What a long, strange trip it’s been

A few words on how I got here, old, tired and sick, but truckin’ on.  About my focus on tactics, not just tactics in-themselves, but how they are developed.

I was a 60’s kid, brought up white lower-middle-class, believing in the American dream, freedom of speech, civil rights, truth and beauty.  In 1964, I supported both Barry Goldwater and Martin Luther King.  How’s that?  Got to college, and along with millions of others, found out that the American dream was a lie.  War in Vietnam was an obscenity.  Michigan State University had nothing to do with either truth or beauty.  Got active.

Sitting in to support three groovy professors who had been fired at the behest of the Mothers Against Degeneracy.  The Akers Hall Kiss-in (hundreds of people kissing in the lounge because they were told they couldn’t.  The war.  Always the war.  Marched, did wild in the streets.  Saw it crushed.  Friends with broken bones, in jail.  Dead.  The George McGovern campaign in 1972 picked up the pieces and sold them cheap.  I was shattered, broken.  Emotionally and political numb.

How did I get through it?

I looked around me, and saw people surrendering, despairing, and was I any stronger than they, any more dedicated?  No.  But maybe I was a little smarter.

One of my favorite scenes is from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which I first saw during that period.  Clint Eastwood and bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach) both know one piece of where the gold is buried, but Bad Lee Van Cleef has them captive.  Van Cleef calls Tuco (a very tough guy) into his office and beats his part of the information out of him, then sends Tuco off to be killed.  Van Cleef calls Eastwood into his office and negotiates.  Eastwood looks down at the floor and sees Tuco’s blood, asks Van Cleef why he isn’t getting the same treatment.  Van Cleef answers that he knows that Eastwood knows that if he tells his half of the puzzle, Van Cleef will kill him, so no amount of beating will get it out of him.  Knowledge can be strength.

So I knew that all the fears and despair that I saw washing over friends and comrades were going to come washing over me.  I had no illusions about being better than they.  But knowing what was coming was what made it possible to both absorb and shut out that despair, able to tell myself that what I was feeling was just “the man” inside my head, hanging on somehow in a nearly catatonic state for years.  What snapped me out of it was reading that a couple of guys from the Progressive Labor Party at a Detroit auto plant had locked themselves inside an electrical cage over some minor floor dispute, shut the whole factory down for four hours, and walked away UNPUNISHED.  Maybe the working class could be as destructive as college students.

But I wasn’t the same.  In the 60’s I had put principles above all else, being right was enough, took those principles to the max, had in some ways been as dumb as a post because the revolutionary tide of the 60’s had floated all boats, so to speak.  And we had ultimately paid a terrible price.  I became obsessed with tactics and methodology.  Studied Mao and Lenin.  Learned that quotes from either could be used to support either side of almost any argument.

It became fashionable to trash the 60’s, and I could do so at length in certain circles.  But looking at the level of discussion today, there is much to learn regarding method.  We talked about what the good society would look like.  We talked principles.  We talked tactics.  We talked about which social groupings (like classes) were the engines of change.  We talked about how these groupings related to each other.  We talked about our souls, our spirits, our values.  In hindsight, in so many ways, we hadn’t the brains god gave a goose.  Went to too many demonstrations without a helmet, to do a twist on Gerald Ford.  But tying it all together, we talked about how we saw the PROCESS of social change.

But that aside, I decided that no longer would I go to war over abstract principle, I had to be able to personally connect, able to see that this led to that and where it was going.  I had to work from the premise that if I was feeling something, thinking something, wanting something, then I couldn’t be alone.  Not that I wasn’t regularly surprised and/or mistaken, but keeping that connection kept me from the abyss.

So I was a student worker, organized an organizing committee to unionize us.  Went full-time, organized a rank-and-file caucus that successfully challenged the leadership of the MSU company union.  Became unemployed, organized an Unemployed Council that chased army recruiters out of the unemployment center.

Organized a district committee during a rent control campaign in San Francisco, wrote and typeset for the National Alliance newspaper.  Campaigned for Lenora Fulani and Ross Perot and Barry Commoner and Peace and Freedom Party and Reform Party, and was on the street for any number of Democratic Party candidates and ballot initiatives.

