Chapter 6: Why Do It?
Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 6 and 7, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
Would You Torch a Library?
Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.
When I was giving speeches at MIT, I was repeatedly asked, would you burn down a library to end the war? I would say, of course I would burn down a library to end the war, wouldn’t you? A library has books. A war destroys not only books, but authors and readers. If I could end the war by burning down all the libraries in this city, I would do it in a heartbeat. And so would you, unless you are callous. But in the real world burning libraries won’t end wars. What will help end the war has none of the onus of burning books. You can educate. You can demonstrate. Will you do that? That’s the real question. In the documentary The Sixties, Henry Kissenger describes how Nixon was preparing to use nuclear weapons. He had to back off, however, due to immense dissent throughout the country. It wasn’t burning a library that ended a war, it was amassing gigantic opposition that threatened policies held even more dear.
The Provost’s Proposition
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.
Shortly after the 1968–69 undergraduate association presidential (UAP) election, I was sitting in my new office when MIT’s provost, Jerome Weisner, second in command at MIT, knocked on the door and entered. Weisner had been science advisor to John Kennedy. He was a Humphrey supporter and had been, and still was, a civil rights advocate. Weisner had a sense of humor, too, being known, for example, for saying that “getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose.” He wasn’t all bad politically, either, saying, “It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the
Anyway, I remember three parts to our discussion in my campus student government office. In the first part, after some chatting, I asked Weisner something that I had been wondering for some time. This was the first era of antimissile missiles and I had a strong suspicion that work on them was entirely a boondoggle in addition to being politically destabilizing. So I asked about this, and Weisner took a pencil, stood it point upward, and said, “This pencil has as much chance of shooting down an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile as any antimissile missile we could conceivably deploy.” Weisner knew that the antimissile program was a massive sop to high-tech industry. I asked how he could know that and not trumpet the truth. Weisner shrugged. Interestingly, decades later, new efforts at antimissile programs that were promulgated by the Bush regime, and before Bush by Clinton, have had as an opponent a fellow named Theodore Postal. Ted was a year ahead of me at MIT and a fraternity brother during my year at AEPi. Now he is employed by MIT but causing trouble for militarists. Ripples persist.
My second memory of the Weisner meeting was of Weisner’s prime purpose in coming to my office. He invited me to spend a weekend with him at the Kennedy compound in
The third item on Weisner’s agenda, after I rejected his invitation, was a promise. Preparatory to leaving my UAP office and our having no further communications other than on opposite sides of police lines, Weisner told me that he would never allow me to be thrown out of MIT unless I did something utterly insane or horribly destructive. He didn’t like my priorities, he admitted, and he knew we would always be at loggerheads, but, Weisner said, “I will defend your right to pursue your goals.” I think Weisner probably meant it, but only because he couldn’t envision what was to come. MIT had never thrown out any students for political activism, and he didn’t see any reason to think it would start with me. I replied that, in fact, he would indeed throw me out of MIT, despite there being no just cause. It would be for being effective at opposing the MIT administration and the war. He would do it because he would be desperate to get rid of me. He laughed and said, “Not a chance, I’ll take the bet.” I laughed and said, “We’ll see.” Ha ha, about a year later, expelled, I won.
I’d rather be living a free man in my grave
Than as a puppet or a slave.
