Remembering Tomorrow: Chapter 2
Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapters 2 and 3, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
Fraternity Rush Riot
I have always regarded myself as the pillar of my life.
In high school, in 1964–65, I applied to five colleges and got in everywhere except Harvard. I wanted to go to Harvard because I wanted to be in the same school as my best friend Larry Seidman, who was a Harvard freshman during my senior year in high school, and to be near my girlfriend Nancy Shapiro, who was going to
In July 1965, following my senior year at
I arrived for MIT’s Rush Week just before the official school semester began, as did about a third of my classmates. We were all seeking to join a fraternity. Physics was on my mind, not politics. I went to fraternity houses and was wined, dined, and often invited to stay for the evening. Some fraternities were more party oriented. “Wooly Bully” was the big dance hit. Some favored athletics. Go Celtics, though I favored the Knicks. Some emphasized academics, and a few were havens for all-around achievement. The differences could affect your days and nights at MIT. I was shopping for a home. The fraternities were shopping for freshmen. It was advanced living group matchmaking. I became a brother at Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of MIT’s four Jewish fraternities. My pre-med emissary had recruited better than emissaries from Sigma Alpha Mu and other fraternities. Rush Week preceded five months of pledging. Since MIT outlawed dangerous hazing, pledging involved having to light cigarettes for upper classmen, to learn everyone’s name and hometown, to do push-ups whenever we forgot some required fact, and “pantsing”—we were tackled by numerous upper classmen, throttled to exhaustion, and stripped. Among those treating me to such indignities was a sophomore named Robert Horvitz. He was a good guy, and quite bright. In 2002 he shared with two others the Nobel Prize in Biology “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.’” The opening sentence of his acceptance speech was “I never expected to spend the rest of my life studying worms.” Pretty cool. Go AEPi, go.
On Friday nights, the AEPi pledge class rigorously cleaned the fraternity. Partly the sessions were a rational way to thoroughly clean, polish, and sometimes restore broken or worn items. It kept a large pair of four-story brownstones comfortable. Partly the sessions entailed washing a floor, and then washing it again, two, three, or even four times, as hazing. Cleaning would extend from immediately after dinner to as late as four in the morning, depending on what screwups occurred while we waxed on and waxed off. Upperclass authority eradicated our Friday nights and even exhausted us so we couldn’t enjoy our Saturdays. Since personal time at MIT was slim, saying goodbye to Friday nights and many Saturdays was a considerable sacrifice.
About twenty Fridays later, AEPi held for its freshman a melodramatic induction ceremony. Amidst candles and pomp, we were declared brothers. After the ceremony, our new brothers told us how Rush Week had been organized. We learned that the fraternities had carefully researched lists of all incoming freshmen well in advance of our arrival. It was like NBA basketball teams researching prospective recruits before a player draft. MIT had few women in those days but only men chose between various all-male dorms and a couple of dozen all-male fraternities. Our choosing fraternities and them choosing us was a male ritual. When a freshman arrived at AEPi, he either got the bum’s rush—a quick walk out the back door into an alley—or he got the Prospect’s Perusal, for which he’d be taken upstairs, introduced around, and offered information and snacks. If the freshman impressed the brothers, he’d be enticed to stay for elaborate dinners and perhaps overnight and throughout the week. Contenders were closely evaluated at late-night sessions during which brothers sat around judging each prospective inductee for how he would fit the fraternity’s ethos. After we heard the above, we heard the big news. The rooms in the fraternity that we had inhabited overnight had been tapped. The phones we had used to make outgoing calls had been bugged. Big brothers told us they used information gleaned from wiretapping and bugging to judge our thoughts and, for those whom they sought, to offer us our preferred inducements to join.
For example, when I privately mentioned to a friend in a shared room or to my lover Nancy over the phone that I liked what I saw at AEPi but would prefer a bit more emphasis on physics and would enjoy it if some AEPiers were into playing tennis and participating in campus politics, the next morning, bright and early, I was nonchalantly welcomed into a bull session on physics. Later, I was casually invited for a game of tennis. In the evening I was given a tour of the campus student-committee rooms. Of course, if I had mentioned other preferences to my girlfriend, those desires too would have been met. Had I said disturbing things or indicated questionable tastes or inclinations, this too would have been conveyed to the brothers and affected their votes on me.
If I had discovered these wildly intrusive policies during Rush Week I would have gone berserk. You did what? But having given up six months of Friday nights, made new friends, and acclimated to a new and very comfortable home, on learning of these policies I felt only momentary anger. Similarly, after induction, no one in the fraternity’s past had ever been pissed for long. Beyond a disconcerted day or two, life continued without a hitch. Mine, too. Malleable humanity. The excuse offered by our upperclass brothers for AEPi’s duplicitous manipulations convinced everyone, including me, that in context, the brothers’ actions had been wise. The upperclassmen had researched us. They had taken long hours to carefully assess our personalities. They had determined where we would best fit on campus. In Rush Week we had only a week to make life-affecting decisions.
