The Education of a (Sometime) Radical
This is the first entry, combining autobiography and social protest, for me quite inseparable, from my “prolegomenous remarks” for a book I am writing, ‘Eichmann on the Potomac: Bureaucratization of Targeted Assassination.’ I hope that the experiences described here will resonate with those of my generation, and provide some insight to all CounterPunch readers about the necessity—which I’m sure they already feel—for critical scrutiny of, and strong opposition to, the Obama administration and what I believe it represents, intensifies, and seeks permanently to legitimize, the militarization of capitalism in America. The second of three entries in this section is entitled, “In Memory of Schwerner-Cheney-Goodman,” and might best be thought, from the present base, a comparison of Obama with the truly courageous activists in the civil-rights struggle: Obama, an Imposter. The book itself will record the vile, illegal, immoral character of drone warfare, the parameters of which must be laid squarely at his door. — NP
I have occupied approximately the same place on the political-ideological spectrum since 1945 (perhaps not an especially proud aspect of my growth, or lack thereof, to admit), somewhere between authentic radical and radical manque, the former to indicate everything from a deepening awareness of political philosophy and economic theory, to the usual activities—walking picket lines, delivering speeches, engaging in endless discussions, marching in demonstrations, some messy, most peaceful—and the latter, at different stages of life, acting the poseur, talking outside the range of my knowledge and experience, assigning myself an inflated role in leading the charge (as in a university strike in Spring 1970 protesting Kent State and the mining of Haiphong Harbor, forgetting the 10,000 who stood behind me). Why 1945? At age twelve I was entering the second year of confinement to bed because of a (to my satisfaction, undiagnosed) spinal ailment, even though under the charge of Dr. Leo Mayer, probably the most widely respected orthopedist in the US, and—from my reading, friend to Isaac Stern—the first, in full body armor, the second, without the cast, but still flat on my back. Yet, why 1945? I wasted those years. Instead of studying Greek and Latin with a tutor, I brooded, somewhat precociously, about the fate of the world, identified with anti-fascism (though my parents were nonpolitical), and revered, yes, not too strong a word, Franklin Roosevelt, less for his policies than for his having survived and adjusted to poliomyelitis. Nine years later I embarked on graduate studies with my mentor, Frank Freidel, still the finest scholar of FDR, first at Stanford, then at Harvard. When at thirteen I began the arduous process of learning to walk again (by 14 or 15 I was playing 36 holes of golf, under some difficulty), it seemed to me so natural to identify with all underdogs, the poor, Negroes—at the time, a word of honor, as used with pride by my hero, Paul Robeson, and by my later hero, Dr. King, as in his famous March on Washington address, which I attended—migrant workers, janitors, the occasional homeless I would meet, a process of identification not unlike my feelings about FDR, who I later learned never again walked unaided, instead leaning on the arm of one of his sons and, in excruciating pain, giving the illusion of walking. Again later, my feeling for and about him only deepened when I learned that at his death (which, listening helplessly to the radio beside my bed, I vividly remember), despite the blackout still in effect on Long Island Sound, the lights burned brightly on the estates that night at parties celebrating his passing. I still cherish his words, roughly paraphrased, about how the economic royalists passionately hated him, his reply being, “And I welcome their hatred.”
Emotionally, politically, I could never forgive the rich their ignorance and folly—at least, certain rich, for I was frankly conflicted in that I admired FDR’s own patrician spirit because it contributed to a certain selflessness, which meant simply, he was not on the take, his ambition could be channeled into public service, there were no revolving doors. This was admittedly rare; put crudely, there were an exceptional few who could skip over or around the rat race and find within themselves the wherewithal to achieve greatness or distinction, or better yet, be themselves, from which it could be possible to discover latent energies translating into exemplary conduct and values, much like adherence to a personal code of honor. In politics, I trust such a man. Once in California, while at Stanford, I followed Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 Democratic primary for three days of grueling campaigning, saw him near exhaustion, and on the final day, standing on the railroad tracks trailed by a few reporters and supporters, he gave sublime expression to a social vision free from the usual cant of politicians. That stuck, for I have seldom since found anyone in politics, in either party, including most emphatically, John F. Kennedy, who possessed the genuineness to take the reigns of leadership. Wealth was no guarantee of goodness, nor certainly was high office (as Lord Acton readily predicted).
Henry Agard Wallace was another exception, whom, as a 15-year old, I worked hard to elect in 1948, as the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate. A dozen years later, having already done research at Hyde Park, and having found that he was an early riser, I sought him out at the Harvard Guest House one Sunday morning at 6 a.m., after his address the night before at the Ford Hall Forum. There he was, as usual prepared for visitors, black suit, shock of greying hair, sitting on the sofa in the visitors lounge, and after intense conversation, we had a heaping pancake breakfast, by which time I realized he was quite like no other, having an extraordinarily capacious mind, already evident from his Forum presentation on the relations between Russia and China. This was 1960, and he was far ahead of the intellectual curve. I mentioned my interest in writing his biography, and he invited Nancy and I to his home in South Salem, formerly the John G. Winant estate, which he had converted into a working farm to continue with his hybridization experiments (as I recall, strawberries)—assisted by a farmhand, Ph.D., Minnesota. Though we agreed on the biography (he ran up and down the stairs with batches destined for the Columbia Oral History Project, because I challenged him on the 1935-36 purge in the Dept. of Agriculture, of which he was Secretary) I realized to my shame later, and even on the spot, that given his strong scientific spine, e.g., the first one in America to offer, at Iowa State, courses in mathematical statistics, I was over my head and could not do justice to his multifaceted life and career. I dropped out, fearing lack of adequate preparation. To my sorrow because of the intrinsic value of such a study, but now for another reason as well. I place little stock in becoming involved in the voguish alternative history, but the question, what if FDR had not replaced Wallace with Harry Truman, is nonetheless intriguing. For, still as vice-president, he would have ascended to the presidency in 1945 upon Roosevelt’s death and could possibly have made a difference in the history of the Cold War, either mitigating its severity or, by seeking a reduction in tensions and pressing for greater mutual trade (as he in fact did as Secretary of Commerce, in his brave Madison Square Garden Speech, which got him canned) he could have brought the conflict, with its attendant harsh anticommunism, to an end. Instead, he became one of its victims, though obviously quite moderate himself, as befitting the son and grandson of the editors of the leading Midwestern farm paper, Wallace’s Farmer. “ What ifs” don’t interest me; my regret is that I lacked the intellectual and moral stamina, at that time, to see the task through; he was a great man—again one I could admire and trust.