Weisner dangling Kennedy’s Camelot to induce me to leave the movement wasn’t even the oddest or most brazen offer I got. Protocol requires that the undergraduate association president of MIT’s student body give a yearly speech to notable alumni. So I had that honor, my year as UAP. Obviously, this was quite a lark. My audience was a group of successful graduates returning for a kind of power reunion. Corporate executives, politicos, and media types, as well as scientists and engineers all assembled in a large lecture hall to hear the student president, me, pontificate on matters of the day. Isn’t protocol silly? At any rate, I gave one of the more militant speeches I ever delivered. I had no misgivings about convincing the power alumni, so I decided, what the hell, I would say exactly what I felt and let the chips fall however fate decreed. The speech was peppered with vulgar assaults on
As I got near the door, an elegantly dressed man, probably in his forties, but maybe younger, blocked my path. I braced myself expecting to get assaulted. Instead, he held out his hand to shake, and once he got mine, he hung on, leaned in, and said in a low voice, “Chemicals.” Yes, it was like the scene from The Graduate, except in the movie the industry proposed was “plastics.” I looked askance at my suitor and said, roughly, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He said “Listen, you are wasting your time here. You can come with me right now. You don’t even have to graduate from MIT; you can pick up a degree anytime. We’ll go back to my firm in
I had just savaged capitalism, corporations, his whole world, and yet all this chemical entrepreneur saw was that I was smart, confident, and a good speaker, and therefore a good profit-making prospect. He thought if he made a sufficiently lucrative offer I would dispense with all I had said and sign on with his gray-flannel operations. My contrary allegiances would melt into nothingness.
Weisner too had heard me swear my revolutionary allegiances before he sat in my office and held out his arms hoping I would plop into them as his protégé. He too thought my commitments would disintegrate upon my hearing about a Kennedy-benighted future. Who could refuse Camelot? Corporate
Reasons for Rejecting Lucre
The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.
The arrogance of these co-opters, in my eyes, was incredible. But it was also daunting because I could see that offerings by the powerful most often must have successfully ensnared young souls. Otherwise my suitors would not have been so confident. What they couldn’t understand about me, however, and what was perhaps most important for me to realize about myself, wasn’t that I was displaying some kind of great discipline in turning them down. That kind of rejection of desirable lucre is indeed rare, and I didn’t display any more of it than the next person. It was, instead, trivial for me to reject Weisner and Mr. Chemical because what they offered repulsed me. I didn’t desire their bounty. In fact, you couldn’t force me to go with either of them on grounds of personal fulfillment, much less on moral grounds. Their offers, even if I had nothing on my plate in their place, morals aside, were repulsive. That’s what the hippies begot.
Three decades later Barbara Ehrenreich taught at the summer school called Z Media Institute. I had known Barbara intermittently for many years, but she had since gained considerable stature and was now not only a quite successful leftist author, but also a sometime columnist for Time. At a session with the ZMI students one asked Barbara, a bit incredulously, how she avoided selling out. Weren’t the temptations great?
Barbara said she couldn’t speak for others, but in her case it wasn’t a matter of great discipline or anything worthy of admiration. She just found people’s sellout offers repugnant. “A future of power lunches and stressful competitive bidding in a world of pretense, even if studded with financial largesse, isn’t very attractive. The people aren’t interesting. The glitter isn’t pretty. The power is to do only what the more powerful deem desirable. What’s hard about saying no to that? It’s easy.” Well, that was my situation with the alumni’s chemical vice presidency and the provost’s Camelot. The offers were easy to reject.
When I became a professional activist—a person going from project to project always aiming at social change—it meant not becoming a physicist, which had been my prior life aim. That was a real sacrifice, letting go of something in my blood, but, honestly, I just slid into activism and thus out of physics. I never sat down and said, okay, is it graduate school and physics, or is it rioting and politics? I just did steadily more rioting and politics, and in time there was no more room for graduate school and physics.
So, suppose Weisner had sat in my office and said, “Here, come with me to visit with Richard Feynman (one of the world’s finest physicists). Feynman wants to take you on as his private student. You will later easily get a powerful position in physics, whether here at MIT or with Feynman out at Caltech. You will have the best conditions available. Feynman and I both think you will be very successful, perhaps all the way to
Chomsky and My Career
Well I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them.