Because everyone was trying to rush us, we had no honest information to guide our choices. How could AEPi’s brothers trust us to decide for ourselves? The big brothers, therefore, told us they decided for us, and then, for those they wanted to rush, they used whatever wiles they could muster to get us to join their house, lest we mistakenly end up somewhere else.
What is perhaps most instructive about all this is that we MIT freshmen, with half a year of college under our belts, smug as all get out about our wisdom, all accepted this explanation, as did midyear freshmen in other houses. We welcomed the pebble of caring that resided in the upperclassmen’s revelations. We ignored the boulder of elitist, paternalist, deception that also resided there. We were living where we wanted to be. We were happy. Our home away from home was good. Anger would rock everyone’s boat. Selection worked. Why question success? For the rest of the second semester, life at AEPi proceeded as in past years. Our little community was academically serious but we enjoyed ourselves, too. We competed but also mutual-aided. AEPi pressured excellence. We had privacy, but we also had nearby friends for advice and support. Did Barry need help with classes? It was there. Did Steve need help with meeting people, dating, or personal angst? It was there. AEPi offered communal rewards made even more attractive by the exigencies of dreaded dorm life.
AEPiers were serious about campus politics and particularly the position and influence of their fraternity. For each new member, upperclassmen would envision plausible futures and then help to make them happen. One or perhaps two people in each new class, unbeknownst to them, would be selected for special grooming to become campus stars. So it was that within days of Rush Week, I was picked out by my big brothers for a prominent future.
My upperclass handlers envisioned me becoming undergraduate association president of the whole student body, or UAP, by my senior year. Within days of the end of Rush Week, they charted me through running for freshman class president and through a number of other steps, including using contacts of AEPi upperclassmen to participate in various campus activities devoted to assessing campus teaching and academics. Upperclassmen didn’t discuss these plans with me until a half year later, after my induction. At first they simply planned my future and projected me in the directions they chose.
Oblivious to all that, for my first half year at MIT I enjoyed having my girlfriend Nancy Shapiro close to me at nearby Simmons. I aced my classes and enjoyed playing touch football and then softball in campus athletic leagues. I had a happy freshman year, nearly perfect from AEPi’s perspective, and from mine too. Nancy and I were very close, even thinking about future marriage. We regularly studied together in the MIT libraries, went out every weekend, and slept together via a system where fraternity roommates would vacate space for one another before women’s curfews. Sometime in the late winter, however, Nancy and I fought, pretty seriously, and I feared our relationship was over. I was despondent and I milked the situation for a week or so.
I remember sitting in a downstairs living area at AEPi listening to Paul McCartney repeatedly sing “Yesterday,” me singing along under my breath, as maudlin as one can get. I remember walking across what was called the
Summer Job, Something for Nothing
A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.
–George Bernard Shaw
I spent that summer in the city. My father got me a job in a hospital for which he was doing legal work. I went in, met my boss, and was put in a very small office. I was supposed to help the hospital staff with medical programming. I knew nothing about programming or about anything medical. The first day on the job I spent eight hours alone, bored silly, doing nothing. The second day replicated the first. On the third day I smuggled a book to work. I read the book all day in my little office and no one cared. I formed a hypothesis: the hospital gave me the job as a favor to my father but actually had nothing for me to do and would very much prefer that I was silent and invisible than that I constantly sought assignments. I tested the hypothesis by hiding out and ignoring the whole place, doing my thing, alone in my hospital office, reading. No problem. My first brush with wage slavery was delightful. I was paid to read whatever I liked with no boss in sight.
I didn’t only read, however. I also wrote letters back and forth with one of my fraternity mates, Bob Barr. Bob left AEPi, as did some others in my class, about six months after I did. In fact, most of my class left, and much of it joined Students for a Democratic Society at MIT, which in turn became the most effective student organization in the Boston-Cambridge area. Like me, Bob was very into Bob Dylan and music generally, and we became close friends. Bouncing my concerns about AEPi off him was very helpful to my finally deciding to leave the fraternity.
Early in my freshman year, my AEPi classmate Larry White, who was from
By the way, the evil Walt Rostow’s parents were socialist. Walt’s older brother, Eugene Victor, was named for the socialist Eugene V. Debs and became dean of the
One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.
After my summer of letters at the hospital job, I returned to MIT. It turned out that the psychic investment of pledging hadn’t permanently exterminated my common sense. During my hospital stint, my brains and scruples made a comeback and I became outraged at my fraternity brothers’ manipulations. Earlier I had ignored the debits of Rush Week to cling to a nice new home. Now I ignored the benefits of my nice home to jettison its duplicity. I quit AEPi during its pre-Rush Week cleanup period.
