as the issue of Law and Order was taken up lovingly by the unfastidious company of Nixon-Mitchell.

Far from being rammed through Congress, however, the crime bills have come up against significant opposition, within the Capitol and without. The most troubling provisions, like preventive detention, are being especially scrutinized and will not become law without clear restrictions on the circumstances under which they can be used. When they do become law, in whatever form, their operation will assuredly still bear scrutiny, and test cases will certainly reach the courts. None of this should be taken as an endorsement of the proposals—but we ought to do what we can to ease the minds of persons who fear that they will be tossed into solitary for having signed a petition. The nation’s freedoms are not in the state of jeopardy that Harris seems to think they are—or needs to think they are, given a certain political set.

Harris recognizes that the anti-crime proposals are part of the administration’s electoral strategy, designed to appeal to Middle America. Indeed, that is one of the heaviest charges in his case against the Justice Department. But he obscures the meaning of this by leaving politics for theology. In his book the estimable Ramsey Clark becomes a paragon; John Mitchell is the Spirit of Darkness. Harris’s treatment of their respective chief executives takes the form of plastering over rough reality. When scourging John Mitchell, he makes certain that a goodly share of the blows fall on President Nixon. Fair enough. Yet he saturates Ramsey Clark with praise while taking care not to leave the impression that Clark owed much to Lyndon Johnson—who, after all, did appoint the man and could have gotten rid of him at any moment. What accounts for this want of even-handedness in an experienced Washington journalist? Well, for one thing, close identification with Johnson the detestable could scarcely improve Clark’s political prospects. Moreover, to suggest that Johnson possessed and exercised certain virtues would run counter to the acceptable mythology of the period. Lyndon Johnson, every little child knows, was a beast and an ogre, and if his administration showed a concern for civil rights or civil liberties, then obviously we must look elsewhere for the reason.

The heresy that Johnson was not an ogre but a man and a politician of unusual complexity, with diverse strengths and weaknesses, carries implications; it suggests that our present condition cannot be treated in terms appropriate to theology. Perhaps, for all the frailty of political tags, it does still make a difference whether we elect a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Perhaps—may one utter the thought?—Hubert Humphrey might have made a better President than Richard Nixon. Perhaps the wiretapping power might better be entrusted to an Attorney General under Johnson or Humphrey than to John Mitchell. Perhaps, in a phrase, the country might be in better hands today if poor Humphrey had won. Such notions constitute an affront to those guardians of their own virtue who would not compromise themselves in 1968 to the extent of voting against Richard Nixon, and instructed young voters that the election did not matter but that their delicacy did. Now they are able to beat their breasts over the dreadful pass to which Nixon is bringing us. For the purposes of the movers of the New Mobe, there can be no better President than Richard Nixon and no better Attorney General than John Mitchell.

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Agnew and the Hardhats. The adventures of Spiro Agnew are of a piece with the administration’s electoral strategy. The Nixon who made his early way to power at the expense of Communists is not above holding onto his power at the expense of students or the Eastern Establishment. To charge the Vice President with McCarthyism (what would the frenetic Left do without that word?) is to undervalue the calculation behind the latest exercise in official demagogy. We are witnessing a display of politicking at a rudimentary, not to say base, level. It has its dangers, for it may get out of control; but if this is the best that Nixon & Co. can do in the way of planned repression, then we have little to worry about. The Vice President seems incapable even of cowing television executives, and they are cowed to begin with.

True, Agnew has worked hard to whistle up Middle America’s hatred of the Youth Culture—the drugs, the dress, the hair, the sex, the obscenity, and all the rest of it, the politics thrown in almost as an afterthought—but he must share credit for the rampages of construction workers with Weathermen and Yippies and that part of the Movement which has adopted the strategy of confrontation. If the streets do belong to the people, then they belong to hardhats as well as to long-hairs; and if the former tend to be quicker with their fists than with their tongues, well, they are only doing their thing. “‘Confrontation politics’ is a dangerous game,” Irving Howe warned in 1968, when the New Left’s fascination with provocation and violence had already become manifest. Now the hardhats have had their taste of blood, and if the streets of our cities must become political arenas, those gladiators are certain to be out again.

