Spiritual Crossroads

Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 4, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.


Chapter 4 


Spiritual Crossroads 





For my part I would as soon be descended from a baboon…as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies…treats his wives like slaves…and is haunted by the grossest superstitions. 

—Charles Darwin 


During my years at MIT, military disobedience became a central part of the antiwar movement. To get out of going to Vietnam, some people would fail their physical by making themselves unhealthy or by appearing ill-suited to making war. People gorged on coffee or went to the induction centers stoned or even tripped out on LSD. People went in comatose from sleep deprivation or displaying (what was then) outlandishly homosexual behavior. Many people soberly sought religious or philosophical exemptions. Other people fled to Canada. It was often argued that all these folks were cowardly for defying the draft. What a silly claim that was. 


A young man ignorant of the world and spurred on by recruiters, friends, and parents could easily feel that joining the war effort was a patriotic, mature, and wise choice. People would celebrate a son becoming a GI. While you might think there was a major element of bravery in agreeing to serve despite the palpable risk of death or debilitation, recruitment and induction hid those worrisome aspects and promoted the idea that going to war was doing one’s duty. Young men going off to war felt not so much fear plus courage as pride plus responsibility. To succumb to the pressure to become a GI was natural. It happened fluidly, nearly inevitably, without angst. On the other hand, to resist war often meant defying not only history and social expectations but family and friends. When a draft resister fled to Canada, it often meant breaking with home and family and losing one’s future prospects. Resistance required courage. 


Other people became soldiers and rejected the war only after seeing Vietnam and experiencing blind obedience, unrestrained killing, and horrific dying. Less frequently, some people who hated the war actually joined the army to resist from within. These enlistees knew the emotional costs, physical travail, and psychic trauma that Vietnam implied and they enlisted anyhow. These were the bravest and most effective organizers, since in many respects, it was the dissolution of the army, abetted by these activist recruits, that ended the Indochina War. GI organizing took many forms. Young people in considerable numbers leafleted and otherwise sought to talk with potential recruits as they approached a draft board or enlistment office. Other activists provided counseling, helping people understand their options and pursue their choices. Many organizers created media projects around military bases to provide to soldiers in training information and support. These organizers tried to hook up with GIs who got leave to go off base. The projects were often coffeehouses or hole-in-the-wall meeting places offering antiwar newspapers, leaflets, and handouts. When the soldiers would visit, activists were there to talk. On the other hand, most antiwar activists weren’t against the draft per se. The draft was horrible because the war was horrible. No one should have to serve because the war shouldn’t be waged. 


Resisting the draft was warranted, because the war was unwarranted. But surely a draft system was more equitable than people being able to buy their way out of service. Sometimes coffee-shop socializing yielded a GI who wanted to desert the army. There was an underground railroad to help these deserters escape the country. Other soldiers wanted to go AWOL, or “absent without leave,” to defy the war and help organize against it. The movement created public sanctuaries for these GIs. A soldier would leave his base and be surreptitiously driven to the venue where he (there were at that time few women soldiers) would publicly announce his resistance and actively await arrest. Supporters would join the AWOL GI to ensure that his arrest educated others. 


I went to three of these sanctuaries. The first was at Brandeis University, the second at Boston University, and the third at MIT. The Brandeis event lasted about a week. I knew some of the organizers and went there to lend my support. I met but didn’t get to know the AWOL GI. I remember the arrest, including cops throwing those of us who were trying to block their access out of the way. And I especially remember one particular person who attended the Brandeis sanctuary and whom at one point I had a memorable conversation with. 


The fellow at Brandeis was a black man, unconnected to the student organizers, but attending as a photojournalist, hoping to place his work in radical outlets. I am about five-foot nine, and he was a bit shorter than I, but he was stocky and very self-confident. Based on his Southern civil rights experiences, he told me the best ways to deal with police busts. He also told me that, being small, he learned early that in confrontations where you were willing to fight, nothing was more important than the appearance of absolute confidence. Bravado tipped the odds. If you weren’t willing to fight, then you should appear insane. On the streets, if you were afraid some thugs were going to molest you, you should appear utterly demented and out of control, talking to yourself, exhibiting odd movements. Very few people, he reported, liked to mess with someone who has no sense of proportion, whether it’s from confidence or craziness. Abbie Hoffman, just weeks later when he was visiting MIT, told me the same thing. Confidence is everything. Exuding the aura that you are oblivious to any pain that you might have to endure and that you are intent on doling out pain that others would certainly not want to endure, conveyed, they said, a tremendous advantage in conflicts. 


