During the 1980s I became very interested in the relationship between individual psychology and politics. I was very influenced by the works of the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, who had renounced the orthodox Freudianism in which she had been trained in favor of an emphasis on what had actually happened to people as children and how it affected them as adults. She applied her theories repeatedly to Hitler and the Nazis, and I taught a course which included one of her books and a lot of historical fiction that explored the emotional origins, if you will, of totalitarianism. I have not done very much of that kind of thing in m commentaries on contemporary political figures here, however, except perhaps in some of m posts about George W. Bush while he was president.
At the moment I am re-reading another of my favorite books on psychology, Jealousy, by Nancy Friday, one of the outstanding thinkers of the Silent generation. The book moved me so much when I first read it that I wrote her a long fan letter, and I was amazed several years later to get a phone message from her on my answering machine. She had been preparing to move, evidently, and had come across my letter and decided to respond. We had a couple of conversations, but that was all, and I have never met her. I was rereading the book for other reasons--and I have not been disappointed, it's a remarkable work in many ways--but suddenly, I saw the answer to a question that has been bothering me for some time. It relates to what happened to my own generation in the 1960s.
The first couple of hundred pages of Jealousy spend a great deal of time on the related concept of envy, drawing upon the works of the psychiatrist, Melanie Klein. Envy to Klein and Friday (who never had any formal training in psychology) does not simply mean wanting what some one else has, although it can mean that. It originates, Klein thought, in the infant's relationship with its mother in general and its mother's breast in particular. The infant loves, and desperately needs, both the mother and the breast, but he or she also lives with the terrible knowledge that the mother can at any moment withdraw and withhold it. To be subjected to this awful arbitrary power, Klein and Friday argue, inevitably makes the infant hate the mother and the breast, as well as love them. The same pattern lasts throughout life. One cannot, Friday believes, be completely or even largely emotionally dependent on someone else without resenting and hating them as well, and much of the drama within relationships turns on that point.
Nancy Friday was never especially interested in the political implications of her findings,. but I am. And the specific historical episode I want to use them to investigate is the student revolt at Berkeley in 1964--the beginnings of the student revolts that swept the nation for about the next six years, defined the Boom generation, and began the repudiation of nearly everything our GI parents had stood for. That revolt began as a controversy over a long-standing ban on political activity on campus, which had forced political organizers of all types to set up their recruiting tables just outside the campus. I had read a new book about these events, drawing largely on FBI files, a couple of years ago, and something had really struck me. It came from one of the most famous speeches of the fall of 1964, by Mario Savio, a young man from New York who had come to college at Berkeley. Savio had a brilliant mind, particularly in the sciences, but he was also an emotionally troubled person whose demons, it turned out, prevented him from really getting going for the whole of his relatively short life. He had spent some of 1964 in the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi, where his colleagues Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were killed. And here are the paragraphs that left me shaking my head from that speech. If I could understand the appeal of these words to my contemporaries, I thought, I would understand a great deal that I have never been able to figure out.
Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the
struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same
struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different to some
observers, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places -- the
right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of
law. Further, it is a struggle against the same enemy. In Mississippi an autocratic and
powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast, virtually
powerless majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university
bureaucracy to suppress the students' political expression. That "respectable"
bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats; that impersonal bureaucracy is the efficient
enemy in a "Brave New World."
In our free-speech fight at the University of
California, we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation
-- depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy. We have encountered the organized status quo
in Mississippi, but it is the same in Berkeley. Here we find it impossible usually to meet
with anyone but secretaries. Beyond that, we find functionaries who cannot make policy but
can only hide behind the rules. We have discovered total lack of response on the part of
the policy makers. To grasp a situation which is truly Kafkaesque, it is necessary to
understand the bureaucratic mentality. And we have learned quite a bit about it this fall,
more outside the classroom than in.
As bureaucrat, an administrator believes that
nothing new happens. He occupies an a-historical point of view. In September, to get the
attention of this bureaucracy which had issued arbitrary edicts suppressing student
political expression and refused to discuss its action, we held a sit-in on the campus. We
sat around a police car and kept it immobilized for over thirty-two hours. At last, the
administrative bureaucracy agreed to negotiate. But instead, on the following Monday, we
discovered that a committee had been appointed, in accordance with usual regulations, to
resolve the dispute. Our attempt to convince any of the administrators that an event had
occurred, that something new had happened, failed. They saw this simply as something to be
handled by normal university procedures.
The same is true of all bureaucracies. They
begin as tools, means to certain legitimate goals, and they end up feeding their own
existence. The conception that bureaucrats have is that history has in fact come to an
end. No events can occur now that the Second World War is over which can change American
society substantially. We proceed by standard procedures as we are.
