Ethan Kessler: Evolution of activism

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 2:48pm

Protestors picket the Honors Convocation outside Hill Auditorium.

Protestors picket the Honors Convocation outside Hill Auditorium. Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily Archives

Activism, no matter the issue at stake, entails sacrificing resources and effort in pursuit of some larger cause. This stands in stark contrast to ignorance, and an outlook that is of self-centered attainment.

By 1968, resistance of the New Left had reached its peak, and change on a massive scale seemed probable. Protests on a seemingly unprecedented scale had swept the traditional world powers — America and Europe. Traditional norms of political participation seemed to be shifting as well, with students and oppressed peoples alike asserting themselves like never before. This was the work of a new kind of culture: that of the New Left. And no American institution better embodied the ideas and practice of the New Left more so than the University of Michigan’s very own Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.

I would venture to guess that few people on this campus have learned about the history of SDS. I would also guess that even fewer people know of SDS’s founder, former University of Michigan student Alan Haber. However, the political turbulence of a half-century ago and the New Left that defined it would be incomplete without Haber, whose activist work at the national level is typified by his founding and leadership of SDS, and his presence is still felt in Ann Arbor.

Now in his 80s, Haber has a lifetime of activism, political radicalism and community involvement on which to draw and reflect. But his story begins at this very university. During an interview with The Daily, Haber recounted how, like many of us, he entered college confident in, or at least accepting of, the political values instilled in him by his parents. Then, introduced to the idea of picketing during a campus protest, he commenced his, as he puts it,  “deviation to the left” by helping organize an open discussion on a campus whose student body was politically dominated by very conservative Young Republicans and very conservative Young Democrats. His knack for presentation was undeniable. He claimed to have once set up a table in the Fishbowl for those interested in the antiwar movement right next to the table of a U.S. Army recruiter.

Listening to Haber speak, one gets the sense that by “conservative” he refers less to a set of specific principles about economic and social policy as he does to a rigid system of prescriptions for who should and should not be participating in the political process. At the turn of the 1960s, Haber’s disdain for conservative ideas of political participation was realized with the formation of SDS on the University’s campus. Increasingly, SDS became part of the national conversation that was repudiating much of the staunch conformity of the 1950s, and in doing so helped bring the idea of counterculture to the forefront of that era.  

Needless to say, the anti-intellectuals of the day were not pleased when SDS and other elements of the New Left began to rip into America’s status quo. For racial segregation and unquestioning deference to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s foreign policy were, to the anti-intellectuals of the time, assurances that things would continue on as they always had. By the 1960s, America was unquestionably prosperous, as both class mobility and wealth from that era reflect. Why should anyone impede that spirit of continuous material attainment by, say, distracting students from their work to have them discuss and protest the Vietnam War?  

This was the prevailing attitude in 1965, when such actions were taken by University professors in the nation’s first Vietnam War “teach-in.” Supporters of the Johnson administration’s newly-escalated war in southeast Asia derided the professors leading the teach-in as neglecting their professional duties, while Michigan Gov. George Romney sternly issued a similar rebuke to the professors involved, claiming “(they were) inviting anarchy in saying that (they), or any other person or group, have the right to decide when an issue is important enough to halt the regular activity of a public institution.”  

Romney was right to defend the right of public institutions, including education, to be enjoyed by the public without significant hindrance. But with an attitude toward any dissent as hostile as the one unfolding on the University’s campus, how could the public ever debate the topic freely? And without the ability to openly debate the war its tax dollars were funding, how could the public ever claim the power to change its mind, to hold the government accountable? To change one’s mind, of course, is to gain understanding through instruction and thought — hallmarks of culture, and therefore unwelcome concepts to anti-intellectual thought.

In this way, the resistance of the 1960s embodied by SDS is best characterized as a reorientation of political expectations. The America out of which SDS had emerged could be classified as majority anti-intellectual, disinclined to join or support any active role in dismantling traditional inequalities because these inequalities served as bulwarks against monumental upheavals of society. As evidenced by widespread views of the late Martin Luther King Jr. bringing his assassination upon himself and the Chicago police being justified in their televised beating of protesters, this sentiment had survived well into 1968.  

 

It was not just the public that was widely intolerant of dissent, either. Those entrusted to protect the liberal ideals of rights and civil liberties also seemed inclined to mislabel the rabble-rousers as unpatriotic, as demonstrated by lethal directives given to U.S. soldiers leading up to the 1967 Pentagon protest. These attitudes more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes found fertile breeding ground in a anti-intellectual American public willing to trade truth for comfort. Subsequently, the very notion that the war itself was unjust was often eclipsed by the belief that those opposing it were the real problem. The fabricated myth of “the spitting protester,” and the extent to which American society accepts this myth as fact, is proof enough.

Of course, this is not to say that only those Americans occupying research fellowships in Ivy League philosophy departments or studying art history value culture. There are many who lead much more grounded lives yet still value ideas and embrace change that stands to better future societies — there is a reason America values self-expression more so than most places in the world. Nor is it fair to label all right-leaning citizens as anti-intellectual, for there are conservative Americans too whose opposition to progressive policies stems from ethical principles and not necessarily a desire to see all attempts at reform made subservient to material priorities.  

