Revolutionary War

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

Andrew Avorn doesn't remember, but he saw Columbia University for the first time when he was three years old. Jerry Avorn, his father, had brought Andrew with him to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Columbia's 1968 student strike. In those days, Jerry was a pre-med, hippie-bearded activist who covered those events for Columbia's student newspaper, The Spectator. He later compiled his reports from the various sit-ins and Mark Rudd rallies that spring into a successful book, Up Against the Ivy Wall, published that same year. Thirty-eight years later, the public looks to campuses like Columbia for a parallel movement—a loud and raucous anti–Iraq war movement—but finds instead a lull.

Jerry, now 58 years old and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, still holds dear the activism of old, feeling sorry for the daily monotony endured by the baby-step style of the current generation's should-be radicals, while Andrew, 21, who's part of that crowd and recently finished up the first semester of his junior year at Columbia, embraces and espouses his generation's pragmatic approach to changing the world. After Andrew's last final exam, as he prepared to pack his father's car for winter vacation at his parents' home in Brookline, Massachusetts, the three of us went on a stroll through the Columbia campus to investigate where all that youthful angst once spilled and what keeps it at bay these days. Andrew emerged from his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, which has a Jewish lean, into a cold day dimming into night. Jerry soon met us on the stoop.

There's not much linking father and son by sight. Jerry's a head shorter, and round in the middle, with a scruffy beard bending around his jowls. The distinguished look of graying hair is overruled by his casual shaggy windblown hairstyle—still clearly a hippie at heart even in beige slacks, a zip-up leather coat, and loafers. Andrew's built like an athlete, tall and lean. His short hair pronounces his square jaw. He's not a Republican, but if he were transported to the '60s his outfit couldn't have been more red; he wore a navy sweater with the collar of a pin-striped polo sticking over the neckline. "If you had told me in '68 that I'd have a son who would go to Columbia and join a fraternity," said Jerry, "I'd have fallen over in a faint." But it's when Andrew and Jerry start speaking that the familial traits appear; they're both passionate about the current state of affairs. It's the era and atmosphere that are different—at least that's what Andrew says.

We entered the campus at 114th Street and trudged north until we reached the sundial. It's circular and sits in the center of College Walk, the most trafficked area of the campus. Jerry explained the monument's importance in history; it doesn't seem like it could be the same place where college students sit now, snacking on deli sandwiches. The student demonstrations, which led to a weeklong sit-in, started right there on April 23, 1968. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) initiated the protests. The SDS opposed the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War as well as policies practiced by the university's then president, Grayson Kirk, such as affiliating the university with a weapons research institution, building a gym for Columbia on public land in Harlem, and stifling dissent by not allowing protests to occur indoors.

Andrew has also used the sundial site for activism. His event was for the Pro-Israel Progressives, an organization he founded. Last October, they handed out leaflets with the heading, "Ten Reasons Why Liberals Can Be Pro-Israel."

"If you want to have an event here," said Andrew, "you have to register the space."

"I don't remember having to do any registering at all," replied Jerry. "We just did stuff."

"We probably have to register because of you."

The terms protest, activism, and civil rights have dotted dinnertime conversation ever since Andrew's youth. "Up against the wall, motherfucker," a catchphrase of Jerry's generation, was as common an expression as "Got milk?" has become for the next. From those beginnings grew a politically aware young man. When Andrew entered Columbia in 2004, the Iraq war was already raging, but was not yet determined to be the out-of-control, money-sucking, civilian-slaughtering debacle it is today. It seemed plausible that the circumstances could become comparable to the Vietnam War situation, but Andrew never wanted—not even in the case of a full-blown quagmire—to follow in his father's footsteps. "Sign-waving bearded campus radicals don't exist anymore," said Andrew. Now that the war has grown increasingly unpopular, Jerry wondered why college kids aren't raising their voices.

"I guess I got to say I'm a little sad," said Jerry, scanning the empty campus.

"Ah, ah, all right," cut in Andrew, "I have a few things to say about this." He went on to list three reasons why campuses aren't protesting. He began by stating the obvious: There's no draft directly affecting college students. He went on to say that students don't see the same connection Columbia had with the war effort as they did in the '60s, when the campus affiliated itself with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research group for the Department of Defense. Students saw the IDA as a part of the war effort, one they saw as unjust. The IDA connection helped spark the debate between the student body and the administration that eventually snowballed into the spring sit-ins.


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?"

"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."


"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."

"Yep."

"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."

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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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