The most crucial problems facing the United
States today are the problem of automation and the problem of racial injustice. Most
people who will be put out of jobs by machines will not accept an end to events, this
historical plateau, as the point beyond which no change occurs. Negroes will not accept an
end to history here. All of us must refuse to accept history's final judgment that in
America there is no place in society for people whose skins are dark. On campus students
are not about to accept it as fact that the university has ceased evolving and is in its
final state of perfection, that students and faculty are respectively raw material and
employees, or that the university is to be autocratically run by unresponsive bureaucrats.
Here is the real contradiction: the bureaucrats
hold history as ended. As a result significant parts of the population both on campus and
off are dispossessed and these dispossessed are not about to accept this a-historical
point of view. It is out of this that the conflict has occurred with the university
bureaucracy and will continue to occur until that bureaucracy becomes responsive or until
it is clear the university cannot function.
Now thanks to Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, I can easily understand one aspect of the speech: the idea that the older generation believed that history was over, thanks to the triumph of the Second World War. That was, as we shall see, an exaggeration in many ways, yet it had more than a grain of truth to it. Like the Jefferson-Hamilton-Madison Republican generation that wrote the Constitution, the GIs did not believe that any great truths about life remained to be discovered. But what I still stare at in amazement is Savio's breathtaking comparison of students at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964 with the black population of the State of Mississippi at the same moment.
The Negroes of Mississippi, as they then preferred to be called, were at that moment among the more disenfranchised and terrorized peoples of the world. They could not vote, they lived in an entirely segregated society, and any perceived show of disrespect towards a white person could easily be punished by death. A year before the Mississippi Summer, Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP chapter (and a veteran of the Second World War) had been shot and killed outside his home by Byron de la Beckwith, who had promptly been acquitted by an all-white jury. James Meredith had already graduated from Ole Miss, but the second black student to be admitted there had been expelled for carrying a hand gun with him on campus, and I am not sure whether any new ones had been admitted in the fall of 1964 or not. The state was extraordinarily poor, and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians probably lacked indoor plumbing.
And what of the students at the University of California at Berkeley? I feel confident that those students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, had at their disposal a far better education than their counterparts today, because the western intellectual tradition was still near its peak. Most of them had grown up in the most prosperous state, probably, of a very prosperous nation. Its public school system was excellent. And their tuition was--free. That was the remarkable legacy of the first half of the twentieth century in what was already the nation's largest state, and one of the most progressive in its politics in the country.
And what about the rest of Savio's characterization of the older generation? Was it truly dedicated to perpetuating a racist status quo? No, it was not. Just a few months before he spoke Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act was only a few months more ahead. Lyndon Johnson had already declared war on poverty. And--crucially from this perspective--large scale American involvement in the Vietnam War had not yet begun. Indeed, within a few more weeks the Berkeley administration that he railed against would yield on the question of political activity on campus, in sharp contrast to the white power structure of Mississippi. Yet Savio's listeners responded favorably to his comparison of themselves with the oppressed black people of Mississippi and to his dismissal of the older generation all the same. How was this possible?
I know some of my contemporaries, even now, will not want to hear this, but I think Nancy Friday provided the answer thirty years ago. These students were indeed among the most favored young people in the history of the world--but they owed everything to their parents' generation, and they were tired of being grateful for it. What their parents had given, their parents could take away. And tragically, within less than a year, their parents' generation began doing just that, drafting tens of thousands of young men every month to fight in a mistaken, hopeless and very long war. That step did validate the Boomers' envy of their parents power. But the Berkeley revolt, the first of so many to come, that took place among the most favored young people of all, proves that Vietnam was not the original cause of the revolt, because the United States was not yet in that war when it took place. I can see no other explanation than envy, as defined by Klein and Friday, for my contemporaries' total repudiation of the extraordinary institutions that our parents and grandparents had created. The long term results have been extraordinary. When Savio spoke, the state of California spent several times as much on its university system as it did on its prisons. Now those percentages have been reversed, and today's Berkeley students pay tens of thousands of dollars of tuition every year.
Because these were defining events in my own lifetime, they still make me angry and sad. But a great historian, as I often like to say, does not argue with history. Every era reflects certain aspects of human nature, and the generational rhythm that Strauss and Howe recognized guarantees that new generations will not, as Lincoln put it, be content to shore up an existing edifice. The authors of Genesis (whom I believe to have been human beings) wrote the first episode of this story in the tale of the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were expelled for daring to make their own judgments of good and evil. Those authors, however, got the story wrong in one crucial respect. In real life Adam and Eve would have not only risked their punishment willingly, but left the garden happily, certain that however beautiful it might be, they would somehow do better. That is the real rhythm of history, and the reason that it has never been characterized by uninterrupted progress, especially in the realm of politics. But it is also the reason that future generations will one day return to truly inspirational political work--whether we are around to see it or not.