My vendetta against wealth is at best superficial, if not altogether put on for special occasions—not least because, from an analytical standpoint, structure is far more fruitful as a starting point than is personality to a systematic inquiry. I only raised the point so that the reader may know better my possible biases and train of thought, and to introduce several other observations pertinent to the education of a (sometime) radical, and hence, to the content and construction of the present study. From the above, it should be apparent that I do not think being radical is license for either intolerance or narrowness, nor do I consider radicalism an absolutist “project”–virtue incarnate, the solution to all societal difficulties, the end all and be all which defines, or should, human strivings. In these examples– FDR, Adlai Stevenson, Henry Wallace–the first two decidedly conservative, and the third, a transcendent thinker (international peace, attacks on domestic privation) who yet does not abandon capitalism, we have gradations on the use of government to rectify social ills, implement just distributive policies (e.g., progressive taxation, public job creation, dedicated regulatory agencies and cabinet departments), and create a political-ideological climate sympathetic to labor organization, the creation of a social safety net (yes, as an entitlement rather than an illegitimate charge on society) and, as summarized in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms address, the nation’s commitment to basic guarantees of the individual’s security and well-being. Merely to state the inner voice of conscience defining the formulation and implementation of public policy, as I believe would apply to all three men, suggests many things: (a) how far the US has degenerated over the last half-century in meeting the obligations which attach to a democratic polity; (b) how far the Obama administration, despite acting under so-called liberal auspices, has clashed with every one of these—given past efforts at their achievement—reasonable expectations and goals; and (c) how, taking these three once again, no litmus test suffices, for me, to determine their worth, which is to say, radicalism per se is wholly artificial when divorced from its concretization in practice.
FDR had the National Recovery Administration under Hugh Johnson, which conserved capitalism via the power of trade associations and the concentration of business (i.e., monopolization under government auspices), which is a highly conservative framework that runs counter to recovery and equitable wealth distribution. Yet, if one constructed a pie chart (which I haven’t, nor has anyone to my knowledge), it would be clear that the tail did not wag the dog. Business recovery—I’ll give it 20% of the pie—had to be weighed against giant leaps forward in both the social safety net and the regulatory apparatus, as well as the massive improvement in infrastructure, the principle of public employment, relief, and repair of the national estate, and, less tangible, but hardly unimportant, the attack on the Court for obstructing New Deal welfarism, thereby breaking the log jam on policies to that end and leading to appointments sympathetic to upholding regulatory and distributive legislation. Here, in toto, my guess of 80%. If today, with the dismantling of regulation in key areas, e.g., banking, and its ineffectuality, e.g., SEC, FDA, Interior, plus the intended cutting open, after much snipping away, of the social safety net, and the massive allocation of social wealth to defense, I would reverse the New Deal configuration; today 80% pro-business, 20% social welfare. This last is all-important, because the armed drone for targeted assassination cannot be abstracted from a governmental and societal context demonstrably wedded to a hardened ideological posture ill-tuned to human needs and internal national priorities covering everything from public health to rutted highways and collapsing bridges, inadequate educational facilities and opportunities to decaying inner cities, a culture of militarism run riot to paralysis in the face of gun violence. The New Deal was not Nirvana. But given the Great Depression, it did not shirk its responsibility to the common weal, and, in proportion to available resources compared with that today, it did remarkably well with what it had. Ask, if it were possible, the young men in CCC, the unemployed, in WPA, the programs large and small that conserved the people’s health, spirits, and skills, the homes saved from foreclosure, step-after-step head and shoulders above today’s indifference to human life—a context, I would insist, combined with the technological means of execution (pardon the pun, not intended), that makes the armed drone ideal for purposes of pursuing America’s self-interest defined by its hierarchical structure of power. Not by happenstance, the drone has become Obama’s signature weapons system, for its own sake, for the close collaboration it facilitates between the CIA and elite military units (the CIA then taking on paramilitary functions), and for the bases and airstrips worldwide it requires as essential to its operations, thus providing the pretext or rationale for establishing hegemonic US presence in critical regions as part of long-term geopolitical strategies pursuant to global political stabilization on lines favorable to trade-and-investment expansion—and, the element of fear driving the program and making assassination acceptable, the warding off or postponing of national decline.
I won’t attempt here a comparable analysis of Adlai Stevenson and Henry Wallace, except to say that political integrity, which both possessed in abundance, trumps radicalism as a working formulation, not because radicalism is somehow suspect, but because integrity creates elasticity in policy making and hones in on people’s needs, whether the national ethos or the United States Congress holds otherwise. When I think of Wallace I think of his manifesto, a milk bottle on every doorstep, and when I think of Stevenson, I think of selfless hard work and austerity (the wonderful campaign pin, imaginary feet on the desk, a hole in his sole) and, like FDR and Wallace, above suspicion of personal enrichment or self-aggrandizement. On the latter, self-aggrandizement, dissident and/or disillusioned observers are more and more coming to see Obama, his abandonment by his father a salient fact of his personal history, in pursuit of recognition for its own sake, unmindful of specific public policy demands except those which favor wealth and the wealthy and powerful with whom he identifies. I see in him, the drone campaign in mind, a moral void, but also a policy void, from the standpoint of advancing societal welfare. He would be ill-suited to join the company of the other three, but not his own kitchen cabinet of Geithner, Brennan, and assorted political honchos like Axelrod or Rhodes. More on this later, especially the moral void. Obama is very much involved in policy. He is no-one’s puppet or fool. But the crux of his policy framework, synthesizing deregulation and militarism, with, as an offshot or even source of further propulsion the Pacific-first strategy for the containment and isolation of China, has little to do with the democratization of American society and, although done repeatedly in its name, counterterrorism per se, with this last becoming indistinguishable from counterrevolution abroad and the silencing of dissent and open palm to business expansion at home.
I noted that radicalism is not license for intolerance or narrowness. To advance societal welfare does not need cosmetics—the red flag; May Day parades, dances, and picnics; spellbinding rhetoric; or even formulaic pronouncements from Marx, Lenin, Trotsky—as enjoyable or comforting as some or all of these are, but rather a foundational discipline, nonelitist in origin and intent, that derives its strength from uncompromising moral-ethical standards inscribed in the collective mind-set (I do not mean by that totalitarian mind-control, but, perhaps in my untutored reading of Rousseau many years ago, the assent of the body politic—general will(?)—because commending itself qua principles as conforming to the realizable condition of equality, departures from which being disallowed through the administration and rule of law) and finds legitimation in the actual cultural-institutional promotion and safeguarding of a comprehensive doctrine of human rights. I believe that avoids the pitfalls of narrowness, where some single variable, say, the means of production, provides the criterion (here, through state ownership and the consequent elimination of private property) for definitional success and the automatic achievement of individual and social welfare. It ain’t always that easy. Abolition of private property, alone, without further institutional change, including the thorough democratization of the bureaucratic and military power bases, may represent swapping one form of tyranny for another. I want equality in the resulting mix, as a dominating influence.