When Rush Week started and the brothers were enticing new freshman into earshot of AEPi’s tapped phones and bugged rooms, I sat on the fender of a car directly outside AEPi’s front door and called over incoming freshmen as they were about to enter the house. I told them exactly what was going on.
Sitting on that car and telling the truth to those freshman was my first overtly political act, though at the time I had not a political thought in my head. There was a street brawl. Some of my AEPi ex-brothers sought to forcefully silence me. Others sought to limit the carnage for fear of repercussions for AEPi’s campus credentials. A few sought to save my hide.
The school administration acted quickly. Removed by campus police, I was banned from returning to the corner. The MIT administration opened private discussions of Rush Week reform. Lacking political motivation, however, my public dissent didn’t last. I wanted no part of AEPi’s mini-pestilence, but I wasn’t yet actively focused on the broader pestilence that was MIT itself, not to mention
Within a few days of the curbside fracas, my father arrived in
With the elite’s arrival, the day’s rhetoric became blatantly disgusting. The fraternity’s leaders, unlike the younger brothers who had filed through earlier, admitted to my father that my accusations were correct. Of course the fraternity pried and lied, but why couldn’t I see that I would benefit from the lying and prying? I was headed for the top of the heap. I would be an AEPi success story. “It works for us,” they told my father, “and since Mike’s going to be one of us, he shouldn’t give it up.”
At this point, my father changed sides. He was sad about having to ratify my moving off-campus, a prospect he dreaded, but he was sickened more by the fraternity’s arrogance. Dad and I saw true elitism that didn’t even rationalize itself to itself. The elitism that infected society’s boardrooms also infected first-rank campuses. AEPi’s big shots paraded it.
The upperclassmen told Dad and me that tapping phones was justified. Freshmen were ignorant. All the living groups lied. Should AEPi forego practices that would attract desirable recruits? No, AEPi should manipulate better than other houses to ensure that incoming freshmen wound up where they would be best off rather than elsewhere. AEPi’s duplicity worked, my ex-brothers argued. I had two grounds to reject AEPi’s hypocrisy. First, I could let principle trump practicality. You can’t lie like that. You can’t manipulate like that. You can’t call lying befriending even to people who are, in all other respects, your friends. But this approach had a problem. In fact, morals are often contextual. Situations arise in which, if you meet a high burden of proof, it can be right to lie. Even forty years later, while my deeply held feeling is that “the truth is always revolutionary,” I also know there are exceptions. So I wanted a second reason. I wanted to judge AEPi’s manipulations for their implications. I wanted to decide that contrary to the AEPi analysis of it, manipulative recruitment was destructive.
During AEPi’s ceremony of our new brotherhood, all the implications looked positive, and I later realized that this is precisely how most corruption looks to its advocates. Someone benefits. A supporting argument claims that the situation’s persistence would be superior to its termination. If AEPi didn’t manipulate us, we would have wound up no less manipulated by others, but we would have settled on living units less suited to our tastes and potentials. What would be gained by that?
But the fraternity leaders’ argument on behalf of lying, even granting their assumption that manipulation yielded locally happy outcomes, failed to take into account that yearly submission to the fraternity process replicated the rationale for even worse social behavior. The manipulative rush process had some good outcomes: there was no other living option that could confidently achieve better residences for us. The problem was that that same logic on a larger scale would forever preserve all kinds of injustice. There was also the issue of the impact, which I sadly admit I never researched, on those who got the bum’s rush.
I rejected AEPi viscerally on account of my feeling that you just can’t act that way. That propelled me out. Later I found a more systemic argument against the fraternities. The key was the mindset of the last few power-broker fraternity brothers who urged me to stay, as well as the subordinate mindsets that accepted unquestioningly the boss’s smiling dominance. AEPi was part of how the whole country continually replicated hypocritical domination by a few over many, saying it was the only viable option, especially when undertaken with a friendly face. Anyhow, in the ensuing months about half my class left AEPi. This was unprecedented at MIT, but even more interesting was that a number of these folks became a working core of what we later called Rosa Luxemburg SDS. What distinguished the ex-AEPi-ers who helped turn MIT upside down from any random group of students at MIT was only our implicit rejection of benefits that rested on and rationalized duplicity and elitism. That my friends and I increased SDS’s ranks was, in that sense, largely contingent. If whatever caused me to leave AEPi had not done so, all our lives would have been different. Contingent history.
