Whiny White Guys

Save the Males: The Making of the Butch Backlash

All this whinin’ and cryin’ and pitchin’ a fit
Get over it. — The Eagles

Only in America are there holidays to compensate for what has been lost. Martin Luther King Day signifies the humanist dream deferred. Halloween is an urban celebration of fantasies that cannot be lived. And Super Bowl Sunday is the Day of Male Bonding. It commemorates an institution that has all but lost its authority.

It wasn’t always this way. Once there were holidays devoted to the worship of womankind, while men made the rules of public life. But as women intruded, observances like the Easter Parade lost their luster. Now it’s men who need rituals to affirm their im­portance. The perfect occasion arose in 1967 — four years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique — with the first Super Bowl. Were it not for our need to mark the archaic, this climactic football game would not be such a commercial bonanza, nor would it echo the gendered polarities of beauty pageantry and war. For one sacred afternoon, men gather to chug a brewsky with the buds, and the demands of sexual equity are suspended. The Super Bowl is a reverie of the way we were.

But this year, the Day of Male Bonding came early. The nation awoke on November 9 to a new political alignment. Sixty-two per cent of white males had voted for Republican Congressional candidates. They were credited with producing the first GOP majority in 40 years. Not since Ronald Reagan had the right savored such a victory, and the conservative press was quick to capitalize on it. The Wall Street Journal, where Rush Limbaugh is known as a “sensitive fellow,” hyped the term Angry White Males, and before you could whisper, “Hillary is a bitch,” America had a new minority.

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OF COURSE, THERE HAVE ALWAYS been angry white men. What’s new is their emergence in this country as a political bloc. These guys are on a well-publicized rampage, howling about their loss of power, casting themselves as victims and everyone else as their oppressors. What’s so wacky about this role reversal is that white men clearly hold  the lion’s share of political and corporate power. They lead the major religions and run the military. But they have lost something less tangible, without which they cannot continue to rule: their legitimacy.

White men are no longer the whole against which we measure all the parts, but one more angry special interest group. Once they were “mankind,” now they’re just another niche in the endless segmentation markets and identities. This new “community” has its own jargon and its own outrageousness. Limbaugh is a specialty much like kente cloth or rainbow flags. “Rush,” wrote one book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, “is the ultimate guilty pleasure for guys weary of being bound by the cultural straitjacket of political correctness.”

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

P.C. is the official expletive of the Angry White Male. What began as a wry leftist critique of its own puritanical tendencies has become a term of derision for all things multicultural, feminist, or gay. The emergence of this epithet, at the same time as other, less elegant slurs have made a comeback, affirms the new pecking order of abuse. The only group it’s not hip to dis these days is straight white men.

But even this ritual baring of teeth reflects the tenuous state of male prestige. A major shift in consciousness has made the aphorisms about female pulchritude and male power that dot the Western canon seem archaic. The notion that women are born “to ben under mannes governance,” as Chaucer put it, must now be continually asserted, because it is no longer self-evident. No wonder so much energy is devoted to constructing a fundamentalism of male supremacy. The very fact that he needs to form a political bloc suggests that the white male no longer takes his influence for granted. That’s why he’s angry: He is still the major player, but he is no longer the game.

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The conflation of power with truth, justice, the natural, or the divine is called hegemony. It’s what allows a dominant class, race, or gender to maintain its credibility. When that God-given right to rule is undermined, the loss of status can be devastating — especially when it occurs along with a loss of wealth. That’s what created the new Republican majority.

No one bothers to recall that men and women colluded in the last great Republican rout of 1946. Pollsters didn’t even measure women voters as a separate category until 1982, but the gender gap has been a fact of political life ever since. Fewer women voted in the last election than in ’92, and those who did tilted slightly toward the Democrats. This means the Republican majority, so potent in the short run, is built on highly unstable ground. If more women go to the polls in ’96, and some men redirect their anger toward the corporate masters and their congressional servants, the Democrats could be back in power.

But in order to attract the backlash vote, it would have to be a Democratic Party with a David Letterman edge, a par­ty that mocks its own identification with the weak and the powerless. It would have to slough off guilt and stand up to the “unreasonable” demands of women and minorities, singing along with the Eagles anthem for the Angry White Male, “Get Over It”:

Complain about the present
and blame it on the past
I’d like to find your inner child
and kick its little ass

These New Democrats would embrace male power. Perhaps, like Letterman (and Limbaugh), they would smoke cigars.

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THE DAY OF MALE BONDING WAS scarcely over when The New York Times announced that cigars had become “a prop for the ’90s.” The remarkable photo on page one showed a young, besuited white male puffing away on what the reporter called “a statement of cool authority and elegance.” Sitting behind him, in shadow, a black man looks uneasy lighting up. Both are patrons of a cigar club, that new Manhattan environment where men gather to bask in what one pro­prietor called “a whole romantic era, the Victorian smoking room.”

He wasn’t talking about a singles bar. For though women are welcome in these clubs — after all, it’s the law — their real place is on the service staff, enhancing the prosthetic effect of a good cigar by handling it, lighting it, and even clipping the tip. Less than 1 per cent of cigar smokers are women, which makes these establishments a perfect setting for the romance of male bonding. But the steep price of a stogie ($22 for a Dominican Montecristo) signals that not just any dude can be part of this coterie. Un­like Super Bowl Sunday, cigar clubs aren’t supposed to be a democratic experience. The idea is to bring together two of the most powerful impulses in human history: camaraderie and class.

Cigars are the ultimate accoutrement of male power, the gentleman’s gat. Which is why it’s significant that, in the past year alone, sales have risen by more than 50 per cent, according to one manufacturer. This boom is largely due to young smokers look­ing for a high-status buzz. As the president of the Cigar Association of America ex­plains, “there is a male backlash” and a hunger for the days when male power was such a given it was rarely remarked upon. Cigars are a traditional instrument of that era, commemorating the moment after din­ner when ladies retired while gents remained at the table to huff and puff. Cigar chic is one more sign that the yearning for symbols of male supremacy is eminently marketable. In an age where culture creates politics, and commerce makes a style of both, the butch backlash is becom­ing chic.

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THE NAZIS KNEW ALL about the power of the archaic. They built their reich on racist and sexist traditions that were al­ready in collision with the evolution of lib­eral societies. The allure of the Übermensch was all the more intense because he was passé. Something similar sustains the Angry White Male. This right­-wing version of Encino Man harks back not just to the postwar “golden age” of the one-income, two-parent, male-cen­tered family, but to the primordial days of all­-male hunting parties.

Of course, we no longer hunt for survival or depend on physical agility and muscle mass to hold territory. Warfare is in­creasingly conducted by remote control, and eco­nomic life is bound up with technical expertise. These shifts in the human condition make male su­premacy obsolete. Women are coming to power not just because of their col­lective will but because ob­jective conditions favor gender equity. The femi­nist revolution, as it is sometimes called, more closely resembles an evo­lution of the species. But because this leap forward involves altering patterns of behavior that have been practiced for many millennia, the course of change is uncertain and the anxieties potent enough to create a backlash. The male bond, no longer functional, is even more powerful as an artifact of the old ways.

In contemporary culture, Archie Bunker was the first Angry White Male. But good old “Ah-chie,” as Edith called him, was a bigoted buffoon who got his comeuppance, of­ten at the hands of his longhaired, upwardly mobile son-in-law. Archie’s resentment was rooted in class. He wasn’t meant to stand for men, or even white men, but for the eminently vulnerable white working stiff. In the end, like Ralph Kramden, Archie wanted love more than power.

Times have certainly changed. The sit-­comic ritual of male rage and reconciliation has given way to pure aggression, directed not at the powerful but at subordinates who refuse to take it lying down. Some time dur­ing the Reagan era, the racial animus that drove Dirty Harry was augmented by the gendered fury of Sam (“I don’t support wife beating, but I understand it”) Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. These were no lov­able loudmouths, but demonic figures of male authority whose crudeness was pre­sented as a higher form of truth telling. Heroically blue collar, they appealed to a middle-class audience eager to hear that women, blacks, and gays were walking all over straight white men. Kinison and Clay accommodated this burgeoning butchoisie by avoiding jokes about class. They confined their rage to race and sex. And under their aegis, the droll misogyny of Henny Young­man (“Take my wife. Please!”) and the coy ressentiment of Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) were transformed in­to sadism. Stand-up became the home base of the butch backlash.

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Soon, the fury appeared in rock music, where sexual and racial epithets became a cur­rency of hip discourse. White fans, who had already been schooled on metal and hardcore, eagerly identified with the rage of rap. In their hands, the hiphop stance was turned on its head, producing white racist epithets. But the bulk of this dissing was directed at women and homosexuals — or,  ever in the vernacular, bitches and fags. These sexual slurs had a double meaning. Not only did they ex­press what white males felt about their loss of authority (including the power to name all people and things in the world), but these words were part of a male language, and their elevation invoked the most primitive device for maintaining dominance: the bond.

The Super Bowl is a one-night stand, but backlash rock and sado stand-up are on­going reminders of a power that has lost its glory. Still, these forms are far too lewd to be of use to a politics that must observe the pieties of Christian fundamentalism. For conservatives to harness the butch backlash, it has to be expressed in a more wholesome way. Enter talk radio, with its populist im­primatur and its decidedly antierotic agen­da. Here was rock without rhythm. But the shock jocks did borrow something from the pop culture they condemned: its epithets. Bitch and fag are male terms of derogation that denote an “unnatural” self-assertion by women or homosexuals. As talk radio became an affiliate of the Republican party, these slurs became part of an overtly polit­ical presentation. It was only necessary for the men at the mikes to clean up their act a bit. A bitch was now a feminazi (c.f. Rush Limbaugh), a fag was a militant homosexu­al (at least on The 700 Club).

This same strategy has taken root in Congress, where the new Republican poohbahs revel in sotto voce slurs. Richard Armey’s use of Barney Fag, murmured to a group of reporters he thought he could count on to share the joke, was one exam­ple of the new respectability of hate speech. Newt Gingrich’s confidential salute to the first lady is another. (What’s the big deal? Mother Gingrich later asked. Aren’t there buttons calling Hillary a bitch?) The cur­rent Congress so resembles a locker room that ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts re­cently observed, “The House these days is no place for a mother.”

Neither is the Connecticut statehouse. When a nominee for commissioner of vet­erans’ affairs was criticized for referring to gay men as “lollipops,” he insisted he hadn’t meant to be offensive. “It’s just the way an old marine talks,” the nominee explained. Precisely: The old barracks jargon of racial and sexual slurs was intended to bond men into a war party; epithets helped to establish the boundary between the in-group and everyone else. That tactic has been adapted by the GOP to cement its bond with the the Angry White Male.

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REPUBLICANS COME EASILY TO THIS politics of symbolic solidarity. It was the core of Richard Nixon’s plan to exploit the backlash against civil rights. Now Nixon’s Southern strategy has been applied to women’s lib­eration. Never mind that the tradi­tional blue-collar household has always included many working women, or that today their income is all that stands between many families and poverty. To the extent that feminism presents alternatives to the dominion of the patriarch, it can be blamed for the loss of starus once accorded, as a matter of course, to white men.

What about the angry black man? Why is he not part of the pissed-off fraternity? Doen’t he have a beef with bitches, too? In fact, there’s ample evidence of a butch back­lash in the black community. From Tupac to Tyson, images of vehement masculinity abound. But in white America, black male rage is regarded as a pathology, while white male rage is seen as the basis of a politics. As in Birth of a Nation, black male rage is sex­ualized and repressed while white male rage is idealized and unleashed.

In reality, both are aspects of the same response to the growing influence of women. O. J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas are actors in the same sitdram that produced the Republican victory. And this reaction is part of a global backlash that has ignited fundamentalist explosions in every major faith. How much more can be ac­complished when the enemy within includes not just infidels but feminists. How much easier it is to convince women — enjoined by a lifetime of experiences to “stand by your man” — that their best interests are served by the old order. Not many citizens of the Third World would buy that argument from their former masters. Nor would many African Americans vote for candidates opposed to affirmative action. But, though white women have been major beneficiaries of such programs, in the last election, near­ly half their votes went to the Republicans.

Not that any party has a patent on the butch backlash. Plenty of Democrats are pissed off, too, and the administration is running as fast as it can from feminism (not to mention affirmative action). But Bill Clinton will have to do more than present himself as a kinder, gentler Republican in order to win back the whiners. He will have to toe the conservative line: that white men are the real victims, and minorities the real oppressors. Without this Big Lie, the back­lash could not cohere. Which is why con­servatives have appropriated the left’s vo­cabulary of aggrievement. A right-wing bumper sticker proclaims SAVE THE MALES.

An op-ed piece in the Daily News is a telling example of the new rule about who’s allowed to be a victim and who is not. “No­body gives a damn about me,” one white male student grouses. The author, a female professor at the University of Cincinnati, supports his claim. Undergrads like him, she writes, “enjoy no special admissions consid­erations, support services, and designated scholarships, no departments equivalent to women’s or African American studies.” She doesn’t mention that these beleaguered bach­elors are taught from curricula that stress the achievements of white men, and go on to earn more than other college graduates. They’ve had affirmative action for 5000 years.

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JUST HOW OPPRESSED ARE WHITE MEN? It depends. They come in all classes (though the Republicans would like them to forget that fact), and when it comes to economic status, the rich ones are doing better than ever. But for blue-collar workers, the loss of earning power is very real, indeed.

Actual income has fallen sharply over the past two decades, largely because of the shift from well-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying work in the service industries. The result has been a rude awakening from the American dream, at least for the gener­ation that came of age before the ’70s, when workers could expect to double their standard of living every 25 years. Now it would take 65 years to achieve that same gain.

But the pain hasn’t been shared equal­ly. According to the census bureau, the me­dian income of white women rose by 10 per cent between 1979 and 1993, while the median income of white men dropped by the same rate. (Among blacks, a similar dis­parity exists, but both sexes continue to earn less than whites.) A major reason for this gender gap is the traumatic migration from assembly lines to hamburger grills. For white men these new jobs mean lower wages, but for women and minorities, who have always worked for less, these same jobs represent an improvement. Largely because of this historical inequity, the earning gap has narrowed over the past 20 years. Though women still make only 70 per cent of what men do, that’s up from about 60 per cent in 1979. All this has precious little to do with affirmative action, but if you’re a white male with shrinking fornmes, it’s easy to imagine that women and minorities are getting all the breaks. Especially if that’s what Rush keeps telling you.

The butch backlash enables Republicans to profit from the growing inequalities of American life, while deflecting attention from those who are really responsible: the white men who set wages. Super Bowl Sun­day and other signifiers of the male bond belie the fact that professional men have gotten richer on the backs of their blue-col­lar buds. The salary gap between educated and uneducated workers is now wider in the U.S. than anywhere else in the developed world. And guess what? Though women have made striking inroads into the professions, the higher on the corporate ladder the less visible they are.

Women comprise only 6 per cent of di­rectors at Fortune 500 companies, and their committee assignments nearly always involve public relations, while the real power posts on corporate boards remain in male hands. If anything, it’s these women, in their tailored power suits, who should be pissed. In­stead, as former Times columnist Anna Quindlen reported, they meet in restaurants for discreet grousing sessions, hoping not to be overheard as they mutter the one unacceptable epithet these days, about the “whiteboys” who run their companies.

This term, appropriated from black slang, became part of the Clinton White House when it was used by the likes of Lin­da Bloodworth-Thomason to describe the all-male policy preserve in the West Wing. But since Leon Panetta’s arrival and Hillary Clinton’s retreat, “whiteboys” has all but vanished from the Washington lexicon. It certainly could be applied to the House, where Re­publican leaders are following corporate form by choosing women to present the party line — especially on social issues — while white men hold all but one of 18 committee chairs.

The spectacle of the powerful blam­ing the weak would be comic if it weren’t so effective.

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BUT MAN DOES NOT RULE BY BREAD alone. If the butch backlash were merely a re­action to material deprivation, it wouldn’t have such appeal to prosperous professionals. That it does only shows how pervasive this shift in status has been. Even when men and women do not compete for scarce resources, they battle over who makes the rules. The structure of the family, the etiquette of sex, even the proper use of pronouns — all are in contention. And the score adds up to a loss of authority for men. Add to this incursion of women the explosion of gay culture and the proliferation of racial categories and it’s clear that, in the largely symbolic realm of hegemony, straight white males are feeling the pinch. They lack what they didn’t need as long as they stood for the whole: an identity. Now they’ve got one, rage and all.

To be sure, the refusal to admit that white men still hold the largest share of ma­terial power gives their anger an unreal qual­ity. But that has never stopped reactionaries, and this movement has a mission to restore the old order. Women, blacks, and gays have a place in it, but not as au­tonomous beings. They are to resume their traditional roles in ritual deference to mas­culine authority. Women must appeal, blacks must kneel, and gays must heel.

This is the allure of Howard Stern. He reconstructs the order, waving his dick around symbolically before a delighted black woman. Stern recalls a world where white men rule by righteous banter. Every­one else must play along or take the burn. He’s a working-class hero whose audience, like the backlash itself, includes many pro­fessionals. Indeed, a recent book-signing appearance by Stern nearly shut down Wall Street. Even some powerful women are drawn to this action, especially if they are politicians out to reassure their own angry white men. Just to show she’s no bitch, New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman named a rest stop after Stern.

Humor is an important weapon in the butch backlash, used to enforce the order by ridiculing those who won’t abide by it. Call-in shows are perfect for this police ac­tion, because they allow the jock to create an imaginary bond and to disconnect anyone who threatens it. This cannot easily be achieved in real life. But not everyone is enchanted by interactive executions or amused by the prairie-like cadences of Rush, even in print. For the upscale backlasher, there’s that self-described “Republican reptile,” P. J. O’Rourke.

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Only The Wall Street Journal could regard this Bud Lite version of Oscar Wilde as “the funniest writer in America.” Like Limbaugh, O’Rourke conflates right reason and male supremacy, but in the voice of an ar­chaic aristocrat. He can sound like a parody of William F. Buckley as he affirms “the im­mense fatigue everyone is feeling with equality,” using the collective pronoun everyone the way the very rich do: to mean us. In this order, there are noble white men and the un­grateful new masses. “Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, cripples, women, and guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show are all demanding to be treated as equals,” O’Rourke writes. “Ho­mosexuals are just one more voice of com­plaint in an already too querulous world.”

Fifty years ago, O’Rourke would have had to include the Irish, not to mention the Italians and Jews. But sexism and racism have supplanted ethnic bigotry. Of course, the same old interests are served: The rich get richer while the workers get to vent on their designated inferiors. Imagine the alterna­tive — workers blaming those who actually profit from their loss — and you can under­stand why the Republicans have invested so much in the Angry White Male.

By displacing the old class affinities on­to gender and race, the Southern strategists have created an estate to which any righteous white dude can belong. Even the former professor who crafted the coming California voter initiative that would ban affirmative ac­tion can announce, with disarming pride, “Count me among those angry men.” The appeal of this fantasy goes well beyond the working class. But just as rich Republicans have mastered the idiom of the common man, the Angry White Male wears a blue collar even when he’s a millionaire.

