Black Like Who?
Here is the final installment of the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68. Other parts of the book deal with organization and movement building, ideas, education, etc. We hope that the first two parts, serialized in mailings over these past weeks, were entertaining, even inspiring, and true to the anniversary of the events, informative about the times - not so much the facts of events - but their spirit and meaning.
Black Like Who?
Bar Mitzvahed into Radicalism?
It is not by confining one’s neighbor that
one is convinced of one’s own sanity.
Religion has had a lot do with cultural politics throughout history, as it does today. My own religious encounters weren’t particularly significant in my life, save for two. I am Jewish, just barely, I guess. I went to Jewish Sunday school until my Bar Mitzvah, which meant going to classes one day a week after regular school was out for a year or so. In Hebrew school I rebelled twice, and I think these acts may have primed what came later.
My religious school required us to write a book review to pass. I had one, from public school, on Moby Dick. So I handed that in, ignoring that it wasn’t on the list of (in my view) ridiculous religious books we were supposed to choose from. The teacher wouldn’t take my report, which meant I would be the first person in the history of the temple to be left back from Bar Mitzvah. I refused to do another. My mother went ballistic, came to the temple school, and told them Moby Dick was more demanding than the whole list of titles they had and that they better accept my review or there would be big trouble. They gave in and I graduated. Not only did I benefit from mother’s willingness to do battle for me, I probably learned to do battle for others.
At a Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony that welcomes 13-year-old Jewish boys into what the religion calls manhood, you have to recite a couple of paragraphs in Hebrew. I didn’t have to memorize the paragraphs, just read them. I didn’t even have to know what they meant. I just had to pronounce them correctly, out loud, in front of the congregation. Imagine the respect for tradition this inspired. In any event, I couldn’t do it. Not knowing what it meant, success depended on rote memory applied to random sounds. It was my worst nightmare. My parents had to pay the temple’s cantor to tutor me into marginal competence.
The big day came and I recited my lines, barely, and then the rabbi, a wise and caring person, called me up to chat, much too quietly for the congregation to hear, before the open Torah. So it was Rabbi Schankman, the background audience, the Torah, and me. He did this with each person being processed to manhood. He said, “Michael, congratulations on becoming a man, and I know we are going to see you pursue your religious training in the temple class next semester, aren’t we?” The idea was simple—you had to say yes and then if you reneged later it meant you had lied. Or you had to say no, with him staring down at you and urging a yes. I suspect that that moment caused a great many boys to lie and later rationalize it and thereby helped many boys decide that lying was an okay pursuit, which, when you think about it, was quite an achievement for a religious high holy event. In any case, I looked at him and said, “No, I am done.” In 1960, I didn’t know how to say “I’m outta here,” which would have been perfect. I don’t think many kids told Rabbi Schankman the truth. Maybe some components of what made me radical later were in place at age thirteen.
I remember one more thing about my Bar Mitzvah. During the party afterward, some friends and I went up on the roof of the club where it was held. Someone had cigarettes and we intended to smoke for the first time. I can’t remember how others enjoyed their inaugural cigarette, but I took one puff and broke into a hacking cough, almost losing my lunch. That was the last time I was tempted by a cigarette, which was the best outcome not only of my graduation, but of my entire time spent at any religious functions at all. Given the form-without-content character of my meager Jewish experiences, it was a struggle for me to be anything other than disdainful of religion, particularly Judaism, until I found political reasons for rethinking some of my attitudes.
Blacks and Me
The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye
The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Part of personal life in
We had a kind of house helper named
Regarding further experiences of racism in my own life, I went to a typical suburban high school. The town had a mixed population. My side was professional, white, and wealthy. The other side was a small black community plus a larger white working-class area. My grade school was entirely white and my junior high was far more white than the town’s other junior high. The high school mixed it all in one institution, but with separate cultures and classes.
As a young boy I never had even one black friend and barely any black acquaintances. No Latinos, no Asians, only white folks. In high school I knew a few white boys on the very popular football and basketball teams, and one black player, at least to say hello. Of course I rooted my lungs out like everyone else, though knowing only a small percentage of the players. My college prep classes were overwhelmingly white. My advanced-placement classes, headed for the Ivy League, were entirely white. This was before the civil rights movement changed society. I was a high school senior in 1964—65.
So my direct personal experience of race was largely nonexistent right through high school, and at MIT, too, the ratios were horrible. In my fraternity there was nothing but whites; all but two or three were Jewish. I lived off campus, later, with whites. The physics department had a handful of black students, probably fewer Latinos, and while there were many Asians, this rarely raised issues of race. Indeed, no one engaged in confronting prejudices or arousing commitments until movement activism made it happen. Nonetheless, I don’t know why or how, by the time I was in college I was aggressively antiracist. It probably came in part from my parents, in part from reading, and largely from uncorrupted common sense, or maybe Michael Schwerner’s experience.
