Bigger Than the Beatles

UC Irvine professor Jon Wieners fight for John Lennons FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America

"Jon Wiener is my favorite alternative journalist—always incisive and hugely funny," Davis said. "He is also a superb historian, one of the young turks who in the 1970s transformed our understanding of the New South and the rise of debt peonage. And, of course, he is a hero for having rescued John Lennon from the banality of mere celebrity."

The West Los Angeles resident even covered the 1993 walkout by "six distinguished writers" at our sister paper LA Weekly over the firing of the editor, who alleged he was let go because the paper had become "too intellectual and too serious."

In the interests of full disclosure, Wiener has also written for us. After he reviewed a book on Nixon for the OC Weeklyin October 1997, he found himself engulfed in a Weekly letters page tit-for-tat with Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace director John Taylor for four straight issues. Taylor dismissed the good professor as a "Nixon hater." Wiener observed that Taylor described himself as a "Nixon lover" and noted, "They say love is blind."

When he isn't teaching, writing or sleeping, you can catch Wiener weekly on LA-based KPFK-FM 90.7. Wiener's Tuesday-evening stint on Beneath the Surface has covered everything in recent weeks from Miles Davis to LA's Rampart scandal. He also pitches in as a substitute on Radio Nation, the KPFK-produced magazine show that's syndicated to 120 stations through the same nonprofit foundation that helps fund The Nation.

"He's pretty good at it, actually," said Mark Schubb, KPFK general manager, of Wiener's radio work. "He's not only very politically astute and very smart, but he also has a very dry sense of humor. He brings a state of delight to things. That's very good radio."

Peppered between Wiener's serious takes on the issues of the day are skewerings of the routine traffic and weather reports. He also regularly presents a lampoonish "Minnesota Moment."

"He's a pretty unassuming guy," Schubb said. "When he was new, I thought he might not be able to raise money for our first fund drive. But he was terrific."

Wiener's books, magazine articles, radio rantings and appearances on television interview shows such as Geraldo Riveramay nudge him into near-celebritydom in the real world, but he has already been a superstar for years in the academic world.

"He is on the news a lot, but oddly enough, he first came to prominence in the academic world for his work on Southern history," said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, who is president of the American Historical Association.

That's Southern history of the 1860s, not the 1960s. Wiener is author of Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1865-1885 (1978), which "is still considered a very important study of the transition from slavery to freedom," said Foner, who is one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars.

"Among professional historians, his reputation hinges more on his early work on Southern history as opposed to his later work on John Lennon," Foner said. "Most historians are fairly straight-laced types. John Lennon is not that important to them. There's nothing wrong with Wiener's work on Lennon, but it does not make the tremendous impact that his work on Southern history did to make him regarded as an important scholar. His celebrity status from John Lennon doesn't mean that much to historians."

It is perfectly acceptable in academia for respected historians to switch their areas of emphasis, as Wiener has done in recent years with his focus on the 1950s and 1960s, said Foner, noting, "People do change." What he finds of paramount importance is that the new work stands up. "Many appreciate the fact that the work on John Lennon presented important facts, not just about rock & roll and the '60s, but how the government functions, how the FBI operates and whether the Freedom of Information Act really works," Foner said.

He also defended Wiener for not hiding his Leftist leanings, though he acknowledged it does raise questions in some circles. "This is a debate that goes back to Euripides: How does the point of view of the historian affect the point of view of the history being written? The greatest myth is to say the historian is totally objective. Those who are forthright bring their point of view out upfront, as Wiener has done. What I like to say to my classes about this is you should go into the study of history shaped by your own concerns about the present. You can't go in with a blank slate," Foner said.

"I'm sure Wiener's interest in the liberal point of view has affected his interest in Lennon and everything," he continued. "But his work has to be judged on its own scholarly merits like any other work. The bottom line is Wiener is a very well-regarded historian. He's a little unusual in that not that many historians are focusing on John Lennon, but the 1960s is an area of tremendous interest now. Here at Columbia, a course on the '60s has the biggest enrollment of all history classes."

Based on his experiences and research, Wiener looks back at a "good '60s and a bad '60s." In the bad, drug-induced '60s, young people trashed themselves and private property, but—contrary to the Right's attempts to rewrite history—that lasted a relatively short period of time. The good '60s was exemplified when hundreds of thousands of kids locked arms and peacefully took to the streets to end the Vietnam War, demand civil rights for African-Americans, change the world. Wiener cautions it is a mistake for people his age to cast their generation as some sort of blessed anomaly, however.

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