Revolutionary War

A Columbia radical from the '60s walks the campus with his not-so-radical son

Now, Andrew said, fewer minds have to be changed. "The Congress is against the war, the American people are against the war," said Andrew. "There's one person who's not against the war and he's the only person who has a say of when it will or won't stop."

After graduating in 1969, Jerry went on to Harvard Medical School. He gives the student strike some credit for his acceptance. He expected an un-Harvardesque grade in physics, but luckily all final exams were canceled that year. Ever since, Jerry reported, he has held proudly onto '60s-style principles, and continues to be labeled a radical in his field. He runs a program through Harvard called DOPE (no relation to the stuff that may or may not have been smoked in Columbia president Kirk's office during the sit-in). DOPE, the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics, studies what Jerry calls "the awful stuff some of the large drug companies are doing"— charging too much, not divulging full information to doctors, and denying medicine to those too poor to afford it. "If you suggest the salvation of the world is not in Merck and Pfizer," said Jerry, "there are some people in academic medicine that think that makes you a Communist."

Andrew pointed out that on Low Plaza, on a warm day, tables line the perimeter for multiple causes, such as seeking ends to the genocide in Darfur, occupation in Palestine, female genital mutilation, and the death penalty, to name a few. Andrew involves himself with several organizations and causes. He is vice president of the College Democrats, president and founder of the Pro-Israel Progressives, a regular op-ed contributor to The Spectator, and dining editor of Inside New York, a college-run city guide. (Putting down the bullhorn to sample sushi wouldn't have passed in the '60s.) Andrew says there is no unifying force; everyone has their own cause these days. He says some organizations are exclusive and if you don't believe in all their messages—for example, taking both an anti–Iraq war and anti-Israel stance—then they don't want you joining at all; that has divided the anti-war movement and the left. "Who knows what else we'd have to buy into," said Andrew. "Would we all have to oppose the death penalty? Free cop killers from prison?"

Jerry Avorn, now at Harvard Medical School, with his son Andrew
photo: Michael Howard
Jerry Avorn, now at Harvard Medical School, with his son Andrew

"Yeah," said Jerry, "I have been troubled that the left once again seems to be splintering itself. You can't be against the war unless you buy into being against Israel in some circles and that's just a stupid strategy."

We scaled the steps of Low Library, standing just above the Alma Mater statue, where a young female student posed for a photo. Jerry pointed east toward the Amsterdam Avenue gate, where protestors angrily filed out to tear down the beginning construction of a Columbia gym on Harlem's land in '68. Andrew drew a parallel to Columbia's current plan for expansion into Manhattanville, but he said he's not going to tear anything apart. "Columbians have very nuanced and realistic opinions," said Andrew. "Just like nobody is gathering right here and saying 'bring American troops home today,' because they realize it's not necessarily the solution."

"Sure it is," replied Jerry. "We don't agree about that."

"Anyways," said Andrew. "We also understand our university needs to expand and we just want to do it in the most respectful way possible."

We entered Low Library. The domed ceiling is vast. To Andrew, it represents nothing more than a building. "The library itself, the sundial itself, they're just cinderblocks, bricks, and marble," said Andrew. "It's really up to the students to do what they want to do with them."

But to Jerry, the building is symbolic of a time when people put up a fight for what they thought was right. He's transported to the past; he remembers reporting from those halls and rummaging through President Kirk's filing cabinets, searching for some kind of evidence worthy to stage an overthrow. Whether or not he did the right thing, Jerry feels bad that his son, that this entire student generation, isn't moved to unified action by the political circumstances. "They don't have the same wonderful, though specious, sense of belonging to some big movement," said Jerry. "It wasn't just going to end the war, it was going to change human society. Maybe it was a delusion, but when you don't know it's a delusion, it can be exciting."

As a janitor cleaned off the golden curtains flanking the spacious rotunda, each knock echoing against the marble, Jerry went on to explain the unfortunate viewpoint of his son's generation.

"Andrew said something that I found very sad and poignant a couple of weeks ago," said Jerry, "and it was when Congressman Foley finally had to resign. He [Andrew] said that he was really excited to be alive when something that major was happening, and you know, of course it was good that that pervert got kicked out of office, but I was thinking that's really about as good as it gets these days: Some Republican pedophile loses his seat."

"I've got to say I was making reference to the turnaround that was going to be made in Congress," said Andrew, "and not the actual pedophile business."

« Previous Page
Next Page »