There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to Carry On
Oddly, I remember only one highly race-specific event while at MIT. I was campaigning for student body president and went to the black student union (BSU) seeking support. MIT was so white that the BSU was a lifeline for blacks on campus who had to fight for the slightest space for their views, culture, and dignity. I gave a typical talk, militant, radical, and highly aggressive, and the audience gave me some trouble. MIT’s black students were either the first in their families to attend college, or were from elite families long familiar with college but estranged from the black communities in their cities. It was a difficult mix, typical of many campuses. A number of BSU members told me I was distracting them from advancing in society. I had no right to disrupt campus life. This group, which I should have had as prime supporters, was, in other words, initially put off like many other sectors on campus, worried about implications for their future success.
They said I was out of order. I said, no, they were. Succeeding in science doesn’t justify ignoring the war in
I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
One Halloween, living in the South End of Boston at the mid-stage in my history of working at South End Press, I went out to get something from a nearby drugstore. I walked over, got what I needed, and headed home. It was rainy, not pouring but wet, and drifting toward night. There was a gang of young black teens about thirty yards off. They looked at me, I looked at them, and clearly I was in big trouble. They broke into a run, laughing and cursing, menacing me even as they were enjoying themselves, and I ran toward home.
It was sport, I guess. I got hit with a few rocks. One cut my head a bit and, had I fallen, I am not sure how serious it would have gotten. But I didn’t fall and as I got near my house the mob turned to other sport, perhaps because neighborhoods in this mixed-race area had a “watch group” to prevent muggings. People from the community would carry a whistle. If they blew it, neighbors would barrel out into the street, sometimes carrying bats in hopes of getting a whack at a mugger or thief, a black one, to be sure.
When I got inside, winded and shaken, I unwound. It was clear how insidiously racism works. The neighborhood was gentrifying. These black kids hated the wealthier white population moving in on their turf. But the kids’ thuggishness, however understandable, in turn further fueled white racist fear and aggression. People who would have come out that night had I blown a whistle would have exhibited the same fighting fury as the kids, but from the advantaged position of being in the dominant rather than the subordinate group, defending privilege rather than asserting self-reliance.
On another occasion,
It’s Self-Image, Stupid
Segregation is the adultery of an illicit
intercourse between injustice and immorality.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Racism, I came to decide, was systemically pretty simple. The privileged group rationalizes a disparity of circumstance, behavior, culture, rights, or other advantage by saying the other is inferior. Racism was generally more about self than about other, even though it affected other more than it affected self. Racism justified advantage, coarse behavior, and dominant culture. Self had more or better income, housing, food, schooling, freedom, influence, or options. Self didn’t want to think this was due to something unfair, unjust, or otherwise untoward. The claim that the other was inferior comfortably explained disparity. It was deadly whether in
Here’s how I understood racism the first time, and to some degree since then, too. I have more wealth than cocker spaniels but it doesn’t upset my day. It is okay. It is fair. Cocker spaniels don’t deserve and can’t appreciate the nice things that I deserve and appreciate. My looking down at them was fine. Racism made people treat other people, who had less, as if they were cocker spaniels. We viewed the other, who had less, as a cocker spaniel, or as a cockroach, a pig, or whatever, and as a result we no longer had to be troubled that we had more.
When the disparity between me and another person or persons was significant, I decided, such as that I lived in a nice home and they prowled the streets or cleaned my house, my wanting a fair and just explanation for my advantage could lead me to seeing them as lesser, causing me to view them more or less like I would view a cocker spaniel, kicking it if I was brutish, being paternal to it if I was kind, but certainly not treating it as an equal. To then make my elitist rationalization survive even against obvious contrary evidence, I realized, I would aggressively defend it. I decided that however anti-racist my upbringing and current habits, to avoid becoming racist I would have to constantly remind myself, uncomfortable as it may be, that my advantages were not due to worthiness and were not mine by right, but instead derived from unjust social relations.
I realized that when there was what seemed like a clear physical distinction between me and others, such as skin color, that difference would provide an easy peg to hang rationalizations on. I could assert that they are black and inferior. I am white and superior. They are female and inferior. I am male and superior. I saw also that when things were less physical, a more subtle formulation might arise. They are working class, I am a professional or owner. They are under-intellectually endowed, I am brilliant. The logic of domination seemed ready to claim me, if I let it.
Thinking about racism in response to the claims of Black Power movements telling me that given my whiteness in
So, over the years, one typical argument against racism, sexism, or classism had been that human differences are not the basis of conditional differences. Men earning more than women, whites having better schools and housing than blacks, and Indians being routed from their land were all caused by social factors that were not outcomes of skin color or anything biological. As this observation was almost always true, it served well to refute racism. But another argument that ought to be highlighted, I realized, even if it wasn’t always required to make a convincing case, was that when human differences did provide a foundation for or enforce structural differences, that didn’t in and of itself mean those relations were warranted. I thought this took the issues to a deeper level, and I still think so.