What, then, of intolerance, the other element radicalism does not license and should eschew? Here, in its somewhat habitual dogmatism about the sources of belief and action (we leave ideology aside as a sitting duck when it comes to rigid mental traits, although not always, depending on the content and values espoused), we come to the conundrum of religion, because of its potential for either repression or emancipation in the human assertion of and struggle for freedom. Radicalism tends to be preclusive in this regard, bordering on snideness, in its disparagement of theological-based, as opposed human-centered and secularist, religion. Paradoxically, FDR—I think honestly,not opportunistically—regarded religion as the counterweight to conservatism, as, instead, self-evident precepts which justified the New Deal program even at its most advanced. I refer, first, to his youth, under the tutelage of Rev. Endicott Peabody at Groton, who had the ritual each night, in the library, of shaking hands with each student upon going up to bed, this as part of a whole regimen teaching fair play, mutual respect, a personal code of honor. With this background, then, when pressed by reporters later as president about the socialist and radical nature of the New Deal programs, Roosevelt buoyantly replied, disagreeing with the implied charge that they were subversive or worse still, saying simply, “These were Groton ideals,” a statement I shall always remember, as an antidote to smug dismissals of potential nonradical sources of democratic change, structural and otherwise. Groton was not in Young Franklin’s day, or any time since, about to usher in the proletariat revolution. So what? I had participated in enough civil-rights demonstrations in the South in the 1960s (and one on my own in 1951, when weeks after high school graduation, I entered the University of Florida, and, meeting a young black student who was in library science at Morehouse, and who was from Gainesville, brought him into the Library through the front door, checked out Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, made a show of handing it to him, invited him subsequently up to my dorm room to discuss it, and that night was almost lynched by drunken Kappa Alpha students—KA the primal Confederate bastion, with a daily call to colors, of its day—but after constant battering against the door, and filling the room with boiling water through the open transom from a large wastebasket in the hall bathroom, the door, a legacy of New Deal construction, fortunately held, and in the utter desolation of the scene, total emptiness in the street and surroundings because this was all-university rush night, I was rescued when my roommate, his father a major crime figure widely known, returned early, sized up the situation, quietly warned them with a deft hand at the hip that he would get the boys after them if they did not immediately disperse, and they finally left) to come to know and respect the clergy who would show up, bear witness, help in any way they could. Religion does not have to be the opiate of the people, whether or not private property is left intact. E.g., those of my generation will fondly recall Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, and historians, the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th-early 20th century.
Florida was a learning experience. Walking through the front door of the Library with my friend, in the South of enforced racial segregation, was a small gesture which would ordinarily have consequences of an untoward kind, except that on the whole the University of Florida was, even in the early ‘50s, an oasis rich in learning, good will, talent, and, in the cracks, genuine radicalism. I think of Manning Dauer and William G. Carleton, highly respected political scientists, who stared down a state legislative committee on its usual witch hunt. It had demanded the cleansing of the book shelves for Carleton’s C-1 American Institutions course occupying the ground floor reading room of the Library, to which they made reply, journeying to Tallahassee, by reading aloud a whole list of inflammatory quotations, the committee’s anger intensifying to the boiling point, until Dauer or Carleton (I forget which) said, “Gentlemen, every one of these quotations was taken from the Bible.” One more invasion of the university temporarily deflated, although in this period, in my freshman year, a beloved teacher of Ancient History, who had been a member of the Teacher’s College Union at Harvard in 1939, and from a sterling Republican family in Pennsylvania, was summarily fired simply because he had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his union membership. There was no citation, the encounter was friendly. But to be called was enough. Returning on the train, John Reynolds stopped at the Jacksonville station the next morning to pick up a paper, only to find his picture plastered on the front page under the headline “UF Professor Fired.” Yes, we circulated petitions in his favor—to no avail. Still earlier in Florida, my support of Wallace in ’48, and more so, Claude Pepper in 1950, caused some murmurs and pushing and shoving, the point being, one could experience the growing pains of political and social awareness—and take the measure of American society—from a relatively early age. Whether that becomes a journey of self-discovery lasting through one’s lifetime, is of course the difficult challenge.
The Stanford years, 1954-56, truly a distinguished university, rivaling Harvard, e.g., in mathematics and physics, took me a step beyond Florida insofar as bringing to the surface conflicting personal tendencies, some not always for the better. Seriousness of purpose, to be achieved through an academic career, was somehow splintered because of the richness of the feast—too much on offer, spreading me thin and, in the process, pressing radicalism into a more genteel mold. It didn’t have to happen that way; the dabbler in me, to which I gladly succumbed, trumped the truly engaged. Yet, it occurs to me now, not at the time, that at work, beyond the sunshine of a seeming Eisenhower calm, was that for me the source of, or better, stimulus to, radicalism had been opposition to racial segregation in the South, and that once removed from that societal context, I needed to get my bearings and achieve greater specificity of understanding so as to approach exploitation, human degradation, the mushroom cloud and nuclear testing, issues of power and stratification, in terms of a more generic radicalism, still beyond my reach. So much about Stanford, the very absence of segregation, the pure delight of learning, even lunchtime tennis, all combined to make radicalism not so much remote as artificial, expressed in conversations with the few Marxists around, rather than settings that afforded a testing ground for meaningful action. I did, however, start an NAACP college chapter there (the usual response for conservative institutions, graffiti—as I remember—about blue suede shoes), which led to a friendship with Franklin Williams, NAACP western regional director, and our weekend tours visiting chapters in Fresno, Stockton, and elsewhere. (Frank later became Kennedy’s ambassador to Ghana, and still later, president of the Barnes Foundation.) I suspect, however, his mission on these trips was to root out alleged communist influence at the local level. I also shook hands with W.E.B. DuBois at a San Francisco meeting of the Independent Progressive Party, the IPP itself being far to the left of anything going in California at the time—although nothing came of the encounter. In the ‘56 primary, IPP backed Estes Kefauver over Stevenson, which left me cold, and, regrettably, I was not able to benefit from my meeting with Dr. DuBois, until years later when I assigned his writings to my students.
I was too young to be other than an ideological journeyman, all the right answers, in glib, terse form. Going from Quad to Yard, Stanford to Harvard, was done because I recognized that through no fault of Stanford I was spinning my wheels, and that following in Freidel’s footsteps had integral meaning to me as well as providing the escape hatch for a new start. Harvard compressed into five years several jumps in political consciousness, not worth delineating except to say that despite the national calm, picketing had become a part-time occupation. Friday afternoons we gathered on Boston Common, opposite the State House, forming a circle around Gaby Kolko who stood on a soap box in the center, the issues being nuclear testing and the plan to move state government across town to Framingham (during a nuclear attack—as though getting there on a clear day in less than an hour was possible). Police photographers faithfully recorded our faces as we passed, no doubt sent on to higher authority, and promptly at 5:30 workers disgorged from the MTA to jostle us, grab our signs—the expected response, as when hard hats beat up peace workers in New York during the Vietnam War. And Saturday mornings we picketed in front of Woolworth’s, in the Square, to protest segregated lunch counters in the South, Linus Pauling on occasion joining us. These activities were good for the soul, but in Cambridge it was the mind, not the soul, that counted for the long term—and I say “Cambridge” advisedly, for one’s education in radicalism came not from within but outside of, and perhaps owing little to, Harvard. Of course there was Freidel, and Louis Hartz, brilliant beyond words, and Talcott Parsons, with whom I read Max Weber, and on and on (I omit my second mentor for now, so that I can refer to him more fully later), each one invaluable in laying down building blocks without which neither my radicalism nor my identity and aspirations could find adequate lodgment. Radicalism as an intellectual process, just as in social protest, proceeds from the ground up. Harvard had no such intention, which is fine because it might well have botched the job, but in providing lifetime equipment for self-development it was nonpareil.
