Revolutionary War

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

"OK, but even then the turnaround in Congress that everyone's been so excited about, that's small potatoes compared to changing the face of human culture and forming relationships and altering geopolitical realities for all time to come. That wasn't true, but that's what we thought we were engaged in at the time."

"You had a huge international movement and you graduated in '69, and it still took until '75 until the last American troops came home."


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

"Well, that's not evidence of a great causal relationship," said Andrew. "Also the fact that students banded together and were the most united, and still accomplished the Reagan era, which we're still living in now."

"It might even be worse than that," said Jerry. "Some people think we brought the Reagan era as a backlash to the '60s."

"There's just no question. The rise of Goldwater, the rise of Reagan, the rise of consumerism in the '80s."

"No Goldwater happened in '64. But I'll give you Reagan."

"OK," said Andrew. "I'll take Reagan then."

We left Low Library; by then it was dark. Andrew had to finish packing his bags and then drive with his parents to New Jersey for a Hanukkah party. We passed Lerner Hall, a building that didn't exist in Jerry's day. It's where Columbia's latest headline-making events have transpired, like the Minuteman controversy and the lectures given by an ex-Nazi and PLO members. More than creating a debate around any specific political policy, such as anti-war stances, these events have resulted in discussion among campus political groups about freedom of speech.

"We have the same debate over free speech every time something controversial happens, to a point where it's become trite," said Andrew.

"But that's where totalitarianism starts. It's where one guy, even if he's an idiot, isn't allowed to speak and that just isn't acceptable."

"I imagine it's a perennial issue here."

Mark Rudd the activist (2814652)
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Andrew will spend the remainder of his junior year abroad, studying political science in Seville, Spain. This summer he plans to work in Washington for a member of Congress. After graduation he's thinking about law school, followed by a future in politics. He believes Columbia is a good practice field for the leaders of tomorrow, a place where they can take in and understand the various ideologies of fellow classmates so that when they're in elected positions they can greet one another with open minds. Andrew sees himself as an activist, but not in the same sense as his father. He's subtle and chooses to participate and organize events, ones that he believes will foster understanding among clashing factions without crossing the line. He's invited to campus numerous speakers like Jerry Nadler and Alan Dershowitz. He also invited a former Israeli soldier to a function called "Breaking the Silence." His freshman year, he started the now defunct organization Code Purple, which aimed at creating a dialogue between Columbia's liberals and Texas A&M's Republicans.

The most '60s-ish event Andrew helped organize and took part in was the Global Warming Bash last December, where participants donned Bush masks and beat globe-shaped piñatas, then sent a letter to Mayor Bloomberg insisting that energy-saving LEDs replace traditional traffic lights. Andrew's also proud of what his peers have accomplished—concessions from the Columbia administration about financial aid, getting the pro- and anti-Israel organizations to talk, sending people out to campaign in Ohio—even if it's not the big mass movement his father believes would rev the engine of these calculating careerists. "People are practical," said Andrew. "They're honing their skills to make a difference in the world and they're doing it through the institutions that already exist rather than rejecting them."

We stopped at the fraternity's front steps. A police car streamed past.

"Andrew always tells me not to be condescending or patronizing, so I'll try very hard to say this in a way that isn't, and if I do, I apologize," began Jerry. He went on to speak about the bloody riots that broke out on campus when the tactical police force cordoned off the whole neighborhood and began bashing heads with their batons, about the sirens drowning out screams, about blood rushing down foreheads. He said that for years afterward he'd flinch every time he saw a policeman go by. "It may not have been better," said Jerry. "But it sure as hell was a lot more amazing than what there is now."

"The age of revolution is over," said Andrew.

"It never happened," replied Jerry. "We just thought it happened."

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