For example, I thought—suppose we did live in a meritocracy. This was like supposing Stalin’s
It turned out that it wasn’t just the fact that biological claims of inferiority were false for women or blacks, say, that made sexism and racism horrible. It was also the idea that one should link purported productivity to what one was entitled to. This is a point that will resurface later but which subtly connected race, gender, and class in my thinking, even when I was first learning about each. Racism was about ascription of false attributes, most often, for sure. But looking deeper, there was this issue of what society’s attitude should be to groups of its citizens who did, in fact, have different attributes.
Racism is partly about interpersonal denigration and denial. As such, it is a matter of words, body language, and daily life behavioral assumptions. Racism is also, however, a matter of institutional denigration and denial. As such, it is a matter of community relationships inscribed in systemic collective behavior patterns, roles, and laws. As important as the first, interpersonal type of racism is, the focus of groups like the Panthers made me realize the bigger and more tenacious problem was the second, systemic one. Self-image and images of others mattered. Words, looks, and assumptions mattered. But what mattered more was huge disparities of income, power, wealth, and position imprinted into social structures over extended periods.
What antiracist struggle really needed, as the Panthers began to assert, was a positive vision of racial and community relations toward which to move by way of interim alterations—not least affirmative action and reparations—as well as by establishing community norms for a new world. But why not just adopt the cultural vision many Marxists offered? Ward Churchill, a Native American activist, brought a book to South End Press about ten years after the Sixties that bore closely on this matter. His collection, Marxism and Native Americans, like Batya Weinbaum’s book about gender and socialism, contributed to my drift away from Marxism and toward a more multi-focus approach. Ward’s point, made as well by other contributors to his book, was that the reason indigenous communities rebelled sharply against Marxist movements, for example in Nicaragua, was in considerable part a sensible rejection of Marxism’s sometimes explicit and other times implicit tendency to homogenize cultures rather than celebrate them. With economics in the driver’s seat, the Marxist goal became attaining a good economy and comprehension of what attaining a good culture might mean was lacking.
The Marxist movement, of course, knew that cultural wars, racism, ethnocentrism, and religious bigotry were not good. It knew that all these were utilized in part to divide and conquer people who should have shared agendas. So far as it went, this view was quite correct, but without a deeper comprehension of culture and cultural diversity, Ward argued that Marxism deduced that what was needed was to arrive at one good overarching socialist culture, thereby eliminating the contested differences. This was the worst nightmare of indigenous communities. They knew that the Marxist movement was not going to elevate their culture for everyone, but would instead impose the dominant culture of the dominant elements in the movement on everyone else. This was what they resisted. Ward saw all this, and more, and his book helped solidify lessons from the struggles of the sixties to prod me down the road I later traveled.
What About Class?
Communism, instead of making them leap forward with fire in their hearts to become masters of ideas and life, had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.
During my time at MIT and throughout the sixties and the seventies, too—the most stalwart activists highlighted class. Capitalism was bad. Profit, oppression, and alienation had to go. Class struggle meant workers against owners, in every leftist’s view everywhere. But there was a problem. How come when workers’ movements won, the result wasn’t an end to all workers’ subordination and indignity? Why was Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to Lenin so important to us, young students that we were at MIT? How did I and others understand the AEPi elite, and their view of themselves? What were the positions in society that we were earmarked to fill—lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists—in class terms? Workers? With what likely attitudes and inclinations? Did it matter?
Questions likes these were on many of our minds, but it was not until a decade after I was expelled from MIT that really powerful answers began emerging. I had helped form a publishing house in the late seventies, South End Press. One of our early books was a collection based on an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich and her then-husband John, titled “The Professional Managerial Class.” Their thesis was that between capitalists and workers there was a third class, which the Ehrenreichs called “the professional managerial class” or “PMC,” which had interests different from and conflicting with more traditional workers and owners. This wasn’t the vague group generally called “middle class” by sociologists and the general public. It wasn’t a confused concept that let everyone think they were somewhere in the middle even if they were in the top five or twenty percent, or in the lower forty, thirty, or even twenty percent. No, the Ehrenreichs’ professional managerial class was defined by its structural position—as were owners and more traditional workers in standard Left analysis. For the Ehrenreichs, the PMC’s position conferred distinct incentives and associated culture, politics, and agendas.
