In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the first. Other parts address: Media, Offering Vision, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion.
Marty: I want to begin with a few questions about yourself. Where were you born and raised?
Albert: I was born in New York City in 1947. I was brought up in a very comfortable part of New Rochelle, a suburb just north of New York. My father was a lawyer. My mother was a public school teacher. We weren’t rich, but we were far from poor.
My birth date meant I was a youngster in time to root for the New York Giants – both football and especially baseball, so Willie Mays was a grade school hero of mine. My birth date also meant I spent from high school on with radical rock and folk and especially Bob Dylan – another hero of mine. Even more so, my birth date also meant I had the good fortune to be in the college class of 1969. Lucky birth date.
Did your father being a lawyer have any effect on your views, when you were a child, or later in life?
You never can tell about these things, but I don’t think so. He was a corporate lawyer but I never even saw his offices much less learned anything about his cases or the law. I am not sure why. I think, however, that many parents share little about their work with their kids – and sometimes, even when the parents would happily share, the kids evince no interest and even shy away. My own interests were elsewhere than my father’s and I doubt I ever asked much about lawyering, and, had I done so, my guess is he wouldn’t have been into talking about it. He certainly never tried to initiate such discussion. He was quite liberal, as was my mother, both voting for Stevenson, for example. I think he never much liked his work, or who he did it for, though he never said that to me. I got the impression because once or twice I heard him complain about his boss, to my mother. I knew much more about my mother’s teaching – including seeing her at work, etc. She was exceptionally good at it, very popular, very caring, and she worked with the union at times, as well.
Was Willie Mays really a hero?
Maybe hero is the wrong word, but I used to stay up very late at night to listen on the radio to night games, after the Giants went to San Francisco and I was still in the New York area. The announcer I listened to, I learned later, was in a studio looking at a kind of ticker tape, with the most meager information. Strike one, ball one, fly out to center field. But the announcer would embellish – stoke one on the inside corner. Ball one, almost got away. There is a long drive to center field, Mays is on his bike, running, running, and he grabs it, probably saving a triple. But he made it all up. I would be more or less praying Willie would hit home runs and of course he often obliged. “Say hey, Say who, Say hey Willie.” Yes, I was very into Willie Mays. If there was an autobiographical film about him, even now I would watch it, and I would probably get choked up at various points, too. Did rooting for Willie and the Giants and against Micky Mantle and the Yankees contribute to my becoming radical? Who knows? I know I had zero awareness of race as a factor.
Mays actually moved to New Rochelle, where I lived, briefly, and was on my newspaper route – I delivered papers for a time – though I never saw him at his home. I think he moved out of New Rochelle after not very long, feeling the environment was racist. I don’t remember ever asking about that, or thinking about it, however. Not an admirable fact. Maybe, nonetheless, it contributed to my eventually turning left. Who knows?
I also had Kyle Rote on my paper route, and one day I rang his bell to get a payment and he answered, and halfback Frank Gifford was there, too – two football Giants. I was very impressed with their size. A bit addled, actually. Much later, post college, I was in an elevator with Bill Walton who I liked, and some other Boston Celtics – who I rooted against. I was even more impressed with their size. Funny what stuff sticks in your mind.
While we are at it, though it wouldn’t mean anything to you, I had Buffalo Bob, I think that is the name, who hosted the TV show Howdy Dowdy nearby, too. My mother would tell me how she got me into what was called the peanut gallery to see the show live, but I cried so much she had to collect me before airtime. Finally, E.L. Doctorow lived near by where I grew up, but at the time none of us knew who he was. And if you look up Tom Paine, you will see references to his cottage – not least in a Dylan song. Not sure it is the same one, but about a mile or so from my childhood home, there it was. And I didn’t know who Tom Paine was either.
And Dylan, did he actually matter to you more than a favored performer typically matters to young people?
Yes. A lot more, I think. At first I found it to be just noise but then the Byrds did Mr. Tambourine Man and I got into that, and then I got into Dylan in general. I used to listen to some of his songs over and over to get the lyrics. I remember pouring over Subterranean Homesick Blues – “ah, get born, keep warm, short pants, romance” – as but one example. And then I would seriously think about the words. And since I hated English I would say that thinking about Dylan’s lyrics was the most serious and sustained literary thing I ever did – then, or probably ever.
I still often have quotes from Dylan pop up in the attic of my mind, and, given my horrendous memory, that is more revealing than it may seem. The odds are very good Dylan was quite brutish at times, almost certainly a drug addict, and who knows what else – not to mention some of his more ridiculous intellectual phases – and yet, for me, somehow Dylan always matters. If he dies before I do, I know I won’t handle it well.
