Monday, June 9, 2008

Activism 101

The 1960's have become known as the "Flower Power" era; a time of free love, social awareness and anti-war rallies across the places where young people gathered in the US. Having been borne in that decade, my recollection of South Africa was the privileged and blissful ignorance of a small minority juxtaposed with the abject failure of the state where it concerned the vast majority. Local activism was a dangerous business in every sense of the word and, certainly, not given to political niceties. However, times have changed and so has South Africa; a case could even be made that we are facing many of the issues that so occupied the left in America four decades ago.

Michael Albert, former Undergraduate Association President of MIT, has this to say: "The sixties I participated in erupted over anger at promises unmet and ubiquitous lies and hypocrisy." Compare that statement to recent unrest in South Africa and the root causes are virtually the same. The interesting aspect is that democratization and globalization has brought the country out of it's isolation bubble and we are, Rip van Winkel like, groping for solutions. With that in mind, here are excerpts from the memoir "Remembering Tomorrow" by Michael Albert, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 1968:

Would You Torch a Library?

Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon - Bertolt Brecht

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 - John Fogerty

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 United States from becoming a totally military culture." Still, we both knew that Weisner had actively assisted my opponents in the UAP election and had been miserable when I won. My campaign planks included no war research, open admissions, and indemnities to the Black Panther Party. Nonetheless, Weisner came to make peace.

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 just shrugged.

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 Hyannis on Cape Cod. He jovially told me how I would have a great time and I would meet Teddy Kennedy and others and develop friendships that would be valuable later in life. Weisner was, in short, brazenly seducing me with an offer of entry into the young people's branch of the Kennedy mystique. I dismissed the invitation without a thought. Weisner was flustered. How could I reject such an obvious invitation to power, relevance, and wealth? I tried to convey to him just how unattractive his offer was. "Would you consider an invitation to visit a mass murderer a perk? Would you consider it seductive? Or would you find it obscene? For me this decision is trivial," I told him. "I am not giving up something I would want to have."

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.

Chemicals, Son?

I'd rather be living a free man in my grave, than as a puppet or a slave - Jimmie Cliff

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. 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. The speech was peppered with vulgar assaults on U.S. elites, including MIT's administration, the government, corporate America, and my audience. I finished to dead silence, stepped down, and strode down the aisle to leave the hall.

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 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 Germany"—it was some chemical company that he named—"and we will make you a vice president right off." His manner said, let's get cracking; this is an offer you can't possibly refuse. 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 operation, that 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 prod? He too thought my commitments would disintegrate upon my hearing about a Kennedy-benighted future. Who could refuse Camelot? Corporate America was worried about sixties dissent sweeping the country. Simultaneously, however, for a given individual, corporate Americans were confident offers of big-time power would easily buy allegiance.

Reasons for Rejecting Lucre

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of - Blaise Pascal

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.

Damning Dow

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? - Antonio Gramsci

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 U.S. against the Vietnamese. I vaguely remember meetings planning for the Dow recruiters. The meetings were called by SDS and MIT Resist. The protest was part of an SDS national campaign against recruiting on campus. Phil Raup, an MIT graduate student, was an active national SDS member and brought the idea to our campus. I was just getting into the Left. MIT SDS was not yet Rosa Luxemburg SDS.

We decided to block entry to the placement offices with our bodies. 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 - William Shakespeare

Many 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 Vietnam, or even ending imperialism. Similarly, at strikes, there was tension between those wanting to win a higher local wage and those wanting to increase the bargaining power of labor more widely, or even to replace capitalism. And at women's health clinics there was tension between those wanting to supply medical care locally, those wanting to gain reproductive rights and to smash the glass ceiling obstructing women from management socially, and those wanting to end patriarchy globally. All over the sixties, this divide existed.

Cynicism 101

No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up - Lily Tomlin

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 U.S. motives, it was about whether people should resist or not. And the reason many of my fellow students repeatedly offered not to resist was because "people suck."

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 U.S. and probably everywhere else in the world too. Belief that there is no alternative and that you can't win change is a straitjacket preventing opposition to oppression.

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.

Organizing Mechanics

First of all two people get together an' they want their doors enlarged - Bob Dylan

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 Berkeley free speech movement in the early sixties through rallies and demonstrations, to the sanctuaries, and finally the massive building occupations at many schools, including Harvard, just up the river from MIT. There were constant rallies and actions at MIT, too, continually growing in scale, but what I want to highlight here is different.

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 antiwar movement offered a second revelation. The U.S. was engaged in a vicious war against peasants half a world away, not for a good cause, but for power and wealth. The U.S. brought mayhem on a poor peasant land. Images of assassination and destroyed towns accompanied claims that power and greed were the cause. The more we brought human carnage to light, the more we unveiled corporate motives, the more people got angry and considered systemic issues. Movement focus went from dissociating from right wingers, to dissociating from liberals, to dissociating from the underlying institutions of corporate capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

And finally, or in some ways firstly; the hippie, youth, anti-authoritarian 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

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