On My Mind
I left the whipped cream tortes and gemutlich music of the 86th Street burghers behind and moved through a tenement neighborhood of liquor stores and funeral parlors, Yorkville poverty’s only escape. My destination was the office of the Patriot Party. Not some group or strutting storm troopers, but white radicals out to organize the working class.
When I finally found the storefront on Second Avenue, I didn’t really want to go in. Despite my usually over-active curiosity, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the interview. Only boredom prevailed. The feeling I would have heard it all before. Not just a replay of the Panthers and the Young Lords, but a rerun of the ’30s.
Not that I was putting their dreams down or even the small amount of good the breakfast program and the medical program and the housing fight might do. It was just that I couldn’t face any more machine-made revolutionaries who would talk to me about The People instead of people and re-confirm the movement’s loss of soul.
So feeling very alienated from the alienated, I kept circling past shops full of second-hand furniture and second-hand clothes and second-hand lives. Circling as I had since returning to this country after a long hiatus, unable to find a home anywhere in the movement.
I was still as disgusted with the country, still as concerned about changing it, but there was one difference. Before leaving the country, I had little doubt that movement people were the best of the generation. Now, I was no longer so sure of that.
My encounters with radicals since I returned had been strained, if not disastrous, and I was no longer on their wave length. The meetings I attended for assorted causes were totally unfamiliar — no longer run in the open, tolerant style that was reflected in the slogan, “One man, one soul,” and that made room for all politics and points of view. Instead they seemed dedicated to making everyone conform to the current version of the truth.
It was at one of those meetings, after dissenters tired of the put-downs and contemptuously walked out, that I first became aware of my own estrangement. Most of the other radicals in the room considered the walk-out a great success because now they could run things their way, while I thought it was a complete failure, a violation of the humanistic and unmanipulative style of politics I and the movement once valued, and a long way from the germinal ideas of the Port Huron statement that said at whatever cost to the cause, one had to care for the dignity of each individual, and not let vague appeals to posterity justify the mutilation of the present.
From that meeting on, I was an outsider. How could I re-join a movement that had opposed the depersonalization of human beings and now called all cops pigs? How could I re-join a movement that had been people-centered and now broke up not only organizations but long-standing friendships over ideology?
The ultimate in the loss of personalistic politics, of all that made the new left new, was when one faction of Columbia SDS beat up another faction of SDS for passing out leaflets. It inspired a New York Times reporter, in a rare moment of levity, to write the story in Stalinist jargon, full of long unused phrases like leftist sectarian deviationism. The fact that neither the city desk nor the movement saw anything satiric in the story is a measure of how much things have changed.
The movement seems to be sliding backward to the kind of ideological politics that made it possible, during the Spanish Civil War, for Harry Pollitt, the leader of the British Communist Party, to tell poet Stephen Spender to go get himself killed in Spain because the party needed more martyred artists to bolster its image. The new left, like the old, is beginning to subordinate the individual, his needs, his feelings, his beliefs, to the cause.
And that isn’t my kind of movement. As the French students so incisively said in one of their 68 mottos: “Une revolution que demande que l’on se sacrifice pour elle est une revolution a la papa” (“a revolution that expects one to sacrifice one’s self for it is Daddy’s kind of revolution”). More than just Daddy’s revolution, it is the reverse image of the society it is supposed to change. Instead of material goods, abstractions like the movement or the doctrine become more important than human well-being, deadening our sensitivity to one another, isolating us, and opening the way for the self-righteous use of others as objets.
My own estrangement and immediate lack of enthusiasm for the Patriot Party was caused not only by the elevation of ideology, but by the limiting of vision. The creativity, the flexibility, the willingness to dream of worlds not yet seen, has been squeezed into dry socialism. Utopia reduced to an economic formula. There was the phone call I made to a friend who had been part of the Mississippi Summer and who was now devoting herself, with the all-excluding obsessiveness of any business executive, to the study of Chinese. I wanted to discuss The Politics of Cultural Despair, a book that fit my present mood. Although it dealt with 19th century Germany, the German people’s reaction to the Industrial Revolution that disrupted their society was like our own loss of certainty, of values, of faith in our institutions. Their rebellion against modernity and the sterility of urban life included our longing for a simpler past, communal bonds, a hero to save us, and even the flourishing of fresh air hiking clubs to get the young out of the cities as often as possible.
Yet every time I tried to talk about the psychic dimension, to connect the malaise and feelings of cultural despair to the rise of Hitler, she kept stuffing me back in the economic bag, kept talking about the conditions of the workers and inflation in the Weimar Republic. When I said the book had led me back to Nietzsche, it was as if I mentioned an author on the Index. I was immediately reprimanded for not reading Marx or one of the proper books everyone else was reading. It was as if all truth and all solutions to the ills of the nearly 21st century resided in one 19th century man and his disciples.