What type of a guy were you right before you got yourself involved in the anti war movement in college? How did you view political activists and politics back then?
I was a “nowhere man” or boy, more or less (yes, John Lennon was another hero). I went to “the old folks home at the college” to become a physicist, but I was also a wanna-be athlete – meaning I played lots of sports, all of them okay, though none really well. I was confident, probably from my home life and from doing very well in early grades. I wasn’t a nerd, but neither was I schooled in literature, art, and culture – except rock and roll and Dylan/Lennon/Jagger. I was quite social, much more than later in life. I had no view of political activists or of politics either, before college. I had, I think, a modest commitment to liberal and caring values, but I knew nothing politically and very little culturally, before arriving in Cambridge Massachusetts. I did know to reject what I did not like, however – “Get off of my cloud.”
Really, you knew nothing of politics? – and you can dispense with further quotations, unless they are T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare.
Who? And as to politics, I remember in I think it was ninth grade, my class had a debate and I had to be Kennedy and someone else was Nixon. I can’t remember how it went. But I remember I liked Kennedy – a young guy, charismatic, what kid wouldn’t? And yes, I remember the murder, and where I was, and so on. Only later did I learn a lot more about Kennedy – eliminating the luster.
You went to MIT to study physics and from what I’ve been told you were quite good at it. Do you have any regrets that you didn’t pursue a career in that field?
I took for granted in High school and as a Freshman at MIT that I would become a theoretical physicist and events continually ratified my expectations. For example, I had a Physics mentor/sponsor even before I attended any classes because my Freshman adviser took a shine to me. But it was only one school year, before the state of the world and my emerging feelings about my responsibilities began to take over my life.
Every now and then I admit to wondering what might have been had I continued on the scholastic/scientific path. Noam Chomsky, who I met sophomore year before I terminated my serious physics future, urged me to keep doing the politics I had gotten into, but to also keep up with the physics. Noam felt if I dropped the physics I would forever regret not being able to fulfill my scientific talents and desires.
That might sound strange, but I was like someone good at a sport, painting, music, or whatever else, ditching their field even while loving it and being better at it than at anything else he or she might do instead, all to do things for which I had no particular talents and even some antipathy.
So, to a degree Noam was right and I probably knew it then, though I didn’t dwell on it. There was truth in his predicting regrets but a second part of his message was that by staying in the field and becoming really known and good at it, I could gain credibility that would otherwise escape me, which would in turn mean that my political actions, whatever they turned out to be, would be more effective. Noam was making a case, based on his own experience, that I could have my optimal career – physics – and as a result my politics would be more effective too. But I thought his scenario was a long shot. It depended on luck that I would gain that kind of notoriety in physics. More, the idea that I would become so notable in physics and at the same time retain my values and political desires and carry through on them, struck me as highly unlikely. And even if I had abstractly accepted Noam’s calculation that pursuing dual priorities could be successful, the truth was that by then I simply couldn’t attend lectures, work problems, and concentrate on equations without my feet wandering to the street. As a result, I carried on my activist pursuits leaving physics behind, even though I never made an explicit decision to that effect.
So, was Noam right that I would miss using my natural talents – however great or slight they would have proved to be – if I instead cultivated capacities that were pretty foreign to my nature and were only brought into even limited effectiveness by ridiculous perseverance? Yes, he was. But when I get negative about that, I just tell myself that lots of things I have done politically probably would not have been done if I had stuck to physics. On the other hand, nothing I would have done in physics, had I stuck with it, would have gone undone due to my choosing to leave physics.
Do you keep up with physics at all?
I still read lots of popular physics books, and some that are a bit more technical, but that is more like enjoying a hobby than keeping up with a discipline.
Did you like MIT?
Yes, and no. I had wanted to go to Harvard but didn’t get in. That was upsetting but it turned out that it was probably for the good. At Harvard I would have been swamped by others who were more literary, more worldly, and so on. At MIT, I was actually among the more literary and worldly – since there was such a ridiculously low bar – and that likely escalated my confidence.
I liked the academic seriousness and lack of pretense of MIT. Harvard was a finishing school for the Masters of the Universe, to use Chomsky’s phrase, and MIT was a scholarly boot camp for their technical abettors – and in fact, tech tools was a common dismissive term for MIT students, then.
But what really turned the tide for me to not become an adoring alumni of MIT was realizing that MIT was a way station for militarism. Once radicalized, I would call MIT “Dachau on the Charles” – a label not many faculty or staff liked, especially coming from the President of the whole student body – but it does reveal my attitude toward MIT.
So was becoming involved in the anti-war movement a long hard transformation, or quick and easy?