Interestingly, there was one conversation that almost derailed my leftward drift. It was with Noam Chomsky. I sat in his office one day and asked him about his own choices. Why did he do linguistics as compared to doing only radical politics? Chomsky said there were three reasons. One was political. His achievements in linguistics gave him security and freedom that facilitated his political involvements and made his words more likely to be noticed. Second, though, Chomsky said he felt that he would dry up and decay if he didn’t do creative intellectual work in his discipline, and would then likely be good for nothing in any realm. Third, he just plain loved it—and life was a mix of choices, some undertaken for principle, others undertaken out of taste and preference.
Noam rarely advises anyone about anything. But Noam did suggest that I should think hard about staying in physics. Victor Weisskopf, who was then the head of the MIT physics department, who was reasonably progressive, and whom Noam later told me was quite moved by some of my speeches, was sure I could be excellent in the field and had asked Noam to try to reel me back in. But Noam’s entreaty came too late to affect my choice. I had already drifted too far to return, and at the time I didn’t put much thought into it. I was primarily a political being, already.
Noam was right though, in various respects. I have spent a whole lot of time doing things because they were needed and right, despite a relative lack of personal inclination. That I would write and publish really has no relation to my own innate preferences or talents. But I also speak a lot, and that is up my talent alley. I work on economic vision, which has at least some intellectual components that I enjoy, however far it is from my real strengths. I still spend a lot of time, it turns out, reading physics and other science books, keeping that part of me alive, if not nourished and blossoming.
Had I done physics, would my mix have been ideal? Would I have had a more worthy and perhaps also a more fulfilling life? I don’t know. I suppose it is possible. Who can say? But as far as aiding political pursuits, I have doubts that I could have pursued physics with the kind of intensity necessary to gain major credibility (how many physicists’ names do you know?) and even if I had beaten the odds, while it might have meant I could write politically with a larger audience, or write more authoritatively about nuclear power, for example, it would also have meant I wouldn’t have worked on all the various projects and organizations I have, and likely would not have had the same things to say. The trade-off seems a bad one to me, however much I might sometimes miss the ins and outs of what I imagine to be the physicist’s life.
The odd thing is, I was recently lucky enough to get a chance to see at least a glimpse of what a physicist’s life for me might have included. I had a high school friend named Irwin Gaines. Irwin and I were pretty comparable in our mental faculties. He had a far better memory than I did, making school much easier for him, but that doesn’t bear too much on physics. He was intellectually faster than me, too. I think my advantage relative to Irwin for a physics career would have been that it helps to believe you can conquer all obstacles so you can tackle large questions. That was more me than Irwin.
At any rate, Irwin became an accomplished experimentalist, where I had wanted to be a theorist. I visited Irwin for the first time in about thirty years a few years ago, at Fermi Lab in
Of course, I could have wound up on other paths too, such as that of my brother Eddie, the gambler. I think the biggest meaning of my brother Eddie’s life for me was that it convincingly demonstrated how being on a particular social path could constrict one’s personality, change one’s values, warp one’s aspirations, and delimit one’s capacities. This insight was to continually inform my understanding of events and prospects. When I am feeling generous about Eddie, I believe he became an antisocial gambler to rebel against the same constricting and alienating world that I later rebelled against as a social revolutionary. Being a gambler is not being a wage slave, whatever ill effects it embodies. Eddie loved the lifestyle, relative to other available possibilities. There but for fortune, and seeing what it did to him, went I, I guess.
It is necessary, with bold spirit and
in good conscience, to save civilization.
The bare and barren tree can be made green again.
Are we not ready?
One of the first militant demonstrations at MIT occurred in 1967. Dow Chemical Company was coming to recruit students to their firm. Recruitment by corporations on campuses was typical, and involved a few people setting up a temporary office to interview prospective applicants. Part of the problem was having corporations of any type at all on campus, at least for many activists. More specifically, however, the issue was Dow.