The true anti-intellectuals, however, were those Americans unwilling to see that what King exposed was not his own ability to instigate, but a deep systemic hatred that had long been enabled by onlookers who chose to accept it.  They were those Americans unwilling to see that what the antiwar protesters had experienced in Chicago was not law and order, but overzealous use of force that was also enabled by onlookers who chose to accept it. These Americans, beyond those who were truly enthusiastic about racist and authoritarian policies, believed any sort of support for change to be too costly to anti-intellectual ambitions.

They believed this, in part, because they saw their own participation in change as minor. You voted for the candidate you wanted, and you shut your mouth for the next two or four years thereafter if you didn’t get things your way. What made the work of SDS important was not necessarily that it fit neatly into what we might now label as “politically progressive,” but that it sought to challenge these traditional limitations on what should be questioned and who should be doing the questioning. As Americans have increasingly recognized since the time of SDS, this idea of constant political participation is a powerful tool in shaping governments to be more representative of their constituents. And though Haber has written off demonstration and confrontation as largely expired methods of participation, the gun control activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that Haber frequently praises illustrate how direct political involvement need not follow the often uncivil model of SDS to earn validation.

The incivility of SDS also illustrates how, even in activism, moderation is a virtue. By no means does moderation endanger activists, and others who value culture, from drifting toward anti-intellectualism. On the contrary, it enhances the chance of success by binding its adherents to logical principles. The tragic and violent path taken by some of Haber’s former associates in SDS’s late years as part of the Weather Underground serves as a fine example. Another instance is that of distinguished University Professor Victor Lieberman, who was a dedicated member of the antiwar movement while a college student in the 1960s and 1970s but has moderated his views considerably since then.  

Lieberman is not afraid to speak about his past radicalism — in an interview with The Daily he recalled how he held a celebration with his wife when Saigon was taken by Communist forces in 1975. Even deeper than the shared antiwar participation of Haber and Lieberman during these times, however, is the primacy with which both men characterized their antiwar efforts. Lieberman’s support of antiwar Democratic politicians at the time can be seen as a reflection of Haber’s broad efforts against what he terms “the whole system of war,” in which opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam opposed not only the war but also cycles of “domination, coercion, violence” in other issue areas, such as civil rights and gender equality. The desired transition from a “system of war” to one of peace thus manifested itself as support for national liberation movements across the board.   

The result, as Lieberman put it, was a “highly romanticized, idealistic image that many anti-war activists, (himself) included, had of the Vietnamese Communist movement — as well as the allied Khmer and Lao Communist parties and ‘fraternal’ revolutionary movements in China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and the Palestinian territories.” Today, none of these countries or territories are considered healthy democracies, and many have successfully resisted any guarantee of civil liberties or basic rights to their citizens. Admiration for these movements, then, should yield to nuanced and unemotional analysis if activists are to avoid supporting regimes that do without the essential liberal institutions we enjoy in America.

This does not mean, of course, that there is nothing to learn from the times of Haber and Lieberman. The struggles that activists fight for in 2018 may not be the same as those that existed in 1968, but the parallels are undeniable. There is no great overseas struggle uniting antiwar activists at home now as there was 50 years ago, and therefore no universal American trust in foreign policy to break once more. There are, however, unprecedented signs of the U.S. president being held accountable for foreign policy in an era of rampant unaccountability. Images of civil rights activists confronted with cordons of soldiers do not circulate now, but increased attention paid to law enforcement abuses has resulted in increased scrutiny of police. At the other end of these issues, as always, are those who care only to resist any reform and all the good that may entail because staying put is the easiest thing to do.

It is clear that the issues and dynamics of Haber and Lieberman’s college days have not simply disappeared, and they are well aware of it. Their antiwar struggle failed in 1968, as the Democrats nominated a pro-war candidate and lost to an ostensibly anti-war Republican who would continue the war for several more years. The lessons they have taken away differ greatly: Lieberman reflects on the antiwar movement as generating resentment among the majority of Americans, while Haber’s more hopeful takeaway reflects on how much more savvy activists are now than they were in his day. Lieberman now advises politically-inclined students to approach the types of movements he so enthusiastically cheered on with “neither fawning adulation nor unmitigated contempt, but clear-eyed intellectual analysis.” Haber speaks to how siloed and issue-focused activist groups have become nowadays, which presents a challenge for forming a cohesive multi-issue front such as SDS.  

The two men’s markedly different takeaways, however, do not take away from their respective prescriptions for those looking to contribute to our culture. Reflecting on their musings, current students should realize that when important issues arise — issues that are important not because they stand to bring riches or pleasure but because they affect lives — we should all resist the kneejerk calls of the anti-intellectuals to dismiss calls to action. Living day-to-day or choosing a career based on financial considerations is no crime, but ignoring the culture we have built and attempts to build it further does a disservice to us all. If we can take one thing away from the tumult and violence and upheaval and loss and gain of 50 years ago, it is that no matter how we do so, we should strive to contribute to this culture any way we can.

Ethan Kessler can be reached at ethankes@umich.edu.