It was very quick and easy. One day I was in a political sleep which had extended from birth on. The next day, almost literally, I was hearing an intellectual alarm clock. A few days later, so to speak, I was a revolutionary.
The short timeline was very common to radicalization during that time. Perhaps my pouring over Dylan and shrieking at full volume diverse rock and roll songs for years moved me from deep sleep to near wakefulness even in High School, and maybe it was even, at least for me, an essential precondition for what quickly occurred at MIT. In any event, a couple of political events, very modest, and some talking and reading, and I was off and running.
Did you lose many friends because of politics? A girlfriend perhaps? How much did your politics shape your social life? Was there a cost to it or was it more like a trade-off?
I had a best friend at Harvard who I went to high school with. I lost that relationship in 1968 or so, due to politics. And I had a girl friend in high school and if I had not rushed to the left, that too might have persisted. And there were many people in college, and others from High School, who I would have been lasting friends with but for growing political differences, and who, instead, drifted off. But in those days the left community was very large, and such losses due to becoming radical were painful but at least somewhat offset by new ties in that new community.
On the more general point, politics pretty much shaped everything about my existence then, and since then as well, and this was true for many other people, too. But we didn’t feel any earth shattering cost to traveling the radical path, at least at the time, and so we encountered no big social or personal tradeoffs that we had to explicitly decide about because most of us saw what we were leaving behind in the way of foregone social life and future income as yesterday’s concerns. Of course, it may be that we were deluding ourselves into that dismissal to be able to less traumatically do what we did – but I never denied the loss I incurred in not doing physics. In contrast to that, which was a real loss, I just don’t think I was leaving behind anything irreplaceable on the social front or regarding income – nothing I cared more about, at any rate, than the compulsion I felt to address the war and other social issues.
Has anything changed in that regard?
Since those early days many things have changed and, yes, if I had to guess I would say my social life would have been a lot more diverse and would have involved many more people if I had not been so politically involved and leftist. I don’t regret the choice, but neither would I deny the effect.
I heard once, perhaps in a talk or something, that you had gotten some career offers that you rejected. Is that true, and was it as easy as you say above?
Yes, it is true, and it happened a few times, and yes it was that easy, not least because the wrong things were offered. So, I was offered money, jobs, political access (to the Kennedy clan), etc., due to being very prominent at MIT, being a good speaker, and the like. But none of that was remotely attractive to me, so saying no to it was trivially easy. Had I been offered something that would have mattered a lot to me – say, becoming Richard Feynman’s private student, or somehow becoming a professional tennis star – I like to think I would have said no – but who knows?
How much does fear of ridicule, of losing friends, of giving a talk and sucking in front of 50 people… play into people’s decision to act on what they think ought to be?
I think this is an important question even though it isn’t something leftists explicitly talk much about. I would guess concerns such as you mention weigh quite heavily on many people, curbing their likelihood of becoming activist, or taking other initiatives, for that matter. For many people, it is very hard to overcome long indoctrination in being insecure and anticipating failure. People rising above those limited expectations and associated feelings of inadequacy, is, I think, highly admirable.
The Confidence Factor
Can you elaborate some on this issue of confidence?
A story may help explain. Lydia Sargent, who I have been partners with for about 40 years, has often told me the thing she found truly incredible about some people in the movement was our confidence. It seemed to her to know no bounds. A problem was something we expected to overcome. A task was something we anticipated accomplishing. Even if a problem or task was new to us, and was outside our training and talents, it didn’t matter. We would proceed, anyhow. Our confidence meant we would take success for granted and then, on the assumption that we would succeed, we would do what was needed. Of course, in truth we didn’t always succeed, but failing was taken in stride. It was examined for lessons, and it never interfered with the next effort.
However, most people didn’t have that kind of confidence. Society, forty years ago, was a kind of torture chamber in which most folks had their confidence squeezed and smashed until it was virtually gone. Most people were made by family, school, and work timid and disinclined to see every obstacle as a mere impediment to overcome. In contrast, a relative few had their confidence augmented until it was virtually limitless. And those few were the ones who so surprised Lydia to the point that she would tell me how among the Sixties left, those who were most engaged, those who were most involved in making things happen, seemed to her strikingly different. She wasn’t in that confident caste, and yet she took difficult steps anyhow, overcoming her fears – which is a far more admirable route to activity than mine, as I was just doing what training told me was my due.
The point of the story is an observation that I cannot back up with anything more than anecdotes, but that I think is true. The most active people on the left did not ever publicly admit or perhaps even privately understand these dynamics. So we did not sufficiently collectively take up a critical task, confidence building. Oblivious to many people’s needs to have help to overcome their fears, the left not only didn’t help such people enough, it pretty much mimicked society by implicitly acting as though the confident were superior and the rest were only worthy of obeying – which is obviously a disastrous mindset for building real participation and self management.