And here is a final wrinkle to the story. When first inducted into AEPi, I was told there was a moment in the nightly sessions that evaluated contenders for admission when there was doubt about my acceptance. Someone was reporting on my day’s interactions and noted that late in the evening, in a bull session in one of the AEPi rooms with a couple of other freshman guests and a few upperclass brothers, I had sat on a bed that wasn’t mine, with my bare feet bent under me, on a pillow, talking. The brothers listening were appalled that I had sat on someone else’s pillow—and the room of brothers, hearing the report, feared that I was about to get negative votes. Then those present at the bull session reported that when it ended for the night I noticed I had been sitting on someone’s pillow, picked it up, went to the room I would be staying in, and replaced the pillow I had been sitting on with my own pillow, which hadn’t been sat on. Everyone relaxed. My acceptance was certain.
Here’s the craziness. These guys were sitting around comparing notes about freshman candidates to live with, including using data secretly culled from our private conversations. They were manipulatively deciding our futures, lying and deceiving, and yet they were simultaneously concerned that I might be a bad bet as a brother due to my having sat on someone’s pillow. I remember being profoundly moved when I first read a particular passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five addressing the complexities of human diversity in cases of great evil. It was about prison camp guards during the Holocaust. It went like this:
I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed at random. Such a snaggle toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even substandard libido whirls with the jerky, gaudy, pointlessness, of a cuckoo clock in Hell.
Jones wasn’t completely crazy. The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.
Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell—keeping perfect time for eight minutes and thirty three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.
The missing teeth of course are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten year olds, in most cases. The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without certain obvious pieces of information. That was how my father-in-law could contain in one mind an indifference toward slave women and a love for a blue vase. That was how Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, could alternate over the loudspeakers of Auschwitz great music and calls for corpse carriers. That was how Germany could see no important differences between civilization and hydrophobia.
My fraternity life ran from 1965 into 1966. For Frank Sinatra, “It Was A Very Good Year.” For James Brown, “Papa Got A Brand New Bag.” The Animals better communicated my sentiments: “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
MIT Teaches, Too
A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.
—George Bernard Shaw
At MIT, you get a faculty advisor right off. Mine was Ranier Weiss, an experimental physicist. He focused on detecting gravity waves, a goal that only now, forty years later, is first becoming possible, and he is right in the thick of it, still. Gravity is a spatial distortion that emanates from mass. If a mass is large and dense and if it is in great turmoil, its motion can yield ripples in space, a bit like sound waves but much harder to notice. Weiss was intent on finding these ripples. He took a shine to me as a potential protégé and not only advised me about course selection, but personally designed a one-on-one course for me at his lab once a week for a few hours. Weiss would push and prod me, not so much about textbook learning as about the thinking that goes into doing real physics. As a freshman I took Weiss’s special course, as well as an overload of normal courses.
MIT is supposed to be very tough. In truth it is and it isn’t. There is a lot of work. The courses cover considerable ground and quickly reach far into their respective fields. But if you are highly confident and you are taking courses you have good facility for, then MIT isn’t all that hard. When I took courses that I had no real talent for, however—one in philosophy, another in computer science, and a third in economics—MIT was murder. In physics and math, however, I most often ignored the classes and just crammed for finals and got my As. In the first two years I spent very little time in classrooms because most classes were actually quite boring. You could read the texts, ignore lectures, and miss little. Later, politics took me away even from the classes I liked, including some graduate ones. MIT was full of highly proficient scientists. They might have come to class and told us what it meant to be a physicist, chemist, biologist, or whatever, including the social, personal, and intellectual ins and outs of being in their field. They might have conveyed information about pursuing careers, including insights that few books even try to communicate. But with few exceptions, my MIT professors didn’t do that. Weiss tried, in our special sessions, and I looked forward to those until politics pulled me entirely out of physics. But Weiss was an exception. Most MIT classes conveyed only textbook knowledge. Often professors literally read a text aloud, or summarized one working from notes, conveying little that wasn’t book-based. Nonetheless, I did learn a lot at MIT. Books matter. Partly it was classical mechanics, electromagnetic theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics. For purposes of lasting value, however, what I most learned was what an argument is, how to test a hypothesis, how to determine the implications of an assumption or claim, and when and how to employ thought experiments.
Of course, everyone knows how to do these things in a few realms. Many people never become comfortable and confident, however, using evidence and logic and paying attention to consistency across all realms, much less ubiquitously using thought experiments to seek truthful positions and insights. Instead, people sometimes forego logic and evidence due to habit, or whenever these contradict other priorities. This occurs most dramatically with fundamentalist or sectarian communities and, ironically, among the most highly educated sectors. The more mainstream training people have, I discovered in time, the more capacities they have for rationalizing falsehoods and the more they can prosper by deviating from truthfulness.
Workers of the world, unite.
