Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
Mr. Hentoff's ["In the Country of Ourselves"] focuses on three urban high school activists—Josh, Schwartz and Jane—in course of telling the story of a student uprising that's violently put down by cops. Josh is the head of a Revolutionary High School Collective and bent on major acts of violence—to awaken classmates to the truth that they are in "a state of false consciousness … unfree … channelled into roles in the society that would … make them instruments of everyone else's oppression." Schwartz is briefly a member of the Collective, but rebels at his initiation assignment—to "get into the principal's office, find the senior class records, tear them up, flush them down the toilet"—and is moving toward apoliticality. Jane represents a middle stance: an activist in issues of school governance, she sternly rejects the policies and actions of the Collective, which she sees as an attempt to "play God."
Implicit in the positions and behavior of each student is a question or issue that could quickly open a way to clarification of some major quandries facing politicized teen-agers. Is the culture of slots so rigid and life-despoiling that all energy must be directed toward its destruction? Is a turn toward violence so inevitable among activists as to make commitment an inferior moral option—less worthy than neutrality or apathy? Is the decision to concern yourself primarily with "local issues"—school governance and the like—a copout or a realistic coming-to-terms with the relative powerlessness of adolescence?
None of these matters is trivial, and none is, for newly political youth, closed or resolved—yet each is shrugged off in the pages of this book, mentioned only to be abruptly dropped. The author's account of differences among his trio treats of tics of personality (Josh is a tyrant, Schwartz is a softie, Jane is naive), not of issues: the reality of the latter is distanced by condescending, adult political disillusionment; and the primary perspective is that of an elder who, while "still caring," is no longer in imaginative touch with the excited confusion, the energy, the generosity of youthful political commitment.
Readers of Nat Hentoff's columns know that disillusionment is by no means this writer's single note. "In the Country of Ourselves," moreover, has several pointed and "relevant" intentions—the most notable is a cynically manipulative radical teacher who shamefully exploits his students. And it's possible that the absence of healthy, unmocked political intensity from this story merely testifies that a murderous metropolitan knowingness is now wholly pervasive even among children. But whatever the explanation, the impression left by the book as a whole—namely that politics is boring—is under-nourishing and false.
Benjamin DeMott, in his review of "In the Country of Ourselves," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). November 7, 1971, p. 3.
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