A complex mythography instructs us that the working man is blunt, devout, virile, stoical, and ready to fight when wronged — in short, the embodiment of traditional masculinity. Machismo is his inheritance, passed from father to son like a job in the construction trade. Never mind the brutality of his passage to manhood, the systematic hardening that has numbed him, or the crushing impact of that process on his own children, not to mention his mother and his wife. This is the icon conserva­tives have built their backlash on, and its power transcends class because it speaks to the disquieting sense of male loss. For what is missing from the culture of equity — as it is from the alternative family — is the almighty patriarch: His God, his laws, his sense of what it means to be a man.

Restoring the lost father in his most cul­turally idealized form — as the head of a white working-class family — is what makes the Re­publican agenda so attractive. It’s why the next presidential campaign is shaping up to be a race between Bill Clinton, the fatherless child who reminds us all too much of our pat­rimonial loss, and Bob Dole, the wounded, wizened, wrathful dad.

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BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO HONOR thy father by smoking his cigar. Hegemony must be seen to coincide with “natural law” or it can easily be confused with brute force. This is why conservatives are so eager to assert that the social order is a reflection of nature, and not just a set of biases that privilege straight white men.

In this war of restoration, sexual and racial supremacy march arm in arm. Charles Murray’s contentions about the heritability of intelligence have their equivalent in the recent rash of “data” demonstrating that sexual inequality is built into human biology. Though Murray’s ideas have achieved a frightening respectability, they have also met with strong resistance from the intellectual mainstream. But ideas about the impact of gender on ability are harder to dismiss, if only because there are differences between women and men — some of them obvious, others subtle but measurable. No one has been able to demonstrate that these distinctions account for women’s destiny. Yet many men who would never be tempted by Murray’s racial analysis find merit in equally spurious claims about the sexes.

Consider John Stossel, who began his TV career as an award-winning investigator of consumer fraud. Lately, he’s jumped on the backlash bandwagon with a series of prime-time specials that puncture liberal myths. Last month, Stossel took a peck at “eye-opening research” suggesting that “Boys and Girls Are Different” after all. Ah, but are the sexes programmed for inequality? Stossel poses a rhetorical question and answers with a rigged response: “Should gender influence our place in society? Some research says yes. Some people don’t want you to hear about it.” This hint of censor­ship echoes the heady image of feminazis organized into an authoritarian “thought police.” But they can’t stop this heroic reporter from speaking truth to feminist power. Stossel enlists “other voices, quieter voices, perhaps,” drawn from “the world of science,” to counter their views.

You’d never know from this show that researchers strongly disagree about the im­pact of biological differences. You’d think it was a settled issue that “men and women just operate differently.” Or that human nature is timeless and unchanging rather than constantly evolving. “Maybe this is a social problem that needs to be fixed,” Stossel admits. But then he hammers home the Limbaugh line: “If we’re born different, if we think dif­ferently because our brains are different, then trying to fix these differences will be pointless, expensive, maybe even hurtful.”

Stossel’s worldview is common on the op-ed page, home of the angry white pundit. John Leo, who has found his niche as a syndicated critic of the politically correct, was quick to jump on newly published data demonstrating that women and men use their brains differently. Never mind that, as the researchers reported, both sexes appear to arrive at the same level of competence through different neurological routes. For Leo, as for Stossel, this is further proof of what has always been evident to his senses, at least: that women are the weaker, more emotional sex. Now that feminists are no longer in a position to suppress this truth, Leo proposes a new system: “Let girls and boys compete,” but without “sexual quo­tas.” (Read affirmative action.) If the result is a return of male privilege, it must be be­cause that’s what nature decrees.

In fact, there is no science of sexual inferiority. There is only the history of male supremacy, and the pattern it imposes on human identity. The revival of essentialist thinking about both sex and race comes at a politically propitious time: just as the de­bate about affirmative action is getting un­derway. Not only does this new social Dar­winism undercut the rationale for such programs, but it helps to define the unnatural­: women who cherish their autonomy.

It’s no surprise that, in the year of the butch backlash, the old accusation of “man­hating” is back in style. This time it’s com­ing not just from shock jocks but from in­tellectuals like Camille Paglia, the libertine’s Rush Limbaugh. In a recent tangle with feminists (moderated by that old libera­tionist William F. Buckley), Paglia urged “all people who espouse progressive values [to] go back to looking at the ordinary lives of women who love men.” The implication is that feminists don’t love men. That Paglia is a lesbian hasn’t stopped her from invok­ing Betty Friedan’s warning about “the lavender menace.” It’s all part of playing­ — and playing to — the male power game.

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Of course, it is entirely possible to love men — and to relish sex with them — without worshiping male power. Two feminists made that point in a recent issue of Mirabella, but the editors played the pieces with a cover line that bows to the backlash. FEMINAZIS? NOUS? they asked wryly. (Never mind that, if you consider Limbaugh’s definition of a femi­nazi — woman who strongly supports abor­tion rights — the only honest answer would be “Oui!“) At Mirabella, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable, the truth must be packaged so it corresponds to the contours of male power.

Women’s magazines in general have been quick to reflect the anxieties aroused by the backlash. Their tone grows accommodat­ing, even as men’s magazines ram home the new orthodoxies. GQ attempts to solve its lingering butch problem in the latest issue by decrying the fate of “Male Victims of Politi­cal Correctness.” An editorial makes a populist case against “The Tyranny of Prescribed Culture.” (Read countercultural elite.)

Meanwhile on Seventh Avenue, the male gaze falls on the spring line. Women “want glamour again,” Versace announces. Clothes that echo Hollywood in the ’40s — the golden age of female passive aggression­ — are being touted for what the L.A. monthly Buzz calls “the year of dangerous curves.” As for the executive suite, Harper’s Bazaar an­nounces the arrival of the “soft power suit.” Wear it with one of those new corsets and you’re dressing for genetic success.

The threat of rejection by men has always been a powerful deterrent to women’s liberation, as have the epithets applied to men who can’t or won’t dominate their wives: henpecked, pussy whipped, and that telling liberal euphemism, wuss. In the past, political assaults on the autonomy of women have been abetted by an all too compliant media, as in the postwar years, when Rosie the Riveter was coerced into retreating from the workforce and admitting that “father knows best.” We can expect to see a postmodern version of this patridoxy, along with numerous scenarios of sexual reconciliation based on women’s sensitivity (and subordination) to men’s needs.

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BUT AMERICAN CULTURE EMBRACES contradictions, if only to sell them, niche by niche. The image of women according to Phyllis Shlafly (who once warned that feminism is doomed “be­cause it is based on an attempt to re­peal and restructure human nature”) has never really taken hold outside the parameters of Christian rock. And though the Angry White Male is very much a creature of the dream machine, there are other, more complicated messages on the marquee.

Even as shock jocks continue their dri­ve-time harangue, and stand-up comics keen over their loss of dick privileges, young people flock to see films about triumphant dumb guys. Not that these dudes are sensi­tive. But even when they are antisocial, like Beavis and Butt-head or Wayne and Garth, these “failed men” stand outside the loop of butch authority. They bond, but not to hold power; they love, but not to be in charge. Forrest Gump and Ace Ventura have libidos but not cojones, that is, they lack the will to dominate.

Such floating icons express our ambivalence about male power. We are eager to restore it even as we embrace its over­throw. And despite the allure of an ancient icon, many women — and men — see the butch backlash for what it is: a solidarity of fools. Though it is always tempting to be part of a trend, the awkwardness of this re­crudescence is apparent. As the passage from Willie Loman to Jackie Mason suggests, white male rage can no longer be played as tragedy, only as farce.

So how far will the butch backlash go? Can it take us back to the days when, to use the hip vernacular, white men rooled? Not bloody likely. They can demonize people of color, but they cannot make them disappear. They can expel immigrants from hospitals and schools, but they cannot make Ameri­ca a white nation. They can punish queers, but they cannot make them ashamed again. They can confound women with falsities about their true nature, but they cannot drive them from the workplace. (Indeed, they can’t afford to.) Nor can they restore sexual puritanism and the double standard that went with it. The jack of liberation is out of the box. And the engine of equality churns on, leaving male supremacy further and further behind.

The emergence of the Angry White Male is more like a last stand. The glory is gone, but the power won’t be given up without a fight. And precisely because that birthright is what’s at stake, the butch back­lash is very dangerous, indeed. It has the ca­pacity to inflict enormous pain on the alien, the illicit, and the needy before it runs its awful course. So fasten your seat belts, com­rades, we’re in for a bumpy ride. ❖

Research: Rahul Mehta

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein


The Trial of the Chicago 7: Birth of a Conspiracy

Courtroom in Chicago

CHICAGO — Conspiracy. See conspire. To join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

A conspiracy is what they throw at you when mere causality is not enough, or when the absurd becomes too painful to bear. The great explanation.

Conspiracy. Bear that word in mind. You’re going to have it shoved down your throat before the year is out.

Jerry Rubin is in Chicago because of the Conspiracy. He is charged, with Rennard (Rennie) Davis, and Bobby G. Seale, and John R. Froines, and Lee Weiner, and David T. Dellinger, and Thomas Hayden, and Abbot H. (Abbie) Hoffman, with crossing state lines to foment disorder or to otherwise violate the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

“With my indictment,” he wrote in the underground press not long ago, “I join the list of outstanding world figures who have crossed state lines to create disturbance: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the late Marilyn Monroe, rock bands, the President of the United States, and Joe Namath.”

Ever the Yippie. He wears a Jimmy Hoffa for President button over one nipple, a Jerry Rubin for Mayor over the other. On the plane to Chicago, he talks about Cincinnati (where he grew up, and where he plans to return for a visit in late April). He talks about television (both he and Hoffman own color sets and find the viewing experience essential — the watched watches). He expounds on why the assassinations must be viewed as positive events (they helped inch America toward a revolutionary context) and he speculates on the chance that he himself might some day be the object of someone’s insurrectionary ardor. He admits he is afraid of being killed, sometimes. I admit I am afraid to travel with him, sometimes.

In Chicago, we go to meet Bobby Seale’s plane. Three Panther bodyguards greet us in the lounge. The brother who is currently under indictment, charged with stealing 710 ice-cream bars, nods and whispers, “Power to yuh.” I lean forward and offer a bleached handshake.

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The lawyers meet their clients in a banquet hall on the fourth floor of a Y which stands in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton. From the window, you can see the hotel’s worn brick backside, and beyond that, Grant Park. You keep expecting to find a commemorative plaque along the walk, but the city fathers have done all they can to restore that strip of lake front to its former gentility. Freshly planted grass and newly sprouting flower beds face the hotel. The masquerade is reflected in the faces of pedestrians. They want very much to forget that the equestrian statue of General Logan, which guards the park, was ever aswarm with grimy, vulgar conspirators.

The attorneys sit around a long table, fortified with legal pads and iced tea. Even the veteran defenders seem like mavericks on this case. With good reason. To some on the left, the Chicago indictments represent the most brazen attempt since McCarthy to crush active dissent, and anything less than acquittal will signal the start of a massive governmental drive. Even those who are not about to read pogrom into the charges admit that a conviction would stunt the movement. “At the very least,” suggests one attorney, “it would have a chilling effect on those not really committed yet.”

This little scenario hangs over the proceedings as the defense begins to construct its case. It’s an awesome task, and the odds against aquittal seem formidable. Which could explain why the men sitting around that banquet table seemed so sober.

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Chicago’s Federal Building stands like a glass and steel truncheon. A skyscraper with style … polished gray stone lobby … the great seal embossed in black … the jails upstairs and outasight.

Ten marshals and 45 policemen keep the crowd outside the courtroom in order. I wait my turn, then file past the world’s spiffiest crewcut plainclothesman, who searches me for weapons and then lets me pass. The galleries are already filled with people — many black kids and a few unrepentant freaks.

“Take that hat off,” a marshal orders a brother in a purple beret.

The man points to a cop in uniform. “If he take his hat off, I take mine off.”

“Throw him out,” the marshal snarls, and the crowd begins to hoot.

The judge enters, Julius J. Hoffman, a balding, 74-year-old man who settles into his chair, casing out the surroundings. He stares hard at the press section, trying to fathom the presence of long hair. His eyes wash over the defendants, settling momentarily on Abbie Hoffman, who has come to court in a blue shirt with Chicago Police Department insignia affixed to the sleeve. Finally, he turns his attention to the attorneys, and even here, he is displeased to note the presence of facial hair around the earlobes.

“These men taking bread out of the mouths of our Chicago bar?”

William Kunstler, who defended Jerry Rubin at the recent HUAC hearings, stands and answers: “Your honor. It’s not bread. It’s only water.”

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And then the arraignments begin. This is a preliminary hearing, designed to set a date for trial. But there are crucial matters to be decided such as travel restrictions. The U.S. Attorney has requested that the defendants be confined to the district of Southern Illinois, and the defense intends to contest that motion, as an abridgement of free speech. The decision will serve as a fair indication of what the conspirators can expect from Judge Hoffman when their trial begins.

But now it is time to plead, and David Dellinger stands against the lectern. “Obviously not guilty,” he announces. “The guilty party has not yet been indicted.”

“Sir, you were asked to plead guilty or not guilty,” Judge Hoffman says. “There will be no speeches. How do you plead?”

“I said obviously not guilty.”

“Obviously has nothing to do with it,” the judge scowls, and then be instructs Dellinger’s lawyer to help his client out.

“Sir, he has pleaded.”

“No, he has not pleaded. There will be no speeches or embellishments.” Titters from the gallery. “If there is any further laughter or any other disturbance, I will have the courtroom cleared. Now, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” Dellinger mutters.

“Now that’s the way to do it.”

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The procession continues with Abbie Hoffman, who pleads not guilty in the softest voice I have ever heard him use in public. He has never been convicted in court. It’s a record he’s fiercely proud of. Now, charged with defacing the American flag by wearing a starred and striped shirt at HUAC, and charged with possessing guns and narcotics after a raid on an apartment registered in his name, he is not about to risk contempt of court.

Jerry Rubin grips the lectern and pleads with his fist raised. “Let the record show,” the judge intones, “that Mr. Rubin pleaded guilty with a fist raised in the air.”

“He pleaded not guilty, your honor,” Kunstler interrupts. “That was a Freudian slip.”

“I’m sorry, but that raised fist confused me. I didn’t know whether it was directed at me or not.”

“Sir, that is a symbol of defiance against certain things these defendants think is wrong.”

“Certainly they don’t think I’m wrong.”

Kunstler lets a quick sharp smile cross his lips. “I won’t even bother to answer that, sir.”

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It had been a small but energetic lunchtime rally. Four hundred people filled the courtyard of the Federal Building, and when the Conspiracy Eight (as they had already begun to call themselves) emerged from the arraignment, the shouts of “power to the people” managed to drown out the canned organ music which came from hidden speakers and was audible from blocks away.

First to speak was Bobby Seale, who denied that the Panthers were a racist organization, and buoyed his audience with the chant “Black power to black people; white power to white people.” Tom Hayden said the movement was expanding despite the indictments, and he offered as evidence a mutiny at Fort Carson, Colorado. He said 80 soldiers had gone over the wall with M-16s and ammunition, and had set up a camp somewhere in the Rockies. He said the Army knew about it, but was afraid of the publicity a confrontation might produce.

And Abbie called the hearing “the beginning of the spring offensive. We are joyful at this attempt to combine our forces,” he intoned, “and we thank these people for getting us together because these are the signs of a dying system and we shall dance on the graves of the empire.”

It was true. If the federal sweep had drained the movement of its jaunty brashness, it had solidified some unsteady alliances and created, in the eight men under indictment, a potential popular front for radical youth. The government itself had suggested, by its choice of conspirators, that the best defense lay in unity. And in the tradition of generational combat, the strongest response to a parental attack was to turn the oppressor’s weapons back on himself. Or as Jerry Rubin told the rally: “The only way to defend ourselves is offensively.”

So it looks as though the United States of America may actually succeed in creating a conspiracy in its midst.

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It had been a depressing morning and a grueling afternoon. They had to admit that Judge Hoffman had intimidated them. And it was true that the government had coerced the defense into negotiating, against its will, for the lifting of travel restrictions. Despite repeated appeals, the judge bhad refused to consider the defense motion on confinement, but he suggested rather broadly that the two sides work it out together. When the defense refused to engage in collective bargaining, the judge shelved the issue, and sustained a prosecution motion that the bonds for out-of-state defendants be transferred to Illinois. That seemed innocent enough, but when the actual transference was attempted, it became apparent that the law would require confinement anyway, as part of the process of re-establishing bond. With the futility of their resistance finally clear, the defense retired to the U. S. Attorney’s office, where it was agreed that the prosecution would drop its demand for travel restrictions if the defendants would keep the government informed of their whereabouts. This smacked of surrender, but the alternatives were exhausted, so the defense retired to a conference room to lick its wounds, when Tom Hayden and Gerald Lefcourt (an attorney) spotted a man with a transmitter outside the door. When they pursued him, a second man appeared and told him not to say anything. The prosecuting attorney identified the men — who were indeed FBI agents — and insisted that, while they had been relaying information on the defendants’ whereabouts, they carried no recording equipment.

But the incident set the mood for the rest of the day. By the time they left court, the charter members of the Conspiracy had achieved some measure of their own legitimacy. At least they knew when their trial would start (Judge Hoffman had set the date for September 24) and they knew what to expect from the court, the newspapers, and the government. And these were important discoveries, because a knowledge of your environment is the first step toward mastering it.

So they went off to have their picture taken in Grant Park, around the statue of General Logan. And as they got closer to the Hilton, each began to feel again something of the rush which was Chicago last August, and Jerry Rubin waved to the cars along Michigan Avenue, and Tom Hayden, in his new beard and his wrap-around shades with the purple lenses, looked at all the frowning faces on the pedestrians around him, and he hugged Abbie Hoffman and shouted: “It’s us. It’s us.” ❖


Race, Gender & Rudy Giuliani

Rudy’s Record Could Be Better

RUDOLPH GIULIANI has yet to name the time and place, but he cer­tainly has made his in­tentions clear. And late last month, the wan­nabe-candidate signaled the tenor of his campaign by picking a fight with Ed Koch over race relations in New York. Giuliani charged that blacks and Hispanics had been excluded from positions of power in city government. It was as much a pitch to liberals as a punch to the gut, and Koch cried foul. “How many blacks or Hispanics did Rudy Giuliani appoint to leadership positions in the Reagan Justice Department and as U.S. attor­ney?” the mayor shot back.

So how good is Giuliani’s hiring rec­ord? A Voice investigation shows that, during his five-and-a-half year tenure, the U.S. attorney hired proportionally fewer black and Hispanic lawyers than other prosecutors. Figures made public by the U.S. attorney’s office show that, be­tween June 1983, when Giuliani was ap­pointed, and January 1989, when he re­signed, racial minorities represented 10.9 per cent of the attorneys hired. Women represented 34 per cent. Both figures compare unfavorably with hiring by Manhattan district attorney Robert Mor­genthau, Brooklyn D.A. Elizabeth Holtzman, and state attorney general Robert Abrams.