Our failure to really understand and act decisively on that insight didn’t stop elites from addressing it in their own vile way. Coming out of the Sixties upheavals, elites understood that a place where the confident could be gathered for “treatment” was elite colleges, and even all colleges, per se. And they realized, as well, that keeping the numbers of confident young recruits to activism low meant having public school systems that channeled only a very a few young people into elite confidence – with those few carefully picked and socialized – while disempowering the rest. I think elites self consciously carried out an agenda to accomplish these vile ends. Note, this had nothing to do with innate potentials but everything to do with people being channeled. It was done after the Sixties even more than it had been done before by the ways funds were apportioned to grade schools and high schools, by the way accumulated debt began to constrain later student choices, by curriculum reforms, and I suspect by a drive toward having younger people constantly overseen for ever greater stretches of time, indeed almost herded about, and as a result rarely taking responsibility for their own activities – and probably by other methods as well. So what you find now is that elite universities in the U.S. still have quite a few confident students, but they are not hotbeds of radicalism as they were in the Sixties. Now, by design, they are quite passive or even conservative, and U.S. education has been decimated.
The good part of this trend is that movements that do emerge are less likely to be dominated by privileged confident white guys from elite schools. The bad aspect is that fewer people with confidence are among the pool of folks who move left in each new generation. The task of creating our own confidence, and of having it be real and not mere bravado, has therefore become even more important than it was earlier, and yet it still goes largely unaddressed.
Then and Now
What is the difference you see between being twenty in 2013 as compared to being twenty in the late 1960s or early 1970s for someone who’s concerned about what’s going on at home and abroad?
I think it is very different, even though becoming radical still entails – just as it did then – casting aside socially prescribed views and adopting dissident ideas critical of society, including thereby losing one set of possibilities in favor of gaining another.
The confidence difference noted above is one thing. More obvious is the absence now of what in the Sixties was a giant counter culture that aggressively rejected mainstream social norms. In the Sixties, this counter culture was huge and provided an easy pool of culturally and socially dissident potential recruits for political organizing. Another big difference is that the economy then was at least relatively plush, which meant young people didn’t worry all that much about future income and could get by rather well on the fringes of society. In contrast, getting by at all, now, anywhere, is quite difficult and far more time consuming than earlier (and I think this too is no accident, and very serviceable to the status quo).
Of course, communications have changed immensely, too. In the Sixties we would stay up all night with a manual mimeograph machine, hand printing flyers and leaflets, until we came out looking like we had been swimming in ink. Then we would put the printed flyers under people’s dorm doors, or hand them to people in the street, trying to engage in discussions. We would also visit folks to talk in dorm rooms or homes, endlessly trying to raise consciousness and develop ties with new people who didn’t, yet, agree with us.
Again in contrast, nowadays, the internet provides incredibly simple tools for putting stuff into other people’s email, or on their Facebook pages, or whatever. It allows incredibly fast and easy dispersal of information, but the downside is that the flow of information is so persistent and substantively thin that it is hard to find what is worthwhile until all messages and texts begin to be seen as dispensable, and, as well, the associated disinclination to talk to people who one doesn’t know and in that way to create face to face ties with new people is strong. There are other problems, too, such as shortened attention spans.
I think, however, that the biggest difference from the Sixties to now that resides in people’s minds. In the early and mid Sixties, people were incredibly ignorant and naive. We were horrified by revelations of injustice. Racism, poverty, and the war in Indochina came upon us as gut wrenching surprises because each of these horrors was incredibly foreign and unexpected and received as a body blow to our beliefs. Each had to be false, or, if it was true, then it meant we were massively lied to, and we had believed the lies. Some of us kept thinking the revelations were false and our education was true. But others of us began realizing that it was the revelations that were true and our training that was false. And among those who saw that, a subset became outraged at the hypocritical lying of teachers, politicians, and media, and at the injustices themselves. We exploded into action. Our trust in authority dissipated. A new mindset emerged: “we want the world and we want it now.”
And that is very different than now?
Nowadays, my impression is that no one is surprised, much less horrified, by anything that is revealed to them. People say things that suggest they buy into all kinds of lies and mythology about the U.S., or they exhibit ignorance of the facts of specific events and cases – like having no idea the scale of carnage wrecked on Iraq, say, and will then also deny the facts if asked – but outrage at hypocrisy that is revealed by accounts of crimes doesn’t germinate mass movements, I think, because behind rationalizations and delusions, in fact, everyone takes for granted the presence of such crimes.