The ins and outs of some physics theories, the methods and content of various mathematical frameworks, and the art of paying attention to evidence, logic, and consistency, as well as to employing many associated techniques, weren’t all I learned at MIT. I learned Marxism, too. We had just had an activist meeting in a lounge room in the MIT student center. There had been some discussion of campus organizing and the war and some mention of related Marxist analysis. The meeting ended and Robin Hahnel and I were sitting and chatting after everyone else had left. Robin was in SDS at MIT, despite his being a student at Harvard, because Robin preferred our organizing group at MIT to the one at Harvard. I had met Robin because in freshman year he was Larry Seidman’s roommate, and Larry was my best friend from high school whom I had visited a couple of times the prior year. If not for that link through Larry, Robin and I would likely never have known each other. When I came back to Cambridge for my sophomore year and left AEPi, I moved off campus with another MIT student, Andy Pearlman. For the second semester, Robin joined us in a Cambridge apartment. This was 1967.
At any rate, in the MIT student center, I suddenly asked Robin, as the meeting was breaking up, can you teach me Marxism? Robin was majoring in economics, reading it voraciously, and my structured learning up to that time had had zero to do with politics or economics. I assumed Robin was much more familiar with Marxism than I was, and I hoped I could learn from him.
We spent the next few hours with him presenting Marxist concepts and answering my questions. This was eye-opening in two main ways, and highly fortunate in a third. First, I learned much about Marxist economics. Second, and this didn’t percolate into awareness until much later, there was the astounding reality that the core of this famous intellectual framework had been conveyed to me in a single long sitting. It didn’t take thousands of pages of reading and years of study. Yes, before Robin and I talked I already had a vague familiarity with the Marxist framework from my sophomore year of fledgling activism, but this session demonstrated that if clearly instructed, a person could become broadly and usefully knowledgeable in a subject to the point of being able to ask cutting-edge questions in hours or days, not years. Third, I think Robin teaching me Marxism that afternoon was the beginning of the two of us working together as a kind of intellectual team. The dynamic employed that day became typical. Robin would sit while I would pace around asking questions. I played devil’s advocate, spouting idea after idea. He brought to bear evidence and careful analysis. In this way, we’d push lines of thought in directions that we would likely each ignore working alone.
Many Marxists would reply to all this by saying, “Albert, oh yes, he thinks he knows what we Marxists are about, but it is mere hubris. He understands the most mechanical Marxism, but he doesn’t understand the rich framework we employ.” Here is a rejoinder I almost got to offer. Not long after our book Unorthodox Marxism was published, about ten years after the sessions described above, Robin and I got a message from a British economist, the world-famous Marxist Ronald Meek. Meek liked our book. Indeed, he found it very convincing. Meek agreed that we understood Marxism. More important, and rather astoundingly, he agreed with our critique of Marxism. This was incredibly good news. Meek was arguably the dean of international Marxist economic scholarship, and a Meek review saying Unorthodox Marxism was compelling, much less that he agreed with it, would have profoundly boosted our arguments. Meek died, however, before he wrote the review. Robin and I greatly mourned his passing even though we had never met the man.
Here is the rejoinder I have offered, in lieu of quoting Meek, who died too soon to go public, in reply to the many Marxists who question my comprehension. When I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, some years after MIT, I studied with prominent adherents of two different schools of Marxism. I never had to learn new basic core concepts to successfully participate in their classes and debates. None of them found fault with my comprehension. Likewise, when Robin and I published the book Unorthodox Marxism, no Marxist even claimed that it demonstrated a lack of comprehension. In fact, quite to our surprise, Part One of the book, which presented Marxism, was used in a considerable number of Marxism courses. Could I have written Part One the day after our initial session in the MIT student union? Probably not, but certainly it wouldn’t have taken much additional effort to be ready to do so. Part Two of Unorthodox Marxism critiqued the Marxist framework presented in Part One. When we wrote Unorthodox Marxism, Robin and I saw ourselves as extending the Marxist heritage, which is why the book wasn’t called Anti-Marxism or Beyond Marxism or After Marxism, but was called instead Unorthodox Marxism.
The Glue That Binds Us All
The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
A year out of AEPi, 1967–68, I lived with Robin Hahnel and Larry Seidman in an apartment in a relatively depressed working-class neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts, just north of Cambridge where MIT was located. Across the street another friend, John Adler, lived in a smaller place, making four of us on the block. Among other activities, we used to play touch football with the local high school kids.
We got along well with our neighborhood friends and enjoyed our games together. But a few months into the semester, we noticed a drift in their play. Quality went down. Attention went down. Soon our neighbors wouldn’t play at all. We’d see them spaced out. They’d barely notice us. Our VW van was frequently occupied in the cold winter evenings. Before long, we knew our friends had taken to sniffing glue in the backseat of our van.