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How does Giuliani account for the dis­parity? He did not return phone calls from the Voice, but several associates of­fered explanations. Unlike the other agencies surveyed, the U.S. attorney’s of­fice rarely hires lawyers fresh out of school. “Our general rule is two years of experience,” says Federico E. Virella Jr., executive assistant U.S. attorney, whose responsibilities include hiring lawyers. “Sometimes, we waive that rule,” he adds, but not because of an applicant’s race or gender. About a quarter of the law students in a summer intern program are nonwhite. “We’ve offered positions to quite a few of those people,” Virella says. “When they graduate, it’s up to them to apply after they get one or two years’ experience.”

Apparently, not many do. Of 600 appli­cants interviewed by Giuliani’s office between 1985 and the present, only 38 were ­nonwhite. Of those, 11 were retained. Why the low numbers? “To be honest, the U.S. attorney’s outreach hasn’t been as widespread as other agencies,” says Londell McMillan, northeast regional di­rector of the Black Law Students Association. “They’ve attended our job fair for the past few years, but that’s certainly not enough. We receive large amounts of mail from various legal institutions, but not from them.” McMillan says black lawyers are less likely than whites to take a job and then leave it in two years to work for the U.S. attorney. “Black law students have a difficult time making their mark. They have to start at a place where they see a future and work dili­gently to secure a permanent position.” The two-year rule at Giuliani’s office, McMillan believes, works as “a deter­rent” to minority applicants.

Still, David Denton, chief of the U.S. attorney’s criminal division, maintains that, of the minority attorneys who do apply, “it’s my impression that we hire proportionally more, and certainly a lot more than private law firms.” That’s true: While blacks make up 5 per cent of the country’s law students, they represent only about 1.4 per cent of all lawyers in the state’s 52 largest firms, according to a report in the New York Law Journal. (Hispanics represent just under 1 per cent.) The U.S. attorney’s office draws its hiring pool mostly from private firms, prompting Giuliani spokesman Dennison Young to remark that “the number of minorities hired during Giuliani’s tenure was two or three times their proportion in the available labor pool. I think when you look at those numbers, you can say that the U.S. attorney’s office was very successful.”

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In addition, Young says it was Giuliani who recommended his successor, Benito Romano — the first Hispanic U.S. attor­ney in the Southern District. (Giuliani lured Romano — who, in 1987, he had ap­pointed to the number three spot — back from private practice.) But Giuliani made that move on the brink of his decision to run for mayor of New York, with its large Hispanic swing vote. The Justice Depart­ment would not say, and Young could not recall, how many minorities became U.S. attorneys while Giuliani was associate at­torney general, a position that included oversight of such appointments.

If the labor pool is so small, why have Morgenthau, Abrams, and Holtzman been able to lure more minority lawyers to their offices? On the record, Giuliani associates say their cases are more com­plex than other agencies’, requiring more experience and exposure to the practice of law. But when they retreat from the record, a blunter explanation emerges. Giuliani’s colleagues regard the U.S. attorney’s office as the city’s premier prose­cutorial agency, and they imply that, if fewer women and minority attorneys qualify for employment there, it must be because Giuliani set higher standards than other prosecutors. “I know all kinds of attorneys, regardless of race or gender, who shy away from applying to this office because of its reputation of demanding excellence,” says one Giuliani associate. “The perception might be that it’s easier to get into one of the city offices, and you know what? It probably is.”

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Morgenthau, Abrams, and Holtzman have formal affirmative action programs run by specially designated officers (in keeping with state policy), but federal law does not require that of U.S. attorneys. Still, Young and Denton mention infor­mal mechanisms, including a group of minority attorneys who attend job fairs and work on outreach efforts. “Before Giuliani, you probably could have count­ed the number of minority attorneys on one hand, and still had a few fingers left over,” says Virella, who is Hispanic. But criminal court judge Patricia Williams, who served in the U.S. attorney’s office from 1977 to 1986, remembers it differ­ently. She says the real increase in wom­en and minorities occurred under Giu­liani’s predecessors, John Martin Jr. and Robert Fiske. Williams, who was the third black assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District, and the first woman in its criminal division, sat on the office’s hiring committee. “I don’t believe Giu­liani made any effort to attract minor­ities, or even to continue the policy of attempting to increase minority applica­tions,” she says. “I did not have the per­ception that that was a priority.”

Williams has the same perception about civil rights cases initiated by Giu­liani: “His priorities were organized crime, corruption cases, and dealing with street level narcotics. I am not aware of any priority laid to civil rights.” Ronald Stroman, an aide to Congressman John Conyers, spent a good deal of time in New York City last year, investigating charges of police brutality. “In preparing for a possible hearing, we began to look at civil rights cases in the city,” Stroman says. “All the local officials and commu­nity groups we spoke to indicated that Giuliani hadn’t done anything.”

The U.S. attorney’s office has a differ­ent view. “Our marching orders by the Department of Justice are to investigate, but once the local authorities are taking action, not to prosecute,” says Harriet Goldberg, chief of the Civil Rights Unit. Goldberg maintains the office did investi­gate both the Michael Stewart and Elea­nor Bumpurs cases, and, after the police were cleared, “determined there was no reason to proceed with federal action.”

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On another front, Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union says Giu­liani’s office turned a deaf ear to com­plaints of police brutality in Tompkins Square. “One would have thought that Mr. Law-and-Order would have had his office do something affirmative in regard to civil rights violations,” Siegel says. “But they’ve done zip.” Goldberg, Giu­liani’s civil rights chief, insists her unit worked behind the scenes to get local authorities to act. “Our investigation is not yet closed,” she adds.

There are a few civil rights cases Giuliani prosecuted aggressively. His office won fair housing case against J. I. Sopher, the city’s largest rental realtor, and successfully pressed a discrimination claim against the Yonkers Police Department. But both these cases were initiated under Giuliani’s predecessor. More re­cently, Giuliani’s office won a conviction against two transit officers who had falsely arrested minority passengers. But Giuliani did not celebrate these victories with the panache with which he publi­cized his coups against crime and corrup­tion. No wonder the perception among many civil rights activists is that their issues took a back seat during Giuliani’s tenure. Civil rights are simply not part of this crimebuster’s image.

But how much could Giuliani have ac­complished against a profoundly conservative Justice Department? The answer is that, when this prosecutor chooses to, he bucks his superiors. For instance, ac­cording to Goldberg, when the Reagan administration instructed U.S. attorneys to refrain from filing class action suits against the Social Security Administra­tion, “Giuliani established a policy where we refused to represent that position.” Why didn’t Giuliani put more steam into issues of concern to minorities? Why didn’t he beef up his civil rights unit? Precisely because the Justice Department was unlikely to require him to take such actions, Giuliani’s record on civil rights and affirmative action is a fair measure of the man.

And what does the Liberal Party think about that record? Party chairman Raymond Harding told the Voice: “No comment.” ■


Angela Davis on Trial in Marin

Angela Davis & Ruchell Magee: Of love and money and the shoot-out at Marin

SAN RAFAEL, California — This is what it means to be well off in California. It has nothing to do with driving the right car or living in the right kind of house or receiving the right invitations and answering them the right way. Being well off in California means sun and space, a tender ideology, and plenty of padding so the crowded people and the criminals — especially the criminals — can’t possibly intrude.

This metaphor of class and space seems most apparent to me whenever I come west from New York, where crowding is endemic and the same fumes strangle all. In Marin, the hills roll and tumble like a calm Van Gogh, and the sun shines in calculated brightness, and I’m left feeling as though I’ve been living with a pair of sooty windows for eyes. Marin is full of good places to get stoned in; easy to feel transformed amid all that sequestered ease. And though these places are accessible by freeway — even by bus — you seldom see a man who isn’t living well on the street. The niggers of Marin are country hippies. They stay, for the most part, in their own wooded enclaves, and they too are busy being well off.

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I’ve often wondered why crowded people don’t come pouring down from the slopes of San Francisco, and out of the baked Chicano flats? Why not a general invasion of the green zone — even for a day? But it seems to be part of the deal that crowded people stay put. The country pro­tects itself from the city, and soon the city becomes an idea, like ecology, to be studied and directed and reformed by remote control. Crowded people are ac­knowledged with bumper stickers and benefits, and its sympathy for the devil as long as they keep their distance. But whenever a crowded man passes through, it makes a little niche. Sometimes it makes a hole, an explosive hole in the green shield. Some of the pad­ding gets ripped away, and then the cops come in. And you can always tell how serious tbe rip is by how long it takes the locals to settle down to being mellow again.

Last August 7, a young man with tawny skin walked into the Marin County Civic Center with three guns inside his coat. He walked into court. He said, “This is it.” He gave the guns away. Three crowded men held them over five country people: the judge, the assistant district at­torney, and three female jurors. They walked into the sunlight. They climbed inside a yellow van. They started the motor up. There was some confusion. The Judge died in his robes. The young man died in his tawny skin. Two con­victs died in their courtroom fatigues. The jurors lived. The young D. A. lived, his spine severed. The third con, shot bad in the stomach, lived to be ac­cused.

And that evening the people of Marin took to their happy trails to find that someone had ripped a nasty hole in the shield. Since then, they have lived with these apprehensions: that the hole is only a beginning, that there are more moths in the closet than camphor can kill, and that. by some genetic quirk, the moths have developed a taste for silk.

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The Civic Center of Marin must be the most mellow courthouse in the world. There is no rhetoric in its function or its design. It sits nestled in the sunny side of a hill a few green miles from San Rafael, a concrete cylinder in pink and blue and gold. To reach its gates you pass through landscaped gardens and clusters of trees in bloom. A smell of sweet manure hangs over the lawn, a smell of tended earth. Inside, there are sub-tropical gardens under plastic arches open to the sky, and the floors are earthen red, and the bathrooms smell faintly of evergreen.

“Beauty is the moving cause of nearly every issue worth the civi­lization we have,” Frank Lloyd Wright told the people of Marin back in 1957, when he first presented his plans for the new Civic Center. Seldom has one man’s sense of beauty been more insidiously applied. In this Hall of Justice, form absolves function; everything possible has been done to detoxify the business of dispensing punishment. Bureaus and offices sit off the main arcade like booths at a bazaar. There is a lending library on the top floor and a cafeteria on the third. Hidden springs and fountains along the terraces. An exhibit of paintings by local artists on the walls. Even those who have the most to fear from this building have contributed (though not by choice) to its success. Every piece of walnut furniture in every court or office has been carved and polished by an inmate at the California pens.

Jacques Ellul tells us one dif­ference between fascism and the technological state is that fascism is visible. If this is so, Wright must be counted among the archi­tects of the current tyranny, in which dominance is intangible, even to those who rule. His Civic Center is a graceful cabana of slopes and arches. Every detail, from door knobs to ceiling fix­tures, is a fully realized curve. Every structural chord has been resolved. There are no flags or emblems within the building, no quotes from Jefferson in raised letters over the door. These symbols of a punitive past have given way to a lushness so profound that it seems impossible to equate the power in its purpose with the beauty in its line. You walk down its corridors filled with a sense of fluid harmony. I am gentle, smiling, curving like these walls, pink and earthy and at ease.

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Of course, the jail is a mite less lush. But even here, all that is possible has been done to spare the rod from those who live out­side. Like the rest of the Civic Center, it is functionally invisible. There are no bars because no cell contains a window; only nubbly concrete walls, painted tan. The rooftop exercise yard (four walls with wire strung across the top) is invisible from the ground. The prison has its own lobby, its own elevators, and its own video sur­veillance system. Each prisoner may be observed on closed circuit television. Each courtroom con­tains a corridor which leads directly to the cell block, so that suspects may be transferred in complete isolation.

(It is the state’s determination to isolate its criminals from its citizens which facilitated the shoot-out itself. Louis P. Moun­tanos, the sheriff of Marin, claims he gave his guards orders not to open fire on the yellow van. Ap­parently, radio signals were crossed and the order never reached those guards who had been assigned to the case from San Quentin, where the three con­victs were serving time. It was those guards, indoctrinated to prevent fugitives from escaping into the community, even when they hold hostages. who opened fire on the van.)

In Marin, each prisoner lives in isolated neutrality. He is denied the privilege of impact, either as an individual or as a class. No one can see him or hear him or feel him unless the state consents. Or unless the prisoner breaks the shield.

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Dig it:

Cat bops into court carrying three guns. One sawed-off, all right on! “This is it,” he says. Defiling the presumption of im­munity (Lenny Bruce used to call that “pissing on the velvet”). Judge and jurors, jive D. A., marched under the intemperate eyes of reporters, tourists, and pigs. Through the parking lot. Into the yellow van. BAM. BAMBAM.

Dig it:


Judge Calm
Before Death

“Christmas put his left arm around me and in his right hand he had a gun pointed at me and two flares, but he said they were dynamite. 

“I believed everything he said and he had the gun pointed at my head and he kind of ducked behind me as we left the court­ room.

“In the truck, the judge, he was sitting in the right rear corner, he said he was sorry us jurors had to go through what we had to go through. And I was thinking, not out loud but to myself, well, if you’re going to torture me, just shoot me now. I don’t want to be tortured.

“Seconds later, the shotgun blast killed Judge Haley.

“And you know what? When I got home, there was a tooth in my hair and some glass in the tooth.

“This was my first experience on a jury, and believe me, my last.” 

 — from the San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1970

Things have changed since the shoot-out. The Marin County Civic Center now looks like a luxury liner doubling as a battleship. Guards and bailiffs are armed; one judge admits to carrying a gun under his robes. A row of bars has been constructed along the corridor which runs beside the courtrooms. Employees and visi­tors are pat-searched and passed through a metal-detector at the gates. Townspeople can no longer return their library books in the slot outside the Hall of Justice. And reporters who wish to cover trials within the building must be especially accredited by the county, a process which involves being photographed and fin­gerprinted, one finger at a time.

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There has been talk among the more intemperate of staging trials involving convicted felons behind prison walls. ”It is time to rise up, people of Marin,” writes Mrs. D. C. Ely, in the Indepen­dent-Journal of San Rafael. “Why can’t we have a small but attrac­tive court area or room inside the walls of all our penal institutions for felons who have stabbed or abused other unfortunates inside the walls of said institutions? The courtroom could be well aired, sunny, and even a few potted plants may help the morale of all present.”

Since the shooting, and the bombing which demolished a courtroom last October, every visitor to the Civic Center has had some inkling of what it means to live under guard. The people who work inside the building seem bewildered by all that has hap­pened to them since August 7. Of course there is security in a metal-detector and an armed guard, but the fact remains: if you need to be protected, you need to feel afraid.

The District Attorney, Bruce Bales, seems uneasy at his desk, surrounded by golf and tennis trophies, a stunning view of the Pacific to his right. He is a small man with a face like an earnest airedale, easy to like and even to believe. As he sat talking to me two weeks ago, I felt as though I had come up against a man whose moral precepts simply could not encompass politics outside the voting booth, or violence outside the arena of crime.

“I don’t understand why people are calling this a political trial,” he told me. “From what I’ve seen and studied, a political trial is when someone is put on trial for holding certain political beliefs, and that’s far from the case here. Nowhere in the indictment is any­one charged with being a Communist.”

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Normally, Bales himself would be the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee, who are charged with conspiring to kidnap and murder Judge Haley. But last December, he withdrew from the case and the state appointed Albert W. Harris, Jr., an assistant attorney general, in his place. Bales was a close friend of the murdered judge — Haley had been his first employer — and remains close to Gary Thomas, his assistant, who was paralyzed during the break and who claims to have shot three of the escapees.

“Judge Haley was a real gentle­man. That’s the irony of it. Of all the judges in the county, he was the most courteous. Conscientious in the extreme. He would extend civil rights to everyone, despite rebukes and … oh, things you would never expect to hear inside a courtroom. He was certainly not a tough judge in the sense of pil­ing on punishments. You’d never hear him swear or anything like that. He was a gentleman. Some judges, hell, you can tell if they’re former prosecutors, ’cause they’re tougher than any cop. Or a legal defender if they’re overly lenient. But sitting on the bench, you couldn’t tell what his back­ground was. He was a gentleman. But I’m biased. I really liked the guy.”

The county would breathe easy with a change of venue, though it cannot legally request one. Re­moving the trial from Marin would save every taxpayer about $20, but more than money is in­volved. Moving the trial would give the county time to regain its battered equilibrium, to get back, to being mellow again. Bales, too, could use a cooling out. Even now that he has removed himself from the case, reporters monitor his opinions, and every black man in the state knows him as the man who went to New York to bring Angela Davis back.

“I could have tried it,” Bales muses, looking out into his view. “I don’t know. I’m glad I got out. For many reasons. For a long time, I still thought I was gonna do it. I couldn’t have done it im­partially, but … I don’t know.”

“Did the shooting change your head around?”

He looks me in the eye for the first and only time.


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”We are not alone. We have allies everywhere. We find our comrades wherever in the world we hear the oppressor’s whip. People all over the world are rising up; the tide of revolution is about sweep the shores of  America. A picture is worth a thousand words but action is  supreme.”

— Huey P. Newton, from his eulogy at the funeral of Jonathan Jackson and William A. Christmas, August 12, 1970

“What of the convicts who died in their attempt to escape, and what of the teenage boy, also killed, who smuggled the guns which made the whole tragic epi­sode possible?

“Surely the Lord God himself challenges us all to say, as Christ did on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.‘ “

   — from an editorial in the Independent Journal, San Rafael, August 12, 1970


First I show my press card to a guard who checks me off on his list. Then I empty my pockets into a plastic container. Then remove my watch, my ring, my shoes, my belt, and anything else which is likely to show up on a metal-de­tector. Once through the machine, I stand in the middle of the corri­dor with my arms and legs spread apart, while a deputy pats my shoulders and pockets and crotch, with a deferential touch not unlike a handshake. I’m reminded of my draft physical, especially the he­morrhoid check, and that pros­pect is so unpleasant that I flash on being a felon, naked against the wall while pigs patrol my in­nards and fishermen hold flowers. The fantasy is exciting (you think I’d bring guns in there?) until I re­alize that I am suspect. The guard searches my hair for weapons. A photographer snaps my picture as I fumble with my belongings, trying to detach my ring from my pen without dropping my shoes. Finally I stagger into court, drag­ging my belt along the carpet.

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The courtroom, like the rest of the building, is sinister in its infor­mality. The judge sits behind a simple wooden desk; you don’t rise when he walks into the room. The defendants, their lawyers, and the prosecutor’s staff are ar­ranged around a semi-circular table which runs the length of the room. The jurors (when there is a jury) sit in nine bucket seats, a short rise above the defense. There is no docket, no banister be­tween the jury and the accused, only a low partition between spec­tators and officers of the court.

