This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that young people—in the streets and otherwise—are, openly and with persistence, questioning authority.
Volumes have already been written and uttered by the chattering classes. What are they about? What are they after?
“We, the young people, whom you so rightly fear, say that the society is sick and you and your capitalism are the sickness. You call for order and respect for authority; we call for justice, freedom, and socialism.”
“No longer are the weak to be manipulated by the strong, whose revivifying worth is the property they have amassed. They are now open to scrutiny. It is clear that there is a real and legitimate basis for the seizure and redistribution of property to rechannel it into the service of human needs.”
“The underlying idea of this project is that everyone participating is going to get an opportunity to weigh in and give their opinion…We are attempting to create a new paradigm where decisions are being made from the bottom up.”
These statements were not made at the foot of Wall Street in late October, nor in Berkeley over the weekend. They were made during or after “The Battle of Morningside Heights,” a student-led uprising at ivy-league Columbia University in upper Manhattan, bordering Harlem, in the Spring of 1968. The first quotation is from Mark Rudd, a factional leader of the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, and the face and personality the media fashioned into its icon, in his Open Letter to President Kirk. The second is taken from the conclusion of Who Rules Columbia? Original Strike Edition, published by strike organizers that September to catalog and document what, to them, it was really about—the distorting effect of money, property, and power on the culture and ideals of both academe and society. The last statement was made by Eleanor Raskin, in A Time to Stir, Paul Cronin’s epic 2008 documentary about that student revolt. She was a Columbia graduate student and SDS member at that time, later joined Weatherman, and is now a law professor who teaches about climate change. (Please forgive my liberty in changing tenses in the latter two—you get the point; plus ça change and all that.)
Against the background of two years of growing radicalism in both the civil rights movement and in on-campus antiwar and anti-draft activity, Morningside Heights was one of many galvanizing events that led to a summer of rage among the young and the racially dispossessed. Three weeks earlier, President Lyndon Baines Johnson—a legislative and political colossus and talisman of hope to citizens of color, now mortally wounded by an intractable foreign war—announced he would not seek a second full term. Six days after that, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who galvanized my generation around the issues of racial and social justice, bled out on a motel balcony in Memphis. Six weeks after the Columbia confrontation, Senator Robert Kennedy’s bid to become the Democratic Party’s “youth candidate” in August, bolstered by his June 4 California Primary victory, ended with his murder in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. During that convention, the youthful New Left clashed with Mayor Daley the Elder’s police in Chicago’s streets, a stark exercise in theatrical confrontation that deepened and solidified the politics of division. Fear and frustration were everywhere.
Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “restoring law and order” and was entirely reactionary, built on those fears and frustrations—a toxic brew of the war; civil unrest; and white, working class antipathy toward civil rights gains. (No, Virginia, Cheney and Rove didn’t invent those tactics; they merely refined them. Johnson had played both building antiwar sentiment and the nuclear card to perfection against Goldwater four years before.)
I wrote in greater detail two years ago about that Fall’s electoral denouement. Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey by a half-million votes out of 73 million cast—00.007%. George Wallace, the pro-segregation former Governor of Alabama, actively campaigned in the South and Rust Belt for the American Independent Party. He pulled more than 9 million votes and carried five southern states with 46 electoral votes. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the write-in “Peace” candidate and the darling of too many in my general cohort who were 21 and who could vote—I couldn’t—didn’t move the needle. (Then and now, I shudder to imagine how many of my peers—particularly those who got involved primarily to score drugs and get laid—no, kids, you didn’t invent that at college, either—indulged in the hubristic “meaningful protest” of writing in “Clean Gene,” the Yippies’ “Pigasus,” or other fanciful creatures. I’m fairly certain J. R. R. Tolkien and Timothy Leary earned goodly shares, too. I salve myself with the realization that they probably didn’t bother to show up.) Combined, these factors provided the Republican a comfortable electoral college margin of 301-91.
Contrary to popular opinion, those choices had consequences; they always do. Unless and until we devise or borrow (European socialism!) a better system that truly takes money out of politics by eliminating the marketing/media profit motive, Presidential elections are by definition a “winner takes all” proposition. One guy wins, one guy loses (sorry, Hillary), often depending on how many votes that season’s Don Quixote—take a bow, Ross, Ralph, and Ron—steals from one or the other. If more people my age had been mature enough to vote for Humphrey, I’m persuaded that, among other things:
- The GOP’s vaunted “Southern strategy” would have been wounded, very likely mortally.
- Thirteen kids wouldn’t have been shot by their rifle-toting, draft-dodging classmates in a panic at Kent State University on May, 3 1970.
The Vietnam war would have ended much sooner—if only because McNamara and Ellsberg would have had a sympathetic, inside audience—sparing our parents and society the burdens of tens of thousands of additional casualties and additional damage to our international reputation.
- There would have been no Watergate and no impeachment proceedings. (In hindsight, one of Nixon’s chiefs of staff pegged Kent State as the event that
began that Administration’s downward slide into Watergate.)
- The entire realm of public discourse would have been different—at a minimum more progressive (generic meaning, label-makers) than reactionary.
There are obvious parallels in the Morningside Heights/Wall Street metaphors—war; gender, class, and ethnic divides; persistent poverty and economic inequality—but there are key differences. The biggest difference, I think, is that “Occupy Wall/Main Street” is decidedly more proletarian—even though we geezers liked to impress ourselves with the frequent use of the word back in the day. Look closely; despite the media’s efforts to the contrary, they are of every color, sexual orientation, size, and temperament. Unlike most of us were, they are not led by the children of the privileged, sheltered in academia by social position—that is, wealth or skin color, or both—and still blissfully ignorant of the true depths and dimension of the struggles of others. (Go back to A Time to Stir and focus on the divisions in purpose between SDS and Students for African-American Studies—or, for that matter, between males and females in SDS.) These kids have had three generations to know and get used to one another at the most visceral levels; they have a fundamental, common comfort that we never did. Theirs is a strike against the status quo, to be sure, but it’s largely unburdened by those types of xenophobic considerations. Their unifying theme is more purely distilled and what we were searching for: social and economic justice. We used those words but, like Mark Rudd, too many of our leaders congratulated ourselves as a new intellectual and social force, demanding the abandonment of everything with which we disagreed, human or institutional. It was a blinding arrogance that, in retrospect and however well-intentioned, was appalling. OW-MS isn’t printing manifestos so much as asking a simple question:
“You’ve made us a lot of promises and we’ve played by your rules. You’ve got yours, and more. Where’s ours?”
In doing so, they’re speaking for many more of us than they’re being given credit for. What we—former Flower Children and Generation Millenium—have in common are the same worries and doubts, about where we are and where we going. We insisted we spoke truth to power, but we were merely railing against authority. They are pointed at the true source of power today: wealth, as applied to our institutions to serve its acquisition and retention, rather than us.
So, kids: there are among the cotton-tops those of us who are listening, and remember what it’s like to trade personal safety for speaking up. We see beyond efforts to typify you and diminish your message. You’ve already got a stronger grip on what’s at stake than we did, because you’re living now what most of us were merely witnessing in our time. We had education; you have that but, like our Depression and wartime-era parents, you also have the daily confrontation of bitter experience. Let us listen to one another, combine our time and talent, and pursue solutions together.
Don’t do what we did, though. Don’t abandon the possible to pursue the perfect—and allow the Brahmins to steal another election.