Yet this constricted thinking, the tendency to talk only in terms of overthrowing capitalistic systems and ruling classes, can lead only to a one-dimensional revolution. It would mean only redesigning the turrets and towers on the technocratic citadel. For socialist as well as capitalist countries are motored by a technocratic machine that needs constant and instantaneous coordination from the center. In the name of progress, efficiency, and necessity, government officials and experts in the East as well as in the West manipulate lives, while we, like Kafka’s bewildered K, remain powerless dependents on inaccessible and inscrutable castles where they conjure with our fate.
Even sacrosanct Cuba, despite all its homage to the creation of a new man, has made its main thrust the accomplishment of agricultural and technical feats. For the sake of progress, as well as self-preservation, the Cuban revolutionaries have sacrificed the rights of individuals.
Not that the political forms are important. The American experience has taught us that a free press does not guarantee truth, that laws do not guarantee justice or elections representation. Yet Cuba and the new left’s cavalier dismissal of these forms seems based on the assumption that the state and its survival are more important than the individual. In that reversal lies the danger of the creation of another Superstate, the danger of the destruction of Cuba’s possibilities once the genuine concern and charisma of Fidel are gone.
For me, the movement’s easy adoption of the socialist economic and political system as its panacea is a cop-out, a failure to do the tougher job of coming up with ideas for a new society which, unlike either the capitalists or the collectivists, will do more than make the unlimited satisfaction of material wants its god, which will put the individual at the center and make all economic and political activities subordinate to his human growth, and which will make no man the means to either the state’s or another man’s end.
A couple of fringe efforts seek to go beyond this one-dimensional revolution. The women’s liberation movement recognizes that it cannot depend on the revolution to change the relationship between men and women. They are trying to do something about it now. Yet the narrowness of their concern makes it impossible for me to become all-involved in that one issue, the way so many other homeless activists have become.
I also admire the hippie-yippie effort to evolve a new style of community to rediscover joy and redefine living, but the egocentricity of just doing your own thing keeps me from donning love beads.
I even believe the new politics has some merit in its search for ways of letting people more directly affect the choice of candidates. Yet when I consider the possible candidates the former “clean for Gene” kids might come up with for ’72, I can’t share their faith or illusions. Nor in ’68, our hour of need, could I convince myself that a moderate liberal like McCarthy or Kennedy would be the savior. The compromises, the petty power plays, the think-small mentality needed to become a politician in this country makes the liberal left think only in terms of extending the welfare state rather than redistributing the real power that sets our priorities, makes even the best-intentioned candidate unable to do more than bandage the country’s wounds.
And so I remain an alien among the alienated. Unable to find an honest home among the new politics because listening to the New Democratic Coalition argue the marginal differences between a Nickerson and a Goldberg is like listening to competing cigarette commercials trying to sell their nearly identical anti-life products. Unable to comfortably fence-sit with the radicals who dropped out of the political system either before or after Chicago because I’m not self-indulgent enough to deny an extra 50 cents on a welfare check to someone who may need it while waiting for the revolution that may never come. Unable to be just a women’s liberationist or hippie, a Panther or Patriot.
Still, as I wandered orphan-like around Yorkville, I wasn’t unaware that it wasn’t just the movement that had changed, with guns and bombs becoming the escapist toys of radicals who have no other way of dealing with the political reality, it wasn’t just the country that had turned into a bad hallucination, with moon shots and map pins in Laos the romantic kicks for a Washington unable to deal with social disintegration. For a couple of months after returning from South America, I heard myself, the girl who used to be Pollyanna, who used to believe nothing was impossible, arguing with a professor who was saying pessimism was outdated — the young were going to save the world.
And it was loss of belief, near nihilism, that really kept me from going to see the Patriots, that reduced others alienated from the movement to talking to each other in assorted living rooms, made some even stop trying to search for answers and become the siren voices saying the hippies are right, nothing can be done, the only important thing is to enjoy your own life.
Perhaps it was only the intensity of my despair that made it so rough, so constant. I had certainly been around activists for a long time. My memory went back to an afternoon when the civil rights movement was falling apart, just before Stokely gave birth to Black Power, the time when blacks and white radicals could still sit and talk about “the problem” which was our problem. The mood was not that different — the people in the room suffering from the same exhaustion of protest, the feeling that all the tactics had been used up, absorbed into the country’s tolerance system. Group fantasy became the afternoon’s relief. One black student jumped up and shouted he knew what we should do. With everyone’s attention riveted on him, he began to demonstrate how we would erect this giant computer on the comer of 126th Street and Lenox Avenue, feed all the problems about jobs and schools and housing and unions into it, push all the buttons, and then wait for the machine to tell us how to solve them. He reached for the imaginary computer card, then looking down, reading in a voice that still echoes out of time, he said, “The machine says there’s no answer… no answer… no answer.”