This room seems well equipped to handle a seminar or a minor convocation, but surely not a murder trial, not inside this tepid chamber. Think of the courts in New York. Think of the room where the hearing to extradite Angela Davis took place: high ceiling, Flash Gordon chande­liers, the Honorable Thomas Dickens presiding in his robes, like the driver of some decaying hansom cab. What has happened to our sense of justice as a vengeful father? It has evolved into this verdant baggie, in which the law can only be perceived as an organic process, a hyacinth. In the California tradition of being­-there-first, this is truly the court­room of the future: with a decor so neutral and a procedure so in­formal that it’s hard to think of death as anything more than an inconvenience, meted out by common consent as the only rea­sonable alternative to life outside.

I strike up a conversation with a young free-lance reporter. We talk about Laing and Hesse and schizophrenia as a vanguard ex­perience. But our reverie is inter­rupted by the appearance of two armed deputies, one holding a three-foot length of chain, similar to the one I use when walking my dog. The chain is a restorative, and also the first sign that a black man convicted of kidnapping and robbery and attempted rape is about to enter the room. He walks in, already chained at the waist. A thick flat man with shoulders like a stump. He shoots a smile and a half-raised fist at the audience, and sits in a chair which has been bolted to the floor. The guards wind the chain around his waist. Then they fluff his shirt over the chain so that it is invisible to the court. All you see if you look at Ruchell Magee is a man sitting calmly in his bucket seat, hands resting on his lap, his shoulders slightly hunched. That, you might assume, would be the natural pos­ture of a man who has spent his lion years as a con.

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Then Angela Davis walks in, unencumbered, and takes a seat at the other end of the room. A smile and a raised clenched fist. Scattered applause. Reporters start to snip. “I heard she had some work done on those teeth of hers.” And “I wonder where she found the time to go shopping for that dress.” This is envy-patter, but it is delivered with such audible venom that a brief scuffle ensues, with members of the “committed press” demanding respect, or at least silence from the straights. Earl Caldwell, the young black reporter from the Times, smiles into his lapels.

The judge walks in. A slender clear-faced man with shoulders like a steam iron. He smiles. He introduces himself. “I’m Judge Alan Lindsay from Alameda County, over here on assign­ment.” He introduces the prose­cutor. He smiles again. He speaks softly, almost in a whisper, defer­ential as the guard who searched me on the way in. Think of him as the perfect dinner guest: atten­tive, respectable, and more than willing to remain invisible beyond the etiquette of the occasion.

He addresses Ruchell Magee, who is attempting to file another writ demanding the removal of his case into federal court. This document, like all the others Magee has filed in the eight years since his last conviction, is written in a stiff hand on prison stationery, and contains the basis of what Magee regards as his defense: that he is being railroaded by court-appointed lawyers and the “flagrant rac­ism” of the system itself; that the state is attempting to suppress ev­idence which he intends to use in his own behalf; that an attorney, A. Leonard Bjorklund, offered him immunity (if he would testify that Angela Davis provided him with the gun he held during the escape) and threatened him with the death penalty when he refused to cooperate; that he is being ”criminally oppressed, harassed, and tormented in prison.”

The right to conduct your own defense is, in fact, a privilege which may be conveyed upon a defendant at the court’s discre­tion. Magee’s motions, with their alien, forceful style, have not disposed the bench to grant his request. And though it was a writ by Magee which helped Judge John P. McMurray decide to remove himself from the case, Al­bert Harris, the prosecuting at­torney, has said: “The defend­ant’s below average intelligence, subnormal education, inexperi­ence, and indisposition toward courts of law do not adequately equip him to save his life.”

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Judge Lindsay smiles. He ac­cepts Magee’s motion, although the defendant cannot move his arms away from his lap to present it. “We’re having some difficulty with the chains,” says Robert Bell, a court-appointed lawyer for Magee.

“I understand,” the judge replies. “Would you furnish Mr. Magee with all necessary assis­tance?”

I remember the time I spent in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court during the pre-trial hearings of the Chicago Seven. I remember Hoffman’s craning presence on the bench. I remember his syntax, the way he chewed at­torneys’ names like tough meat. And I remember thinking then, this petulant old man will make the perfect foil for these people, and will secretly enjoy their disobedience and his own power to keep their anger in check. Judge Hoffman was prairie jus­tice: he was energetic and arbi­trary, and when he hit, he hurt.

Alan Lindsay is as well-tem­pered as Julius Hoffman was spiteful. Yet, if anything is appar­ent from the way he runs his court, it is how little it matters what tone the judge maintains. The effect of courtesy is nil: as in Chicago, a man is chained to his seat and denied the right to choose his own representation. As in Chicago, circumstantial evi­dence is applied to a political in­tent. Anyone who doubts that this is a political trial should consider the indictment against Angela Davis which mentions, as “overt acts” to be regarded as evidence of criminal intent, specific speeches and activities on behalf of the Soledad Brothers. The defense should have little trouble establishing — if it is permitted to — that Angela Davis was regarded as a criminal before Jon Jackson ever handled any guns.

She sits at the hemispheric table, looking as she always does in court: alert, assured, and pro­vocative. The judge takes note of her behind his smile, and the guards take note behind their guns, and the reporters take note behind their notes. Sex and race hang in the soft air, contradicting the structural intent of the room and turning the gentle little meet­ing hall with its placid judge irre­vocably into a court of law.

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As its major business, the defense files a 27-page statement accusing Judge Lindsay of “biases and prejudices … that impede his ability to conduct a fair trial.” As evidence, the defense cites his prior association with enforcement agencies, his term as an assistant district at­torney in Alameda County, his membership in the Oakland school board during the NAACP’s intensive campaign against that city’s districting policies, and his pressured loyalty to Ronald Reagan, who appointed Judge Lindsay to the Superior Court in 1967. The defense concludes: “The racism inherent in the American judicial political system is clearly manifested in Judge Lindsay’s career, a classic of our time.”

It would be 10 days before Judge Lindsay responded to the charges by denying he was prejudiced and insisting he had done nothing in his career to fur­ther segregation or racism. It would be another two weeks until a hearing before another judge could be convened. At that hearing, the charge of bias was rejected. With an appeal pending on that charge, Judge Lindsay has scheduled a hearing this Wednesday to rule on a petition by Ruchell Magee’s lawyers, who want to withdraw from the case. Still to be argued are pre-trial mo­tions for dismissal of the indict­ment, for bail, and for the right of Angela Davis to act as co-counsel in her own defense (an arrange­ment which is rare in American courtrooms, though not in other judicial systems — the Soviet one, for example).

It is unlikely that Judge Lindsay will react with much enthusiasm to the prospect of a series of hearings which could last longer than some trials, but neither is he likely to rush things un­ceremoniously. Not this judge, who has said, in the tradition of the green shield: “Everybody involved in this matter must not only receive a fair trial, but they must also have the feeling that the trial has been fair.”

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Today, the only day Judge Lindsay has actually encountered Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee he adjourns the morning session after 12 minutes. In the afternoon, he returns to announce that he will take the Davis challenge under consideration. He assures Magee that his hand-written mo­tion will also receive its due. He smiles. Then he turns to face the press.

“Indicating we are going to ad­journ in a few minutes,” he purrs, “everyone will remain with the exception of those necessary to escort Miss Davis and Mr. Magee from the courtroom.” Guards as­sume their places, first undoing Magee and then accompanying Davis out the door. The judge departs, and so do the rest of us — reporters and spectators, artists with sketches of Angela (and none of Magee) which invariably make her look huskier and swarthier than she seems, ministers and defense committee types, a cou­ple in overalls.

Outside in the hall, I watch Howard Moore, chief counsel for the defense, cornered by the press.

“People call Alan Lindsay ‘The Smiling Judge.’ What do you think of that?”

“I wouldn’t want to comment on his teeth.”

Afterward, I ask who calls Lindsay the smiling judge, and a reporter answers: “I do. Me and the lady sitting behind me.”

I take the elevator up to the caf­eteria for a cup of coffee and fruit salad. I sit looking out on the ter­race with its fountains and gardens. I watch a young mother hold her baby up near the edge of the terrace, looking out over the hilltops into the still-green Pacific and the still-blue sky. She’s wearing a poncho and print bells. Her cheeks are the color of the walls around me. So are her breasts, I imagine and her hips. I fancy she is happy, with space enough to move and time to be. I fancy she is free.

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Listen, lady:

“Flowers, guitar music, and a priest speaking words of joy con­trasted today with the quiet of the mourners at the funeral of Judge Harold J. Haley. 

“Reverend John P. Tierney, pastor of St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church, urged hundreds of persons who had jammed inside for a funeral mass to rejoice with Judge Haley ‘on his entrance into eternal life.’

“The bells in the tower of the First Presbyterian Church across the street from Keaton’s Mortu­ary in San Rafael tolled as the hearse pulled slowly away­ — preceded down Fifth Avenue by a line of 25 police cars, their flashing red lights emphasizing the silence of their sirens.   

“A policeman armed with a rifle stood watch atop San Rafael’s City Hall, which was closed to traffic until the funeral procession had passed.

“Judge Haley’s parish church in Peacock Gap was already crowded as the hearse and line of cars made their way out of San Pedro Road, through the hills, and along the bay the Judge has known all his life.”  

— from the Independent-Journal, August 10, 1970


Thinking About the Sixties

The ’60s was was a decade without nostalgia, and thus a decade without irony. It’s only natural, then, that the current wave of nostalgia for the ’60s is suffused with irony — for we are looking back to a time when we most looked toward the future. The writers in this special section on the ’60s disagree about what kind of future that generation foresaw, yet all write on the assumption that rather than reduce our past to artifact we regard it as inspiration.

Richard Goldstein, in his odyssey of sensibility [below], asks if it’s possible to reclaim ecstasy. Michael Thelwell, in recalling the traumas of the movement for black empowerment, explores the divergence between hope and naïvete. Jack Newfield’s memoir of Robert Kennedy portrays a man who knew loss yet never lost vision. In Paul Cowan’s ’60s quiz, what was so vivid then seems faded now — but see if you’re part of the problem or part of the solution. Dalton Narine, a black veteran responding to the “new wave” of Vietnam movies, argues that much of the truth is still to be filmed. And in a special VLS section, several writers examine the spate of books about the ’60s — have we come far enough, in Tom Carson’s words, to be anything but “temporarily definitive”?

Far from a comprehensive survey, then, an embalming of the decade in the casket of history, this section assumes that many chapters of the story remain to be written. The women’s move­ment and gay liberation, for example, are ongoing struggles with their own unique histories; rock and underground films and Off-Broadway and other explosions have their continuing fallout; these subjects and more will be covered in future issues.

For now, though, to paraphrase John Lennon, a section with kaleidoscope eyes.

— The Editors

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Son of the Return of the Repressed: Back to the ’60s

IN THE PROSPEROUS PRECINCTS of America, where the decades move like merchandise, there’s a ’60s revival going on. The Monkees are back, Dobie Gillis is back, the Smothers Brothers are back. Janis ‘n’ Jimi are in heavy rotation on MTV. Peace signs have replaced spiked hair as the accessory of choice in student union wear. Along the Broadway corridor, hotdogging stockbro­kers are limboing toward Big Kahuna. At Chubb’s Pub off the Garden State Park­way, Tuesday is Grateful Dead night. Ev­ery movie at the mall seems set at the moment when we first discovered the connection between sex, struggle, and stereo. And there are so many political memoirs about the ’60s I can’t keep track of what Mark Rudd has to say about Tom Hayden’s view of Todd Gitlin’s neo­-Schachtmanite tendency.

Is this a thaw in the Big Chill, or just more evidence of fashion giving people the illusion of freedom? Something’s hap­pening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

Last week, I slogged over to the Saint to witness the return of the repressed. I hadn’t heard those sacred words, “in-a-­gadda-da-vida, baby,” in years, and the revived Iron Butterfly did not disappoint. As they thunked through the reverb rep­ertoire, I watched the crowd: young, ear­nest, not entirely certain whether to hold up two pacific fingers or the full power fist. Joints were ritualistically passed, and the acolytes began to sway in languid ’60s sweeps. Incense was piped in; a light­show pulsed along the ceiling and walls. I felt like I’d been lured into an electric pagoda. It was a little depressing to think that acid-rock has evolved from lysergical to liturgical music. And that this rite was being held in an upstairs antechamber of the ’70s disco deluxe — as if to say, well, if we can’t have butt-fucking in the balcony anymore, let’s bring back the Summer of Love.

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Of course, the Saint sits on the site of the Fillmore East, much in the manner of a cathedral in a conquered Aztec Zocolo. Back in the dreamtime, when I was this paper’s rock critic, I used to go there three times a week to sit through five-­hour sets that left my eardrums in extre­mis. But it wasn’t the music I flashed on. It was that night in 1968 when the Fill­more East was liberated by Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, an East Village storm-troupe collective. This was a bene­fit to cover legal costs of the Columbia student strike, which had been crushed that spring. And the audience — well, as I wrote back then: “There were speed freak saints doing a jig of liberation in the balcony, and West Side liberalatti crouching in the pews below. There were Black Panthers stalking Village high­risers in the aisles, their every step an indelible mince of cool. There were earth mothers holding moon children in their arms. And there was the pride of the math commune, lavaliered with slogans, lips pursed, brow furrowed, his entire face transformed into a pink fist. Why was he here? He shoved a beret over his eyes. ‘I am to perform tonight,’ he drawled. ‘This is my theater. Outside. In­side. Tonight, I am the star.’ ”

That about sums up what scares us about the ’60s: chaos, zealotry, narcissistic excess. But when I dissect the memo­ry of that night, I discover something far more logical and humane. I see radical mobility — of classes, races, genders. This was a time when the WASP hegemony began to erode, or rather, implode. A Catholic could be president, Jews (even Ostjuden) could be great American writ­ers, blacks could win the Nobel prize, women were entitled to orgasm. In every sense, father did not know best. Sure, sexism was pervasive. (We stood in awe of rock stars who careened around in limos with writhing young girls afixed to the hood.) So was racism. We were far more tethered to the old order than we thought: Jews wrote masterpieces while WASPs went to the moon, blacks fought a war against Asians declared by whites, women got laid but not promoted, Catho­lics held power by being discrete. But there was an opening.

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For me, the ’60s meant a way up from the projects and into the bohemia my parents only read about, and a way into the shiksa soul of America through its ecstatic underbelly, rock ‘n’ roll. I was as crude as the music then, fresh from scrawling “Yossarian lives” on the side­walks of the Bronx, and suddenly I was a rock critic. (“What’s that?” the editor asked, when I first proposed my column.) Inventing a persona was the essential ’60s possibility. Nobody knew where the life of the mind began and ended, or who had the pedigree to call themselves intellectu­als. Just to wear the costume of the ’60s — it’s requisite tie-dye, beads, and jeans — represented a rejection of class and caste. If you couldn’t tell gender or breeding from attire, accent, attitude; if everybody looked and talked and moved in the same, entirely fabricated, pastiche; then we could all just be “kids.” (That word had political connotations by the decade’s end.)

Most of the movers in the new kinetic order were products of the state universi­ty system that had flourished in the post­war prosperity. They were brigands of the baby boom, who could easily imagine Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower/while calypso singers laugh at them/and fishermen hold flow­ers.” All culture was booty to the first generation raised on Keats and Captain Video. All hierarchy — from the military to the proscenium — was suspect. Art was, in John Lennon’s phrase, “anything you can get away with,” and so were sex and politics. There was a perception that we were reconstructing society in every artwork and orgasm and political act. The enshrinement of the id, the recovery of primitive mystery, the expansion of consciousness (as opposed to technics) — ­all that worship of irrationality stemmed from a single perception that identity is not destiny. The magic of the ’60s was precisely its mobility.

This must seem unfathomable in retro­spect, because the world today (and the imagination within it) is a very different place. The prosperity that generated ’60s style now is rigidly confined. It’s poverty that’s expanded in the ’80s, and even the middle class must compete for a smaller and more processed piece of the pie. That means less play, less risk-taking, kids with little economic clout — in short, no more generation gap. Last January, Port Arthur, Texas, unveiled a statue of Janis Joplin; despite her ill repute, the chamber of commerce is trying to parlay her mem­ory into a tourist attraction. Port Arthur badly needs it. The main street Janis felt so fiercely aliented from is now a boarded-up strip, and the unemployment rate in town is four times what it was when she split for San Francisco.

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Face it: Most of what’s changed since the ’60s has gotten worse. Race relations couldn’t be more copacetic in prime time, but out in the streets, blacks and whites face each other across an even grimmer perceptual divide — with less hope of heal­ing the primal American rift. Men and women seem more anxious now, and not just about power and identity. When it comes to sex, the words of my favorite ’60s anthem must be reversed: “Hope I get old before I die.” As the New Sobriety advances, ecstasy is equated with addic­tion. We inhabit an even flatter libidinal landscape than Marcuse described. No wonder the rhetoric of rock is so tight and hostile now. Beastie Boys and Mate­rial Girls clash by night, while the Dead can only wail, “We will get by.”

I’m glad the Grateful Dead are still alive and moving product. But if I were 16 now, I don’t think I’d be among the Dead Heads. Working-class kids today don’t think tie-dye. This is distinctly upper-crust attire, a mark of the antiprep. The ’60s were a creation of red-brick reb­els, but the ’60s revival is being perpetrat­ed by (and for) a much more privileged, less prophetic, minority. The countercul­ture has become a coterie, whose mem­bers don’t trust anyone under 30 thou.

As far as I can tell, there are two dis­tinct reissues of the ’60s on display. One, aimed at the working class, focuses obses­sively on 1968 — dubbed by the media the Incredible Year. To liven up the February sweeps, News4 recently treated its (large­ly) blue-collar audience to night after night of rioting, in that blue tint of pre-minicam TV news. Nineteen sixty-eight, we’re told, was nothing but “social and political misery.” But in the last bite, violence and chaos give way to the se­rene, utterly optimistic image of a space­ship circling the moon, while Wally Schirra reads from Genesis. This is what the ’60s are supposed to mean to working people, if they know what’s good for them: the Republic very nearly hit the skids, saved only by technics, order, and respect for the Almighty.

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Meanwhile at the cineplex, where the dream of upward mobility is still alive, the ’60s seem to be entirely about self. discovery. In Dirty Dancing, the world is ripe with the promise of orgasm, and orgasm is flush with the promise of change. What makes this different from other teen sagas, what gives it a “’60s” edge, is this confluence of sexual awaken­ing and social justice — as if all oppression could be summed up in one girl’s struggle to break free of her dad. In Five Corners, the connection between sex and society is more pessimistically drawn; the vortex of violence ultimately overtakes a young man who sees the civil rights movement as a vehicle to end aggression. He’s left sobbing over the body of his adversary, a psychotic rapist, and the film reminds us of that Essential ’80s Lesson: shit hap­pens.