Lawyers, managers, doctors, and others weren’t like assembly workers, waitresses, clerks, and others. This controversial claim challenged the more typical Left viewpoint, which divided the populace into only two key classes, workers and owners, and made no separate mention of the Ehrenreichs’ third group. By pinpointing the third group as a class, the Ehrenreichs raised the issue of its class interests. What did members of this class have as their interests? What kinds of politics and programs might they advocate? The relation of all this to MIT is, of course, that MIT was a school that produced these type of folks. Remember my blurting out to the workers in the Instrumentation Labs that someday they would work for us? The issue lurked there.
The book was called Between Labor and Capital and its editor was Pat Walker, one of South End Press’s founding members. The respondents to the Ehrenreichs’ essay were a diverse group of prominent leftists. I didn’t know John Ehrenreich but I did know Barbara. She had studied biology and was a brilliant thinker and major writer, as evidenced repeatedly in subsequent years. A quintessential quality Barbara had then and has retained ever since was the ability to take a very original and unexpected perspective on some event, process, or possibility, and present it clearly and engagingly. Barbara was extremely funny but, even more uniquely, extremely good at injecting new connective insights into readers’ minds.
Just this clarity characterized Barbara and John’s PMC essay. Between Labor and Capital had ten respondents. Seven criticized the Ehrenreichs’ lead essay. Three supported the essay, including a good friend of mine, Sandy Carter, with a largely experiential piece called “Class Conflict: The Human Dimension,” as well as Robin Hahnel and I with a piece called “A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map.” The critics included David Noble, Erik Olin Wright, James Weinstein, and Stanley Aronowitz, whose replies bordered on vitriolic. Barbara was distraught, called us, and said she didn’t want to continue with the project because she was so depressed by people’s hostility. Barbara was put off, I think quite reasonably, that these folks whom she knew quite well would come after her and John with so much anger, having so missed what she was driving at. Barbara was strong, but being reviled by people one thought of as one’s allies, being misunderstood, misrepresented, and attacked by folks who ought to be open to serious debate but who weren’t, was horribly unsettling. Barbara agreed, however, after some back and forth, to continue with the book’s agenda. She and John wrote their reply, very effectively, and the book came out.
My feeling was that Between Labor and Capital should have instigated a discussion of class that would overturn existing beliefs and usher in a whole new line of thought and practice. Instead, the book got few reviews, spurred little discussion, and passed into the SEP backlist before its time. A book is published with many of the foremost writers on the Left sharply disagreeing about a pivotal matter and little comes of it. I think the Ehrenreichs’ original article, and for that matter the replies by Carter and by me and Hahnel, hold hints to why it happened, as did the pieces by the critics. I would urge that this is still a very timely book for people to read, even twenty-five years later. The book mattered to me not only for the essay that Robin and I did but because writing that essay crystallized our views about class and helped set us off on the journey to what we later called participatory economics.
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.
At a Socialist Scholars Conference in
Aronowitz, born in 1933 and thus fourteen years my senior, had been a steel worker and an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. He was a full professor, quite brilliant, flamboyant, and aggressive. Most important, he was the author of False Promises, The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, which was one of the most influential and inspiring books I had read up to that time. In retrospect, I think the vehemence I manifested that day was in part due to my fear that a person I viewed to be more a teacher than an opponent was not in my camp. Most likely, I was also spurred by a defensive fear that I was perhaps wrong. Aronowitz knew working-class life and experience in ways I couldn’t begin to approach. So, was Aronowitz right about class, where he was undeniably highly knowledgeable? Were Weinstein, Wright, Noble, and the others right as well when they, too, rejected the Ehrenreichs’ thesis of a third class? I didn’t think so. It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that it was the Ehrenreichs who were on the valuable path.
Visiting Ehrenreich and a Sad Outcome
barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
Afew years later, Robin Hahnel and I visited Barbara at her home on
Two and a half decades later, I asked Barbara to do an interview with me about participatory economics, a visionary economic system I had helped author and strongly advocate. I had interviewed her, previously, about a new book of hers examining the life conditions of working people and now I hoped that her interviewing me about my book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, would help get the word out. We did the interview by e-mail. Barbara would send a question, I would reply, and again, and so on.
No mainstream periodical wanted to publish the interview. Hostility that lay at the root of opposition to Barbara’s original PMC piece has lived on, focused, however, on participatory economics, a vision singularly devoted to eliminating the class difference that Barbara so eloquently excavated. The interview finally ran in Z Magazine, a publication I had helped found that was not only open to, but of course, eagerly intent on keeping these issues forefront. Regrettably, Barbara’s questions avoided the core topic of class divisions entirely. Barbara has written powerfully over the years about poverty, work, work conditions, and working-class consciousness, among many other topics. But the beating people gave Barbara over the PMC seemed to have achieved its aims in one respect. Barbara never again returned explicitly to that topic. It has always seemed a great political loss to me that her adroit writing skills haven’t honed these issues further.
