While last week's post relied on one very useful source, this one draws on my own reading and thinking over more than half a century to try to explain how political activism has changed. Great historians, I often remark, do not argue with history, and while I have opposed many of the changes I will be discussing, I am not suggesting that they could suddenly be undone, or regretting specific great mistakes that allowed them to happen. "It's useless to argue about the causes of great events," Zhivago remarks in the midst of the Russian Revolution (in a passage that I have searching for in vain for weeks)--"they haven't any." I would say rather than the causes are as profound as tectonic shifts in the earth's crust, but also as difficult to observe. The earthquake that hit the nation in the 1960s must have been building up unseen for a long time.
The first big tremor had hit Berkeley, California, in early the fall of 1964, when students protested long-standing restrictions on campus political activity. Mario Savio, a young product of the superb New York City public educational system and a veteran of the Mississippi Summer voting registration drive of the previous summer, emerged as a leader. In his most famous oration, he made a remarkable statement that I have cited here before. "Last summer," he said, "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 [a] 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."
Savio, like so many young radicals, was a brilliant but very troubled young person, who never in the long run found a real focus for his relatively short life. What fascinates me is the resonance this message found among his audience. They had grown up in a relatively prosperous United States, one far more economically egalitarian than the one we live in today. Just a few months earlier, the US Congress had taken a dramatic step forward toward racial equality with the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act was only months away. Lyndon Johnson had declared war on poverty. They were enjoying a better education than is available anywhere in the US today, for which, if they were Californians, they paid absolutely nothing. Yet many of them embraced the role of downtrodden subjects of a cruel system, and in the next five years, they set the tone of left wing politics from that day to this. Why?
The Boomers who made up the bulk of Savio's audience (born 1943-46) came from a mass-produced generation. Their parents regarded them as naturally great, and had laid down simple paths that they expected them to follow gratefully to success--all the more so because so many of their parents had had to struggle very hard through Depression and war to make the same journey. Postwar America was the Garden of Eden that they, like the old testament God, had created for their children. But those children, like Adam and Eve, were determined to eat from the tree of good and evil, and make their own judgments. No matter how kind their world might be, they had not designed it. They resented their parents' certainty that all real truths had been discovered, and were looking for new ones. And meanwhile, in that same week in December 1964 that Savio spoke, a high-level committee in Washington, as I later discovered, was planning the Vietnam War.
By the spring of 1968, I, too--then a college junior--had turned against that war, but I viewed it, then as now, as a catastrophic mistake made by certain decision-makers, not proof of a corrupt system. I had also seen first hand as early as 1966 that many establishment figures recognized it as a great mistake. I was however in a minority of politically engaged students by that time--or perhaps an invisible plurality. The SDS, as we saw last week, had adopted the Marxist-Leninist view of the war as a natural product of capitalist imperialism, an inherently exploitative and doomed system. Political action needed to happen outside and against it, and universities like Harvard were just one of many institutions supporting it. At our commencement in June 1969, the SDS persuaded the student government, which in turn persuaded President Pusey, that they deserved a commencement speaker because of their superior moral virtue, and he pronounced the commencement "an obscenity" because the college had trained young men for their roles in the corrupt system.
Within three more years, the student movement had largely disintegrated as draft calls shrank and sectarian splits turned pieces of it against one another. Many activists rejoined the mainstream, and many more became local activists of various kinds, with little or no interest in national politics. But simultaneously, during the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of a corrupt system became more and more popular among certain types of young academics, those focused upon race and gender. The civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and later the gay rights movement all began as attempts to open up access to an existing political and economic system and give everyone an equal chance. Yet beginning with the Black Power movement in the 1960s, younger civil rights activists began renouncing integration into a corrupt system in favor of a radical critique of that system. Many feminists, and eventually LGBT activists, took the same tack, which dominated black, women's and gay studies programs in colleges and universities. This, in my opinion, was in part a self-interested and self-centered activism among young academics. To argue that one's own group had traditionally been excluded and silenced was an argument for giving more members of it academic jobs, and that spirit is still very much alive, as a recent letter by black Princeton faculty shows. And in the last, critical step, all the intellectual and political achievements of western civilization increasingly fell into disfavor, seen as instruments of straight white male oppression against "marginalized" groups. These achievements included most of the western intellectual tradition, free speech, and representative democracy itself. In my opinion, much of the new scholarship about white people and western civilization is projection on the part of female and nonwhite academics. Having become obsessed with race, gender, or both, they assume that western civilization has been equally obsessed with those categories. In fact it has been less obsessed with them than any other--which is why the ideas of racial and gender equality are almost unique to the West.