Earlier today I watched a video in the mainstream media, showing how doctors abetted coal companies by telling miners they didn’t have black lung disease so the miners couldn’t collect payments they were due. The doctors were serving their corporate paymaster, like the cigarette cancer white-washing doctors had done years earlier. The thing is, these more recent pulmonary doctors were from what is perhaps the foremost medical hospital in the U.S., Johns Hopkins, and they had denied claims in about 2,000 consecutive cases literally without one exception. That is lying, cheating, and vile exploitation raised to an inviolable norm. Yet, such things don’t shock anyone anymore. In 1965 I think people would watch such a film and be furious at it, feeling it was lying. Today, people see it, and shrug, taking for granted it is true.
Or consider the NSA and related revelations. Yes, there was a lot of concerned activity, particularly about what was a bit surprising, which was our spying on allied governments – but no one thinks the claims are fabricated or that the NSA doesn’t have desires to have every imaginable thread of data archived, and few people were surprised or moved to resist. But had those revelations occurred during the Kennedy government, say, first, everyone would have thought it was all lies, and second, if it really penetrated that it wasn’t lies, the Sixties would have exploded even sooner and even larger.
Nowadays, while deep seated delusion and ignorance that fights hard against counter evidence is tremendously reduced, skepticism about the possibility of better social relations is even stronger than it was earlier. There is a sense in which this skepticism is sophisticated. If you think capitalism is forever, and there is certainly no denying that people typically do think that, then you also think the anti coal miner profit-seeking prostitution of medicine – and really of everything – will be the norm as corporate coffers buy allegiances. You will think to yourself, Doctor Tom could have been honest, but even if he was, there would be a Doctor Bill to lie and cheat, and Doctor Bill is the one who would wind up heading the program in Black Lung research at Johns Hopkins, so that the hospital would be in the good graces of the Coal industry.
What follows from underlying doubt about existing social relations plus massive skepticism about anything better being possible is that instead of activists only needing to present compelling evidence of injustice as in the early and mid Sixties, nowadays the even larger issue needing attention is hope or no hope. If people think there is efficacy to taking action to seek justice, peace, and sustainability, they tend to act. If they don’t think there is efficacy, they tend to remain passive and at best turn their new knowledge of injustice into something abstract that has no practical implications. The main difference between being active or passive nowadays is not that those who act believe there is grotesque injustice and those who don’t act doubt that there is grotesque injustice. More often, everyone knows that there is incredible injustice. Everyone knows that everything is broken. The difference between those who act and those who do not act is currently, instead, believing or not that a more just system is possible and that we can contribute to attaining it.
The difference in this regard, from the Sixties, is not absolute. In the Sixties too, doubts about efficacy was a key issue to be addressed. I remember while organizing often encountering a bedrock resistance to activism based on the belief that people suck, it is human nature to cheat, steal, and kill, so nothing can be improved. And now too, the detailing of injustices that was paramount to do in the Sixties of course remains important. It is the ratio of the importance of the two tasks to people becoming activist that has altered.
Of course, another issue that prevents some people from being active for social change is their literally wishing to maintain injustices to their own advantage. This selfish factor operated back in the Sixties and it operates now, too, but it is a separate matter. Among possible recruits to dissent, at root of their inaction forty five years ago was skepticism that there was actual injustice based in policies and structures, as compared to being based only in personal failures and bad choices by evil people. Now, in contrast, at root of possible recruits’ inaction is skepticism that any change would make conditions any better, on the one hand – and if evidence gets one past that feeling, then skepticism about the possibility of winning any change.
In the early and mid Sixties, when my generation first went left – we never entertained that winning might be impossible because there was no better world to win, or that winning might be beyond our means because we were too few or the opposition was too strong. We were simply horrified at the world and we acted to change things, and – among the confident – we assumed that we would succeed and even that we would succeed quickly. That is very different than what has to happen for most folks to act in 2013. The worrisome implication is that it is now much harder to get something serious going. The hopeful implication is that now once there is something serious going, if it can persist for a few years, then it will have deep roots in far more visionary and strategic insight than our actions had earlier, and thus will have much greater prospects for lasting until full success is attained.
What is your biggest regret from when you were a young activist?
I don’t have lots of regrets I can think of and most of them are things I can only conceive in retrospect. For example, I wish I had gotten to know various folks in Cambridge who later became hugely rich – and having befriended them when young, that I was able to channel their subsequent wealth into the left. You can see how silly it is, as a regret? I clearly had no way to accomplish it. And, in any event, had I made friends with folks who later became computer moguls, they probably wouldn’t have become what they did, or wouldn’t have remained my friends.
Also, as I said earlier, I can’t say I regret not having become a physicist, though I regret living in a world that made being a physicist, for me, an unacceptable life choice.