The Real Deal
A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a lifetime’s experience.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The point I took from all of this, as Barbara and John first noted, was about people’s role in economic change and how movements seeking to affect economic life should address people and issues. If there were only two primary economic classes, each with interests contrary to the other, then economically focused movements that weren’t seeking to preserve or expand the domination of owners over workers had to be seeking to advance workers at the expense of owners. Those would have been the only two sides to take. On the other hand, if there were three centrally important classes—workers, owners, and what Hahnel and I called the coordinator class—a third allegiance would become possible. A movement could claim to be interested in full economic liberation but actually be pursuing something less than that. It might seek elimination of private ownership, but might advance in its place institutions that would guarantee not classlessness, but instead domination by a coordinator class who would continue monopolizing empowering positions in the economy. Anticapitalist leftists could, in other words, be other than what they claimed or even hoped they were. A movement could be hostile to private profiteering and yet also uncongenial to working people. Instead of being a working-class movement it could manifest the aspirations of doctors, lawyers, managers, and engineers. This was the heart of the controversy that the Ehrenreichs’ words stirred up in people and what Hahnel and my subsequent efforts have kept forefront. It was why many people have preferred not to deal seriously with the Ehrenreichs’ early words, or Hahnel’s and my later words. Or that’s been my impression, at any rate.
No Nukes and Class
I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.
After the sixties, activist movements didn’t disappear, of course. One movement that attained great size, great militancy, and considerable success, was oriented around nuclear power. Despite its size and successes, however, the no-nukes uprisings never expanded to stretch into average households and workplaces. It wasn’t that ecological concerns, from nuclear meltdown to dumping waste to violating the water supply to fouling the air, weren’t relevant to average folks. All these ecological horrors were far more damaging to poor than to wealthy constituencies. So why has ecological activism yet to attain the scale and radical edge needed to really move history?
A related talk I had with Noam Chomsky helps clarify. Chomsky told me about having a chat with a bunch of no-nukes advocates and being quite put off by their cavalier rejection of nukes, which seemed to him to be based only on looking at the possible impact of catastrophic meltdowns on consumers and citizens. It was fine to be aware of that—and maybe that danger should outweigh all other considerations—but what troubled Noam was that the movement didn’t seem to even notice other considerations. It did not often ask, for example, what the human and social costs of using coal instead of nuclear power are, not only for the environment but also for workers in the mines. It would have been one thing, Noam felt, if the no-nukes movement showed concern in all directions. But Noam’s impression was that large parts of the movement were oblivious to the potential impact of their activities on working people. One might predict that this would be a movement with an internal culture dissing workers, and thus a movement that wouldn’t appeal to working people, even before they got wind of specific policies, just like and for the same reasons that it didn’t appeal to Eric, even without his, at such a young age, having strong opinions about specific policies.
There are those who can read the above and perhaps not feel too concerned about it, but I think that to have that reaction would be a serious mistake, just as I think ignoring insights about the existence of a coordinator class in society is a serious mistake, and for pretty much the same reasons. The following analogy will make this point as aggressively and provocatively as possible.
When Bush and Cheney were deciding to bomb
I remember debating the potential of the ecology as a radical focus back when it was first becoming visible. Many early 1970s radicals felt environmentalism would be the next big spur to activism. And those activists were certainly right that the prospect of being fried by ozone depletion or gassed by industrial pollutants could yield important activism. But there were other people at the time, including me, who were skeptical that it would come true. Not only the poor, but also elites, suffer environmental decay, and it might occur to elites to address environmental problems without, however, addressing other social ills. In turn, environmentalists who emphasized ecology but didn’t highlight economy, kinship, and polity might try to curry favor with environmentally concerned elites as a road toward changes instead of organizing public militancy. They might even seek cleanup for the rich at the expense of impoverishing or even just not cleaning up for everyone else. They might advocate cleaning up rich people’s beaches, rich people’s air, rich people’s resorts, and rich people’s water, while working people not only do the cleaning for pathetic wages, but wallow in toxic effluvium until they suffer asphyxiation. The alternative, of course, would be concerns about ecology that were tied to and augmented by broader concerns about liberated production, consumption, and allocation leading toward classlessness, not to mention transformed gender, race, and political relations. The battles to attain better activism of course continue.
Sixties People and Books
There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change—and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.
I knew Dave Dellinger peripherally in the movements of the sixties but more so later, as a publisher and coeditor. What was singular about Dave was that while he completely rejected violence in any form, Dave had no trouble communicating with, respecting, and even supporting people who were quite violent. Dave understood the difference between
Two interactions with Dave dominate my memories. The first was not long after we did a book together called Beyond Survival. I urged Dave to write an autobiography. In time, he agreed. If South End Press would get him a computer to write on, he said, he would steel himself and write the book. We got him the computer and he started work. He eventually completed the first volume of a projected three, but it went to a mainstream publisher instead of South End Press.