Glue sniffing was popular in many working-class communities. Glue was easy and cheap and provided an escapist trip. Where marijuana heightened the senses, glue dulled them. Glue fumes destroyed brain cells. Feed your head, indeed. Glue manufacturers noticed the inflated demand. Being market-wise, scuttlebutt had it that manufacturers increased the glue’s deadly ingredients to attract additional users. If so, no doubt they told themselves that if they didn’t do it, someone else would. Shocking? Think cigarettes and nicotine. Anyhow, we got our neighbors together and tried to talk them out of their new pastime. They told us that they liked sniffing glue because doing so temporarily wiped away their problems. We told them sniffing glue was also wiping away their lives. They laughed and told us their lives were already wiped clean. How much of a brain did it take to be a box boy? Why should they worry about cutting off an already dead-end future? In their other worldly wisdom, early death was no biggie. First you forget, then you die.
These young friends were killing themselves and we were powerless to stop it. Finally, we told them sniffing glue would make them impotent and destroy their sex lives. This shook them. They saw sexual inadequacy as a real danger, so they gave up sniffing. In hindsight, this lie—for we had no idea what effect glue sniffing had on sexual performance—was not entirely different from the lies AEPI brothers told me to prevent me from doing what they thought wasn’t in my interest.
This is the upside and the downside of contextual morals. Was our manipulation regarding their gonads to curtail glue sniffing morally warranted because as a result some of these kids lived longer? Or was it morally wrong because we were exploiting our authority as elite students to pull it off? In the same situation I would do it again, but that may say more about me than about right and wrong. Mostly, this deadly experience made me realize that the kids had a point. In context, seemingly insane behavior often has logical justification.
Paint that Slogan
A witty saying proves nothing.
Like most of my peers who trod roughly the same path I did, my slip-slide toward revolution was quick. Social concern begets social involvement begets social revolutionary. I can’t detail every step of this progression but I can describe parts. For example, when students started each new year at MIT there was an initial regimen of registering for classes in a gymnasium with everyone entering, dealing with the bureaucracy, and moving on. Everyone therefore knew that on a particular morning, let’s say it was a Tuesday, starting just after breakfast, there would be an immense flow of students through the prescribed room. Opportunity knocked.
It was the outset of my junior or perhaps senior year. It was certainly not my first act at MIT, and also not my last. We positioned ourselves at various locales on campus and in each of these one or more of us spray-painted slogans onto prominent walls. George Katsiaficas and I had the plum assignment: the registration hall. George was president of the intrafraternity conference. I had recruited him to the movement and to SDS, picking him out for his prominent position—like the fraternity picking me out—and had befriended and talked with him, helping him extricate himself from his prior life as I had been helped to extricate myself from mine. At any rate, late on Monday night George and I turned up at the registration hall and were about to go in—but, sitting in the middle of the hall on a small chair near the entry door was a guard reading a book. We reversed course. Outside again, I was ready to pick a lesser target, but George was undeterred. I had hubris enough for most situations, but George was healthily over the top with it and led me around the side of the building, near the back of the outside of the hall. We boosted up to a ledge, pried open a window, and snuck into the room. We were in the same big area with the guard, but we were behind the guard’s back and separated from him by a stretch of open space. The guard was nodding off while reading and we painted slogans about the war, capitalism, and MIT all around the big hall. We did it quickly, all over the room. At times George moved within twenty feet of the guard. Luckily, we got out unscathed. The next day course registration occurred as scheduled. The walls had been whitewashed. Audacity sometimes had limited impact despite considerable risk.
Chutzpah Lessons & Results
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
Eddie, my older brother, the gambler, may have provided me my first lessons in chutzpah, the only Yiddish word I know, which means, more or less, gumption plus cleverness. When I was about ten, for my birthday, Eddie took me to a professional wrestling match in Madison Square Garden. It was the nicest thing Eddie ever did for me, save for letting me use his Chevy convertible on my high school prom night.
Eddie and I both loved professional wrestling, perhaps due to our grandfather’s passion for it. Antonino Rocca, a good-guy master of flying dropkicks, was one of my favorite stars and so was the strongman Bruno Sammartino, both on the card that night. Eddie preferred the more thugish Johnny Valentine with his Atomic Skull Crusher and Jerry Graham, whose best move was smashing an opponent in the head with a chair. We got to the Garden and it was toe-to-toe outside the arena. We had no tickets and the scalpers were asking way beyond our budget. It looked futile and I was resigned to leaving. Eddie took me to a lamppost and told me to wrap my arms around it and stay attached. He was then away awhile. Crowds jammed, including mounted police to clear people out, but Eddie came back just in time, smiling like crazy. He took me to the door where we were joined by a uniformed employee who escorted us past the ticket taker, through the entry, up an elevator, up some stairs, then up a ladder, until we wound up looking down from an impossibly high balcony, off by ourselves, above all the crowds, and just barely able to make out the mayhem below.