At the Brandeis sanctuary, the exchange I most remember was about the photojournalist’s camera. We were sitting and talking, and he was holding it close. The camera was a large, expensive, professional one of a sort that I had never seen. So I asked him how he could afford it since it was clear that he was not rolling in money. He told me the camera was a Leica and that it cost a couple of thousand dollars, which was then a whole lot of money. He also told me that if you are going to undertake any kind of project one thing you need to understand is that you should not save pennies on the tools of your trade. In the long run, penny-pinching would cost way more than it would save. Somehow that advice stuck with me, and I noticed over the years endless instances of people squandering money over and over on numerous small items and on endless little outlays and then saying that they couldn’t afford more expensive but also far more critical one-time items. 


Of course, this pattern is most debilitating if the expensive items are, as the photojournalist pointed out, part and parcel of your work. And, indeed, later, I was always intent that in publishing we should not spite ourselves regarding the tools of our trade. But even in other realms, I have found that the advice makes sense. 


For example, most leftists think that large consumer expenditures reveal either greed or having been tricked by media and what they call consumerism. Of course, both can be true, but why always assume the worst? This photographer made me realize the opposite might be true too. 


Indeed, my life partner Lydia Sargent and I have a very large TV and live quite comfortably, nowadays. This wasn’t always so. In college and for about ten years afterward I lived in deadbeat apartments, sometimes without heat, owning nothing. Cheerios were a staple. I remember ice inside windows and even on the floors of one Somerville apartment, sleeping through winter under multiple blankets and piles of clothing. Even in the early days of the publishing house we helped to found, South End Press, beginning in 1979, Lydia and I and all other employees received only room and board and contributed endless work. Over time, however, some clever machinations centering on buying and selling homes and living and working in the same place enabled Lydia and me to steadily improve our living conditions. 


When Lydia and I finally left Boston, moving to Woods Hole in Cape Cod, at age fifty-one and forty-five, respectively, we finessed purchasing a house on a pond that was in turn connected under a drawbridge to the ocean. I had to hassle about twenty banks to elicit a mortgage, and even then we had to have three cosigners beyond the two of us, but, after all that, we had a new home. Until then we never owned anything and rarely had disposable income at all, much less savings. Suddenly, having finessed a house, it was good-bye discomfort, hello American capitalist logic: not much saving, but way more comfort. 


Once we had the house, credit was no problem. More, the resale value climbed as if the house were on steroids. Exploiting the house’s escalating value, we have periodically refinanced the place, each time winding up with the same monthly payments but with considerable cash in hand, which has in turn helped us to live far more comfortably than we ever had in the past, including building an addition to the house fit for handling grandchildren and other guests, which of course further escalated the house’s already escalating value, allowing the house to become our ace in the hole asset should our political projects ever need a last-ditch bailout. In fact, the plot of land and home we own have earned more in fifteen years than Lydia and I combined, working like maniacs, have together earned in thirty years. So I learned from the photographer not only that it was economical to spend large sums for fine tools of one’s trade, but at times for items to enjoy. 


Getting back on track, my second sanctuary was at Boston University. It was held in a large chapel, called Morse Hall. There was a similar pattern of GI arrival, AWOL celebrations, and closing arrest. Boston University was home to Howard Zinn, an inspiring figure. He had a kind of calm about him, and a friendliness, that together uplifted virtually everyone in his vicinity. Howard’s People’s History of the United States has not only analytical brilliance, evidentiary originality, and stylistic eloquence, but a human touch. I came to know Howard, never as a close friend but enough to be confident that his appearance isn’t false. Howard was and is special. Howard has good karma. 


But what I most remember of the BU sanctuary was more personal. I was in the chapel with lots of other students, and suddenly, out of nowhere, walking toward me across the floor, was my father. We went outside and he told me that he and my mother had seen a news report about antiwar conflict at BU on TV and were convinced that they had seen me in the image. They got worried. What was I doing away from MIT at BU at an illegal event? My father, remember, was a lawyer, and abhorred lawbreaking, not to mention that he was very protective of me. 