Dow manufactured napalm, which was a chemical mixture dropped from planes that burned skin even when doused with water. It was a heinous weapon, widely opposed as inhumane, and widely used by the
We decided to block entry to the placement offices with our bodies. I got to the event early, before breakfast, and so did Peter Bohmer, who was three years older than me, a graduate student in economics, and became a close friend, to remain so for decades. Peter and I were packed in next to each other and talked a lot during the day. Peter had more developed politics, and I mostly tried to soak up his knowledge and experience. We blocked the entire floor for many hours. There was no real violence, but I remember a young MIT administrator, highly belligerent, a big guy with intimidating, confident manners who gave off vibes that if he had the authority he would vamp us into oblivion. His name was Paul Gray. In the 1980s he rose, as one might expect, watching garbage rise, to become president of MIT.
The logic of the Dow demonstration, which we wrote up in leaflets and distributed all over campus, was that since we wouldn’t let the Mafia recruit at MIT, why should we let Dow Chemical do so? Dow produced napalm, which was more overtly destructive than anything the Mafia did.
We also argued that students should not have the right to work for Dow Chemical just like community members should not have the right to join the Mafia. Overt membership in criminal institutions should confer guilt by mutual association, a view that arguably went a bit too far, not least because we were all students at MIT, which was itself a criminal institution in the same respects as Dow Chemical was, contributing in various ways to the war.
We had many discussions and arguments with students who had appointments and wanted to get in to see the recruiters, as well as with MIT officials and employees. No one got through, and even with the administration the discussions, while sometimes heated, never crossed the line to outright physical conflict. The ensuing debate (except with Paul Gray) was at this early date in MIT activism, quite civil. Eventually, the Dow recruiters gave up on-campus recruiting, though it is certainly possible they made secret appointments off campus.
The Calculus of Dissent
Strong reasons make strong actions.
M any people celebrated the Dow action on the grounds that we had successfully disrupted recruitment, but I thought that was completely beside the point. Yes, we had to disrupt the meetings if we were to address Dow effectively. But disrupting meetings was a means to an end. Raising consciousness and laying the seeds for more future involvement by more people was the aim. I think we succeeded on those grounds, too, but it was a very different criterion.
Here’s how I thought about it. Suppose we had been cleared out of the hall and the recruitment had continued as planned but the act of clearing us had been widely discussed on campus and had aroused more people’s interest and affected more people’s ideas. Assuming it aided movement building, would that have been less of an achievement? Would getting routed have made us less successful? I didn’t think so. Suppose we had found a way to prevent the recruitment of MIT students by Dow but our approach had less effect on people’s future views and contributed less to building antiwar activism. Imagine we surreptitiously blackmailed Weisner into calling it off. Would that have been better? Not to my thinking.
In the heat of social conflict, the above calculus wasn’t always obvious to everyone. Many of my friends, for example, focused on the proximate details of obstruction, not on broader movement building. Indeed, throughout the sixties, people frequently lost track of the logic of their own actions and evaluated them by self-denying criteria imposed by media. We struck a university or tried to shut down a building or stop a meeting and looked only at the scorecard of the confrontation itself. In our confrontational posture, bent by media machinations, we judged the day and all the efforts leading up to it, and all the follow-up efforts, in terms of whether the opposed meeting occurred or not. How we assessed our actions, in other words, was sometimes incredibly self-defeating and confused, missing the real point.
The day of the demo against Dow, and all the work leading up to and following that day, should have been judged, some of us argued then and later, not on the basis of narrow, proximate, tactical details, but on the basis of movement building. One reason activists frequently focused on proximate details rather than the larger picture was that we vested the proximate with so much tactical attention that it crowded out the real prize. We got caught up in it like in a prizefight or ball game.