These films are white fantasies about a time when we really could believe that racism, sexism, class struggle, imperial­ism — all were just gigantic consequences of uncool fathers keeping us from getting down. (There are no soul versions of this fantasy; the black ’60s revival is all about political agitation.) Hollywood seems bent on constructing a myth of innocence about the ’60s, which explains why these films never get beyond the summer of 1964, and why they’re scored to lush pre­-Beatles ballads, rather than to psychedel­ic jams. We can’t get all mushy about the Summer of Love because we still feel threatened by the break with normalcy 1967 represents. It’s a shameful interlude for those who wonder how they could ever have looked and lived like that, and it’s still unfinished business for those who wonder why they can’t go home again. No wonder we’re compelled to revisit the New Frontier, as if, by putting forth this image of puberty as Camelot, we could reassert the enthusiasm we’ve lost. But take the ’60s out of ’60s-style and you’ve got another device to generate what Mar­cuse once called “happy consciousness,” a thin veneer of pleasure covering depths of pain.

Lurking just beneath the myth lies an­other image of the ’60s. This was the child we bore, rocked, had high hopes for, and adored, until it died a slow and pain­ful death. What were we like when the child was alive? How did we feel when we realized it would not survive? I can barely ask these questions without becoming overwhelmed by helplessness and rage. I have never forgiven the ’60s for dying on me, and never forgotten what it might have become.

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I HEARD ODETTA, I read James Bal­dwin, I saw The Defiant Ones. I knew what had to be done. Racism was an­other word for hate, and hate could be reborn as love if people were only free to shake it up behind the big guitars; if the Man didn’t tell us what to think and feel.

That was the year I went to church with Bea; not the clapboard Baptist cot­tage I’d envisioned, but a bare room in some converted movie house. I sat stiffly while she swayed beside me, swooped up and twirled down the aisle, bending her body in ways I’d never seen. I looked up at the Black Jesus, and felt he must be my Jesus, the only Christ who hadn’t killed Jews. The minister pointed to the two of us and said we were the power of love, the future of love. In a small room in the shadow of a Bronx catalpa tree, her skin was velvet and her mouth envel­oped mine.

We tried to integrate my parents’ “beach club” that summer. It was a small, barren spit of land with some handball courts and a swimming pool, but to me, it represented everything hypocritical about the world. We were supposed to report their refusal to admit her, and at first, they did refuse. But Bea stamped her foot and yelled, “You let me in” — so they did. We walked together past the stunned faces of people reading Exodus, and when she dove into the swimming pool, every­one else got out. My parents, who were summoned to the scene, later remarked: “Richard, this is worse than the ham­sters,” referring to the last animal I had tried to smuggle into my room.

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I went to Washington that summer and heard Martin Luther King. I remember flags flying from every porch in black neighborhoods, people cheering our cara­van of buses, and the shuttered silence in white areas as we drove by. We picketed White Castles across the Bronx, because they wouldn’t hire black people. Some greaser carrying a confederate flag waved a beebee gun at me and fired. Every hair on my body stood up. Another demon­strator clutched his face and fell.

That year, I spent my spare time in the Village, making the rounds of hootenan­nies. Guys as skinny as a lamppost, dressed entirely in mud-green corduroy, strummed banjos as if they were weaving on a loom. Girls with seaweed hair and sandals that seemed fossilized accompa­nied them on the autoharp. We all waited, for Bob Dylan, the kid from some town that had never heard of electricity. He’d bounce on his heels, peer over his har­monica, and sing “Ah got a bird that whistles, ah got a bi-ird that sings.” Then he’d get political, and there was one song, about mountains getting washed to the sea, that sent a chill across my body.

One Sunday, the whole family drove up to Pelham Manor to see the small brick houses where, we thought, the rich people lived. “Isn’t that beautiful,” my mother remarked, as we passed some neat, coiffed lawn. The old Dodge sputtered in reply. My father got out to check the hood. It was June. Saltmarsh and rose­buds in the air. Birds you never heard in the projects. The car radio was on. It was Peter, Paul and Mary singing a suburban version of the lyric that had thrilled me so. I’d never expected to hear it on the radio, where the closest thing to politics was “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Suddenly, kids everywhere were listening to this song, and I had a sense of what that might mean. I reared back and howled. My parents looked up, mystified. No ex­planation was given. The answer was blowing in the wind.

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MY EX-ROOMATE CRAIG, heir to a photo processing fortune, said no to that game and moved to San Francisco. He was wearing a caftan and a Jew-fro when he greeted me. Hundreds of similarly ap­pointed kids were hanging out on Haight Street, snuggling puppies (“God spelled backwards!”) and waiting for the Diggers to appear. The Diggers were a kind of hip Red Cross, mau-mauing local merchants into donating day-old vegetables and bread and then giving it out in the parks. This was after the heat closed down the Free Frame of Reference, a Digger crash-pad, and just before “the death of mon­ey,” which George Metesky proclaimed. All the Diggers were named George Me­tesky, after the mad bomber, because, as someone explained to me, “We’re a gen­eration of schizophrenic mutants.”

Not me. I was no mutant, postscarcity anarchist, or mad bomber — just a hip re­porter scrounging for a story. And all of California was, for me, a groaning smor­gasbord. Kids were rioting on the Sunset Strip. (“Out here, you feel like a spade in Mississippi,” Stephen Stills told me. I winced, and wrote it down.) Meanwhile in San Francisco, where things were nominally cooler, they were painting their faces and dropping a drug so new it hadn’t even been criminalized. I wouldn’t go near the stuff. That was for those who could afford the trip; not for working press like me.

I’d gotten married in a disco, to a wom­an in a paper sari, but I wasn’t ready for the Summer of Love. I moved through the eucalyptus groves in my New York rockcrit drag-blue velvet cape over an embroidered Ukranian shirt, with white satin moire bell bottoms and silver go-go boots-feeling like an alien. In my heart, I knew I was still part of the meat-eating moloch. I longed to break. on through to the other side, but every time I tried, all I could see was the ghost of my parents’ poverty.

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Some speedfreak with a corner office offered to turn me on to a “typical San Francisco band.” We drove in his Cor­vette to a house far from the Haight, where people were milling around in vari­ous states of undress. A woman sat in the corner, trying to suckle a baby at her bare breast. Her name was Janis Joplin. She was no scion of the semi-detached, but the kind of girl I might have met in college: desperate, talented, uncool. I asked a requisite question: What is hip? Someone lit up, and the smile on her face said, it’s okay, do it. So I did, and soon the floor was hugging warm. I glanced down at my notes as though they had become hieroglypics (which, it later turned out, they had). When it was time to split, and everyone had boarded a pais­ley hearse, I muttered something like, “We shouldn’t be interviewed. We should be friends.”

Two months later, she appeared at Monterey, and I realized what Janis Jop­lin was destined to become. All the dead were there, though we didn’t know it at the time: Otis Redding, who sniffed, “So this is the love crowd”; Brian Jones in head-to-toe velveteen; and Jimi Hendrix, his guitar literally in flames. That was when Ravi Shankar got a standing ova­tion for warming up, and when I first swallowed a tab (“Nothing’s happening … oh, hello wall”). After the music was over and the flower fuzz whisked us away, I picked up a hitchhiker holding a sign, “will rap,” and drove him home to Sali­nas. At his parents’ tickytack, he offered an imitation-Panther handshake and pointed to a sign in the road — Caution! Speed zone. He snickered, “I wonder if they know?”


THAT WAS WHEN the politics of privilege died. I remember its pass­ing in surreal detail. Two white­-robed Muslims pull up to a light, I ask if I can share their car radio, and we listen together to the aftermath of Martin’s murder. I complain to my shrink about having this fantasy that someone is out to cut my balls off, after watching Bobby’s murder on TV. I’m is­sued a press helmet after Don McNeill, our reporter on the flower-power beat, gets his head cracked open by some cop at a demo. We run his picture on page one, blood dripping down his tender bea­gle face.

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That was the year I jumped out of a window at Columbia to avoid the police, who had smashed down the doors of Fur­nald Hall and were clubbing students all around me. I learned something about the aesthetics of adrenalin then: it changes time. Everything was happening in slow motion. The screams were coming from far away. I opened the window and fell two floors, picked myself up from the pavement, took the IRT to the office, and filed my story. It was only later, when I saw it all on TV — 628 arrested, maybe 90 students hospitalized, three faculty mem­bers hurt — that I felt any pain.

This was the ultimate ’60s trip: immu­nity. “My press card kept me safe,” I told Don. He said something Beatlesque about trust. It was our karmic shtick to argue about the revolution; Don believed it would be a trust revolution. We’d both been assigned to cover the Chicago con­vention — yin and yangstein. But Don had taken to crashing in the office, he didn’t look well, and two weeks before the nomi­nation of Pigasus in Lincoln Park, he dropped some acid, walked into a lake, and drowned. My first dead child.

So I went to Chicago alone. I stood with a thousand heroic guerillas — yip­pies, lefties, tourists, Panthers, Angels, ministers concerned, great writers on as­signment (Esquire had brought in Jean Genet, who couldn’t keep his eyes off the hefty local heat) — all of us grouped around a 12-foot cross, facing a glimmer­ing line of police. Then floodlights mounted on flatbed trucks began to move, and in the orange glare, tear gas guns exploded — putt-pututt. The minis­ters dipped their cross. The gas hit like a wall of pepper. I ran into the streets, where I knew there would be rocks to throw and something to feel besides fear.

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In front of the Hilton, where Hubert Humphrey had a suite, TV lights turned the night fluorescent. As the cameras rolled, cops began to shove us up against the wall. A plate glass window shattered, and people fell into the hotel pharmacy. Now the cops were clubbing in wide cir­cles. I saw their fists move in slow mo­tion. I looked up at a kid whose arms were twisted behind him in the crush, and I saw Picasso’s Guernica in his eyes. I ripped away the remnants of my press card, and wrapped a T-shirt around my face. I had found the other side of fear, which is not heroism but rage. My eyes burned with it, and my hands shook with it. Behind me, a cop fired, and I went into a dream. I was back in 1963; that kid with a bee-bee gun was now the Man. All my body hair stood up. And I vanished. Out of sight. I came to a block away, shriek­ing, “Pigs eat shit.”

I WAS LEFT WITH NOTHING. No pow­er, no money, no heroes. I had to rebuild everything from the ground up: my politics, my career, my sexual identity. The New Order meant being on your own, and that meant I was just as vulnerable to poverty as my parents had been. It was time to confront the task they had set for me, back before all this insurrectionary mishigaas. So I cut my hair and clawed my way into the middle class. Writing about rock was painful; marching to save the whales seemed indulgent. I taught journalism, read a lot (especially about the hidden injuries of class), and retreated to the little corner of the revolution that was profitable enough to have survived — the greening of the young professionals.

Now, here I am in the Winter of Love. The policeman is my friend. Nobody tests my piss. I don’t have to wear a tie to work. Sure, I’m creeping up on the age when kids scare me, and as for radicals, I’d probably be scared of them too, but I don’t have to deal with any. Prime time is my acid. Hip-hop is my riot in the streets. The culture has been good to me, feeding me all this artifactual splendor to soften the shadow between the dream and the reality.

Dredging up the ’60s makes me feel like one of the inmates in Marat/Sade, acting out explosive events that happened a generation ago for the edification of a resurgent aristocracy. The old debate between revolutionary ardor and individual will, between collective and personal vio­lence — between Marat and Sade — is be­ing trotted out before us, with all the players safely behind bars. If they misbe­have or depart from the script, guards appear with truncheons and order is re­stored. “If our performance causes aggra­vation/We hope you’ll swallow down your indignation,” pleads an inmate in revolu­tionary drag. “Please remember that we show/Only those things that happened long ago/Things were very different then/Today, we’re all God-fearing men.”

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But nostalgia is never merely a masque. There’s a reason the ’60s revival is happening now, and why it didn’t hap­pen in 1983 (20th anniversary of the JFK assassination and the March on Washington). At the end of Reagan’s tether, as the economy falters and the yuppie shiv­ers in his power tie, we sense an opening again — but to what? Our fascination with ’60s artifacts means that we are searching for an answer. When we ask what the ’60s were like, we’re also wondering what America was like the last time the left had any clout.

Activists who’ve wandered in the wilderness for nearly a generation sense a moment to address unfinished business — ­the armies of the homeless, the expand­ing culture of poverty, the persistence of racism. But every time they try to clean up the ’60s, and repackage them as the ’80s with a human face, Abbie Hoffman pops up yipping at their heels. Which is precisely what happened at a reminis­cence of the counterculture sponsored by the Museum of Broadcasting last month. No sooner had Todd Gitlin availed him­self of the finely honed opinion that “the ’60s was a failed reformation, and what we’re living through is a failed counterref­ormation,” when Abbie intruded, loose as an old shoe.

“We were young, we were arrogant, we were irreverent, we were foolish,” he groused. “But we were right.” We were also defeated. The closest we came to seizing power was in the Brook­lyn Academy of Music and the groves of academe. A fair number of vanguard fig­ures have achieved tenure; among them, Gitlin, a founder of SDS. Given this pow­er base, it’s no wonder that the radical rationalism of the New Left is emerging on campus as a fit alternative to the current dark night of the liberal soul. But that image of the ’60s is as innocent as Dirty Dancing — and as incomplete. Any student who’s heard “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and seen Woodstock, the video, knows that the ’60s were more than just a campaign to empower the oppressed; they were also an eruption of ecstasy. Those “years of hope,” as Gitlin dubs the decade in his mordant revision­ist history, were also years of desire.

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Which is why, though Gitlin is often right, Abbie has all the good lines. He understands the politics of desire. While Gitlin consoled us at the Museum of Broadcasting debate with a prediction that “the choices people made in those years are going to be made again,” Hoff­man stirred the pot: “I tell the kids if they’re not gonna have sex and drugs, then the rock ‘n’ roll better be awfully good.”

The idea that politics ought to recon­cile reason with rapture has been roiling around the Left since Emma Goldman. In the ’60s, it became my generation’s cry of “bread and roses.” That was when we rediscovered the social dimension of de­sire. Ecstasy was to the counterculture what the Pentecost is to fundamentalists today: an injunction to activism. This wasn’t just some crazy kid running around the Capitol in an American flag shirt, or lit-up literati excorcising the Pentagon. Desire drove us to create com­munities of consciousness, and from that base, we built movements that survived. The assertion that the counterculture left no institutions handily ignores the wom­en’s movement (and its offspring, the gay movement) which proceeded from the ’60s perception that the personal is politi­cal. Given the resistance to this idea, it’s not unreasonable to regard the attempt by liberals to reconstruct the ’60s without its politics of desire as a move to get its progeny to shut up.

The irony is that, by sacrificing joy for justice, liberals have ceded ecstasy to the right, which has put it to truly damnable use. In fleeing from the ’60s, the Demo­crats are writing off its potential to integrate our past with our future, and to inspire the young. When I ask teenagers what they associate with those “years of hope,” it’s not just the agitation they recall: It’s fucking without fear, saying no to the career you were slotted for, living cheap. There are no slogans for all that today, because it seems impossible: Sex is fraught with consequences; a job is a liv­ing before it’s an identity; poverty is nev­er voluntary. We live in fear of proclaim­ing a new politics of desire — and yet, the slightest thaw in the cold hard ground brings us out with our shovels, exhuming the ’60s.

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We may be praying for absolution, straining for profit, living out the quiet desperation that Thoreau considered our collective fate — but there’s another, equally American, possibility. Norman Mailer saw it hovering over John F. Ken­nedy’s shoulder. “This candidate, for all his record, his good, sound, conventional, liberal record, has a patina of that other life, … the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz,” Mailer wrote in 1960. “… And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure, and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unex­pected, had a force which could not be tamed no matter how the nation’s regula­tors … would brick in modern life with hygeine upon sanity, and middle-brow homily over platitude; the myth would not die.”

The ’60s were when that dream life entered politics. It wasn’t always pretty or politically correct. It didn’t make much sense. And it has left us to ponder a painful paradox: The ecstasy that de­stroyed us also created everything we are. ■

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1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s


Insurrection at Columbia: The Groovy Revolution


You could tell something more than springtime was brewing at Columbia by the crowds around the local Chock Full, jumping and gesturing with more than coffee in their veins. You could sense insurrection in the squads of police surrounding the campus like a Navy picket fence. You could see rebellion in the eyes peering from windows where they didn’t belong. And you knew it was revolution for sure, from the trash.

Don’t underestimate the relationship between litter and liberty at Columbia. Until last Thursday, April 23, the university was a clean dorm, where students paid rent, kept the house rules, and took exams. Then the rebels arrived, in an uneasy coalition of hip, black, and leftist militants. They wanted to make Columbia more like home. So they ransacked files, shoved furniture around, plastered walls with paint and placards. They scrawled on blackboards and doodled on desks. They raided the administration’s offices (the psychological equivalent of robbing your mother’s purse) and they claim to have found cigars, sherry, and a dirty book (the psychological equivalent of finding condoms in your father’s wallet).

Of course this is a simplification. There were issues involved in the insurrection which paralyzed Columbia this past week. Like the gymnasium in Morningside Park, or the university’s ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis. But beyond these specifics, the radicals were trying to capture the imagination of their campus by giving vent to some of its unique frustrations. In short, they had raised the crucial question of who was to control Columbia? Four buildings had been “liberated” and occupied by students. The traditional quietism that had been the pride of straight Columbia was giving way to a mood of cautious confrontation. The groovy revolution — one part dogma to four parts joy — had been declared.

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The rebels totaled upward of 900 during peak hours. They were ensconsed behind sofa-barricades. You entered Fayerweather Hall through a ground floor window. Inside, you saw blackboards filled with “strike bulletins,” a kitchen stocked with sandwiches and cauldrons of spaghetti, and a lounge filled with squatters. There was some pot and a little petting in the corridors. But on Friday, the rebellion had the air of a college bar at 2 a.m. In nearby Avery Hall, the top two floors were occupied by architecture students, unaffiliated with SDS, but sympathetic to their demands. They sat at their drawing boards, creating plans for a humanistic city and taping their finished designs across the windows. In Low Library, the strike steering committee and visiting radicals occupied the offices of President Grayson Kirk. On the other side of the campus, the mathematics building was seized late Friday afternoon. The rebels set about festooning walls and making sandwiches. Jimi Hendrix blared from a phonograph. Mao mixed with Montesquieu, “The Wretched of the Earth” mingled with “Valley of the Dolls.”

It was a most eclectic uprising, and a most forensic one as well. The debates on and around the campus were endless. Outside Ferris Booth Hall, two policemen in high boots took on a phalanx of SDS supporters. Near Low Library, a leftist in a lumberjack shirt met a rightist in a London Fog. “You’ve got to keep your people away from here. We don’t want any violence,” said the leftist. “We have been using the utmost restraint,” answered his adversary. “But,” insisted the lumberjack shirt, letting his round glasses slide down his nose, “this gentleman here says he was shoved.”

In its early stages, at least, it was a convivial affair, a spring carnival without a queen. One student, who manned a tree outside Hamilton Hall, had the right idea when he shouted for all to hear: “This is a liberated tree. And I won’t come down until my demands have been met.”

