“American Anarchist”: a revolutionary’s remorse documentary on Netflix
WASHINGTON, June 27, 2017 — It was 1971 and the young, Che Guevara-looking urban-revolutionary and author, William Powell, was receiving anonymous death threats in the mail.
He had clearly underestimated the controversy his new book would provoke.
However, Powell did not call police to report the threats. Instead, he bought a gun.
After all, he had written,
“The only real justice is that which the individual creates for himself, and the individual is helpless without a gun. This may sound like the dogma expounded by radical right-wing groups like the Minutemen, it is.”
As Powell told his interviewer,
“I thought it would be ironic for the author of ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’ to go to the police with the death threats. So, no, I didn’t go to the police.”
This is just one of many interesting and painfully awkward moments in the documentary “American Anarchist,” now streaming on Netflix.
Living in the quaint village of Massat, nestled in the French Pyrennees, Powell tells of his political awakening as a young man marching in the anti-war protests of the late 1960s.
“Peaceful demonstrations started to become more and more violent,” said Powell, “The days of putting flowers into the barrels of rifles was rapidly coming to an end.”
When demonstrators, fueled by drugs and not anger over the Southeast Asian war, began tearing the hands off the famous Grand Central Station terminal clock in New York City, police rushed in to arrest the unruly vandals.
Some of them met the business end of a policeman’s baton in what became known as the “Police Riot of Grand Central Station.”
“I was sickened by it, I was angry, I was frightened,” said Powell, “I felt very strongly that change needed to happen. I thought that the government was out of control. I was going to write. I was going to turn my hand at writing ‘The Anarchist Cookbook.’”
The documentary filmmaker Charlie Siskel is brilliant in that he has Powell – no longer the suave, Che look-alike but a pudgy, gray-haired, double-chinned academic – read selections from his ode to violent revolution. In particular, the book’s section on explosives and booby traps:
“This chapter is going to kill and maim more people than all the rest put together,” he reads while becoming more and more uncomfortable, “because people just refuse to take things seriously… Explosives, if used with care and all the necessary precautions, are one of the greatest tools any liberation movement can have. It will confuse the enemy, cause destruction and death, with power and the technology of the people.”
Powell eventually gets to the book’s misanthropic thesis:
“Allow the fear and the loneliness, and the hatred to build up inside you… allow your passions to fertilize the seeds of constructive revolution. Allow your love of freedom to overcome the false values placed on human life… Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.”
It’s at this point the red-hot arrogance of youth chills with the cold regret that comes with age.
“I can remember writing that. And I remember thinking, ‘That is a cool turn of phrase.’ Yeah, I was pleased with that at the time. Um, now I think it’s absolute rubbish.”
As he grew older, married and started a family, Powell tried putting his manual of mindless violence behind him.
“It’s hard to come out and say, ‘I don’t agree with this.’ And then you think, ‘Well, why did you write this in the first place?’ You know, ‘Why didn’t you think about this?’ So, I’m wrestling with that during this time.”
And never more so than after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Of the two murderous perpetrators, “The Anarchist Cookbook” was discovered among boxes of ammunition in the bedroom of shooter Eric Harris.
On the Amazon website, under the book’s title, is the author’s disclaimer:
“The Anarchist Cookbook was written during 1968 and part of 1969 soon after I graduated from high school. At the time, I was 19 years old and the Vietnam War and the so-called “counter culture movement” were at their height. I was involved in the anti-war movement and attended numerous peace rallies and demonstrations. The book, in many respects, was a misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in.”
In the end, Powell’s revolutionary fervor, as is the case for today’s nihilistic left, is nothing more than an expression of destructive, adolescent narcissism.
“American Anarchist” is currently streaming on Netflix.