After a few minutes of getting used to our unique seats, I turned to Eddie and asked how he did it. It turned out he had wheedled his way in to see the guard and told him he had his little brother along and that it was my birthday and that I had leukemia and this was my last chance to see pro wrestling, and could they please make an exception and let us in. Eddie combined an infinite capacity to lie with a high degree of cleverness.
Another foray into chutzpah occurred much later, well after MIT, around the mid-1970s. It perhaps reflects the kind of confidence that rebellion often requires. One night around midnight, when we were graduate students at the University of Massachusetts economics department, I was staying at my friend Peter Bohmer’s apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts. We were chatting and somehow it came up that Peter’s apartment needed a new chair. Why not get one from the department, someone suggested. Off we went, four of us. About fifteen minutes later we reached the campus and brazenly drove up to the social sciences building. We went up the elevator to the economics department and found a very nice chair. With nary a thought to consequences or morality, we rolled it out to the elevator, took it down, and carried it out to the car. We stuffed it in, and off we went. The department exploited us through the work we did teaching. It provided us a marginally acceptable educational experience. It had way too many chairs for its needs. Redistributing was, as later generations would say, a no-brainer.
Then came the memorable part. We had barely gotten the car in motion when a police light flashed in our rearview mirror. We stopped and a campus patrolman—one of two present—came to the window, leaned in, and asked, “What the hell do you think you’re doing with that chair?” Schooled by prior experiences, I went into chutzpah mode. I said “We are taking the chair home to Northampton.” “You must be kidding,” the cop said. I said “No, it’s authorized, what’s the problem? We teach in the economics department. The department has a surplus chair. We are borrowing it. You can call the department head if you like, no problem, though I think it may be a bit late to wake him. You want to see ID? You want something else? Whatever, but let’s get this done.” I went on like that, belligerently, as in, what can you possibly think you are doing, stopping us? Of course the reality was that we were in deep trouble and who knows what action the economics department might have taken had the cops detained us or followed through the next day. Worse, Peter was on felony probation from having been the target of political repression in San Diego, where he had lived before coming to Amherst, and he might well have gone back to prison had it gone further. But the cops begged off. My seemingly righteous anger convinced them we were legit. The upshot is that there are contexts in which believing you are above the law can put you there. This knowledge usually works, however, to increase injustice and inequity, rarely so benignly as in getting Peter another chair for his home.
Finally, still on this chutzpah topic, while at MIT, in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I was a house painter with Robin Hahnel. We did only outdoor painting. There was sun, good pay, and no boss. We could talk while we worked. Many of the ideas of my first book, What Is To Be Undone, were discussed while standing on ladders painting the sides of houses.
We were not only unalienated, but also daredevilish about our craft. Way up ladders, even hanging from the side like lunatics, we could only reach so much area. To reach more, the ladder had to be moved. A sane person would climb down, shift the ladder, climb back up, and paint again. But you go up and down ladders often enough and you begin to feel quite at home. We brought donuts up and jumped the ladders over, a little at a time, literally getting them to hop up off the ground and slide either to the right or the left. It was crazy, of course, as was hanging off them, one hand holding a brush, the other holding the edge of the ladder, our bodies floating in space, but the fearful becomes mundane with enough practice. More revealingly, in tumultuous times, political issues are so paramount that they become what one talks about while hanging off ladders painting houses.
There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear.
Returning to MIT protest, a related and more successful organizing endeavor than spray-painting walls involved building design. Not all politics is leaflets, speeches, chants, and rallies. MIT was incredibly gray. Regimentation reigned supreme. MIT students were called “tech tools” and our disparaging nickname was often depressingly apt. To transform student complacency, we decided to give MIT a jolt of intellectual adrenaline. One option was to make a visible statement about MIT’s long, dreary corridors. We didn’t think MIT’s design was random and it certainly wasn’t aesthetic artistry. Harvard, just up the Charles River, looked in many of its corridors like a corporate boardroom or a fancy law firm—or even like a rich person’s home. MIT, just down the Charles River, lacked color, lacked wall hangings, and indeed lacked anything resembling assertive aesthetic human presence. It wasn’t that Harvard’s prettier design was admirable. Harvard trained the masters of the universe, and everything about Harvard provided a master's finishing school. Harvard graduates had to be confident and have the clothes, manners, and verbal intonations of leadership even while being hell-bent on personal advance. MIT graduates had to be tech tools available for the Harvard types to utilize. The design of MIT was utilitarian. MIT graduates were supposed to sell our minds to the Harvard-bred masters of the universe. Asked to profit them, we should have no qualms about purpose, motives, and implications. Our task, should we accept it, was only to seek good pay for solving interesting problems. I also spent some time across the Charles River at Boston University. BU had huge classes, lots of noise, and little participation. When I went to visit a junior college I found students taking classes in corners of large halls sheltered from one another by hanging drapes. Such students were learning to operate under the conditions not of laboratories (as at MIT), or of boardrooms (as at Harvard), but of wide open, corporate-style work areas and factory floors.