Everyone along the way sold out or burned out.  And I got old, got married to Rose (the bright note!), got diabetes got a damaged left knee, got worn down and burned out and just plain tired.  And how is burning out any different than selling out?  Practically?  For years, haunting the blogs was my main activity while I put in my time in a boring office programming insurance forms (property insurance), while my most creative energy went into building WWI model airplanes ( http://www.jrroseenterprises.c… ).  It got worse.

Last year, my wife was forced out of her job.  She had worked for 10 years at one of Wall Streets leading regulatory agencies, and was the victim of utterly vicious sexual harassment by an up-and-coming manager.  She complained to upper management, and they lowered the boom on her.  She quit under the threat of assault and firing.  Next week, I was laid off, ostensibly  because my job had been outsourced to the Philippines.  And because I took too many sick days, though they couldn’t say that out loud.

We ran through our savings, quit paying our mortgage, are hanging on through unemployment extensions while hoping to sell our home before the wolves catch up with us.  It was a very bitter period.  Depressing, enraging, terrifying, mere survival our goal.

So I’m sitting at the computer reading the blogs, and my wife Rose is watching some HBO show on New York garment workers, and she interrupts me, she’s highly agitated.  The show had a segment on the 1911 Shirtwaist Factory fire where 148 young women were burned or leaped to their death because they were locked inside to keep them from sneaking out for a cigarette.  And how after the “day it rained children,” hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets in protest.

So Rose is in a rage, that in those days, with no internet, no TV, hundreds of thousands would march.  And today … nothing.  So we sat and talked, about our own fear and anger, how dead the American people are, somebody had to do something.  But what?  The combination of my own rage and powerlessness was intolerable.  But screaming wasn’t enough.  I had to come up with something real to do.  Calling on a previously stated premise, that if I was feeling something, thinking something, wanting something, then I couldn’t be alone.  Some way to turn the rage and fear I know is out there into activity, into organization, into power.

I came up with the Full Court Press.  It’s small, has nowhere the scope that is needed for the changes I know we need.  I have ideas about the unemployed, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.  I think if I got really sick, I’d march down to my congressman’s office and chain myself to the door.  Maybe not.  But if a hundred of us were (and aren’t we?) sick, and someone could get us on a bus to DC … so many possibilities.  We are collectively, vastly more sophisticated than in the 60’s, have vastly more tools to organize with.

But where’s the spark?  Where’s the “here I make my stand”?  Where’s the “not with my life you don’t”?  Have we become numb?  Have we become dumb?

No, we’re not numb or dumb.  In the 60’s we took to the streets.  What’s missing is the link, now, between our collective keyboards and the streets.  What’s missing is grappling with the hard topic of the PROCESS of social change.  We are constantly absorbed in the present, and this is blinding.  If we can build that connection, if we can think outside the given moment, then I think other pieces would start to fall into place.  They’re all there.

And while I still find the world enraging and terrifying, I no longer find it depressing!

24 comments

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  1. Nice essay, a good read.

    Interesting about MSU, I visited there a few times in the late 70’s early 80’s, the place kinda gave me the creeps, probably a fertile ground for CIA recruiters.

    • Diane G on December 13, 2009 at 3:09 am

    it lacks the social energy of U of M, but it was predominately an agricultural college back then, conservative farm boys who just wanted to go ’bout their business.

    I think, dear jeffroby, it has more to do with the draft than anything.

    It has much to do with the horror of having your faith in the American dream shattered. Today’s campuses are filled with people who grew up knowing nothing could be trusted, their fate was not their own, and that their future was likely fucked. It is hard not to feel jaded they say, knowing especially that the 60’s people failed them and became the Wall Street generation.

    Now, we are old, slaves to the debt in a class war stacked against us and the weapons aren’t clubs and water cannons, they are tasers and microwaves.

    It is hard to get people to move. It is both the fear and the apathy. They are going to kill us anyway, slow or quickly.

    That is the mindset.

    But if you want to start something in East Lansing, my friend, I can be there in 45 minutes.

    • dkmich on December 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Sorry about your financial woes.  Every time I log in, I hear another story about the hardships that people are enduring.  

    I admire your willingness to do something constructive about our so called democratic process, but I think you know from OpenLeft that my plan of action is simple spite.   Until we can hurt them politically, we have no power.  Glad you came to join us.  It is a mellow group with which you will have much in common.   I wish you and your wife the best of luck.