Another reason we often lost track of the larger picture, however, was that some people really did care only about the proximate issue and nothing more. They were not confused but only wanted Dow out. For example, at MIT there was tension between those caring only about MIT complicity, and those caring about ending the war in
At MIT, my friends and I used to constantly hassle over what to do and how to do it. If we wanted new campus rules, higher pay in a workplace, a new affirmative action law, pollution controls, or the end of a war, we knew that we had to force authorities to submit. Activism from
As with building an antiwar movement beyond ending recruitment on campus, or as with building an anti-imperialist movement beyond ending a particular war, or as with building a movement to win new defining social institutions beyond ending imperial policies, the additional logic was that you must contribute to a continuing process. What you did should affect immediate activists and people viewing activism in ways that increased the prospects for future successes. Each act of dissent, from painting walls and holding rallies to marching, sitting in, or burning draft cards or buildings, should increase the numbers of committed activists and their organizational wherewithal, as well as move the larger public into being more supportive of our long-term goals. The Dow demo made all this clear. That’s what dissent should do, for those who participate.
No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.
When I would talk with MIT students about obstructing Dow, ending war research, ending the war, or ending poverty, racism, or capitalism, underneath people’s confusion there was always another obstacle. Sessions would last hours. Concerns and doubts would surface. I would begin such talks offering evidence about the war’s horrors. But most of the serious discussion that followed wasn’t about
What these MIT students would say was that there was ultimately no point to resistance regardless of my facts, which they agreed were right, and regardless of the war’s immorality, which they also admitted. The reason they gave to not demonstrate, organize, or even learn about the facts and conditions of the people we were murdering overseas was that all people are greedy, nasty, and brutish, so nothing positive was possible. These MIT classmates told me that human nature leads to war and injustice. There is no way to prevent this trajectory. You can’t stop war, these classmates asserted, in the same way you can’t make trees talk or make stones cry. There is no more point opposing war’s trajectory, they concluded, than blowing into the wind. If we don’t fight wars, someone else will. So we should do nothing.
The second most prevalent reason MIT students gave against resisting was that it was impossible to fight City Hall. You may have good goals and intentions. You may even come up with a way of seeking your preferences that wouldn’t create a new mess just as bad as what you are battling against. Nonetheless, you can’t win. This was the old folk’s home at the college mustering defeatism on behalf of inaction. You can’t stop the war, my classmates asserted, in the same way that a kid can’t outbox Muhammad Ali. The state and corporations are too powerful.
Even if people could live better lives in a better world, humanity is too entangled in this world to reach a better one. The obstacles are insurmountable. We are condemned. And these views are also common now, in the
I remember a related phenomenon that always simultaneously amused and depressed me. I’d be handing out antiwar leaflets, and those who didn’t eagerly take the antiwar leaflet would brush it away like it was infected with deadly germs. Sometimes the person despised us but often it was clear that that wasn’t the root of it. I would walk along with such people, going backward, facing them from in front, as they moved forward, and I repeatedly offered them the leaflet. They would keep refusing and I would keep thrusting it at them. They could easily take the leaflet and then throw it out, or they could shout or threaten me off, but few who avidly didn’t want it did that. The leaflets were indeed germ-infected. The disease was antiwar activism. The leaflets sat atop a slippery slope. If you took a leaflet, you might read it. If you read it, you might accept its message. If you accepted its message, you might demonstrate. The leaflet was dangerous because it might hook you into something you wanted to avoid. Better to avoid seeing it.
People who actively resisted communication sometimes explicitly hated us and our views, of course. But more often their resistance stemmed either from doubting the efficacy of activism for reasons noted above, or from wishing to avoid dangerous involvement. It was important to understand this because it meant organizing was not just a matter of conveying previously unfamiliar truths, however important that aspect was. I began to realize that reaching people often entailed overcoming not only ignorance, but also fear of failure.
First of all two people get together
an’ they want their doors enlarged
In the early 1960s and right up to 1965, there were occasional, quite small antiwar demonstrations on the Boston Common. MIT students who went to these demonstrations were generally not protestors but instead part of a large crowd of sometimes-violent hecklers. Campus antiwar activity was almost nonexistent, particularly at MIT, right through my first year there. But from my sophomore through my senior year the situation went ballistic. Antiwar rallies on the Boston Common regularly exceeded 100,000 people, with only a handful of hecklers. MIT students poured out of dorms and fraternities to join marches. In 1968 and 1969, we had not only massive but also very militant demonstrations.