The graphic differences between colleges were unmistakable when I was comparatively looking at many of them but were invisible to students enduring only one environment. Colleges turned out different products to fill different social slots. Differences between departments were similarly utilitarian. The humanities building at MIT was more artistic and social than the utilitarian but comfy physics building which was different from the austere chemical engineering building. We called all this “tracking,” and it continued what began in high school, where students were divided into college-bound and vocational. I remember in my high school not knowing many people beyond the borders of my advanced placement classes even though I ran for and won student office. In any case, the goal for MIT graduates was that we would unquestioningly perform any interesting tasks that the powers that be from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale proposed for us. If the masters of the universe wanted us to produce a mechanism of corporate control over workers, or a mechanism of government oversight over citizens, or a reentry system for multiple nuclear warheads delivered by one missile, or a stabilization system so that helicopter guns could more reliably shoot water buffalo and Vietnamese peasants, or, for that matter, if the masters of the universe unexpectedly asked us to design a handgun so that those same peasants could shoot down B52s, we tech tools from MIT should meet the master’s challenge. We should leave calculating the social worth of the product to the masters, their having been propitiously prepared for that at Harvard finishing school. The masters would get the social calculation right. They would ask for smart bombs, not B52-threatening handguns. Our expertise was bordered by MIT’s long, gray corridors. We would deliver the goods.
So it wasn’t a magic cure-all, but it was nonetheless quite effective when in the dead of night we moved couches and chairs from offices out into MIT’s long corridors and gray gathering places so that students could sit and talk. Redecorating was incredibly shocking to the MIT community. It wasn’t just the disobedience, though that was important. It was the redesign. The new furniture in MIT’s corridors messed with people’s minds. More, shortly later, and even more successfully, we hung posters all over the walls of the famous long corridors of MIT. These were slabs of construction paper, affixed to the walls and adorned with a magic marker hanging for public use. The top third of the oversize posters that we hung throughout MIT’s long corridors had some provocative claim, quotation, or fact neatly written in large letters. Our idea was for students to write below our entry their reactions, reviews, rebuttals, or rethinkings of the imprinted claims. One day the corridors were bare. The next day they were full of posters with people hunched around reading and adding their own comments. It was excerpts from noted social critics or revolutionaries that adorned MIT’s walls. I remember one poster had a favorite poem of mine from Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Another had the last paragraph of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time:
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Some had statistics about bombs falling in Vietnam or wages falling in the U.S. Some had provocative song lyrics, quotations, or questions. It turned out MIT students could vigorously engage in public discussion. Political activism, we learned by this action, shouldn’t be a cookie cutter process with the same templates endlessly employed. What awakens insight and activity in one place might be inappropriate elsewhere.
The struggle is eternal. The tribe increases.
Somebody else carries on.
—Ella J. Baker
Much opposition to ongoing Indochina massacres involved GIs. Indeed, the first demanding political context I experienced occurred in downtown Boston at a church during my sophomore year before all the above took place. It was an antiwar gathering and four of us, including myself, Robin Hahnel, Larry Seidman, and John Adler, went to the event and ended up sitting in a balcony overlooking the sanctuary of the Arlington Street Church. Speakers described the U.S. role in bombing the people of Indochina and urged the audience to act. It wasn’t donations that the organizers, pastors, and speakers were eliciting, but lasting antiwar opposition. Students went forward, shook hands, and burned their draft cards. One after another, students and some Boston citizens marched up, flicked a Bic, and to raucous applause set a draft card alight. The four of us sat and applauded from upstairs. The event ended, we left, and I was greatly troubled. Something was happening here, and, indeed, watching the protest helped awaken my understanding of the war, but mostly it affected my personal view of responsibility. If the card-burning warranted my applauding, why didn’t it warrant my participating? I think the way this church protest got me to applaud direct action by others and to then consider why I wasn’t more directly active myself was pivotal in making me who I am today.
Decades later, while reading Dave Dellinger’s autobiography, From Yale to Jail, I discovered that Dave had been at that service, acting as a master of ceremony, and that his son had been one of the students who burned a draft card. I didn’t know Dave then and I don’t explicitly remember him being there. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave’s style and grace, unbeknownst to him and to me, helped precipitate my reaction that day, which was precisely the reaction that he was no doubt seeking, and precisely the reaction civil disobedience aims for.