Dave needed the money, desperately. Some people at the press were angry. I was sad. It was depressing to me that Dave was in such need in his later years and that the movement was so ill-equipped to alleviate his difficulties, and also sad that it would mean that in the long haul his book might disappear from view when it ought to be popular forever. The book didn’t cover much beyond the end of the late sixties. Dave never wrote another volume even though he was incredibly active for an additional thirty years. Covering that time would have added many dimensions, not just to recounting his life accurately, but to conveying useful insights to readers. I think it was absent because Doubleday would neither do another volume nor publish a longer initial one.
I remember a fund-raising jaunt Dellinger and I took for South End Press in the 1980s. We were going to talk to folks at a foundation and also to some wealthy individuals. We flew West, and then rented a car, and drove. Riding with Dave and listening to his stories was unforgettable. Also unforgettable was that the wealthy donors we met had no real idea of the history of the person they were with, and failed to ask him anything substantive or to take the slightest advantage of their time with him. To me it was as if Gandhi popped into an office for an hour or two in
On this trip, Dave and I visited Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. We sat in a hot tub with Daniel at his house, my first time in one of those, and listened while Daniel regaled us with an odd theory of how the Cold War could be ended through some kind of letter-writing initiative he was undertaking. Ellsberg kept talking, never trying to induce Dave to instead do the talking. Dave would probably be called arrogant if he thought that perhaps the folks at the foundations, or even Daniel Ellsberg, should have shown some interest in what he had to offer instead of thinking that only they had things worth saying. Heaven forbid that at some point Dave was dismissive or otherwise short with them. The funding bureaucrats, and in this case, Ellsberg, too, would not be deemed arrogant, however, for their part in the dance. This asymmetry seemed perverse and also pervasive, at least in
Anyhow, while driving, I asked Dave about his life experiences. I can’t relay all he told me and, in any event, for the early parts, there is his autobiography, but what I couldn’t forget, even if I tried, were two stories. First, at one point, I asked Dave about threats to his life. Among them all, mostly total nonsense—and I understood that because when I was at MIT I had received some nonsensical death threats myself—he told about one Christmas where he, his family, and some friends were celebrating around a tree in his living room opening gifts. He picked up a nicely wrapped gift addressed to him and opened it. It was a bottle of very fine liquor. Dave was about to open the bottle, he told me, when he saw something odd. It looked like a very thin pencil line down the inside. Dave got suspicious, put the bottle out on the lawn and called the police. It was indeed a bomb and if Dave had opened the bottle, not only would he have died, but his family would have too. He conveyed this story with tears rolling down his face, upset by the memory of what his choices almost brought upon his kids. The story is in his autobiography, but the book lacks the tears.
Later, I asked Dave about his kids. Did he deny them by his choices, either materially or emotionally? Dave was a Yale graduate who could no doubt have earned during his lifetime a hundred times the income he settled for. He chose a different path, though, and I wondered whether he ever regretted that choice—not for himself, but for his children. His kids lost him to jail, often, and when he was not incarcerated he was often on the road, again lost to them.
Dave said he gave his kids what he thought was the best thing he could: a father worth emulating, a life worthy of respect, morals to live by, and feelings to grow by. The fact that he had to withhold much of his time, labors, and even presence was sad, he said, but it was the way of today’s world. He couldn’t have given them what he did had he not withheld what he did. His kids’ lives would be what they made them. He had given his kids what a parent ought to give kids in a world such as ours. I don’t know that I agree. I don’t know that I disagree. I think in today’s world, no one’s choices can ever be perfect.
When I go out speaking, I sometimes ask who has heard of Dave Dellinger. Even among leftist audiences, at most a sprinkling of hands creeps up. What a sad commentary on our schools, our historians, and our movements. I tend to have tears in my eyes whenever I see that response, as I do now just thinking about it and about Dave Dellinger. Dave died in May, 2004, but the rippling effects of his life live on. You lose, you lose, you lose, you win. Dave will win.
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
One afternoon, I think in 1979, out of nowhere Tom Hayden of SDS fame showed up at South End Press’s office/home. He wanted to do a book and wanted our help with it. We were flattered and pleased at his interest. I had known Tom peripherally in years past.
Tom had been the principal author of the famous SDS Port Huron Statement, which laid down the opening shots for the New Left. He had worked tirelessly in the antiwar and the broader New Left movement, had been part of the Chicago Eight, and had later become an elected official in the
Arriving at Tom’s place in
Fine-Tuning Music and Capitalism
I worry that the person who thought up Muzak
may be thinking up something else.