The belief that group oppression lies at the foundation of our economy had society has deeply affected how we see economic and social problems. If one has already concluded that the oppression of women or black people is a given, then any disparity in their incomes, poverty rates, incarceration or health must be due to that oppression, which becomes the fault of white people in general or white males in particular--whether they know it or not. Police shootings of black people are automatically interpreted as racism, even though the police nationwide kill more white than black people every year, often in equally horrifying circumstances. The new idea of intersectionality encourages combining various forms of racial and gender oppression.
An excellent example of all this comes from Vicki Osterweil, a white transgender woman whose book, In Defense of Looting, appeared serendipitously just five months ago. Looting, she says, "attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions. It points to the way in which that's unjust. And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.
"Importantly, I think especially when it's in the context of a Black uprising like the one we're living through now, it also attacks the history of whiteness and white supremacy. The very basis of property in the U.S. is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country. Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that's a part of it that doesn't really get talked about — that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory."
Those quotations come from a very friendly interview Osterweil did for NPR, and specifically for its "Code Switch" page, which is devoted entirely to contemporary views on race.
And this in turn leads me to a last comparison between leftism then and now. The student radicals of the late 1960s--few of whom came from genuinely poor backgrounds--claimed to identify with the people of Vietnam and other parts of the Third World, and with poorer Americans, especially nonwhite ones. Today, white activists effectively argue that their race and privilege makes it impossible for them to form correct political programs on their own and forces them to defer to others for leadership. This tendency has a few older roots too, as I discovered reading a remarkable article, "The Wages of Whiteness," in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.
That article is an interesting document in itself. Its author, Hari Kunzru, appears to be a native born Brit of South Asian descent, and a very successful novelist. The essay is among other things a detailed treatment of leftist ideas on race in the United States. Kunzru quotes from a 1970 Weather Underground manifesto, Prairie Fire, on the relationship of white and nonwhite revolutionaries. "The Black struggle for self-determination is the strategic leading force of the US revolution…. Black and Third World people’s right to determine the direction of their struggle is undeniable. Self-determination means the right of oppressed people to seize and organize their future and the future of their children…. Whatever decisions Black people and other oppressed peoples make in exercising this right to self-determination, white revolutionaries and anti-imperialists have a very clear-cut responsibility to support those decisions once they are arrived at. This does not mean to support only those choices one approves of." Kathy Boudin was a white member of the Weather Underground who helped carry out a 1981 armored car robbery on Long Island in which a guard and two police officers were killed. Twenty years later, in the midst of a long prison sentence, she claimed that she hadn't known anything about the robbery in detail but had willingly participated in it because she supported a struggle that was "not my struggle. I certainly don’t have the right to criticize anything. The less I would know and the more I would give up total self, the better—the more committed and the more moral I was."
Oddly enough, Kunzru does not mention that "black and Third World People" was the late 19t0s synonym for "people of color," a term that has now entered the mainstream. That term obviously implies a dichotomy between white people on the one hand and everyone else on the other--which reinforces the idea of white people as oppressors of everyone else. This is quite misleading, since all nonwhites are anything but a monolithic bloc, either in the United States or in the world at large. Yet his quotes from the Weather Underground and from Boudin have a great deal of resonance today, when white people are constantly exhorted to mistrust all their own views and feelings about racial issues and defer to others. That in turn fundamentally attacks the intellectual foundation of the American experiment.
The United States was founded on the idea that reason could lead us closer to truth and justice, and secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Marxism-Leninism, even in its revolutionary form, believed in the power of reason as well. Yet contemporary activism holds, in effect, that reason--which we can all strive to use--is less important than the views we all hold by virtue of our status either as oppressors or oppressed. Some of them do not hesitate to argue, in fact, that reason and the Enlightenment tradition are simply tools of straight white male oppression. In the wake of George Floyd's killing, its Newspaper Guild--the journalists' union--declared, "The Post newsroom standards of objectivity continue to be rooted in elite whiteness." A schema, "Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States" posted on the website of the national Museum of African-American History included "Objective, rational linear thinking; Cause and effect relationships;" and "quantitative analysis" as specifically white cultural traits. I am not suggesting that a majority of nonwhite Americans shares these views, but an increasingly influential minority of social justice activists do, and these examples show that they are influencing the mainstream.
This, perhaps, is the simplest link between the SDS radicals of 50 years ago and our own today: the belief that only a select few know the path to truth and justice, and that they in turn need not respect the views of others. Then the select few was defined by ideology, now they are defined by demography. Both clearly are profoundly anti-democratic. I do not think either set of beliefs can hold the United States together as a functioning nation, and I don't think a majority of Americans do so either. Yet they are mainstream on the intellectual left dominates universities and major news organizations.