It also acted as a magnet, at least in 1956-’61, for gathering in one place the displaced intellectuals from the war, the avowed Marxists who made their home there while (for some) working in New York, and the independent scholars attracted to Widener and pursuing writing that they conceived in decades—including the perennial graduate students who could mark, say, 18G, for eighteenth-year student, on their book requests. A heady brew, and a serious one, which might never translate into action, or even into completed studies, yet the lifeblood for pushing forward seminal ideas to those yet to come. I was fortunate to join what could informally be thought of as the Marxist study group, which met weekly at the office of the American Friends Service Committee, with—if we had a press agent—what could be called a stellar cast, including such regulars as Paul Sweezy and Dirk Struick—and a man I owe much to, precisely in apprehending the structural foundations of capitalism, Fritz Pappenheim, whose book was entitled The Alienation of Modern Man. Fritz and Yvonne, though from an older generation, Fritz having fled Nazi Germany almost too late, spending the war interned in a Spanish prison camp, until Paul Tillich somehow intervened to get him out, were among our closest friends, and it is my discussion of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in the body of this book which in spirit I owe to him. I am not a Marxist (said not defensively, for purposes of self-protection, but simply because I do not think myself bright enough), but his early philosophic writings on alienation and commodity structure, which before Harvard I knew only in passing, has made an indelible impression on me in getting at problems central to armed drones for targeted assassination, notably, the desensitization of the individual (and the whole society) to killing, the impersonal murder of men, women, children, in this case, from 8,000 miles away, without blinking—a society whose emblem should be the blood spat, for the vaporization of human beings, rather than the stars and stripes. Fritz made seriousness of purpose and disciplined study not only mandatory for the life of the mind, but a social obligation if one is to fulfill one’s purpose in living. Not for the self alone—are you listening, Mr. President?
My second mentor, though serving that function for a far shorter period, brings together in his person much that I have said thus far. Barrington Moore is/is not Harvard. He was a senior research fellow at the Russian Research Center and gave what is probably the most significant course, regardless of field, in the University, aptly paraphrased—because I forgot how it was listed—by the title of one of his books, Political Power and Social Theory, a collection of essays that takes nothing for granted, as for example, the fashionable tendency to link industrialism and totalitarianism, which he, displaying his breadth of historical knowledge, critiques in an essay about totalitarianism in preindustrial societies. A classics major at Williams which lasted him in good stead throughout his life, he possessed a mental clarity equal to confronting the most difficult issues in sociological analysis, such as the historical pattern of development of three principal structural-cultural variants of the modern world: capitalism, fascism, communism. His book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, where that analysis can be found, ranks with that of the most accomplished scholars of the twentieth century (and I don’t say that lightly). It is a guide for the dissection of social systems, their rise and fall, their internal mechanisms of repression and, often less likely, liberation, the role of the peasantry in making or retarding revolution, and the relation of political economies to the formation of class structures.
That itself is enough to have elevated him to a position of highest esteem in my personal universe, but it is something else—character—that for present purposes, the book on armed drones, how we got to the bottom of the moral heap, and Obama as presidential leader, that should be recorded here. I spoke above of wealth (my own emphasis, rather, is on social structure and political culture, not least because of Moore’s teachings), which undeniably comes into play in current policy making and US geopolitical strategy, and my lament at the ignorance and shortsightedness of America’s upper stratum, today a hodgepodge of one-generation ascent through illicit banking, hedge funds, and gambling (whether as derivatives or the real thing, Las Vegas casinos), nouveau riche as a New Colossus of Reaction, as well as the disposition of wealth in general—old or new—to oppose and obstruct democratic processes. Still, as in my example of FDR, the one-in-a-million person free from pressures, social, financial, familial, to rise above greed, self-indulgence, conspicuous display, hostility toward perceived class enemies (i.e., the working class), and all-around cruelty to other humans as a god-given prerogative of status and station, has to count for something. The key to such a person, I find, is austerity, more, an ascetic cast, and with it, humility, not just turning off the lights when leaving a room, but coming to teach a Harvard class riding in on a one-speed bike, wearing a heavy woolen lumberjack outer garment. That is Moore, old Plymouth Suburban wagon, ambling gait, silver steel-rimmed round glasses. Why my fuss on this? I guess, an FDR-fixation, but really, a reaching back to an older America, by no means idyllic in actuality, yet possessing the clarity by which to know right from wrong, even when the wrong predominates, for at least then one can fight back.
Moore’s wealth derives from family, Morgan partnerships, which is simply taken for granted and has no effect on lifestyle. The saw, the Lodges speak only to the Cabots (or is it the reverse?), and the Cabots speak only to God, might be rephrased, skipping a step, to read: the Moores speak only to…Marcuse; in other words, the rare atmosphere, admittedly snobbish, of intellection (Moore met his wife Betty, who is of Japanese descent, when both, I believe, were in the OSS during the war, she, having an amazing mind in her own right) with a radical social-philosophy bent. Moore could be pedantic. (Once running into him on Mass. Avenue, all excited because I had just read a Ralf Dahrendorf piece discussing class, in a sociology journal, a forbidden topic in American social science in the 1950s, and knowing his sympathy, I asked if he had read it: “No, I refused, because he misspelled a Greek word in the footnotes”—my rough paraphrase.) Silly? No, the kind of mind that could shake mountains—and would have, in a society unafraid to think, although my guess is that few today know Social Origins (published in 1966), and fewer still who are willing to put capitalism on the examining table.
Yes, asceticism has its foibles, although not fatally injurious, because always hidden from view, in this case, “Vespera,” a magnificent sloop, built in the Netherlands, brought over, and sailing out of Northeast Harbor ME, the Rockefellers as guests just before Nancy and I arrived, and Betty and Barry reading to each other in Greek at bedtime. I present this brief portrait, not to exonerate a miniscule segment of great wealth, or to probe others’ private lives, but, as a tool of comparative analysis, to plumb inner character, the raw stuff of human decency, applicable to all, rich and poor, literate and not, as a way of determining some rough correlates of personal integrity. And from everything I see, Obama is no Martin Luther King, no FDR, Stevenson, or Henry Wallace, no Barrington Moore, just the overambitious, prickly, secretive, deceitful, self-indulgent, soft (in the sense of wanting luxury and the trappings of power), and, beneath the contrived rhetoric, itself empty and incapable of expressing emotion (think FDR’s “Fireside Chats”), a profoundly disturbing—to the world—nihilism, capable of, and on a daily basis authorizing, impersonal murder. Would Dr. King resort to political assassination, himself the victim of it? Would FDR incinerate children? Would Adlai Stevenson huddle with his national-security team and flip baseball cards to finger the next victim? Would Henry Wallace make his chief adviser a person who endorsed waterboarding and other forms of extreme torture? Would Barrington Moore, Fritz Pappenheim, Louis Hartz, or Frank Freidel deliberately lie about civilian casualties, construct a system (maybe Herman Kahn would, or some at the RAND Corporation) in which “pilots” sitting comfortably 8,000 miles away would zap persons frequently identity unknown and whether or not in a family setting, or for good measure, go after second strikes targeting the funerals of the victims or the first responders who have gone to their rescue? The White House should be draped in black.