Tom and I had a lot of agreement about his book, though there was friction about the
Can you really hear a difference when you shift those controls, I asked him? Isn’t it so minor as to be imperceptible? No, he said, for him it was clear as cannons. I asked who else could hear the differences and he told me that at this stage of refinement pretty much only other recording engineers could hear the differences. What about people who will listen to the album, I asked? He chuckled and said not a chance. What about the performers? He said some could, but not all of them. I found this fascinating. Here this recording engineer was taking considerable expensive time to, in his view, perfect the sound of the songs for his own especially highly trained hearing. Time is money. But what he was doing at this level would have little bearing, if any, on the success or failure of the record and indeed on anything relating to consumers. Why did the owner of the record company put up with the engineer’s silly personal fetish? Why humor the engineer’s perfectionism? Why abide the engineer taking expensive time to assuage his concern over how other engineers would regard his efforts? The answer, I realized, was that (at least then) it was the price of employing a good engineer. Recording engineers had sufficient power among the production companies and performers to require time for their perfectionism as a condition of their labor. This occurred even against the profit interests, tastes, and inclinations of those who were more in charge.
That interested me as a sign of the interface between capital, the owners who lost money due to this perfectionism, and what I was at that time beginning to see as a coordinator class, the engineers who gained stature through perfectionism. The coordinator class’s agenda was interfering, as I think it often does, with maximizing profits.
It wouldn’t surprise me if a quite substantial percentage of the costs of most records, and by analogy of many
To Golden Pond and Fonda on Beauty
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
A trip to
The claim was for many leftists a controversial matter. Many argued that beauty was not objective in any sense, but was entirely in the eye of the beholder, entirely a cultural matter. Whoever Jane found so beautiful as to be hard to look at without lust, she would find ordinary or perhaps even ugly had she grown up among different cultural messages. The reverse view was that while social messages and habits influence taste, humans have wired into their genes certain attributes that make some slopes, shapes, shadows, and segues more attractive, on average, across the species, than others, yielding views like Jane’s, not only in her but nearly universally.
This was only one example of a recurring dispute on the Left. Leftists wanted equitable outcomes and circumstances. We saw that wide disparities in widely appreciated or admired productivity or personal attributes were accompanied, in our society and in all others we were familiar with, by wide disparities in power, income, and circumstance. Many leftists concluded that to get equity we had to eliminate differences in attributes. To equilibrate material and social outcomes required, in these people’s minds, equilibrating people vis-á-vis mental talents, personal looks, physical reflexes, and the rest. So they looked around and decided that differences of those sorts were artifacts of our way of seeing and ranking attributes, but were not present in our natures.
This was the thinking going on, I believe, when some leftists denied that there were huge disparities among people’s looks and physical and mental abilities, and that some of these disparities dramatically affected how pleasant or moving it was to hear someone sing a song, dance, carry a tune, hear the lyrics they conjure, read the prose they present, learn from the insights they uncover, or even just enter a room. The contrary view, which I have, and which I guess Jane had too, was that disparities among people are real. They not only shouldn’t be leveled, they should be celebrated for providing tremendous spice and diversity to what would otherwise be a terminally bland regularity. And more, the way to prevent human diversity from generating oppressive hierarchies isn’t to imagine or brutalize away the diversity, but to create institutional means by which even while this diversity is celebrated and materially and socially benefits society, it doesn’t benefit the people who do art, science, invention, communication, and design wonderfully better than it benefits people who do the same things acceptably, but less well.
This was always in my view a significant matter. The extreme left view irked me. So did rewarding genetics. I thought the disagreements pointed toward what it means to attain classlessness, a point I worked incessantly on later. It might be worth noting, as well, that the leftist leveling mentality isn’t confined to things like beauty or mental quickness. There are those who think that the way to avoid racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, nationalism, and other cultural conflict is to homogenize away cultural diversity by seeking one grand culture—generally that of the majority, of course. This is the same mistake in a different set of clothes as the no-beauty recommendation, or the no-brains one, or the no-reflexes one, or the no-gender one. Cultural diversity, I came to realize, like beauty and brains diversity, isn’t the problem. Nor is sexual diversity. The problem, I decided, was social structures that rewarded some folks excessively and others insufficiently rather than allowing all to mutually benefit, whatever their various talents.
Tom has remained politically involved throughout his life. First he helped create SDS and the New Left. Later he worked tirelessly to oppose
Tom wasn’t the only
About the Sixties
Those who write clearly have readers;
those who write obscurely have commentators.
Two other books from my publishing days at South End Press that I greatly liked and that I also thought exemplary were about the New Left. George Katsiaficas, my chutzpah-endowed friend from MIT, wrote The Imagination of the New Left, which was largely about the epochal year 1968, but really also about the whole movement and cultural phenomenon of the period. And Dick Cluster, another friend from New Left days, edited a short collection of pieces by people writing about their experiences during that same period. Dick’s book was called They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee,a reference to lunch-counter owners not serving blacks, which helped spur the development of the civil rights movement and then the rest of the New Left.