  2. I’m a few years behind you. However, I did spend the late 60’s 70’s around lots and lots of the 60’s stuff.

    I spent the summer of ’72 when I was 12 camping in hte berkshires with my step-uncle and his crowd – some of them were dropping out from a system which had drafted them off the streets and dropped them in a jungle with a gun, some of them were … floating along with the fun and craziness and cute 20 year old hippy chicks?

    My mom spent a week in the woods – she’d grown up with an outhouse, so she couldn’t see the point of crapping in the woods or not having a bath or washing dishes in the river. She had 3 kids, my old man wasn’t paying child support, we were on welfare & there wasn’t much, so there was NOTHING that was free from her for the freeloaders of the day. Was it the 2nd day when the deadbeats were told to bring something besides their drunkenness and party to the table, OR, get out?

    I recall having lots and lots of fireside chats about changing the world blah blah blah, BUT, always wondering … who is gonna grow the food? can the food? wash the dishes? So we all went to protest … and now what?

    I’ve piddled around in campaigns since my teen years.  It took me many years to figure out how to tell the trustafarians to stuff their guilt trips up their assholes – guilt trips about how the world won’t change cuz I won’t live on f’king alms and oatmeal to save it.

    After my 3rd job cooking on boats in Alaska in 1991, I actually had a real bank account & some unemployment and I worked a zillion hours on a huge pro-choice campaign (while looking for work, NOT detached from the labor market!!).

    Campaigns, movements … all fall apart for a lot of the same reasons.

    A common reason is after the romance wears off reason. A bunch of us loved Howard Dean but found, as time went on, that there was a lot of other stuff we weren’t on the same page about. YAWN. Substitute Howard for … Jerry Brown? Obama? Hillary? No Christmas bombing? Everyone and Anyone and Anything?

    A key set of reasons people get fed up and quit is the MECHANICS / OPERATIONS HOW, WHAT, WHEN, WHO, WHERE stuff of campaigns.

    Who decides who will do what, when, where and how? Who knows when Who is deciding? How did Who tell you and not me, or anyone else? When did Who get to first, what is on second … ??

    We’re constantly trying to create some grassroots movement we’re we all just get along and all agree and we’ll all work tirelessly for some common good …

    Who is washing the dishes?

    I think if we could learn to run the processes efficiently, something NEVER available until the internet, we could go a long way towards sustaining involvement – let’s face it, when the first steps of being “active” are sitting in fucking boring meetings for 4 hours a month of last minute perry mason robert’s rule of order horseshit fights,

    (the Democratic Party of Washington state at the local, district, county … levels; my teachers union)

    and ya got dishes to wash …

    Here are MY ideas on efficiency:

    ++++++++++++++++

    http://liemail.com/bamboograss

    WHY WE SHOULD DO IT –

    TO WIN WE NEED EFFICIENCY, TRANSPARENCY, ACCESSIBILITY.

    To win political organizations need to be effective, which means we need Efficiency,

    Transparency, and Accessibility in our grassroots campaigns.  In 3 of the above web pages,

    “Basic Web Needs”, “Meetings Agendas Resolutions” and “Event Planning and Calendar”, I

    detail suggestions to accomplish these goals.  On this page I try to explain why I have put

    the ideas on the above pages together.

    http://liemail.com/bamboograss

    +++++++++++++++++++++

    Bob Murphy

    Seattle (Via Holyoke till ’78 and Boston till ’89)

  3. That’s exactly the right:

    What’s missing is the link, now, between our collective keyboards and the streets.  What’s missing is grappling with the hard topic of the PROCESS of social change.  We are constantly absorbed in the present, and this is blinding.  If we can build that connection, if we can think outside the given moment, then I think other pieces would start to fall into place.  They’re all there.

    Yes.  My great grandmother was one of the organizers of the LGWU, the union response to the Triangle Fire.  She was little.  And very, very tough.  She didn’t speak much English, preferred to express her views in Yiddish.  With English cussing.  Of course.  She didn’t live until the ’60’s, though I think she would have gotten a kick out of all of that and would have loved to argue about tactics and strategy.  But I digress.  The Triangle Fire was a spark.  Rosa Parks was a spark.  The draft was a spark.  Harvey Milk was a spark.  Stonewall was a spark. Selma was a spark.  The Birmingham Church bombing was a spark.  Shooting Medgar Evers was a spark.  You cannot know what the next one will be.  You can bet the ranch on this though: it will come.

    Thanks for great essay.

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