I left Gabriel Kolko standing on a soap box on Boston Common. For those unfamiliar with his writings, let me record my indebtedness—hence his influence on my thinking–for his unparalleled contribution to radical scholarship, particularly in the areas of income distribution, the interpenetration of business and government, and an expansionist, market-driven, counterrevolutionary foreign policy as the impetus to war and intervention. Taken together, a body of work extending over more than fifty years, Kolko has achieved a unified analysis of the American political economy like practically none other, because with unfailing insight he has identified and probed the structural dynamics of US capitalism in their exposed and revealing nerve centers: business concentration, the reinforcement of inequitable shares of wealth and power, government protection of, and assistance to, the corporate system, and the militarization of foreign policy, as vital to establishing unilateral dominance of the global economy. In this respect, if he had stopped writing in, say, 1970, he would already have diagramed the main contours in all essentials of subsequent development. He deserves better of the academic world—at the least, respect for his scholarly independence, fantastic output, and revelatory treatment of what is often hidden (especially from historians), America’s antidemocratic dimensions of structure, power, and conduct.
When I turn to my first teaching post, Yale, 1961-65, the intellectual scene dramatically shifts, insofar as experiencing the freedom to think and act along radical lines. Yale was not Harvard. (Today, given the homogenization of American higher education, exemplified in the astronomical salaries of college and university presidents, and the decline in Harvard’s own intellectual standards—from Conant and Pusey to Larry Summers, operating a hedge fund out of the president’s office, says it all–and Yale’s final shaking off of hauteur, seems to be bringing them into convergence.) Yale, then, was a living hell for radical faculty, although in all fairness, this was a disease largely confined to the history department, for some reason though itself carrying disproportionate weight in the Yale community, as the repository for such Old Blue values as anti-Semitism and the valuing of social background over intelligence, ability, and achievement. Fortunately, the graduate schools, remaining uncontaminated, could maintain, as in the law and medical schools, very high standards. History set a tone within itself, and for others, remained an oasis, of arch reaction, hautiness, precosity. Democratic recruitment was ignored for social pedigree, itself coded for dress and appearance, correct religious standing, and prestigious secondary, college, and graduate-school education. How I stumbled into this lion’s den is still a mystery, probably my critique of Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, although with a Harvard Ph.D. in hand, and a book accepted by Harvard Press, and still to be offered only an instructorship, should have alerted me to troubled seas in future.
The storm broke at the interview. George Wilson Pierson, as we walked back ahead of the others from lunch, observed, in majesterial condescension, “I see from your curriculum vitae that you attended the University of Florida. How quaint, we’ve never had anyone from there before.” Rather than slug him or announce the termination of the interview, I let the remark and its patronizing tone pass. Upon arrival, it was clear that, despite coat and tie, my Sears workshirt and Jack Purcells, which went unremarked at Harvard for five years (four as a teaching fellow and tutor) were unacceptable—and openly ridiculed by Pierson when, standing next to me at Sterling Library, he sniffed me up and down as if I were unclean, and much later, when Arno Mayer was being interviewed for a professorship and requested that I be at the luncheon, Pierson sent me home and told me to get dressed—whether or not I made the luncheon, I don’t remember, but later on I spoke to Arno, telling him about the intellectual climate, and, certainly not from my advice, I am pleased that he did not come. His work was and is far superior to anything being done in his areas at Yale.
Fortunately too, my students (I gave the junior honors seminar, and directed most of their senior theses) were, regardless of background, from legacy entrants who enjoyed preferential treatment, to those also from wealthy backgrounds, to the bursary students on assistance (a distinct minority), hard-working, open-minded, bright, unspoiled, deeply sincere, and therefore a pleasure to teach. Ideology was never at issue; spirited discussion gloriously blazed in the spirit of mutual respect and trust. That has always been my way. Ideology, imposed by me or anyone else, stops at the classroom door; restrictions on thought harm proponents and critics alike. Senior theses, likewise. Provided I kept my distance from the department, no complaints; the problem was, I was always under a cloud of suspicion. For example, the other Lord High Executioner, John Morton Blum, he, of velvet lapels, charged that I was a Marxist; after reading the copy I presented to him of my book, The Populist Response to Industrial America, he solemnly intoned, “Marxism is not in my pantheon of ideas.” Fine, except that Hartz was one of the readers of the dissertation (the other, Freidel), and himself a noted conservative political theorist for his application of Lockean principles to America, who, at our conference in his office, gleefully paced up-and-down, saying he would have modified his ideas in light of my evidence on the seriousness and extent of Populist protest. Hartz lived for pure intellection; Freidel, the professional of all professionals, seen on every page of his multivolume FDR, also knew my respect for evidence, as in our collaboration later on an extensive documentary history of the United States. Besides, there is a whole chapter in Populist Response showing the hostility of contemporary Marxists (DeLeon and the Socialist Labor Party) to the Populists. Blum read with deaf ears, guided by a prejudgment perhaps attributable to his own identification with Theodore Roosevelt and their shared contempt for social protest. Roosevelt once lamented that he and his Rough Riders couldn’t take a shot at those Haymarket rioters! Blum probably lamented that he couldn’t take a shot at those who wrote about them.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Don’t ever get a radical mad, for he might be tempted—even driven—to take down the entire edifice, speaking figuratively of course. And so, it happened. I did not shy away from controversy, whether at Yale itself or in the sanctum of professional meetings, where I learned also that, like other professions, historians look out for their own. Criticism is not wanted. I introduced Herbert Aptheker at the Law School, in an impassioned plea for freedom of discussion—generally denied to him because of his Communist affiliation, despite the fact that his work was prosaic, conventional, and moderate to a fault. I also was the commentator for a session of the Organization of American Historians, in which the paper, by John Higham, an otherwise good historian, was perfectly abysmal, a presumed exploration of “cultural history” (Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., would have turned in his grave) arguing that the strains of industrialism in the late 19th century (no further historical specificity) were manifested in birdwatching, bicycle clubs, stream of consciousness in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, and the like—with not a word about depression, unemployment, strikes, lockouts, declining living standards, and other “strains” integral to what all agree, or almost all, was an Age of Violence, from, say, the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877 to Homestead and Pullman, 1892, ’94. I dissected the paper piece-by-piece with growing tension in the room (the ballroom of the Cleveland Statler, Higham sitting back, his St. Francis expression frozen in place—the next commentator, Robert K. Murray, who wrote about the Red Scare–from what he said, he should know–raising his fist and saying, “This was a great paper,” the audience standing and cheering), an undescribable scene, which ended on, for me, a dramatic note. Pierson rushed to the front of the platform, face contorted in hatred, and kept shaking his fist at me, until Edmund Morgan escorted him away. The next day, on the plane back, according to Howard Quint, an historian of American socialism, who was present, Pierson went up and down the aisle, apologizing to all that I was at Yale. For an assistant professor who was to come up for tenure—Ha, the machinery was grinding away.