Dad and my mom had certainly already gotten the message that I was not going to be the prominent senator, big-time lawyer, or Nobel Prize scientist they’d hoped. But even with that realism, they hadn’t contemplated that I might wind up in jail. Like other parents, they heard what I said but they projected their own pasts onto my present, deducing that my words were youthful bravado. The possibility of imminent arrest shocked them, and so here was dad, having flown up on a moment’s notice to extricate me from the muddy waters I was apparently sinking in. We talked, and to Dad’s credit, while he thought my risking a legal blot on my record for a GI I didn’t know was lunacy, he left Boston saying that whatever happened of course he and Mom would support me. I knew his word was good, and, indeed, I knew my parents were never deeply hostile to my views, as right-wing parents or even middle-of-the-road parents might have been. 


Mom and Dad generally agreed with the broad critical substance, though not the details or deeper commitments of my beliefs, fearing the implications. It was ironic and prescient, I suppose, that amid all the chaos then and with quite a bit more to come, to assuage one of their prime worries, I told my parents that I was no martyr. I had no inclination to suffer purely for the sake of suffering. I might spend time in jail, I told them, but if I did, it would not mean I wanted to suffer out of guilt or out of a desire to celebrate being jailed. But there was more to it. When my generation rebelled, we meant to escape the whole damn existence around us. We grew our hair. We changed our wardrobes. We moved our mattresses to the floors. We did drugs. We spoke a new language. And this was all a gigantic break from anything anyone was remotely familiar with. We did all this, plus we developed new political awareness and views. To our parents, it was as if we had transformed into aliens. But they were far more outraged by our lifestyle choices than our political ones. When they saw mattresses on the floor they went ballistic. When they saw a copy of Marx or Mao on someone’s desk, it was no big deal. Changes in lifestyle, in sexual openness, and even in musical tastes tore them up. Intellectual experiments didn’t bother them nearly as much. I think this was because our parents were reacting based on their own pasts. They knew young people dabbled in dissident ideas because they had done the same thing. They expected as much from us and anticipated that it would last a few years and would then disappear, as it had for them. But they feared our lifestyle changes more, on two counts. First, our lifestyle choices called into question what they valued and were struggling to give us, and even their identities. They slaved to buy us a life we now dismissed. Second, our lifestyle choices had an aura of possible permanence about them, if not intentionally, then by default. If we lived in groups of like-minded folks practicing a whole new way of being, our deviance might persist too long to later be thrown off for the American dream. Our parents were pretty smart, I think, worrying more about long hair and mattresses than about the manifestos we read or wrote. The famous sixties musical was named Hair, not Manifesto, for a reason. 


 Nowadays I suspect things have reversed. Dabbling in dissident culture is now familiar. Lifestyle experiments are expected and seen as transitory. Today body piercing, for example, is more extreme than long hair was in the Sixties, but not as socially disruptive. It is students carrying around the wrong books, I suspect, that might make today’s parents nervous. 


At any rate, the third sanctuary I was involved with was one of the most successful political actions I ever encountered. Due to draft resistance connections, MIT was in the line of march for GI dissent. So when another GI decided he wanted to make a statement, MIT became his sanctuary. 


Mike O’Connor arrived at MIT surreptitiously in November 1968 and we set him up in a room in our student center. In one day the event was big. In two days it was huge. In a week it was gargantuan. It isn’t clear why the MIT sanctuary escalated so greatly. In the planning stages, only Noam Chomsky and I—he was teaching at MIT at the time—had felt that perhaps MIT wasn’t ready for this kind of action. To do a successful sanctuary we would have to attract a large number of folks ready to devote full attention to the event. I worried, as did Chomsky—more about him soon—that there wouldn’t be enough MIT support to sustain a sanctuary. We were outvoted in our efforts to hold off the project and we wholeheartedly joined the effort. Instead of our fears coming true, interest and support exceeded anyone’s expectations. The sanctuary had to move from a modest room to the main hall of the student center, and then take over the entire building with spillover crowds clogging numerous other campus sites. Friendly faculty would come to give their classes either in the student center sanctuary or outdoors in the vicinity. There was constant music, talks, and open microphones. Dialogs would flourish late into the night. There were suddenly two MITs: the drab one and ours. Each night hundreds of people would bring sleeping bags to stay with our AWOL GI. At the height of the event I guess as many as six hundred people stayed late or overnight, with thousands in and out during the day, including people from Cambridge, Boston, and beyond. 


