What Is to Be Done?
Timing may be everything, but don't tell that to the Workmen's Circle, which, with its May Day Seders and Cuban film nights, keeps the flame of lefty Jewish activism alive along South Robertson Boulevard. Not only did the Circle (“Arbeter Ring” in Yiddish) hold a forum on the Students for a Democratic Society during the Super Bowl, it was also the very moment thousands of students were rallying for Barack Obama at UCLA. Still, a decent turnout of 25 mostly retirement-aged progressives turned up at the Circle's gallery to hear reminiscences of the 1960s by UCLA lecturer Paul Von Blum, and by former SDSers John Johnson, editor of Change Links, and Circle director Eric Gordon.
When I was a teenage radical in the late 1960s, I couldn't wait to go to college and join SDS. The Port Huron Statement, which served as the group's 1962 birth certificate, is one of those documents that completely captures an era's unease and whose raw clarity sends shivers down the spines of readers today. The statement's first sentence peels as loudly as those of Howl or The Catcher in the Rye: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
By the time I graduated from high school, however, SDS had imploded in a firestorm of sectarianism and nihilistic violence. Still, the day I enrolled at Berkeley I found this line penned deep into the wood of a Sproul Hall phone booth: “SDS 4:30 Tues 145 Dwinelle.” My heart leapt at this discovery that SDS was alive and well on campus. I went to the room in Dwinelle Hall at the appointed time, only to find it empty – the notice on the phone booth had been written years before.
In a way, then, I thought the Workmen's Circle event might fill me in on what I had missed.
Eric Gordon outlined the format – “So we don't,” he said hopefully, “fall apart into factions.” First there would be statements from the speakers, “then we'll get it on with questions from the audience.”
The three panelists' recollections were filled with wry humor and camaraderie. There was a story of how a very young Mike Davis outdebated Kirk Douglas on TV about the Vietnam War, plus a now-funny-in-hindsight tale of a police spy throwing a brick through the Westwood Bank of America's window, and how feminism was responsible for the Weathermen changing their name to the gender-neutral Weather Underground.
At the end of it, though, hung the question of why today's students are so passive and decidedly unradical. True, SDS has recently been resurrected on some campuses, but only as chapters in a loosely linked network. (“Clean-cut but radical as hell!” UCLA's SDS advertises itself on CampusActivism.org.) Some in the room cited the lack of a military draft; others pointed to the media blackout of antiwar dissent following the invasion of Iraq. John Johnson blamed FBI coercion of Top 40 radio stations in the early 1970s to play only Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll tunes to keep young men's minds off politics. Then, just as the conversation drifted into RFK-assassination conspiracy theories, two actual students entered the room: Noah Ebner, a member of SDS's UCLA chapter, and a female comrade.
The fact was, Ebner admitted, it was difficult to sustain a political organization whose members stay on campus for just four years. His friend, a woman with dark curly hair and glasses, said SDS was trying to gain support and find common ground with other activist organizations with narrow agendas, such as the animal-rights movement.
The news of this outreach did not hit a sympathetic chord in the room.
“How can you as young people care about the rights of animals when the Bill of Rights is being destroyed?” asked one angry grandma. “Are these people fucking crazy?”
“I think they go, Aw! when they see a puppy on TV,” one man said.
“They don't think about the seven billion children who are starving,” a woman called out.
It was Generation Gap writ large and I remembered how, some 35 years ago, I'd sometimes hear elderly communists scold their red-diaper grandchildren – the ones who looked uncomfortably at the world they were inheriting – for smoking pot and dressing like hippies. Until this moment, the event's tensest moment had been when an audience member disputed Gordon's circulation figures for a Yiddish anarchist newspaper during the 1930s. Now Gordon tried to restore civility by pointing out that the Circle sponsored a monthly vegan potluck dinner and that all views were respected here. The two UCLA students appeared laid-back and unruffled by the controversy they had stirred. Ebner conceded that the few students of today who were active were often mired in “sectarianism and trivial causes. I'm not terribly optimistic.”
Perhaps Ebner was being too hard on his fellow student activists – just as the people in the room with snow-white hair and bifocals had been too hard on their own Port Huron generation's lasting accomplishments when they had lamented the country's long rightward shift. After all, they merely had to look a few miles away to glimpse their handiwork, to a rally for a man who could be America's first black president – a candidate running against an opponent who could be our first woman president.
The old radicals may have not been able to bring this change of consciousness about when they were young, but that change is here now, when, perhaps, we need it most. Timing is everything.