The lesson was sinking in. l had by now burned my bridges behind me. During the time-frame I drove an interacial group of Divinity School students down to Selma, immediately after the suppression on the Pettus Bridge (more on this below), which could not be directly faulted–I was on a Morse Fellowship, and hence released from teaching—except that any sign of activism violated the gentleman’s code of bored neutrality, conjuring the notion of upstart and troublemaker, whether the cause was justified or not. Another speck of trouble: I published a critique, the lead article in the Journal of American History, of Oscar Handlin’s famous article charging Populist anti-Semitism. The documentation was impressive, only all except two pieces were irrelevant to the topic, being non-Populist, outside the period, and, my favorite (as I recall after nearly 50 years), based on inneuendo: F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, in 1896, in Ignatius Donnelly’s Minnesota. Handlin never replied. He even screwed up on Donnelly, who in one novel wrote a philo-Semitic account of Jewish persecution and prophetically depicted a return to Israel. Blum, a Handlin student, was somewhat chagrined. None of this has importance, except to remind the reader of the attempt by American historians from the 1950s on to discredit social protest in the nation’s past, what was then and probably still is called the Consensus Thesis. The need to demolish Populism grew out of the celebration of US hegemony in the world and unrestrained capitalism at home. No one wanted to hear about depression, poverty, and the people’s awakening to fight against corporations, railroads, market fixers, who brought on social misery, even though long ago. For the past must be untarnished, to mythologize the present as well.
The highlight, or coup de grace, in my battle against Yale history, was a bit of guerilla warfare, founded on the recognition that sometimes political theater is the best way, or even the only way, to counter the forces of Reaction, itself humorless in its destructive practices and values. This was still, actually, in the third year, when I gave the first semester of the American survey, which conventionally ended in 1865 and the close of the Civil War. The lectures were in Strathcona Hall, a superb imitation of cathedral-like architecture, long narrow, limestone throughout, a balcony; one could almost be forgiven for thinking one was at Oxford. The inspiration for my plan was Zero Mostel’s staging of “Springtime for Hitler,” in such poor taste and so ghastly as to precipitate numbness and bewilderment among the audience. My friend and co-conspirator, for he too had issues with Yale, was Jesse Lemisch, whose work on the active role of the seamen in the American Revolution led to his magnificent, important formulation, “History from the bottom up.” It was also Jesse, on Tap Night, who strung a wire in front of Sterling, so that when the pledges marched in lock step cross campus, on their way to the secret societies, he pulled the wire and toppled the whole lot of them. I could not have wished for a better colleague, though we were ultimately sent to Coventry for our action. Jesse also had the temerity to question the long-standing department practice of having doctoral candidates, dressed in tuxedo, present their thesis prospectus to an evening meeting. Unfailingly, cultivation and dress made the man, while the term “scholar” had too much the taint of professionalism, a concern raised by Pierson when he found my seminar reading list too specialized.
Simply, we would re-enact the Lincoln assassination. Ten seconds remained in the course. I grew quiet, somberly reflecting on the problems facing Lincoln, the burdens of Reconstruction weighing heavily on his shoulders, when…when…Lemisch shot me, and falling over the lectern I managed to smear myself with the catsup in my pocket, a bloody mess. Absolute silence, disbelief. I snuck a peek, the students were open-mouthed, dumbstruck, when Lemisch from the balcony shouted “Sic semper tyrannus,” all eyes turned upward, he with a machete between his teeth and raised arm holding a smoking pistol. That broke the silence. Huge waves of applause. Pierson, Blum, Morgan, angry, fit to be tied. Yale had a tradition of playing pranks (provided one was in the charmed circle). A. Whitney Griswold often cut up, but I was not A. Whitney Griswold, nor would this one have occurred to him. Soon I was out, Jesse as well. Strathcona Hall is still standing. The Hall of Graduate Studies is still standing. I’m afraid political theater can go only so far.
Radicalism can be a jealous mistress, demanding conformity to certain texts, nonpleasurable interests and activities, a need to prove one’s credentials. That I think is stultifying, and worse, forced. It doesn’t serve either the deepening of compassion or the widening of mental horizons. When I introduced our Saint Bernard puppy to Sweezy and the Marxist study group as Karl Marx, a name Nancy and I lovingly and whimsically gave him, no one would talk to me for a week or two. There is no reason why rigidness and radicalism should go together. Thus, from Florida through Yale, less so after, I was truly a sometime radical, less the poseur than, ashamedly, the aesthete, for long periods seeing aethetics, primarily music and painting, as somehow liberating if not revolutionary forces in the battle against false consciousness and in activating a disciplined quest for higher social standards. This was, at best, a backdoor attack on capitalism—probably as inefficacious as political theater (Clifford Odets to the barricades). But it also fashioned my alertness, as in standing before a Cezanne for a half-hour, penetrating its mysteries and techniques until satisfied. Radicalism is about more than private property and social change. It is about an appreciation of human possibilities. It must include the dimension of aesthetics, not only to fight off fatalism or nihilism, but to affirm creativity, whether it be architecture and city planning (as art rather than science), toward a beautiful yet practical environment (in which the pros and cons of everything from ornamentation to sewage removal can be raised and discussed), or string quartets, harpsichord sonatas, the choral works of Britten or Berlioz, toward thinking or imagining on a different wave length, away from clutter and salesmanship, and toward alternative visions of the social order.
This may seem utterly irrelevant to the condemnation of armed drones for targeted assassination, but when faced with cruelty, evil, zombiism, much of that incorporated into the bureaucratic personality and mind-set, a counterforce of sunlight, reason, appreciation of nature, man creating, must be part of material efforts at societal reconstruction; otherwise, one swaps one oppressive context for another, the old values and ways still predominating, to the detriment of human freedom. Aesthetics can lead to the clean break—the transformation worth its name (not the mock turtle soup served up by Obama)—so long as it moves parallel with or ahead of the concretization of mass striving as itself directed to the reshaping of political economy, institutions, culture. When I think back at Yale, I also preserve, beyond the usual (pleasures of teaching, the odd confrontation here and there), memories of cameo events, e.g., borrowing an ill-fitting tuxedo from one of the boys to attend the Yale Daily News banquet (the center of the universe in the College, and therefore glared at by history attendees resentful that I was invited), or, probably the same tux, when Nancy and I were asked to chaperon a dance, with the Count Basie orchestra, we sitting on the bandstand by his left hand for much of the evening. Life was hardly all bad. Even the antiwar and civil-rights demonstrations had a nonradical component, which protesters similarly inclined are sometimes loath to admit: One might risk life and limb, as in Mississippi, but less because of intrinsic regard for the cause than because of a compulsion to bear witness, be part of something larger, even put one’s body on the line—in sum, embarking on an ego trip best left home or guarded against, if protest is to have meaning, so that one can recover his wits and not use others and their suffering for his own ends. That would be almost as bad as getting one’s kicks by targeting funerals and first responders, for in both cases fellow human beings are reduced to ciphers. Again, are you listening Mr. President?
There was always the danger that protest might become a way of life offering its own gratification, and with it, almost necessarily, not just a tincture of arrogance and self-righteousness. Tenure was farther away than Mars; it was therefore time to get serious. I shall never be Odets, nor Brecht for that matter. To be Jewish and from Bridgeport (we moved when I was six)—the word literally spat out by would-be patricians and their imitators–was a double whammy. Blum, succeeding Pierson as chair, called me in while I had the Morse, an unheard of summons while on research leave—and said I might stay several more years, even have a graduate seminar, but I knew it was time to leave. Tenure is important when one is starting a family and more so when the factor of radicalism looms large in the possible denial of an appointment, much less the achievement of security.