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Every one of the counts in the indictment of “repression” in America bears watching. The work of guarding civil liberties has always been largely a kind of early warning system, and nothing I have written here is meant to distract watchers from their job, to discourage the legal defense of Panthers, or to reduce opposition to the crime bills. But the evidence simply does not support the one-minute-to-midnight mentality. The evidence does not add up to the conclusion, offered over the signatures of Jane Fonda, Benjamin Spock, M.D., and Julian Bond in a solicitation for the Civil Liberties Legal Defense Fund, that we are in the midst of a “stampede to kill dissent and thwart justice,” that “all you have to do is work for change and your personal freedom may be in jeopardy.” One might find firmer ground for such a charge in other periods—say, the post-World-War-I era; and one might, without difficulty, make a far stronger case that never have we enjoyed so much freedom in so many areas—from books and films to “life styles.” In Hollywood, writers who were blacklisted as Communists in the 1950’s are again prospering. Dalton Trumbo, who, in 1950, after a court of appeals upheld his conviction for refusing to answer questions before the Committee on Un-American Activities, notified the nation that “all effective communication upon any important subject” had thereby become “the legitimate object of government regulation,” has bridged the generation gap. Now he tells us, “Next time, it’ll be something deadlier. If they can just find one scapegoat. After all, what are they going to do if this war goes on for three or four more years? They’ve got to smother dissent.”

In the churches, in the army, in the corporations, even in Congress, dissent is in fact very much alive—sometimes fruitful, sometimes merely fitful, yet growing and spreading. The word “repression” is being used, very loosely, to cover a nervous society’s confused reaction to the breakdown of old rules. But ideologues rarely make concessions to reality. The militants, busy at their game of radicalization, thrive on panic. The weakness of the Left today in the face of Nixon-Mitchell-Agnew has been laid to the complicity of liberals in the Vietnamese adventure and their floundering as Lyndon Johnson expanded the war. All right. But the present weakness is also tied to the success of the Movement in taking over stage center, a remarkable accomplishment considering the sparsity of their numbers and the paucity of their ideas, a tribute to the distracted times. Dissent has, in the worried public mind, come to be identified with the shrillest, most intemperate, kookiest people, a situation which the programmed Agnew has not failed to play upon.

The Movement has no future within politics. Its only hope of survival lies in hysteria and despair. The stagey William Kunstler goes here and there warning students against being diverted by electoral politics. Diverted from what? “You must learn to fight in the streets, learn to revolt, learn to shoot guns.” Out of self-dramatization, self-indulgence, honest neurosis, idealism, and careful policy, the Movement’s leaders have taken as their task the generating of passion, keeping the campuses and the streets in turmoil, exciting provocations and retaliation, recruiting bodies for new forays, and making middle-aged contributors feel young again. Such is the sum and substance of their policy. For if America is not the sink of violence and injustice that they proclaim, what need is there of them? Insofar as there is hope for improvement, there is no hope for their cause. Within the Movement are men and women who have taken great personal risk. But the greatest risk they run endangers the entire nation.

That part of the Left which has not entirely given up on our institutions will carry on its battles in the legislatures, the courts, the press. A humdrum prospect, and easily derided, for in such encounters one wins and loses, and no victory is final and no loss signals the end. But if the battle should indeed pour out into the streets, then we will learn what repression is; then we may be certain of a loss that will realize the most cherished nightmares of the apocalypticians of the New Left.

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Footnotes

1 Justice, Dutton, 268 pp., $6.95.

2 New Republic, June 13, 1970.

3 Reviewed in COMMENTARY, December 1969, by Leon Friedman.

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