Perhaps the most notable thing about these books was that they were written and published at all. That is, by bucking the typical tide, they highlighted the extent to which my generation’s leftists failed to look seriously at our own undertakings. We rarely relayed to others what we had learned and what might best be avoided or emulated from our experiences. It is incredible the extent to which young people in the anticorporate globalization and antiwar and other movements today revisit experiences from the past, replicate mistakes and successes, but don’t start off from a more advantageous point due to having imbibed past lessons. The fault isn’t within contemporary movements so much as with my generation’s abdication of its communicative responsibility. We didn’t sufficiently convey worthy lessons. Partly, our lack of attention to communicating our own history arose because my generation’s activists didn’t have time to write about their endeavors. Partly, it arose, however, because we didn’t have an inclination to do it. I think some sixties leftists were too humble or modest, or too self-deprecating. And I think others feared doing a bad or unworthy job.
It isn’t that there are no short works, partial works, or memoirs of merit—though far fewer than one might anticipate given the drama, pathos, and relevance of the times. But where are the really compelling, rich, varied, inspiring, educational histories of the sixties and the decades since? Where are the works that look at the experiences and ideas of the times and extrapolate so that those who follow don’t have to reinvent every little activist wheel for themselves, but can instead move forward off a previously established wisdom? I don’t know the answers to these questions. My generation did many good things, I think, but we also dropped the ball on many fields of play. Not sufficiently examining ourselves and passing on the lessons we learned from our efforts was one of our big fumbles.
You lose, you lose, you lose, you win.
Regrettably, the ringing of revolution of the sixties did not crescendo to lasting victory. On the one hand, we achieved a lot. Minds changed. We won durable gains in race, gender, sex, and authority attitudes, in media and education, and in public policies such as affirmative action and social support.
On the other hand, we did not significantly affect society-wide institutions. Families, schools, communities, churches, corporations, the market, and the state maintained their old institutional definitions, and thus continued to emanate essentially the same pressures as in the past. The force fields of these unchanged defining institutions chipped away in subsequent years at the changes in consciousness and policy we had won in the sixties. Our disproportionate affect on ideas that were in people’s heads and some policies more than on underlying institutions reflected our out-of-balance emphasis on ideas and not on institutions. In that sense, we got what we sought which was less, much less, than we needed.
We didn’t win a fundamentally new world because we didn’t inspire enough people, provoke enough tenacity, or generate enough continuity. We understood what was wrong with our society, but we did not understand what to put in its place. We fought fiercely against injustice but we barely fought for new justice. We didn’t even know what new justice would entail. We lacked a vision to ground our strategy. We lacked a strategy to guide our actions. We were, in the words of Vice President Agnew quoting William Safire, “nattering nabobs of negativity.” I went from the early sixties of SNCC and SDS into the contested conflagrations of the seventies, and then into the rest of the century with undiminished commitment. That wasn’t typical, however. Many left the movement, instead.
Where’d We Go?
The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power,
and if I didn’t betray it, I’d be ashamed of myself.
The sixties, even just in the
In either view, undeniably, our movement was not sticky. People could get in the movement’s orbit and even enter its central byways, but later drift off. People were rarely lifelong embedded. The movement’s gravity was easily escaped. The huge majority of my sixties “fellow travelers” kept elements of their youthful values as they aged, but also drifted into mainstream institutions and habits. They became what we might call typical—rather than dissident— university academics, public school teachers, cooks, cabbies, social workers, nurses, custodians, secretaries, lawyers, factory hands, engineers, day care workers, doctors, policemen, politicians’ wives and husbands, parents and grandparents, and even the occasional capitalist employer. Regrettably, in these roles, they acted without conscious dissent, holding on to sixties values peripherally, if at all. The rules of society’s roles, unchanged, guaranteed these results. The Left’s problem wasn’t that people became teachers, cooks, cabbies, and so on. It was that we didn’t build up mechanisms of support, involvement, and redefinition so that people could do these things and still be part of the Left.
Some sixties graduates have no connection to their past. Some have tenuous memories. Some donate. Some read. Not many still identify themselves based on revolutionary values. The shared experience that we lived for in the sixties didn’t have the staying power in society or in most of our lives that we foresaw it having. It was not the lifetime refuge, school, ally, and social force we claimed it would be when screaming at our parents that our actions were no passing fad. The sad truth is that for most of my generation, so far our parents were more right about our futures than we were. But history isn’t finished. And hey, the fact that there were plenty of big-time errors back then is damn lucky. If there weren’t big-time errors, what would we improve on next time?