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Ray Brown stood in the lobby of Hamilton Hall, reading a statement to the press. His followers stood around him, all black and angry. It was 7.30 p.m. Sunday, and the press had been escorted across a barricade of tabletops to stand in the lobby while Brown read his group’s demands. By now, there were dozens of committees and coalitions on the campus, and students could choose from five colors of armbands to express their sympathies (red indicated pro-strike militancy, green meant peace with amnesty, pale blue meant an end to demonstrations, white stood for faculty, and black indicated support for force.)

But no faction worried Columbia’s administrator’s more than the blacks. They had become a political entity at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning when 300 white radicals filed dutifully from Hamilton Hall at the request of the blacks. From that moment, the deserted building became Malcolm X University christened by a sign over the main door. In the lobby were two huge posters of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. That was all whited were allowed to see of Hamilton Hall. The blacks insisted on holding out alone, but by joining the demands of the people in Harlem and the kids in Low, they added immeasurable power to the student coalition. This is easier explained by considering the University’s alternatives. To discharge the students from Hamilton meant risking charges of racism, and that meant turning Morningside Park into a rather vulnerable DMZ. To eject only the whites would leave the University with the blame for arbitrarily deciding who was to be clubbed and who spared.

In short, the blacks made the Administration think twice. And Ray Brown knew it. He read his statement to the press, and after it was over, looked down at those of us taking notes and muttered, “Clear the hall.” We left.

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There was a second factor in the stalemate and its protraction. The issue of university control raised by the radicals had stirred some of the more vocal faculty members into action. They arrived in force on Friday night, when it became known that police were preparing to move. When the administration issued a one hour ultimatum to the strikers early Saturday morning, concerned faculty members formed an ad hoc committee and placed themselves between the students and the police. This line was defied only once — at 3 a.m. Saturday by two dozen plainclothesmen. A young French instructor was led away with a bleeding head. The administration backed down, again licked its wounds, and waited. It played for time, and allowed the more militant faculty members to expend their energies on futile negotiations. All weekend, the campus radio station, WKCR, broadcast offers for settlement and their eventual rejection. While the Board of Trustees voted to suspend construction of the gymnasium pending further study, they made it clear that their decision was taken at the Mayor’s request, and that they were not acceding to any of the striker’s demands. Over the weekend, factions multiplied and confusion grew on campus. This too played into the administration’s hands. Vice-president David B. Truman blamed the violence, the inconvenience, and the intransigence on the demonstrators. When a line of conservative students formed around Low Library to prevent food from being brought to the protesters, the administration ordered food for the anti-picket line at the school’s expense.

Finally, it called the first formal faculty meeting in anyone’s memory for Sunday morning. But it made certain that only assistant, associate, and full professors were present. With this qualification, the administration assured itself a resolution that would seem to signify faculty support. Alone and unofficial, the ad hoc committee persisted in its demands, never quite grasping its impotence until late Monday night, when word began to reach the campus that the cops would move.

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At 2.30 Tuesday morning 100 policemen poured on campus. The students were warned of the impending assault when the University cut off telephone lines in all occupied buildings. One by one, the liberated houses voted to respond non-violently.

While plainclothesmen were being transported up Amsterdam Avenue in city buses marked “special,” the uniformed force moved first on Hamilton Hall. The students there marched quietly from their sanctuary after police reached them via the school’s tunnels. There were no visible injuries as they boarded a bus to be led away, and this tranquil surrender spurred rumors that a mutual cooperation pact of sorts had been negotiated between police and black demonstrators.

Things were certainly different in the other buildings. Outside Low Memorial Library, police rushed a crowd of students, clubbing some with blackjacks and pulling others by the hair. “There’s gonna be a lot of bald heads tonight,” one student said.

Uniformed police were soon joined by plainclothesmen, identifiable only by the tiny orange buttons in their lapels. Many were dressed to resemble students. Some carried books, others wore Coptic crosses around their necks. You couldn’t tell, until they started to operate, that they were cops.

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At Mathematics Hall, police broke through the ground floor window and smashed the barricade at the front door. Students who agreed to surrender peacefully were allowed to do so with little interference. They walked between rows of police, through Low Plaza, and into vans that lined College Walk. In the glare of the floodlights which normally light that part of the campus at night, it looked like a bizarre pogrom. Platoons of prisoners appeared, waving their hands in victory signs and singing “We Shall Overcome.” A large crowd of sympathizers were separated from the prisoners by a line of police, but their shouts of “Kirk Must Go” rocked the campus. Police estimated that at least 628 students were jailed, 100 of them women. Officials at nearby Saint Luke’s Hospital reported that 74 students were admitted for treatment. This figure did not include those who were more seriously injured, since these were removed to Knickerbocker Hospital by ambulance. Three faculty members were reportedly hurt.

Many of the injuries occurred among those students who refused to leave the buildings. Police entered Fayerweather and Mathematics Halls and dragged limp students down the stairs. The sound of thumping bodies was plainly audible at times (demonstrators had waxed the floors to hamper police). Many emerged in masks of vaseline applied to ward off the effects of Mace. Police made no attempt to gas the demonstrators. But some of those who had barricaded themselves in classrooms reported that teams of police freely pummeled them. A line heard by more than one protester, as the police moved to dislodge groups linking arms, was “Up against the wall, motherfuckers.”

There was no example of incredible police brutality visible at Columbia on Tuesday morning. It was all credible brutality. Plainclothesmen occasionally kicked limp demonstrators, often with quick jabs in the stomach. I saw students pulled away by the hair, scraped against broken glass, and when they proved difficult to carry, beaten repeatedly. Outside Mathematics Hall, a male student in a leather jacket was thrown to the ground when he refused to walk and beaten by a half dozen officers while plainclothesmen kept reporters at a distance. When he was finally led away, his jacket and shirt had been ripped from his back.

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The lounge at Philosophy Hall, which had been used by the ad hoc faculty committee as an informal senate, became a field hospital. Badly injured students lay on beds and sofas while stunned faculty members passed coffee, took statements, and supplied bandages. The most violent incidents had occurred nearby, in Fayerweather Hall, where many students who refused to leave were dragged away bleeding from the face and scalp. Medical aides who had moved the injured to a nearby lawn trailed the police searching for bleeding heads. “Don’t take him, he’s bleeding,” you heard them shout. Or: “Pick her up, stop dragging her.”

The cries of the injured echoed off the surrounding buildings and the small quad looked like a battlefield. Those who were awaiting arrest formed an impromptu line. Facing the police, they sang a new verse to an old song:

“Harlem shall awake,
Harlem shall awake,
Harlem shall awake someday … ”

Though two of Mayor Lindsay’s top aides, Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer, had been present throughout the night, neither was seen to make any restraining move toward the police. Commissioner Leary congratulated his men. And University President Grayson Kirk regretted that even such minimal violence was necessary.

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By dawn, the rebellion had ended. Police cleared the campus of remaining protesters by charging, nightsticks swinging, into a large crowd which had gathered around the sundial. Now, the cops stood in a vast line across Low Library Plaza. Their boots and helmets gleamed in the floodlights. Later in the morning, a reporter from WKCR would encounter some of these arresting officers at the Tombs, where the prisoners were being held. He would hear them singing “We Shall Overcome,” and shouting, “victory.”

At present, it is difficult to measure the immediate effects Tuesday’s police intervention will have on the university. Most students are too stunned to consider the future. On Tuesday morning they stood in small knots along Broadway, stepping around the horse manure and watching the remaining policemen leave. Their campus lay scarred and littered. Walks were inundated with newspapers, beer cans, broken glass, blankets, and even discarded shoes. Flower-beds had been trampled and hedges mowed down in some places. Windows were broken in at least three buildings and whole classrooms had been demolished.

It would take a while to make Columbia beautiful again. That, most students agreed. And some insisted that it would take much longer before the university would seem a plausible place to teach or study in again. The revolution had begun and ended in trash, and that litter would persist to haunt Columbia, and especially its president, Grayson Kirk.

1968 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein about the student revolt at Columbia University

1968 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein about the student revolt at Columbia University


Chicago 1968: Theatre of Fear

Theatre of Fear: On on the Aisle
September 5, 1968

CHICAGO — I brought the Fear out with me from New York, a white plastic helmet and a bottle of Vaseline. The same fear that built the fences, and erected the barricades, and brought all those soldiers in from Texas. Touch-fear: the kind that burns when you tap its roots. And this fear was worse than paranoia, because it involved no element of persecution, but only a gnawing awareness of inner dread.

I invoke these anxiety-obsessions now, under the pretext of relevance. If you want to experience the ecstasy of street-turmoil, you must first understand the reality of fear. Because no one could have come to Chicago without first fighting in his head the battle he would later fight in the streets.

I made lists. Weeks before my first whiff of tear gas, I spent a night dissecting my motives and expectations, in two neat columns. On one side, I wrote: adventure, good copy, and histori­cal imperative. On the other: danger, loneliness, and cost. The word commitment didn’t appear on either side. Not since college, the New Frontier, and the White Castle riot in the Bronx, had I been able to associate that word with politics. I simply re-directed my radicalism toward aesthetics. At Columbia, last spring, I realized that I had become a white liberal. I never saw the stirring of revolution on College Walk, and while I agreed with their goals, I felt distinct from the student  radicals, and enraged by their style. My cynic’s streak flowed river-deep when I witnessed the martyrdom of Mimi (one of two girls who served short terms in the Women’s House of Detention and inspired the chant, “Free Huey … Free Mimi.”) If these people couldn’t take punishment, did they really deserve to be free?

Not long after that, I had lunch with a Broadway producer who wanted me to help write the script for a protest-musical. Eyes aglow, he related his open­ing scene. Thirty kids march on­stage, carrying signs. A voice screams: Up Against the Wall, and the ensemble breaks into a chorus of “We Protest,” to the tune of the 1812 Overture. There has been an undeclared alliance in my mind between that scenario and the tweedy revolution­aries at Columbia. Before Chicago, I couldn’t perceive the difference between the guerilla theatre on Morningside Heights and the realpolitik of Broadway.

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“You afraid?” I asked a kid from California. He zipped his army jacket up to his neck, and filled his palm with a wad of Vaseline. “I dunno,” he answered. “My toes feel cold, but my ears are burning.”

We were standing together in Lincoln Park, not long after curfew on Tuesday night, watching an unbroken line of police. Around us were 1000 insurgents: hippies, Marxists, tourists, reporters, Panthers, Angels, and a phalanx of concerned ministers, gathered around a 12-foot cross. Occasionally a cluster of kids would break away from the rally to watch the formation in the distance. They spoke quietly, rubbing cream on their faces, and knotting dampened undershirts around their mouths. Not all their accoutrements were defensive. I saw saps and smoke bombs, steel-tipped boots and fistfuls of tacks. My friend pulled out a small canister from his pocket. “Liquid pepper,” he explained.

Watching these kids gather sticks and stones, I realized how far we have come from that mythical summer when everyone dropped acid, sat under a tree, and communed. If there were any flower children left in America, they had heeded the underground press, and stayed home. Those who came fully anticipated confrontation. There were few virgins to violence in the crowd tonight. Most had seen — if not shed — blood, and that baptism had given them a determination of sorts. The spirit of Lincoln Park was to make revolution the way you make love — ambivilently, perhaps but for real.

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The cops advanced at 12:40 a.m., behind two massive floodlight-trucks. They also had the fear; you could see it in their eyes (wide and wet) and their mouths. All week, you watched them cruise the city — never alone and never unarmed. At night, you heard their sirens in the streets, and all day, their helicopters in the sky. On duty, the average Chicago cop was a walking arsenal — with a shot gun in one hand, a riot baton (long and heavy with steel tips) in the other, and an assortment of pistols, nightsticks, and ominous canisters in his belt. At first, all that equipment seemed flattering. But then you saw under the helmets, and the phallic weaponry, and you felt the fear again. Immigrant to stranger, cop to civilian, old man to kid. The fear that brought the people of Chicago out into the streets during Martin Luther King’s open housing march, now reflected in the fists of these cops. The fear that made the people of Gage Park spit at priests, and throw stones at nuns, now authorized to kill. And you realized that the cops weren’t putting on that display for you; no — a cop’s gun is his security blanket, just as Vaseline was yours.

Then the lights shone brilliant orange and the tear gas guns exploded putt-putt-puttutt, and the ministers dipped their cross into a halo of smothering fog. The gas hit like a great wall of pepper and you ran coughing into the streets, where you knew there would be rocks to throw and windows to smash and something to feel besides fear.

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The soldiers stood on all the bridges, sealing off Grant Park from the city streets. The kids couldn’t be gassed anymore, be­cause the wind was blowing fumes across the guarded bridges and into every open pore of the Conrad Hilton, and the hotel was filled with good people who had tears in their eyes. So the soldiers just stood with their empty guns poised against the tide. And they were frowning at the kids who shouted “put down your guns; join us.” A few hid flowers in their uniforms, and some smiled, but mostly, they stood posing for their own death masks.

“Wouldn’t you rather hold a girl than a gun?” asked one kid with his arm around two willing chicks.

“You don’t understand,” the soldier stammered, moving his tongue across his lips. “It’s or­ders. We have to be here.”

That was Wednesday — nomination day — and the city was braced for escalation. At the afternoon rally, an American flag was hauled down, and the police responded by wading into the center of the crowd, with clubs flying. The kids built barricades of vacated benches, pelted the police with branches, and tossed plastic bags of cow’s blood over their  heads.

I stood in the shade applying Vaseline. I had my route mapped out in advance; across the northmost bridge and into the free Loop. With every semblance of press identification I owned pinned to my shirt, I set out across the mall. But most of the crowd had the same idea. Across on Michigan Avenue, I could hear the shouts of demonstrators who were re-grouping at the Hilton. I stopped to wet my under­shirt in a fountain and ran down the street. My hands were shaking with anticipation and I could no longer close my eyes without seeing helmets and hearing chants. So my body was commit­ted, but my head remained aloof.

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It brought me back to the Columbia uprising, because I learned something then about why I am a journalist, and it has stayed with me since. Near Fayerwether Hall, I came face to face with a bloodied liberator. He looked up at the press card on my jacket, and muttered: “That keeps you safe, huh?”

He was right. I demand that distance; it’s part of my psyche. And I wasn’t yet prepared to smash the tape recorder in my brain, which retains impressions without actually experiencing them. For me, the Chicago fear amounted to going up against the wall without that little card which reads, “Police Please Pass.”

But now, I found myself swept up in the crowd around the Hilton. Rolls of toilet paper fell from the windows above. Flood­lights flashed, cameras snapped, and somewhere, a glass pane shattered. That was enough. The cops turned on the crowd, and shoved us against the hotel’s wall. People shrieked with one breath, and apologized for step­ping on toes with the other. Then the cops rushed in two directions, and I fell on someone’s back. A window broke behind me, and I saw people falling into the hotel pharmacy. Ahead, the police were clubbing in wide circles. Up close, and frozen into place, I saw their fists move in slow mo­tion. I thought, no invective can capture this moment, because I could hear the stockyard around me then — the sound of slaugh­ter, and I looked up at a kid whose arms were twisted behind in the crush, and I felt the Guer­nica in his eyes; the same ex­pression on the big horse was on his lips. And I knew where it had come from and why.

I slipped out and walked across the street, shaking. I sat for 10 minutes with a girl who had been unconscious. We watched the medical crews covering their faces. And when the tear gas came, we ran away.

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On Michigan Avenue, I sat in the street, and ripped away the remnants of my press cards. I whooped the way they did in “The Battle of Algiers,” and chanted the way they did in “La Chinoise,” and I raised my hands in a television “V” at the flag they had lowered to half mast. When the sirens came closer, I ran by rote up the steps of the Art Institute. Behind a pil­lar, I started to cry. You blew your cool, I thought, but it was like watching someone else’s headache. I had found the other side of fear, which is not hero­ism, but rage. My eyes burned with it, and my hands shook with it. Behind me, a cop fired over my head, and I ran forward shouting “Pigs eat shit,” not so he could hear, but so I could. In the street, I saw a straight kid in a crew-neck sweater heave a rock through the window of a police car. “The first one’s hard,” he said, as we ran toward State Street, “but after that, it’s easy.”

Which is where it’s at, with America, and me.


Keep Dope Alive: Why Pot Is Hot

Reefer Redux: Why Pot Is Hot
June 22, 1993

Did you know we’re at the tail end of a drug epidemic? So says Dr. David Musto, America’s leading historian of what has come to be called “substance abuse.” (What a marvelous euphemism, suggesting that anything of substance can be dangerous.) From his perch at Yale, Musto has identi­fied two drug epidemics in American histo­ry: one at the turn of the century, when opiates and cocaine were devoured by mil­lions until government regulators stepped in; and a second in the ’60s, when, as we all know, the culture of narcissism, the death of God, and the breakdown of the family led to reefer madness, blotter burnout, and a lot of rolling around in mud. In both eras, Musto reports, dangerous drugs carried a mystique as harmless catalysts of pleasure and intensity. In both cases, an adept com­bination of enforcement and education res­cued America from its illusions. Never mind the inebriating properties of alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee, powerful drugs that are built into our economy. Never mind the signs that a new drug culture is rising from the ashes of Just Say No.

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The New York Times tells us that mari­juana and its technodelic cousin Ecstasy are now an Official Trend. Billboard docu­ments the chart-busting properties of bands that advocate pot smoking. There’s a new suburban scene, and its signature is the dance-and-trance rite known as the rave. Here, the sound is fast and heady — all the better to blitz out on X — but for a more reflective buzz, there’s a new pot music in the air. Dr. Dre sees the cannabis leaf as a symbol of resistance to vast ganja-phobic conspiracy; for the Lemonheads, it conjures up wry, plaintive ballads that recall the brief moment between folk- and acid rock.

This is a sensibility without a lot of icon­ic baggage, a movement that wants to rein­vent the psychedelic experience. And its insignia is the bright green cannabis leaf several bands — and countless teens — are daring to display. In its wacky, saw-toothed splendor, this is the perfect emblem of the New Pothead: hopeful, wary, and fragile, like a shoot.

Professor Musto hasn’t offered any comment on “My Drug Buddy” by the Lemonheads. But you’ll be glad to know that the end of a drug epidemic takes many years: according to his calculation, the ’60s plague won’t fully abate until early in the next century. By then, of course, we may be talking about virtual possession with intent to sell. But my hunch is that no technology will replace the appeal of getting stoned on a sunny day, and that every generation will find its way to chemicals that produce a roller-coaster ride of consciousness. Professorial paradigms come and go, but it’s in the schema of being human to get high.

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Perhaps the problem is in calling something so profoundly cultural an epidemic. We use drugs — and choose which drugs we do — for a wide variety of reasons, and the patterns our choices make are far more difficult to read than the progress of a germ. Reflecting this distinction, society deals very differently with disease and dependence. Consider what has happened to sex in the age of AIDS: the mad dash for “safe” behaviors, the Hollywood fantasy shift from free love to fatal attraction, the sublimation of promiscuity into politics. Now consider how drug chic has ebbed and flowed with the political tide, suggesting that our need to get high is somehow related to our enthusiasm for social change. Look closer and you’ll see a correspondence between the chic drug and the prevailing ideology.