To call the sanctuary a culture shock for MIT would immensely understate its impact. People came from near and far to experience the unfolding event. The culture was Woodstockish, but with radical politics, innovative courses, teach-ins, music, theater, constant consciousness raising, and debate. Dialogs were about the war, economy, society, and MIT’s campus life and courses. People argued both for and against turning everything upside down. “Mr. Jones” met the “White Rabbit.” 


It was ten days that shook my campus that made me a full-time social activist. The sanctuary ended with a negotiated arrest. Mike O’Conner was taken to a military stockade. He could choose two visitors outside his immediate family. One was a woman he had met during the sanctuary and had a relationship with; the other was me. Visiting Mike each week in the stockade during his incarceration was my first serious experience with jail. Mike handled his stockade time well, later emerging and joining the area’s antiwar movement. I rolled along too. Antiwar work by GIs yielded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I remember one testimony by an ex-GI, a Native American. He told how we would fight against the powers of war until the rivers stopped flowing and grass stopped growing. I wept at his commitment. I desired to win well before his deadline. 




Meeting Tactics 


One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves. 

—Martin Buber 


O ne evening I was chairing from the sanctuary stage, handling the throng’s choices, which bounced between entertainment and politics. We were in a big hall, called the Sala de Puerto Rico. The hour was getting late. Hundreds of people were there. Most wanted to sleep but some were still eager to talk or hear music. Should we have a speech? Should we listen to the Jefferson Airplane (for the youth) or Beethoven (for the older folks)? Finally I had to calm the room into a willingness to drift off quietly for the night. Somehow, in doing so, I learned to relate effectively to large audiences. 


Many years later at a Socialist Scholars Conference in NYC, I similarly calmed a fractious and large setting, Steve Shalom, a close friend from MIT, tells me. A major hall was crammed to capacity for a debate among Noam Chomsky, Paul Berman, and Ellen Willis about anti-Semitism and the Left. I was moderating. The speakers presented, but then an issue arose. Some audience members wanted the panelists to respond to each other. Others wanted to ask questions. The two groups started yelling at each other, and dissolution loomed. As Steve reminded me, at that time I said, “Hold on. I’m going to call on people from the floor. If you want to ask a question, ask a question. If you want panelist A to reply to something panelist B said, ask that.” The audience sat in stunned amazement at this solution, or at least Steve did, and we continued the session without further rancor. 


At a national antiwar meeting debating when to hold demonstrations in the upcoming season, I was again chairing, which is why I particularly remember what followed. There was a hot debate, but clearly leaning toward a majority viewpoint. I knew some of the movement leaders had a different desire than the agenda that was gaining ground, but it seemed the rank and file was going to opt for its own preference. I didn’t think much was at stake, but regardless, whatever the assemblage decided, so be it. I was there to facilitate, not to channel. 


Suddenly, Rennie Davis, a major and very charismatic antiwar organizer, with prior history in the civil rights and local organizing realms, barged into the hall from the rear, shouting that he needed to be heard immediately. He spoke on behalf of the minority position and in just a few minutes he won the day. Why did he get the floor? How did he swing everyone? He did it by yelling out that he had just gotten off the phone with the Vietnamese chief negotiator, Madame Binh, who had personally asked him to argue on behalf of the minority’s preferred dates for the events, not the popularly preferred dates. People urged that he be permitted to speak immediately. How convenient. To this day, I think Rennie made it all up.  U.S. radicals at various moments went to Cuba on what were called Venceremous Brigades to participate in sugarcane cutting and learn about the revolution. I remember hearing of one meeting in particular in Havana. There were Vietnamese officials, the U.S. delegation, and various Cubans. A film was shown of the Vietnam War that had a scene of Vietnamese shooting down an American plane seemingly with a hand weapon. The U.S. delegation cheered. At the end of the film the Vietnamese representative spoke, shocked, emotional, asking how these young militants possibly dreamed they could organize change in the United States if they could cheer the deaths of their fellow citizens. I never forgot that story. The Vietnamese built movements intending to win massive, overwhelming, undying popular support. What were we building? 


Rennie Davis was at times the most inspirational spe

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