AN AGE DEFINES ITSELF by the words it brings to prominence. Idealism, as in youthful idealism, would be such a word; and by setting it against the various kinds of action it describes one might hope to arrive at a clear view of student protest. Another such word is mentioned rather less often: opportunism. It is possible for opportunism, a pretty fixed quality, to insinuate itself into the unstable world of idealism and so transform it into a mess of platitudes. Starting from a purely verbal existence, these platitudes get read back into reality, only with more conviction since the readers are idealistic, and then, somehow, the end result is violence.
In the movies opportunism is the tendency to reach beyond a modest subject matter, dressing up happy domestic truths with some imagined larger significance, thus, through slick editing, to achieve counterfeit social relevance. If an unfaithful rich man gets an abortion for his mistress, you show him watching television; cut to a newsreel of Vietnamese children being napalmed; and suddenly the abortion is something . . . well, something more important. False connections of this kind do tend to destroy people’s minds, though how much so it is hard to say. Of course the ideological decline of New Left politics cannot be blamed on the recent films about student revolt, for these films come late in the day, to a movement in which muddleheads like Mike Klonsky could rise to power long ago and half of SDS be caught in a trance of old-line Stalinism. Still, these Hollywood concoctions will help along the process of disintegration, and in this—how to say it?—they have their function. Show business liberals, normally a cynical bunch, have embraced what is for them a new and burning issue; their effort to “come to grips” is a disaster, bad in politics as in art, and those who care about either ought to be properly ungrateful.