When I ran for office at MIT, I would go into a dorm to speak and the entire dorm would turn out to listen and then discuss the issues. These sessions would last a few hours and many folks would continue talking afterward. What happened? What induced such a change in consciousness and activism in just a few years?
Partly, events happened all over the country and around the world, and each one prodded others. There was a sequence of campus activities from the
At MIT, a relatively small group of people—at first, about 15 or so—organized the campus. We redesigned corridors, put up posters, and sponsored educational events. We held rallies and teach-ins. We talked to fellow students, over and over, at every opportunity. We went door to door in dorms and fraternities night after night. We stuck leaflets under people’s doors, mimeographing them all one night and then distributing them all the next night, going around to talk about reactions thereafter. We sat and talked to folks in the eating areas. We brought up the war and many other issues in classes. We continually urged new people to address their often-incredible ignorance or conservatism.
The thing about movements in the sixties is that people discovered that their pains were not due to personal inadequacies. People got angry at newly unveiled culprits. Lies were uncovered and the lies made people indignant.
The civil rights movement highlighted racism and repression in the restaurants, bus stations, and streets of the south, and then also in northern ghettos. It painted before people’s eyes stark images revealing that the horrendous situation of blacks in the
The antiwar movement offered a second revelation. The
The women’s movement provided the most explicit case of mind-changing, soul-transforming revelation. Women began to gather in one another’s homes to discuss their life situations. They spoke about their experiences more openly than ever before and discovered that the rapes, brutalities, denials of dignity, and depredations of intelligence that they all daily endured were not unique. The oppressive patterns were so common from one woman to the next that once women’s private stories were made public, one woman after another realized that their seemingly private situations couldn’t be due to personal preferences, nor even due to a particular man or a few men they just happened to have unluckily hooked up with. It was systemic. The system could be fought. Up burst the energy of struggle.
And finally, or in some ways firstly, the hippie, youth, antiauthoritarian cultural movement was similarly revelatory. Now it was boredom, irrelevance, ageism, and alienation that were shown to be not personal infections but social impositions. Hippies rebelled at suburban plasticity. Hippies rejected daily life and all its accouterments, not just the most oppressive features, but even those indicating success. Hippies found suburbia and the American dream obscene. Hippies created alternative lifestyles. It wasn’t just our hair growing.
The sixties I participated in erupted over anger at promises unmet and ubiquitous lies and hypocrisy. A big part of our sixties emergence was people receiving honest, accurate information. A smaller though also necessary part was people overcoming cynicism. At MIT we had to bring the truth about
Today, however, I suspect that everyone knows more or less who and what is at fault regarding poverty, health care, and war, and who is suffering. The problem today is that while consciousness of injustice is more advanced, cynicism—the view that nothing better is possible and that the enemy is all powerful—has become far more prevalent and powerful.
Still, beyond these contextual changes, which bear on what needs doing now, there is the issue of organizing and just what it is. In the sixties, organizing was face-to-face talk with everyone we could corner. Now organizing is often sending e-mails. Whereas in the sixties I would stay up all night mimeographing a leaflet, looking at the end of the night as if I had rolled in ink, and then stay up the next night with many others taking the leaflets to room after room, perhaps getting as many as 1,000 of them under people’s doorjambs via two full nights of work by a bunch of people, now, in a click of a mouse, I can send 200,000 e-mails each containing the equivalent of a long leaflet, right to people’s desks.
This is luxurious efficiency. E-mail is cheap and labor-saving. The international ties that e-mail has facilitated are enormous. The galvanizing of quick responses and gatherings is a blessing. But, as an organizer’s tool, e-mail also has a dangerous flaw. We can only send e-mail to addresses that we have. On campuses all over the