I left quietly. Why give the powers that be, satisfaction that if I encouraged student demonstrations on my behalf, that would be taken as confirmation of their indictment that I was irresponsible and sought to politicize the learning process? Better to wash one’s hands of the whole business, and, rather than play the usual games—networking in search of a prestigious position—take whatever comes, as the opportunity for further teaching, intellectual growth, and continued social protest. No complaints; unlike many, much worse off, I landed on my feet. In 1965, Detroit was a seething cauldron, especially after Palo Alto, Cambridge, and New Haven. I don’t know how I got the Wayne State job, I had not, to my knowledge, interviewed for it or otherwise been in communication, and I assume that Mother Yale took the initiative in making arrangements for its cast-offs. C. Vann Woodward, whom I respected and with whom I had a good working relationship, said reassuringly, “Norman, you’re going to love Wayne State, you’re going to love the museums and restaurants, and you’re really going to love Chicago.” Poor guy, didn’t even know where it was! And Staughton Lynd, a most decent person, a Quaker, who went to Hanoi personally to declare peace with the North Vietnam government (political theater at its symbolic finest), a highly esteemed teacher, and the son of Robert and Helen Lynd, knowing our plans, notified Detroit peace groups of our arrival. The next day, I addressed a mammoth peace rally in Grand Circus Park. (Staughton was himself fired shortly after we left—so much for academic freedom at Yale.)
What a new ball game: Black Trotskyites (poseurs, blow-hards, with far greater dramatic ability than Olivier playing Hamlet); Detroit’s Tactical Mobile Unit (cruising in their blue-and-white Plymouths, four burley men per car, probably 270 lbs. average weight, not counting hardware and axe handles); the CIA-sponsored group of young fascists, Breakthrough, who crowded to the front of the rallies raising a din so loud as to drown out the speakers); and yes, the history chairman, a powerhouse, former longshoreman, who cowed the department into submission, and, in the spirit of Eric Hoffer–as I recall him–a specialist in civil liberties (like pedophiles who go to the elementary schools, Willie Sutton, to the banks, Alfred H. Kelley went to civil liberties to rape, rob, and tarnish it blind). At one point, when a diminutive young girl led a demonstration to the president’s office in Mackenzie Hall, Kelley stood foursquare at the door and, blocking the way, then stepped forward and with a roundhouse right to the jaw knocked her flat. That is not Yale’s way, but from my limited sampling I’ve come to regard history, as practiced, more as a pathology than a discipline of learning.
Detroit did not have the visibility that New York and Berkeley had on the national protest front, but it was a veritable maelstrom centered on the Wayne campus, with all of the principals gathered in battle array. Four episodes, in no particular order, illustrate the scene. First, the day following the murder of Dr. King a memorial was held at Lower DeRoy, a smallish auditorium, in which the black student leaders spoke. I was horrified, for I had seen him several times in the week before the big (celebrity) Selma to Montgomery March, was greatly moved by his eulogy for the Rev. Jim Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was murdered on the streets of Selma the preceding Monday. Brown’s Church was unadorned, with a steep surrounding balcony, the entire group attending now standing, swaying back and forth, arms locked, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Much of the week we maintained a vigil outside the church until the early hours of the morning, facing a double line of local and state police cars—all perfectly safe, and symbolic—some 18 rows deep. (My more meaningful personal contact with him I’ll relate later.) Why horrified? Because speaker after speaker who got up cursed Dr. King. This was not grief or anguish crying out, but rank opportunism, the fashionable black militance making a first appearance: We’re glad you’re dead. You held us back. Your nonviolence is doing us more harm than good. (A faithful paraphrase) The moral stature of the man—nothing; the wider, more radical scope of protest, embodied in the Poor People’s Campaign (an immediate circumstance of his death)—nothing; the courage and fortitude that kept him going—nothing.
I was waking up fast. This display of raw anger against Dr. King, disrespect for his work, his ideas, what he represented in the struggle for democratic rights regardless of race and skewed toward the bottom stratum of working people, the braggadocio of those who only talked the talk, all this was becoming too much for me. Was this a small sample, or were blacks peeling off in a direction seemingly more militant, but perhaps actually a kind of black chauvinism, which disregarded class and used injured pride now blown up as a negotiating tool for mere recognition and complacent self-indulgence. That is a harsh indictment coming from a radical, and is not meant as an oblique reference to affirmative action, but as, instead, the more profound negation of political consciousness, emblemed in the person and music of Paul Robeson, where race pride, essential as a first step of identity, becomes subsumed in the fight for the social welfare of all people acting and building together. Some in the DeRoy “mourning” group rode black chauvinism, in predominantly black Detroit, to prominence and high office, as meanwhile their adoring constituents were sinking further into poverty.
In an earlier, more focused age, the opportunistic use of race may have served a consoIatory function for blacks (perhaps a la Father Divine), but black radicals eschewed this characterization as demeaning and short-sighted. They were in it for keeps, the emancipation of the poor on class lines. Race pride meant race solidarity, a closing of ranks around black leadership, however good or poor (which didn’t seem to matter) the record was. With Dr. King’s death, there have been few black leaders who have proven to be radical, i.e., in these circumstances, class-oriented, outspoken in criticism of American foreign policy, and taking on issues that are deemed unrelated to race (actually, nothing is, because blacks as a whole were and remain disproportionately represented as the exploited and dispossessed), such as climate change, banking regulation, massive defense spending, etc., all of which, their leaders maintain, have no bearing not only on race identity and pride but also civil rights ( narrowly construed). The world I knew before 1965 is not the world I know after—although, in Detroit, not for want of trying, where I tried to form an antiwar-civil rights coalition. That would have been a natural for radicals in the past, but as I learned, radicalism, as I understand it, and black nationalism or chauvinism, as I witnessed it, did not mix.
I am not the one to talk (or, I should say, analyze), because I as much as anyone commited the liberal error on race—one I shrugged off by the early 1970s, but not fully before, despite jarring moments in the decade following Dr. King’s death. I.e., I gave a free pass to anyone who was black simply because he was black. Period. Since that time I have wanted to see an open declaration of the neutralization of race in the American psyche, black and white alike. Of course, we like to think “race neutral” is widely inscribed and practically always professed, whether in law, the economy, politics, or general living. It may be, and to some extent even honored, but somehow at the expense of black progressiveness, really a bargain with the devil in the sense that full acceptance comes at the cost of surrendering an authentic thirst for democracy. Here is where my own bias kicks in. Wrongly, I hold blacks up to a higher standard because I want them, along with industrial workers, to be the vanguard of social change, the agent for democratizing the structure of society. Condescending, yes, because in that light they cannot simply be themselves—good and bad, as varied as there are individuals. Not-condescending also, though, because both groups historically have a stake in realizing freedom, and given their life-experiences and treatment have ample reason to accept that role (and ample qualifications to boot) even though it is thankless and others in society who benefit from the status quo don’t deserve—and obviously oppose and resist—the resulting improvements. My romantic attachment to the lower classes (now defined out of existence by the spurious label of “middle class” to hide very real gradations of income, status, and power) is a poor substitute for confronting a reality in which both workers and blacks have, at least for the present, gone to seed, dormant, immersed up to their necks in false consciousness, for one, respectability, the other, racial solidarity, for both, given their respective conditions, accommodation to hierarchy at home, hegemony abroad, to the ultimate detriment of each. In sum, assuming my attitude toward blacks and working people in general was based, as I’m sure many radicals in flashes of self-effacement would admit, on an ideological-mythological craving for revolutionary transcendence of existing society via human perfection, no slips or blemishes allowed, it is time to grow up, restore pitiless frankness to its proper place and therefore disabuse oneself of wish-fulfillment and the assigning of potential radical significance to groups neither equal to the task nor committed to fulfilling it. No more free passes to those who have not earned them.