There was a possibility of helping Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers at one point – but I was too busy to answer the very vague call I got. I regret that I didn’t help, though I don’t lose sleep over it. Ellsberg did fine and my help wouldn’t have mattered much, if at all. I think ever since then, however, I have almost never used being too busy as a reason to not do something.
There was, however, a time when I think that had I understood the requisites of social change better, I would have favored a different path for the left in Cambridge, and, by way of Cambridge’s influence as a possible model, perhaps also more broadly. It was a matter of the left at the time becoming more oriented to long term consciousness raising and organization building, or more oriented to demonstrations and street fighting. We opted for the latter – and I passionately favored doing so – but I now think it was a mistake and had I gone the other way, perhaps I could have caused many others to do so as well and the implications may have been very positive. It is rare, but sometimes simple decisions can make a big difference. This one I regret, a lot.
What was the logic of the alternatives, and why do you think you were wrong?
On one side, the idea was to build a massive cross campus student organization aimed at winning majority and even super majority control of lots of campuses and then, in time, becoming a lasting structure that also went beyond campuses. On the other side, the idea was more or less to go wild in the streets – partly to raise a direct threat to the government, hoping to win gains via that threat, and partly to provide something to see and learn from and be inspired into action by, for other parts of the country that weren’t as far along the activist road as Cambridge.
I think at the time both sides had effectively the same aim – to act so as to win some gains and promote further activism in wider communities locally and around the country. I think my side was wrong because we overemphasized the impact of the example of people in the streets of Cambridge for others, elsewhere, and we underestimated the need for lasting organization to turn activist choices into something that may have been more threatening and lasting.
And what is your greatest satisfaction/best memory?
This is even more difficult to answer, I think. Sorry, there are just too many things, and they are too incommensurable.
Sex, Drugs…and Glory Days
The sixties are often depicted as a time where everyone would get stoned, paint flowers and get laid. How much of it is true and how much is exaggerated? Did you experiment with drugs? Was it fun?
In the Sixties there was broad society, and as I noted earlier, there was also the hippie phenomenon and its many offshoots, and then there was also the activist community. The latter two communities overlapped, at least somewhat. And the activist community certainly drew members from the hippie community.
Marijuana was everywhere. Stronger drugs were more prevalent in the hippie world, but showed up pretty often in the activist world, too. Sex was prominent in both. So, as a summary, virtually everyone did get stoned and have sex, often at once. I didn’t know anyone who painted flowers, though no doubt quite a few did. And lots of people experimented with harder drugs – meaning mescaline and LSD. But was all that so profoundly different than subsequent and prior periods? I don’t think so.
What actually distinguished the Sixties was not the popularly emphasized stuff like sex and drugs, but the attitudes with which all that was associated, and which affected all else about people’s lives and actions.
For hippies the attitudes were a deep and thorough dismissal of mainstream lifestyles in virtually every respect, plus a not too well developed attachment to some alternative aims which were in the end often ill conceived and unsustainable.
For the left, the shared attitudes we held included the same disdain for daily life relations – but we also had a pretty sophisticated rejection of underlying institutional relations, including capitalism, racism, patriarchy, etc. And like the hippies we also had vague positive aspirations, which were, however, again too general, too incoherent, and sometimes too unwise to be sustainable over the longer term.
As for myself, I took acid – LSD – once, and it was a debacle. It is described in a book I did trying to tell life experiences in ways that reveal useful lessons, called Remembering Tomorrow. Taking LSD was not fun.
Are there any areas where you find yourself today to be conservative? Do you often meet conservative people through your work? What can you say about it? Are they wrong and you’re right? Are they dumb and you’re smart? Does being conservative mean anything to you?
Am I right wing about anything? No, not even close. And if conservative means right wing politics, then no, I don’t meet too many people who are conservative, though some, of course. And that is actually a problem. I work with other leftists, and because I spend so much time on left projects, I don’t interact in the broader society too much, and don’t encounter its citizens that much. Even when I do interviews and public talks, the people who question me, and the people who I meet who arrange and attend the events I speak at, are overwhelmingly not typical of society.
On the other hand, if conservative means favoring the preservation of established norms and relations as valuable unless there is a strong argument for change, then I know quite a few people who are conservative, whether implicitly or explicitly. It still isn’t me, but I have much more empathy for it. And I think some leftists fit this rather different definition of conservative.