The Reagan years, for all their pious remonstrances to the contrary, prompted massive cocaine use by yuppies who owed their status to the precariousness of a boom economy. Coke is the perfect accompaniment to culture that promotes quick killings and easy military victories — sadism and spectacle in the name of freedom and tradition. One look at William Bennett’s barbed-wire grimace and anyone would be driven to toot. By this measure, it was almost inevitable that the election of Bill Clinton would fuel interest in a very different class of drugs. Driven by a need to touch and hug; mellow, almost to the point of bemusement; saddled with the image of a head, even as he insists he’s never inhaled — this president is sending out stoner vibes. And the nation that elected Clinton did so in part because it wanted those vibes. After 12 years of coke-and-junk-bond consciousness, we’re ready for a return to con­templation and connection.

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The young, especially, have been shaped by an era that taught them all about competing; they’ve learned to clique up like dolphins and swim in perfectly synchronized strokes. But they’ve been denied the tribal sensation. They’re all connected by a hookah of technology, but that’s a very different kind of bond. And so is the solidarity of race, gender, sexuality. Useful as these categories have been in hard times, they’ve kept a generation from discovering its commonality. Marijuana can facilitate this experience in a way that alcohol and cocaine cannot. Booze turns a tribe into a mob; coke, into a hive of networking killer bees. But pot uncorks the genie of communion.

There’s a ’60s sci-fi word for this intense, undifferentiated empathy: grokking. If I’m right, the abrupt use in the number of young people experimenting with marijuana (and willing to tell a pollster about it) is a sign of the need to grok. So is the effulgence of pot leaves on shirts, shorts, and caps. Quite a shift from last year’s official fashion-rebel logo, the X, with its aura of intifada and its salute to race pride. The X is a sign of self-definition, but the pot leaf stands for a more anarchic consciousness. It points away from dogma and toward impulse, away from mobilization and toward beatitude. And it suggests a more essential basis for communion than the circumstances of caste. By rescuing the ’60s ideal that getting high is a tribal rite from the ’80s conviction that the purpose of drugs is to help you achieve, the pot leaf signifies the difference between networking and grokking: it tells the denizens of Generation X that the sum of all those dead-end kids in empty malls is not slackerhood but community.

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I suppose every generation must invent its own name for a drug that is as timeless, ubiquitous, and malleable as cannabis. So welcome to the wonderful world of hemp, as marijuana is currently called by discern­ing stoners. Hemp is a word for cannabis from the days before dealers realized that the plant could be smoked. In temperate climates, it was widely grown and used for rope, paper, fabric, analgesics, and even birdseed. The word hemp has returned as a way to place marijuana in a naturalist context, evoking a world of products and plea­sures that could be derived from its unfet­tered cultivation. This strikes me as a sounder utopian vision than the idea that soldiers wouldn’t kill if they got stoned. We were thoroughly disabused of that notion in Vietnam.

In the ’60s, we called it grass, herb, or weed to signify the fact that we were smok­ing a hearty, ordinary plant. We spoke of boo to connote the funhouse scariness of getting high; dope when we wanted to send up the idea that marijuana was a dangerous drug; or reefer when we wanted to tap its jazz-age roots. Back in the ’30s, a joint was also called a mezz (for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, the jazz musician, who once fan­cied lending his name to a legal brand of marijuana cigarette). Still further back, at the turn of the century, marijuana entered American culture as an emblem of negritude, replete with exotic Creole names like mootah. Once this racialist mystique was in place, the drug attained an overlay of evil: Moocher, viper, even fiend all once referred to pot smokers. My generation preferred the sobriquet head, with its image of the user as a devotee, rather than an addict: no one ever spoke of having a pot habit, since that concept was reserved for narcotics, a class of drugs we abhorred almost as much as alcohol.

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When the counterculture collapsed, so did the tribal rationale for getting high. It didn’t take long for these finely honed dis­tinctions between good and bad drugs to break down. Many of us returned to the bottle — which was readily available and not so demanding on the ego — and some of us took to the needle. The result has been a proliferation of 12-step programs, spurred, I suspect, not just by the growing problem of dependence but by the need for some institution to replace the commune and the tribe. Others simply absorbed the psyche­delic experience into their identities, with no particular desire to keep on getting high. But for millions more, smoking a joint be­came part of a routine; something done in private, with a few close friends, or in the intimate setting of sex. The more successful pot smokers became, the less likely they were to admit it, even to a pollster; and so, I’m convinced, millions of casual users eluded the statistics, and much of what passed for success in the war on drugs was simply the silence of those who can func­tion on drugs.

I belong to this latter category. My rela­tionship with marijuana is a long-term, sta­ble one, and more or less monogamous — ­which is to say, I’m not drawn to other drugs, rarely drink, and don’t smoke tobac­co. My habit (which I guess it is) seems to regulate itself; a few tokes in the evening and the day’s tensions dissolve. I suppose I could get the same effect from a cocktail or two, but without those flights of intellectual intensity, those moments of joyous immer­sion in music, moonlight, and dinner. Not to mention that feeling of being susceptible to the touch of a significant other. As a bonus of sorts, I usually sleep quite sound­ly, making sedatives unnecessary. And if I smoke too much or too often, the groggi­ness and irritability are unpleasant enough to make me regret it. Am I drug dependent? I guess so, but as habits go, grass is a pet jones. I walk it; it doesn’t walk me.

I make this confession because our drug policy won’t change until everyone who uses marijuana comes out and says so. Only when accountants and schoolteachers, base­ball players and astronauts, report exactly what they feel when stoned and how they function when they aren’t will the killer­-weed mystique be shattered. And only when ordinary citizens march on legisla­tures and precinct houses will the spurious basis for classifying marijuana as a danger­ous drug and filling the prisons with small-time dealers, be apparent.

The government’s case against pot is so absurd when placed against most word-of-­mouth accounts that it’s tempting to extol the drug’s virtues, if only to strike a blow against unjust authority. The result has been a tradition of lyrical odes to cannabis, from Baudelaire’s lushly documented hallu­cinations (probably induced by hashish) to Mezzrow’s contention that reefer made him able to “hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head” to Allen Ginsberg’s simple claim that marijuana is a “useful” tool for aesthetic perception. That it surely is. But if I’ve demanded that every head come out, then it’s also incumbent on me to own up to my disappointments with the drug. The problem for me isn’t reefer mad­ness, but reefer mundanity.

I get high to suspend the rules of consciousness imposed by my environment and my housebroken ego. But in getting high, I also lower my capacity for exhilaration at other times. Sex, music, even ordinary relaxation seems vaguely dull without the company of cannabis. Over time, my feelings cor­respond to the rhythm of getting stoned. Life itself becomes a space to be occupied by activities that prevent or distract me from that catalytic experience. As for the ultimate trip, dreaming: when I go to bed stoned, I don’t dream, at least as far as I can remem­ber. This loss of intrapsychic connection produces a subtle numbness, sort of like living without weather. It may be a small price to pay for those perceptual goodies Ginsberg speaks about, but it belies the reason I get stoned, which is to put me in closer touch with my subconscious.

As for grokking: did you ever try to walk down a New York street in a state of red-­eyed empathy? Most of your energy is spent trying to act like you aren’t stoned. Times have changed since euphoria felt safe.

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Let me tell you about the first time I got high. It was 1966, and I was a young reporter convinced the music coming out of San Francisco would usher in the revolution. One day, a company freak — which is what we called hippies who worked for record labels — urged me to meet two unknown local bands he was about to sign. We drove to a house in a tract development on the edge of the city. There, sitting on the floor of an unfurnished living room, were Cree­dence Clearwater Revival and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I remember being introduced to Janis Joplin, who was holding a baby to her bare breast. A huge spliff was passed around. I had learned by then that toking up was a test of credibility, especially for a journalist, so I always took a few puffs, though it never did much for me. But this time the setting, and maybe the shit, were just right. My body felt suf­fused with warmth; the eyes of the people around me glistened and their faces seemed full of feeling. We sat there talking for per­haps an hour, and then it was time to go. They piled into a Day-Glo van, which coasted down an impossibly steep hill, long hair flying in every direction. “We shouldn’t be doing interviews,” I shouted after them. “We should be friends.”

I was thinking about that the other day when I lit up preparatory to attending a Ravi Shankar concert at Carnegie Hall. I’d skulked through Central Park in search of a refuge for this by no means decriminalized act, and ended up in a deserted close, where I could easily have been mugged. Then, when the drug kicked in, I tried to navigate the dinner-hour madness in the streets, cir­cumventing heavy traffic and voluble cra­zies. Seized by the munchies, I searched desperately for a greengrocer in that tour­isty milieu, and finally succeeded in buying an overpriced brownie, which I devoured on the run. Now I was ready to battle the box office and the crowds in a tiny lobby, maneuvering with great effort into my seat. Intensely aware of how cramped it was, and suddenly hungry again, I sat there in a stew of misfiring neurons as the Master ap­peared. By the time he settled into place, tuned up, made an explanatory speech, and began to play, the drug was taking me on a long, slow slide. I knew this feeling well enough to be patient about it, but I also knew it would prevent me from following a complex 40-minute raga, even as it made the first few cycles of notes sound like a rush of summer wind coming up from be­hind my neck.

It’s my own fault, I suppose, for getting caught in a time warp. Turning on at a Ravi Shankar concert has become archaic — and for that matter, getting stoned anywhere is an act of psychic sedition. It requires that you work in a profession where your urine is your own, and that you keep a very low profile. (I always douse my stash in cologne when traveling, on the theory that drug-­sniffing dogs will mistake it for a copy of Vanity Fair.) Over the years, I’ve located nooks and crannies for dope smoking in the vicinity of every major concert hall. But there’s no doubt that this stealth operation affects the quality of my high.

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Which is why the new satori-seekers have found it necessary to reinvent the scene. Whether it’s called a Be-In or a rave, the only way to create a safe space for getting stoned in public is to gather together in numbers so great that the law must be sus­pended. And there’s an ancillary benefit to making pot part of a social ritual. You’re less likely to let the drug run your life if you go someplace to use it, and more likely to have a mellow time if you don’t get high alone.

This is the rationale for the Dutch ap­proach to drug control. In Amsterdam, you can saunter down to a café and toke up in the company of friends. But back in the U.S.A. the strategy is to force users into a solipsistic relationship with their drugs. The aim is to assure that the worst-case scenario comes to pass: that pot leads to paralysis rather than growth, and that managing its effects is as difficult as possible. The actual result of this strategy is to preserve the marijuana mystique, and to assure that every generation will see this pesky weed as an emblem of rebellion.

To break this cycle, tell the truth: intoxication transcends the ordinary only when it isn’t ordinary. With marijuana — as with alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee — the less you use, the higher you get. Taken rarely, it can expand, relax, and stimulate. But taken regularly, even in small doses, cannabis loses its capacity to produce wonder, and the very act of assimilating its intensity ends up depressing the desired effect. The key to preserving what North Africans call al kief — “the blessed state” — is preventing the drug from becoming mundane. So, by all means, keep dope alive — but overuse it and you’ll lose it.


Report from Swinging London: ‘Revolver’ Revolution

Pop Eye: On ‘Revolver’
August 25, 1966

SWINGING LONDON, August 17 — The reception which the Beatles have received so far on their American tour has been less than ecstatic. But it is far from the murderous venom which most Londoners feared would greet their native sons.

It is part of the myth of America-the-free to view even New York as an extension of the uncivilized frontier. There is a distinct impression that Americans are savages. The English main­tain a healthy skepticism about the ability of an average Amer­ican to eat dinner in a civilized manner — there is the fear that buffalo knives will accompany the meat course.

Mini-skirts and mod-men look with mixed envy and scorn at the hordes of madras crewcut gleamers who have made the trek across the sea; and this year the mob is bigger than ever. There is a supreme Eng­lish tolerance for bad weather, cold tea, and young Americans in T-shirts that say “Swinging London — Carnaby Street” on the back. But beneath the bemused affection lies a deep suspicion that, as a cowboy, you are liable to come out shooting when the local pubkeeper says: “Time, gentlemen, please.”

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Recent events in Austin, Chi­cago, Newark, New Haven, or wherever the most recent mass­-murder has taken place, com­pound this impression. The many-headed beast has taken murder statistics to heart. And the news from Vietnam has made matters much, much worse.

So, with the departure of the Beatles for America, a genuine anxiety gripped many teenagers here. A disc jockey on Radio Caroline asked his audience to pray for the group’s safety. Barbara Ruben, groupie-extraordinaire, planned a full-scale march of teen fans past the American embassy in protest. A New Yorker herself, she swore that: “If anything happens to them, man, it’s World War III.”

From the start, the tour has been front page in England. Of course, no one knows and everyone fears what will happen when the Beatles go South (overblown photos of the Ku Klux Klan burn­ing Beatle paraphernalia have fanned local fires) but the odds are that they will make it through and back to the open, custardy fingers of their fans back home.

As though displaying unswerving loyalty to its idols, British youth has flipped completely over the new Beatle album, Revolver. The single chosen from these songs — “Yellow submarine” b/w “Eleanor Rigby” — came on the charts one week ago at number four. Today it is number one. The entire album is in the top 20. Large record stores and tiny street stalls feature massive displays of the art-nouveauish album jacket. The sound of Revolver blares from window after window. John harmonizes with Paul in greengrocers and boutiques. George plays his sitar from cars stalled in traffic. Ringo ricochets from the dome of Saint Paul’s. The Beatles are harder to avoid than even the American.

But there is more than mere adulation behind the sudden conquest of Britain by this particular LP. Revolver is a revolutionary record, as important to the expansion of pop territory as was Rubber Soul. It was apparent last year that the 12 songs in Rubber Soul represented an important advance. Revolver is the great leap forward. Hear it once and you know it’s important. Hear it twice, it makes sense. Third time around it’s fun. Fourth time, it’s subtle. On the fifth hearing, Revolver becomes profound.

If Rubber Soul opened up areas of baroque progression and Oriental instrumentation to commercialization, Revolver does the same for electronic music. Much of the sound in this new LP is atonal; and a good deal of the vocal is dissonant. Instead of drowning poor voices in echo-chamber acoustics, Revolver presents the mechanics of pop music openly, as an integral part of musical composition. Instead of sugar and sex, what we get from the control knobs here is a bent and pulverized sound. John Cage move over — the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.

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Resemble Mantra

The key number on the album is that last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” No one can say what actually inspired this song, but its place in the pantheon of psychedelic music is assured. The lyrics remember a mantra in form and message:

Turn off your mind,
Relax and float downstream —
This is not dying,
This is not dying,

Lay down all thought,
Surrender to the void —
It is shining,
It is shining.

That you may see
The meaning of within,
It is being,
It is being.

Love is all
And love is everyone;
It is knowing
It is knowing…

While not unprecedented, the combination of acid-Buddhist imagery and a rock beat has never before been attempted with such complexity. At first, the orchestration sounds like Custer’s last stand. Foghorn-like organ chords and the sound of birdlike screeching overshadows the vocal. But the overall effect of this hodge-podge is a very effective suspension of musical reality. John’s voice sounds distant and Godlike. What he is saying transcends almost everything in what was once called pop music. The boundaries will now have to be re-negotiated.

Revolver also represents a fulfillment of the raga-Beatle sound. A George Harrison composition, “Love You To,” is a functioning raga with a natural beat and an engaging vocal, advising: “Make love all day long/Make love singing songs.”

“Eleanor Rigby” is an orchestrated ballad about the agony of loneliness. Its characters, Eleanor herself and Father MacKenzie, represent sterility. Eleanor “died in the church and was buried along with her name.” The good father writes “words to the sermon that no one will hear/No one comes near.” As a commentary on the state of modern religion, this song will hardly be appreciated by those who see John Lennon as an anti-Christ. But “Eleanor Rigby” is really about the unloved and un-cared-­for. When Eleanor makes up, the narrator asks: “Who is it for?”‘ While the father darns his socks, the question is: “What does he care?”

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More Next Door

“Yellow Submarine” is as whimsical and childlike as its flip side is metaphysical. Its subject is an undersea utopia where “our friends are all aboard/Many more of them live next door,” and where “We live a life of ease/Everyone of us has all he needs.”

“For No One” is one of the most poignant songs on the rec­ord. Its structure approaches madrigal form, with an effective horn-solo counterpoint. Its lyrics are in an evocative Aznavour bag.

“Taxman” is the album’s example of political cheek, in which George enumerates Brit­ain’s current economic woes. At one point. the group joins in to identify the villains. “Taxman — Mr. Wilson… Taxman — Mr. Heath.” They lay it right on the non-partisan line.

There is some mediocre material on this album. But the mystique forming around Revolver is based on more than one or two choice tracks — it encompasses the record as a whole.

It is a bit difficult to gauge the importance of Revolver from this city, where it has become gospel and where other beat groups are turning out cover copies like Gutenberg Bibles. But it seems now that we will view this album in retrospects as a key work in the development of rock ’n’ roll into an artistic pursuit.

If nothing else, Revolver must reduce the number of cynics where the future of pop music is concerned — even on the violent side of the Atlantic.


Visitation Rites: The Elusive Tradition of Plague Lit

AIDSspeak: A Plague of Words

“Epidemics have often been more influen­tial than statesmen and soldiers in shaping the course of political history, and diseases may also color the moods of civilizations… [Yet] their role is rarely emphasized by his­torians.” So wrote René and Jean Dubos in their landmark study of tuberculosis, The White Plague (1952). They might as well have included novelists among the oblivious. With the notable exception of TB, whose association with creativity inspired reams of inspirational verse and fiction, some of our favorite operas, and one certified literary masterpiece (The Magic Mountain), the lit­erature of epidemics is as scant — or at least scantly remembered — as those tomes on phrenology that once graced transcenden­talist coffee tables.

Do we need a Visitation Lit? In the cur­rent crisis, it hardly seems like a priority: Give us a vaccine, a cure; give us condoms that work and laws that protect. But our failure to devise an effective response to AIDS is partly a product of the silence of our culture. We are raised to regard epidem­ics as relics of distant lands and ancient eras; when an outbreak does occur, it seems unprecedented, unnatural. We cast about for a strategy, ceding the task to medicine and politics (though we don’t really trust either profession), because we have no alter­native. There is no cultural tradition that gives meaning and order to the chaos of an epidemic. There is only religion, with its mechanisms of suppression and control. Art has abdicated its authority to counsel us in time of plague. And this absence of an aesthetic is part of our helplessness.

Why are there so many novels about World War I and so few about the influenza epidemic that followed it, killing many more people? Why doesn’t plague inspire litera­ture the way war does? Perhaps because, at least until the specter of nuclear annihila­tion, combat never threatened our hegemo­ny over the environment. War is something men declare, but epidemics are a force of nature, and until we unravel their codes and learn how to repel them, they subject us to assault on their own, inhuman, terms. War is politics by other means, but epidemics have no purpose or intention; they happen, often as an unintended consequence of social mobility, sometimes by chance. War is, in some sense, as deliberate as fiction. But plague is accidental history.