What does this have to do with the price of wheat in Shanghai? Nothing. What does it have to do with armed drones for targeted assassination? Everything. If Obama were white, he wouldn’t stand a chance with a large part of American society, including blacks who, out of a mistaken show of racial solidarity in supporting him, are cutting their own throats. Liberals dare not oppose him, equally because he is black and because they have gradually lost their way for at least three decades. Obama is the perfect test of liberalism, revealing its political, economic, above all, moral, bankruptcy, a degeneration of conviction and ideas stemming probably from its unwillingness to stand up to McCarthyism in the 1950s, then its cooptation into a Cold-War bipartisan framework under Kennedy, regularized as a permanent-war mind-set and commitment to a military / defense-oriented economy with the Vietnam War, and, even from the standpoint of traditional Democratic party demands, the adoption domestically of deregulation as the key to growth, particularly under Clinton, so that by 2000, the handwriting is on the wall: the death of the New Deal at the hands of both parties, a long-term shifting of the political spectrum rightward, so that Democrats today in any meaningful sense are right-of-center, while Republicans are skirting the line of plebeian fascism, and in foreign policy an unrestrained push for global stabilization through unilateral superpower status, to be achieved through a global system of military bases, increased naval power, and our friend, the armed drone. Obama is not only the perfect test of liberalism, now that it has for sixty years become associated with business consolidation and the militarization of capitalism and society alike, but also its Lord High Executioner, with respect to the quashing of dissidents, the erection of the National Security State, the advancement of surveillance, pressing forward trends, perhaps amounting to a qualitative change, long in the making. (When one reads about his approval of, and eagerness to sign, pending legislation to expand the government’s powers of surveillance, assisted by Sen. Feinstein’s position on the Intelligence Committee, one realizes how mild, innocent, and out-of-date Orwell’s 1984 actually is—probably already by the time of the title, and now a society and its role in the world, just on this dimension, that invites the designation “liberal totalitarianism,” Big Brother through guile rather than the naked bayonet.)
The relevance of the preceding discussion of race lies in his personification of a total structural-cultural-ideological context which makes the armed drone possible, thinkable, and highly desirable, without which it could be neither strategically nor morally acceptable. Like waterboarding, rendition, military commissions, the existence of Guantanamo, armed drones for targeted assassination has become part of the new norm, the equation of torture with America itself, that has emerged, largely through the decline of traditional restraining forces on the unrestricted use of power. Obama has performed a neat political hat trick—a “threefer” if you will: with his left hand, silenced the black community (who have acted out of racial loyalty) and labor unions (who have been loath to question the Democratic party, and their own place of presumed security and advantage within it), with his right hand, appeased, protected, assisted, strengthened, and coddled what has become the unified structure of wealth and power (which includes the upper groups of banking and finance, as well as the military and intelligence communities), and with both hands, has, as snake-oil salesman par excellence, supported by a superb public-relations machine in the White House, sold the American public a bill of goods suitably coated with liberal gloss, which has synthesized the financialization and militarization of the American economy into a political framework geared to the execution of more ambitious foreign policy goals (e.g., the Pacific-first strategy) while at home reinforcing the principles and practices of market fundamentalism.
In this light, drone warfare didn’t require much selling. The extreme secrecy surrounding its operations perfectly meshes with a public, uncritically identifying with counterterrorism as the new kid or cause on the block, knowing instinctively to shut their eyes to the many excesses commited in its name, the drone itself ideally suited to the glamor of high-tech warfare which supposedly sanitizes killing, so that victims themselves appear not as fellow humans but factitious objects in a giant video game. I will address the question of desensitization as the foundation for making drone warfare and assassination operable, but here we have Obama, stepping forward as essentially the counterrevolutionary figure to all of the social protest occurring in earlier decades, his race a crutch for those who heretofore supported radical causes and now want for whatever reason out, and for those in the circles of power (once in franker times, they were referred to as ruling groups or, heaven forfend, the ruling class) his race provided them a singular advantage: he could serve as a front man who, because black, downed all critical discussion, subdued all opposition, from left-leaning—such as are still present—quarters. In Obama’s hands, the armed drone is America, which alone has the power to turn the tables on its enemies, thought to be legion in number, by making counterterrorism itself an instrument of terror. In the new dispensation, anything goes.
Let me return to Detroit, and the Wayne campus with its turbulence. One rally from the steps of a classroom building, was so tense, with Breakthrough snarling in our face, the campus police—despite my calls for ensuring free speech on university grounds—standing idly by, that a black fellow who had seen it all, ex-Marine, fresh from Mississippi and voter registration, and doing community organizing in East Detroit, had become so unnerved that, to stop his body from shaking I had to grab him from behind to steady him. Facing the giant flag pole, he raised his arm, pointing, and said, “That’s your flag baby, not mine!” That made next morning’s headline in the Free Press. Another incident I recall: students picketing military recruitment at the placement office were met by Tactile Mobile officers with axe handles, who bloodied them and drove them off. They scattered, then regrouped and marched to the same classroom steps. (Incidentally they were mostly just kids, as I observed, inexperienced, bookish, my heart going out to them.) I looked down on the scene from the eighth floor of Mackenzie Hall, the bodies sprawled out, colleagues at nearby windows actually jeering, at which point I literally saw red, walked down the eight flights, crossed the street, took the bullhorn, spoke, then walked with it to the Tactile Mobile Unit car parked on the street, and went near-beserk, taunting them to hit me as they did these students. Nothing happened, thank goodness. One final scene: Spring ’68, Eugene McCarthy’s daughter, Anne, campaigning for her father during the primary season, visited the campus, accompanied by Dustin Hoffman and other friends. Her speech would be outdoors, standing behind the ropes of what looked to be a makeshift boxing ring. Now, instead of Breakthrough, black militants sought to prevent her from speaking. Standing off to the side, I realized how ugly things were getting and stepped into the ring. I thought, wrongly, they would listen to my demand that she be heard, so first—given the mumbo jumbo they were shouting about imperialism—I proceeded with a radical critique of McCarthy’s foreign policy (which partly quieted them), and turned the mike over to Anne, who gave a heartfelt speech. As I stepped to the rear of the ring, I saw that Hoffman was shaking (protest was becoming an occupational hazard) and once again, smothering him to my chest, I felt called upon to hold tight, provide steadiness, and see the party safely out.
I came to Michigan State in 1968, inhospitable to a fault with respect to radicalism and stimulation in general—not the proverbial “cow college,” but a highly sophisticated institution for purposes of making war and servicing corporate needs. Those of us around at the time will remember the Ramparts cover of Madame Nu dressed as a Michigan State cheerleader, beanie and all. MSU, under John Hannah, also had a distinguished role in making agriculture a weapon in the Cold War…
Norman Pollack is a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.