You also asked, do I think people who have right wing and reactionary views dumb? For the most part, no – I don’t think so. Take such a hypothetical person. Perhaps a racist, or even a fascist, perhaps a mysogynist, maybe someone favoring no government except to prime his own military pump. Are such people dumb? Well, what does it mean? Are they incapable of thought? About some neutral issues, do they continually say stupid things? I doubt it. Instead, people with right wing and conservative views are often doctors, lawyers, engineers, or academics, and of course owners, and in their own domains they typically demonstrate normal capacities for thought. Or conservatives are sometimes more working class, but again, in many domains they display great capacity for making an argument, utilizing evidence, etc. – often, in fact, more so than academics display.
Political conservatives often profess to believe things that could only be believed by someone who is either very ignorant/deceived/deluded – or who is seriously constraining their own thought. But does that make them dumb? Does it mean they hold these views simply because they are incapable of elementary thought and unable to transcend the views for that reason? I don’t think so.
I think more often conservatives hold their views either to rationalize self interested choices that preserve personal advantages, or, at the less elite end of the conservative spectrum, to preserve social ties and a sense of community with others, for example, via their church, or to further some agenda they believe to be desirable, albeit perhaps due to horribly confused beliefs about facts.
I think before we get too righteous in dismissing such dynamics, however, we should realize that this sort of distorted thinking happens on the left, too. Attachments to views that are so demonstrably wrong that it would be almost like believing August in New England is a cold month, or believing everyone who plays football in Spain is an atheist, often occur not because of people being dumb, but because having said something horribly false once, perhaps due to personal experiences that were very narrow, one’s identify starts to depend on repeating the claim. Then, because one’s mates say it as well, and often also because saying it seems to comply with important agendas or maintaining allegiances of one’s group or keeping one’s job, one keeps saying it. And in time we very often come to believe what we repeatedly say.
I think these factors, mainly some type of self interest or identity or community preservation, or all three, with each fueling the other, and with each fueled by a dearth of contrary information, are far more causative to holding conservative and otherwise out of touch and even horribly self destructive views – including leftist ones – than is simple mental deficiency. In fact, I try to never attribute views I disagree with to stupidity, or even to ignorance – though the latter can certainly be a factor. A view can be dumb, and I am not hesitant to say that, of course, but usually not the person holding it.
First I try to ask, okay, what are the benefits of believing that patently false thing and of turning oneself off to contrary evidence, and I do this because I believe that more often than not the desire to preserve or attain those benefits are probably the main underlying factor, not stupidity or even ignorance.
As a pretty young person, I have a question about folks I meet who were active and even prominent in the Sixties. Many seem to have either of two attitudes. 1. The Sixties were the best time in history, no criticism allowed. Or, two, the Sixties were overrated, forget about them. Does either view make any sense to you?
Honestly, no. They strip the nuance from a nuanced reality. But I get why people might feel such things. For a great many people, these were our formative years, even out Glory Days, even, sometimes the best time of one’s life. So, for them, it is hard to hear criticisms of what was so pivotal. It feels like pulling the rug out from under their lives. But, that makes no sense because it can be formative, glorious, and even stellar, and still not as good as it might have been. And, indeed, that better be accurate. If we did as well as was possible, then no one can learn and do better, and that is a very depressing thought. The more things we did wrong, that can be done better, the better it is for prospects – as it means people can do better.
On the other side of the coin, suppose someone either suffered then, or felt betrayed or something, or feels like, the world didn’t change fundamentally, so what the hell, say goodbye to it. This makes no sense for almost the same reason. That is, choices that didn’t win a new world are not on that account worthless and without lessons, negative and positive alike.
I think an honest approach is to realize that that whole epoch was really unusual, really important, effective in many respects, and fell short in others. Celebrate what we want. Learn what we can. But don’t let allegiance hamstring us, of course.
Finally, why do you think you became and remained a radical, a revolutionary, as compared to others your age, who did not?
Well, the truth is I don’t know. The first half of the question, my answers would be very low probability guesses, I think. The second half, I think maybe I could guess just a little bit better.
Okay, fair enough, but guess.
Well, I could have become radical because of some lasting effect of some early event – say a fight and revulsion at it – and I even remember a couple of such events, in particular. Or perhaps it was seeing and even being part of bullying and rejecting it – I remember a little of that too. Whatever laid the groundwork, in my early days, add to it horror at the revelations I encountered as I left High School and entered college regarding Civil Rights, the war, etc. Or maybe it was all that plus the deeper reading that followed. I just don’t know.
On the other hand, it could be that some event, or events that I have no memory of at all, was pivotal. I sincerely doubt there is one route, even broadly speaking, to becoming radical, even for a particular time and place. And the minute you allow for different times and different places, the list of factors multiples endlessly.