Yet blacks were able to discover their psychic salvation in the black power movement, to hold hope and pride together with a black beret, while white radicals went only to the fragmentation of SDS or the futility of the peace movement, knowing that demonstrating on Tuesday only meant Johnson would escalate the bombing on Wednesday, knowing that demonstrating tomorrow will only mean Nixon will defeat them with benign neglect the next day.
All this brought me to the Yorkville border of Lotus Land, but still refusing to cross over. Grasping at any rope that would lead me back over my nihilism and alienation, willing to believe the fault was all mine, that being gone so long I had lost my ability to listen between the lines of the hard-edged rhetoric, to hear what people weren’t saying, I decided I had to see the Patriots.
The thought of the distance between us sent me on a preliminary bender — like some wild alcoholic, buying, buying, buying books I couldn’t afford, everything, anything that would reconnect me with the soul of the movement — and finally, stumbling out of the store, shopping bags full of truth, I returned to my apartment and piled paperbacks 20 deep on the coffee table.
For a while I just sat before them as if they had some totem power to illuminate the movement and bring me home. Then I began reading everything at once, hopping from chapter to chapter, and, following an old tradition, usually beginning at the back of the book. I found little cause for optimism, and, too often, a recognition of my own near resignation.
There were the doubts and weariness that made the hero of The Strawberry Statement say that we were the bridge generation, the product of all the past and the ones who had to keep the future human, and then wonder in the same paragraph whether struggling to keep people human was desirable. “I don’t know,” he continued to debate, “in Brave New World, the people were always happy. They were dehumanized and low, but the fact remains they were happy. It was repugnant to the observer, but they couldn’t step outside their system to see it. They were just happy. That seems all right.”
And reading it I remembered the perverse pleasure I had felt in the mindlessness of a filing job. The secret fantasy of being a content dumb blonde manicurist. The often repeated quotation of one of Lawrence’s heroines: “Why can’t I simply rest in him.”
It was at that low point in my slide toward becoming one of the lotus eaters that the phone, my umbilical cord to the real world, began ringing. It was a call from the other half of friendship’s oddest couple that forced me to confront the toughest part of my own alienation from the alienated.
The conversation — with my favorite North Carolina cracker, honorary member of the Ku Klux Klan, and sharer of my concern for poor whites — began with his excited report about the postman’s strike, his announcement that, for the first time, he had rolled down his car windows, honked his horn, and given the V sign to demonstrators. It was his constituency on the move, the thing he had been waiting for, much more significant than some nutty kids who couldn’t even make a bomb without blowing themselves up, he said, winding up with a harangue against dynamiting radicals that would have done any Southern preacher proud.
My response to the harangue would have been much simpler a couple of years ago. Although always ambivalent in my feelings, arguing both sides of the violence question with equal conviction, it was easier to empathize with the strange kind of love that made the most sensitive and the most intelligent, the Malcolm Xs and the Le Roi Joneses, unable to passively accept the daily soul-worn destruction of their people. It was easier to justify rebellion, even violent rebellion, when it was a gut reaction to the irrationality, the incomprehensible injustice of the human spectacle, when it insisted the outrage be brought to an end in the name of life.
It is quite another thing to justify murder for a rebellion which prefers an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood, which forgets the spirit of humanity for the defense of ideology or the delusion of power, which puts resentment in the place of love, which vilifies all opponents, which measures convictions by the efficacy with which one can hit the nearest cop, which adores violence for its own sake, and which shrieks with exhilaration the ultimate cry of nihilism, “Viva, Viva la muerte.”
A movement that acts like the other side is the other side, and worth no one’s loyalty.
Muddling through the distinction for myself and my phone confessor, I began to feel the time had come for the alienated among the ashes to consecrate a new rebellion. A phoenix that would rise above the nihilism that is making us incapable of any action or only of desperate action. A phoenix that would return to its roots and use the intelligence, conviction, and passion of its followers to find a creative alternative to murder.
And if we still fail, if despite all our ideas and words and actions, we cannot turn this country around, if it becomes our curse to be faced with the choice between accepting an intolerable world and either directly or indirectly killing another human being, then let it be done not in triumph but in despair by a generation lost in its own loneliness, with weapons in its hands and agony in its heart, never for an instant deluding itself that murder is right, recognizing that the only virtue is in not deifying the power to inflict death, and in returning as rapidly as possible to the original impetus — the impetus of compassion, of community, of life.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 7, 2020