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The Grim Reaper notwithstanding, epi­demics are hard to personify. An invisible enemy versus a small band of crusaders, reeking more of disinfectant than manly sweat, is hardly the stuff of heroic fantasy. War is butch; it is the strange fruit of mas­culinity. To die in combat is a confirmation of gender, but epidemics are androgynous, and the loss of control they induce is usually represented as emasculating. Men who fall victim to disease are champions brought low, given to heroic speechifying; women just lie there in paler and paler makeup. They are the ones who whisper about love and memory; men weep over their loss of mastery. (Think of Sly Stallone as the leu­kemia victim in Love Story.) And real men die of some inner defect, not an infectious disease. Long before AIDS, we believed that epidemics strike — indeed, signify — the ef­fete. Thomas Mann’s social critique pro­ceeds from this assumption, and his apprehension about sexuality finds a ready emblem in diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Aschenbach and even Hans Castorp enter into the state of illness almost by consent, as a logical expression of character. Susceptibility is fate.

Mann’s message takes a Nietzschean twist in America, where health is your own business and you’d better take care of your­self. The self-help cults that have arisen in response to AIDS reflect our assumption that illness is a character flaw made mani­fest, and usually preventable by good behav­ior. The process of “freeing ourselves from the bonds of karma, disease, problem rela­tionships” (as an ad for those New Age na­bobs, the Ascended Masters, puts it) sug­gests that not just desire, but nature itself, can be consciously controlled. The Eastern jargon is purely decorative; this view of the environment as a “peaceable kingdom” is central to American culture, and it persists — partly because literature has failed to deconstruct it — in direct denial of our actual history.


Pestilence may have an old-world ring, but epidemics were, until quite recently, a recurring feature of urban life in America, as well as a force in such emblematic events as the Civil War and the great westward trek. Congress could not be convened in 1793 until George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia to assure himself that an outbreak of yellow fever, which had decimated the city, was under control. As J.H. Powell’s riveting account of that outbreak, Bring Out Your Dead, reveals, the barbaric responses we associate with AIDS were commonplace in 1793: Refugees were stoned, shot, or left to starve as they wandered the countryside; newspapers from the capital were boiled in vinegar before anyone would read them; and the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead fell largely to impoverished blacks. This is an America you will not read about in fiction. There are no epics about the epidemics that struck New Orleans with such regularity that the death rate in that city remained higher than the birthrate for the entire 19th century; no chronicles of the devastation that disease wrought upon the ’49ers as they headed west. You can read all about cannibalism on the Donner Pass, but not about diarrhea.

When we aren’t discreet about the sub­ject, we leave it to the likes of Bette Davis to set the tone of American rhetoric about epi­demics — turgid and romantic. In Jezebel, she plays the ultimate coquette, all taffeta and eyelashes, who’s brought to her senses by a bout of “yellowjack” that strikes her jilted beau. The film ends with the essential American image of vanity chastened by pes­tilence: Davis on a crowded wagon, rolling through the shuttered streets of Charleston, nursing her love in quarantine. There’s a similar epiphany in Arrowsmith; when the young doctor’s wife dies during a Caribbean outbreak of the same disease, and he breaks the rules of his profession by providing ex­perimental serum to the natives without a control group. Though Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be both a critique of scientism and a testament to its rigors, in the movie, such ambiguities are lost to the epidemic as otherworldly spectacle, complete with dark­ies chanting among the fronds.

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The fabricator of pestilential rhetoric in America is Poe, whose interest in the sub­ject confirms its disreputability. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a paradigm of the dread epidemics arouse in us: Their ter­rible swift sword seems aimed directly at our hubris and hedonism — two sins Americans simultaneously celebrate and excoriate each other for. If the Red Death resembles any known disease, it is influenza of the sort that killed 20 million people in 1918. But in Poe, it comes on preternaturally, with pro­fuse bleeding from every pore that kills in half an hour. What better setting for this Visitation than a primordial kingdom with a party-hearty sensibility too splendid to sur­vive? When plague strikes, the royals retreat in a vain attempt to banish death. He enters anyway, dressed like the rogue in The Des­ert Song. “And one by one dropped the rev­elers in the blood-bedewed halls of their rev­el.” In other words, the party’s over.

Poe’s maunderings could only have mean­ing in a culture so phobic about disease that the subject must be addressed in terms of retribution. We get the fate we deserve for living like Vincent Price. At the core of Poe’s masque are guilt and denial, the very evasiveness our literature stands accused of displaying toward love and death. An epi­demic calls up the same response, since it forces us to confront both the intensity of human need and the fragility of all relation­ships. As a culture whose optimism is its most enduring trait, we cannot bear to look directly at this experience, except through the lurid refracting lens of moral causality.

Compare Poe’s Red Death with the de­scription of influenza that opens Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It ­occupies less than a page, yet this account, as seen through a child’s eyes, says more about the grotesque incongruity of an epidemic than any allegory. Traveling from Se­attle to Minneapolis in a closed compartment, the entire family was stricken as the train proceeded east.

We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip… and we began to be sure that it was all an adventure when we saw our fa­ther draw a revolver on the conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. On the platform at Minne­apolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps distraught officials, and, beyond them, in the crowd, my grandfather’s rosy face, cigar and cane, my grandmother’s feathered hat, imparting an air of festivity to this strange and confused picture, making us children certain that our illness was the beginning of a delightful holiday.

McCarthy’s perspective belongs to anoth­er, far more naturalistic, tradition of Visita­tion Lit. It is not to be found in fiction, but in the less hallowed venues of journalism and memoir. From Pepys, we get the sense of pestilence as an ordinary experience — ­one of life’s elemental indignities. From De­foe, we get the larger picture of a social organism convulsing under bacterial siege. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is the first example of that paradoxical form we now call the nonfiction novel: It is “report­ed” as fact, but constructed as fiction, and all the more potent for its formal confusion. Defoe invented the “plot” we still impose on epidemics, and he intended it not just to convey but also to shape reality as a tangible expression of his ideology.

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As a Dissenter, Defoe was subject to pro­fessional and personal harassment by the Anglican authorities. The stance of a rebel­lious rationalist informs his tone, perhaps even his choice of subject matter. The extre­mis of plague gave Defoe a chance to rail at irrational “tradition” — in everything from quack cures to the futile quarantining of whole families when one member took sick. And nothing revealed the sanctimonious­ness of his peers like the high, theocentric prose in which epidemics were customarily described: “Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets,” read one typical account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. “Now people fall as thick as the leaves in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind.” Defoe, in contrast, is blunt, sensory, reportorial: “It came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated… windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them.”

What comes handed down to us as “objec­tivity” was actually a rhetoric of rebellion against the political and religious institu­tions that put Defoe at personal risk. His response must have seemed like the prover­bial shoe-that-fits to Albert Camus, the Communist/resister who set out in 1947 to construct a metaphor for the German occu­pation and all it evoked in the French. Ca­mus intended plague to universalize the cir­cumstances of his own oppression, but so did Defoe. From the old Dissenter, Camus borrowed not just the specter of a city stricken by bubonic disease, but the per­spective of a rationalist in extremis, the anti-literary style, and the very form of The Plague. The subject attracts the alienated, perhaps because they sense the power of an epidemic to shatter social orthodoxy.

Both Defoe and Camus set out to instruct us about life beyond the boundaries of personal control. Both call up the impotence and isolation — even in fellowship — of those who must inhabit “a victim world secluded and apart,” as Camus describes Oran under quarantine. Camus could not have con­structed his deliberately modern paradigm of “death in a happy city” without Defoe’s radical vision of plague as a landscape where virtue and survival do not follow as the night the day. And though their subject is bubonic plague, with its ancient rhythm of explosive death, the dry rage and mordant irony Camus and Defoe share, their abiding sense of life’s precariousness, are the per­sonality traits of an AIDS survivor.

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There was no plague in Oran during the years Camus wrote, and as far as is known, he never actually experienced an epidemic. Rather, he assembled his description from secondary sources — as did Defoe, a child of five when the outbreak he describes took place. So the “plot” these journalists impose on epidemics is a fictional contrivance. More to the point, it is a contrivance that we inherit as reality. We still trot out Defoe and Camus to class up think pieces about AIDS because we trust their reporting, even though its authenticity is an illusion. The model they created gives meaning to the meaningless; it shapes an event that is terri­fying precisely because it seems chaotic. Can anyone who has never experienced an epi­demic imagine, in purely naturalistic terms, the terror of an invisible entity, not to men­tion the ghastly, often abrupt, changes an afflicted body undergoes? In a literary work, no matter how grim, there is order, progres­sion, response; when you add journalism’s claim to objectivity, and its obsession with good and bad behavior, an epidemic can be fitted with a tangible structure of cause and effect. This — and not just verisimilitude — is the power of reportage.

As for the plot: It is a tale without a protagonist. The “hero” is a collective — the suffering multitudes, called up in a thousand images of mortification of the flesh. At first, they refuse to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary, and the narrative feeds on this denial (we know why the rats are dying). But there comes a moment when, as Defoe describes it, “the aspect of the city itself was frightful.” Denial gives way to terror, and the suspense is not just who will live and die, but whether society will endure. Pestilence brings the collective into high relief. It must protect the uninfected, care for the stricken, and dispose of the dead. That it does function is — for both Camus and De­foe — a source of chastened optimism. Plague, the despoiler of civilization, has be­come an agent of social cohesion.


This existential saga is the shape we still give to epidemics. And in America, where the subject is seldom approached straight-­on, it is also the point of countless horror movies, in which the monster is like a scourge raining death out of Camus’s indif­ferent blue sky. The first victim is always an emblem of normality — a carefree bather yanked under the waves, or a baby-sitter ambushed by something in the closet. Then comes the warning — “They’re here!” — but to no avail. It’s too weird to be credible, and anyway, no one wants to frighten the citi­zenry. Finally, the system is brought to its senses — in the nick of time.

The horror movies of my youth in the ’50s were a plug for scientific progressivism, and a none-too-subtle plea for civic vigilance. But in recent years, the fatalism that underlies those tales of transformation we inherited from Europe has crept back into horror­-consciousness. In The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to mention two post­-modern remakes, the alien intrudes almost like a bacterium out of Mann, with the victim’s tacit consent; and the afflicted pass through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, from denial to rage to resignation. In The An­dromeda Strain, the denial stage becomes a premise: Can the doctors stop an alien or­ganism before it kills so many people that the government will have to acknowledge its existence? In Jaws, an implacable force of nature has “vetoed pleasure” in Amity, just as it did in Camus’s Oran. Except for the rugged individualist (a/k/a crusty old shark hunter) who holds the key to survival, it is easy to imagine the author of The Plague set those on his terrain.

Randy Shilts’s history of the AIDS epi­demic, And the Band Played On, draws its power from precisely this tradition: It is a journalistic work with a fictional form. Its plot, as constructed by Defoe, renovated by Camus, and apotheosized by journalistic thrillmongers like Robin Cook and Stephen King, is the unexpected appearance of a deadly microbe; its stealthy progression, fostered by obliviousness and indifference; and the gradual emergence of a collective response. Shilts writes of death and denial with all the lurid energy of the Old Dissent­er. His alienation from (gay and straight) orthodoxy is entirely true to form, and so is his judgment on all the players — from gov­ernment to media, from the afflicted to the immune. The journalist shapes the event — ­has done so ever since Defoe.

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Of course, the model of Visitation Lit doesn’t entirely fit the reality of AIDS. Shilts’s fiercest rage is directed at the break­down of community when pestilence strikes. In Camus and Defoe, everyone is equally at risk, and therefore everyone must overcome indifference. But in Shilts, the collective that emerges consists of isolated groups­ — the infected and their doctors. The larger society is insulated by contempt for the afflicted and an illusion of immunity. The pariah experience that AIDS creates cannot be found in Visitation Lit (except perhaps in a didactic potboiler like The Nun’s Story, with its doting on leprosy as a test of godli­ness). There are ample accounts of shun­ning those who show the “tokens” of bubonic plague or yellow fever, but AIDS is a lifelong condition that leaves no visible mark until it becomes activated; shunning is decreed by the technology of diagnosis and, often, by the presumption of belonging to a group at risk. We can monitor the develop­ment of AIDS in both the afflicted and the infected, but we cannot improve their prog­nosis. The psychic and social bind generated by our helpless efficiency is also an unprece­dented product of this disease.

The precedent for AIDS in our culture is the “slow plague” of tuberculosis, which has shifted in its iconography from a disease of the artistic to a scourge of the impoverished. In the late 19th century, as word of its con­tagiousness spread (and before there was conclusive evidence that exposure does not usually result in infection), the image of the afflicted changed as well. Once they had been held in such esteem that the problem for epidemiologists was convincing the fam­ilies of consumptives to stay away. But by the turn of the century, TB patients were thought to be dissolute, if not degenerate; later still, Mann’s elegant mountaintop re­treat became a state-run sanatorium to which they could be committed against their will. The parallels with AIDS are striking but not exact. Sexually transmitted diseases carry a distinct stigma, and so do homosex­uals and intravenous drug users, the main groups at risk for AIDS. In the culture at large, there is no gay or junkie equivalent of the virtuous poor.

The AIDS epidemic, which is a highly literary event (the death of people in their prime always is), cannot be written about in traditional literary terms; because it shat­ters the social contract, it forces us to break with form. Those who live through this Visi­tation will have to invent not only their own communitas but a new system of represen­tation to make that process meaningful. So far, only the rudiments of such a system are in place. The AIDS plays that drew so much attention to the epidemic are all traditional in form: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart leans heavily on Ibsen’s ideology of the he­roic outsider (“The strongest man … is he who stands most alone”); William Hoffman’s As Is make a comforting melange of, Maxwell Anderson and William Inge; even Jerker, the controversial (because it is homoerotic) series of blackouts by Robert Chesley, veers toward the familiar modern­ism of Ionesco via Menotti. Only Beirut at­tempts to project AIDS into the dreamlife of our culture, but unfortunately it achieves its nightmare edge by misrepresenting the transmissibility of the disease.

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In fiction, it was mostly the gay presses that produced the first responses to AIDS. But these novels, like the plays, have been either didactic tracts or domestic dramas. Both are important themes — the danger of social violence is real enough, and the bond of love between men is rare enough, in or outside the context of sexuality, to be worth expressing. But, so far, these good inten­tions don’t achieve the power and range of literature, in part because the subject (ho­mosexuality) is still so culturally arcane, and in part because it takes more than a sea­son — or five — for the best authors to trans­form trauma into art.

Epitaphs for the Plague Dead, a small volume of formal, traditional verse, is a semi-breakthrough. Robert Boucheron has turned to Tennyson for a formal framework that is both strikingly antique and oddly abstract — giving his subject matter, the his­tories of gay men dead of AIDS, a timeless, entombed air. The content is often trite, sometimes clumsy; but these epitaphs, in a colloquial discourse rendered stately by iam­bics and rhyme, have the effect of ennobling not just the ordinary but the shunned. This is form in the service of a new idea, something the literature of any epidemic must achieve if it is to matter in the long run.

It may be too much to hope for parody as a weapon in the fight against AIDS, al­though the satiric edge in Boucheron’s poet­ry, Shilts’s journalism, and Kramer’s play is what most sets these gay writers apart from other chroniclers of plague. It is almost as if the rich vein of camp has been tempered into a mordant comedy of manners. What this promises for the future of both gay culture and Visitation Lit is anyone’s guess, but the spirit of Thackeray (not to mention Mann) must hover at the shoulder of any reasonably acute homosexual who thinks about AIDS. It certainly informs the pica­resque fiction of Armistead Maupin, whose work is a model of what the epidemic has done to gay sensibility. By the latest install­ment, Significant Others, AIDS has become a recurring motif that grounds the narra­tive. The characters we’ve been following through volume after volume haven’t so much changed their ways as their perspec­tive — on each other, on mortality. And Maupin’s tone has grown softer and fuller, as if to acknowledge the “feminine” emo­tions that gay rage suppresses right now.


Melancholy is the literary legacy of AIDS, for all of us. It informs the texture of more and more popular fiction, if only in its fasci­nation with pathology. A glance through Publishers Weekly reveals these plot prem­ises, all from books due out this fall: A wom­an engaged to be married discovers that she is a carrier of’ Tay-Sachs disease, raising painful questions about her true paternity and changing her life … A crotchety old truck driver, watching his wife die of cancer, reverts to wetting his bed. His anguish is heightened when she reveals the details of an extramarital affair that spawned their late son, a teenage victim of meningitis … A young cancer patient, withdrawn from chemotherapy by his mother, is placed in a halfway house for “roomers with tumors.” But when the boy’s estranged father tries to put him back in chemo, mom, son, and a handsome hospice worker run away to a hideaway in the redwoods, where …

Then there is Leslie Horvitz’s The Dying, a just-published novel of “biological horror” (actually another of those pesky Poe-like flus that kill in the flip of a page) complete with a dust jacket admonition that THE PLAGUE YEARS ARE HERE. And Shar­on Mayes’s Immune, whose protagonist, “at once a highly professional doctor and re­searcher, and a wild, erotic woman, addicted to cocaine,” must confront the threat of AIDS. That it “leads her to a rediscovery of responsibility and a nostalgia for a more stable and structured past” makes Immune “a tragedy of our time.” Or so the blurb insists.

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As a culture, we are losing our sense of immunity to disease and our confidence in sexuality as a route to self-discovery. These may have been constructions in the first place, but they were crucial to my genera­tion, and now they have been shattered. The assumption that AIDS will compel us to remake the libido in more “mature” terms is as cockeyed as any belief in human perfect­ibility, as utopian as the sexual revolution we are now exhorted to forsake. Only in a TV movie will this epidemic teach hetero­sexuals to value commitment and homosexuals to find their identity in rodeos and Proust. More likely, we will pull the wool over each other’s eyes in erotic masques of safety and salubrity. The gap between pub­lic morality and private behavior will pro­mote the very passions it suppresses. Those who can’t or won’t be locked in place will exude a faint aroma of mortality whenever they have sex. And if the epidemic is not contained, we will come to inhabit a land­scape where death and desire go hand in hand.

This is a very ancient landscape, but also the thoroughly modem setting of Valerie Martin’s novel A Recent Martyr, which takes place in a contemporary New Orleans mired in corruption, civil chaos, and a bur­geoning epidemic of bubonic disease. Sainthood and sexual obsession vie for women’s souls, while men hover, in their passion, between brutality and helplessness. It has nothing to do with the current health crisis, but a great deal to do with the emotional climate AIDS is generating. Martin’s model suggests that any epidemic — whether or not the disease is sexually transmitted — affects the libido, if only because it places ecstasy and imminent death on the same chaotic primal plain.

“The plague continues, neither in nor out of control,” Martin writes at the conclusion of her reverie, “but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psycho­logically; we are tied to the rest of the coun­try only by our own endeavor … The fu­ture holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above water.”

This is the looking glass fiction can fabricate. Gazing into it, we confront what jour­nalism cannot imagine: the possibilities. ❖