I guess what I could say that is general is that becoming radical pretty much always involves adopting an informed critical stance toward existing relationships in society, and thus also involves some kind of consciousness raising. It isn’t just a dissident disposition that makes one radical. Call that being cranky or ornery or something. It is also beliefs. For me, I suspect the pivotal factor in this last aspect was my encounter with some injustices I saw, plus the lesson of seeing radicals in action and feeling compelled to join them, plus then reading a lot.
Beyond being radical, becoming a revolutionary, I think, involves that type of start, often, but then there is an additional step to basically become primarily motivated by the new beliefs and aspirations and especially to begin to measure one’s actions and choices against the norm of fundamental change for society, not against a norm having to do with only oneself, say. In my case, I think the milieu I was in was likely very important to my taking that step.
For example, if I had gone to Cornell, say, which my father wanted, would I have stood with the black students there who very militantly occupied buildings. Or might I have had some bad experience with that, or “been too busy,” and stayed aloof, and then gone some other route than into radicalism?
If I had gone to Stanford say, a place I found very appealing, and perhaps hooked up with Feynman as a teacher, again I might well have never even entertained a really revolutionary drift, never have had it nurtured, etc.
Actually, I haven’t really thought about this, this way, before – but I guess I would say the odds that I would have become a revolutionary somewhere other than Cambridge, and MIT, may well have been very much lower. But in the milieu that I entered, I think the example of the movements I could see forming and acting, and the lessons picked up from Chomsky and various others as well, plus the odiousness of various experiences at MIT itself, were likely the glue that held the emerging tendencies together for me.
And what about your longevity?
As to remaining committed over time, I think maybe we could discern a kind of rough typology of that. Some remain radical and revolutionary because they are driven to be moral. It is a pressure from within, and is unchallengeable and irreversible, or nearly so, once underway. Others want to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. It is less about having to be ethical so as to fulfill one’s internal disposition and more about not wanting to be unethical so as to avoid guilt, say. I think those two are different, and of course one could have a mix. For still other people, it is not only about seeking to fulfill or to avoid violating what is moral – but more about actual outcomes. One version of that is a person trying to enhance life for self and others in the present, which is, however, seen to entail a revolutionary stance, so that one takes up revolution, too. Another version is also seeking a goal, but this time the goal is from the outset a different social system. For this last case, success is not primarily expressing one’s morality or avoiding immorality, nor is it primarily contributing to immediate gains in well being for self or for others. It is, instead, winning a new society, a new world.
Each inclination, or drive at root of people remaining on the left, raises, I think, slightly different pressures and possibilities – as does having them in different degrees. In different times and places, one stance may prove more positive than another. In other times and places, vice versa. And this is hard to predict. I believe I am in the last group – with seeking a new world as the driving aspect from the outset – and yet, one might ask, what do I know, even about myself, at this level?
I think even with a person who becomes radical, and who then becomes revolutionary in one of the ways mentioned, or some combination, there is still another factor. Is the journey emotionally, materially, and socially sustainable?
There are some who, again, due to whatever combination of factors, can retain their commitment even if totally isolated from support from others, even if having no discernible impact, even if there is nothing but defeat in their experience, and so on. But most people can’t persist long, in such a vacuum of support and of tangible accomplishment.
So, for me, I would say many very positive early experiences, coupled to being lucky enough to hammer out a kind of sustainable material, social, and emotional existence – something, sadly, that is very hard to achieve when there aren’t really massive movements, but is much easier to attain when there are – was also pivotal and likely the biggest thing that differentiated someone like me, being in it for so long, and many others from my generation, who were in it for a time, but then pulled back due to the pressures of jobs and other factors. And then there is also Dylan’s song, Farewell, Angelina, and its lessons, to consider. Finally, there may be an element, honestly, of nearly pathological stubbornness at work for those who stick it out through unyielding times. Again, ultimately, who knows.
But here is what we do know, I believe. Unless and until massive numbers of folks find their way by whatever many paths they travel to sustained collective revolutionary commitment, life in the not very distant future is going to be, for most people – and I dare say for virtually all people – vastly less fulfilling than it ought to be.
What are some of the different implications of the differently driven stances?
If I had to say, I would predict that the moral stances operate without as much attention to the change to be wrought – so probably without too much strategy, say, or vision. The touchstone is to “Fight the good fight” and to “be on the side of the angels.” People make choices so they can look in the mirror.
Those focused primarily on proximate gain, in contrast, are very much trying to achieve particular aims but have, almost by definition, a primarily short term set of norms and standards.
And those seeking a new world as the touchstone of their success and failure, will tend to prioritize more strategy, more vision, and a more long term timeline. Of course, one can start one way and wind up another, or vice versa.
My guess would be that most people in each stance would look most positively on their own type of motivation, probably each thinking their way has the best and perhaps even the only reasonable probability for being true to the requisites of all the types. I know I feel that way.