Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. By Todd Gitlin.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest US peace organization during the Vietnam War. It began as the student department of the League for Industrial Democracy, an Old Left democratic socialist organization that, by the 1960s “was not much more than a letterhead and a budget” (Gitlin, p. 110). Al Haber took this relic’s barely existent student branch, methodically organized it into a breathing entity concerned with social justice, and attracted activists from a number of campuses. Though concerned with a number of issues, this group coalesced at a time when US interference in Vietnam’s civil war was escalating, making peace a central focus of the SDS program.

A swirl of activism, from peace and civil rights quarters, later magnified by feminist and LGBT organizers, combined with establishment reaction and the era’s zeitgeist. What resulted was a culture-wide tornado that eventually pulled the SDS apart, ended a war, and left greater freedom and cultural innovation on the newly-swept US landscape.

Todd Gitlin was elected president of the breakaway SDS in 1963. This book is not simply a chronology of a change-filled decade’s events. It is the author’s searching attempt to make sense of what happened to him, his generation and his nation. “This is part historical reconstruction, part analysis, part memoir, part criticism, part celebration, part meditation” (Gitlin, p.4). His conclusions about politics, human behavior or outcomes, are sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic; but most often ambiguous. Given the number of strong forces moving people at the time, ambiguity is frequently the most honest response. There is no blueprint to recreate what happened in the 60s. We cannot plan the next burst of freedom. The most we can control in this whirl of chaotic forces are our own actions; and as Gitlin’s chronology demonstrates, even those choices are mined with unintended consequences: The war ended, but the peace movement blew apart. Some organizers burned-out, some joined the Weather Underground and turned to violence, some did the slow work of continued organizing for peace. Also unintended and ambiguous: as the war steadily lost popularity in the late Sixties, so did the anti-war movement” (Gitlin, p. 262).

Gitlin spends a great deal of time portraying African American Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, activists. But he admits that his experience is white, middle class, New Left and male. The journey of that demographic which he represents is common in the Western literary tradition; it most resembles the archetype of Comedy: They begin with college-age innocence and idealism. Privileged, scrubbed white kids advocating American ideals of freedom and fairness.  They continue through disillusion as these young liberals face four innocence-shattering forces: 1) A managerial Liberal government who reneges on the peace and racial justice ideals of Liberalism; 2) Excessive, repeated police/FBI violence & surveillance; 3) Expected but still shocking reactionary conservative violence; 4) Immense socio-cultural dislocation with the breaking of 1950s behavioral taboos. As is common with Comedy, there is a renewal at the end of Gitlin’s journey. A now scarred, experienced generation of activists, along with younger inheritors of their legacy, are depicted in the final chapter entitled “Carrying On.” It is 1987. The author catalogs a multitude of peace, social justice and environmental organizations. But ever the honest skeptical observer (despite his romantic goals), Gitlin cannot resist one last ambiguity which defies comic renewal: “And still there are no guarantees that noble purposes will produce the best of all possible results.” He understands that the general public is not composed of activists, not enthusiastically following their lead, and is turned-off by the Movement’s attitude. But “those who deplore the mess and wildness of social movements should ask themselves whether the world’s managers, left to their own devices, can be trusted to cease torturing and invading peoples who are inconvenient to them…to sustain the planet Earth…On one side, there remains the perennial trap of thinking the old dilemmas can be outmuscled by the good luck of youth; on the other, the trap of thinking the future is doomed to be nothing more than the past; between them, possibly, the  space to invent” (Gitlin, p. 438).

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. By Elie Halevy

When Elie Halevy wrote about a “liberal awakening,” he did not mean liberalism as it is currently understood. During the period of 1815 to 1830, liberalism was a political trend that favored middle class advancement. It was based upon the principles of capitalist economy and representative republic. Its goals were to remove obstacles to capitalism, expand the voting populace to include more prosperous untitled males, and make governments represent the interests of middle class men in parliament. Only later, when most of these goals were accomplished, did liberalism evolve to include notions of economic and social justice for all.

Though liberal goals were meant to serve middle class members of society, this book’s narration is from the point-of-view of the politicians in British government: members of parliament and ministers of the cabinet. It is useful to have a history of the ideas and actions of British government concerning reform. But one must bear in mind that this is a part, and not even the greater part, of the forces that resulted in reform. Certainly the pressure for reform came from commoners in the United Kingdom, not from government aristocrats and privileged gentlemen who were already enfranchised. The latter group would have preferred no reform.

But the perspectives and actions of middle class reformers are almost entirely excluded from Halevy’s account. It appears as if the government is pondering, worrying and acting, with minimal outside influence upon them. Though Halevy would find it impossible to ignore all public action by the middle class, their activities are either examined regarding how they affect parliament, or ignored.

This is also true for agricultural and industrial workers. While they were excluded from the liberal agenda, they were influenced by it. Workers certainly felt that, if the middle class deserved representation and consideration by government, they did as well. Again, while Halevy cannot ignore their activities, he reports them in the context of their influence upon parliamentary opinion and legislation. There are sporadic observations of protests repressed, publications censored and public gatherings attacked by troops. But there is little illustration of the organizers of protests, writers silenced or people involved in the gatherings. When Halevy addresses the Peterloo Massacre or the Manchester riots, we still never hear from the commoners massacred or rioting. The view we obtain is how government officials felt afraid when unrest happened, and the repression or concessions with which they responded. Never do we hear from a wife whose husband was shot by the troops at Peterloo, or a loom operator who saw his children go hungry on the wage he was making. As readers, we are not presented with the motives for unrest or reform. This creates an artificial half-history, wherein the state is surrendering concessions and power to a people who barely exist in the narrative. It’s like watching a boxing match where we see one boxer clearly getting hit or landing blows, while the opponent flickers in and out of existence. This view presents reform as if it is handed-down from beneficent powers above, rather than demanded from an active populace below.

Halevy’s puzzling illustration of reform, is explained by his sarcasm when approaching events outside of legislation and motions. He is particularly annoyed when individuals inspire protest which intrudes upon an otherwise orderly parliament: William Cobbett “published with noisy advertisement” a book criticizing the Protestant Reformation while the issue of Catholic Emancipation was being debated (Halevy, p. 219). Henry Hunt, a reformer in the countryside, is called “the fanatical demagogue.” (Halevy, p. 16). Those in Ireland agitating for emancipation are labeled “Irish demagogues.” (Halevy, p. 272). This petulance towards activists reveals a law and order perspective. It explains why he wrote an account of reform primarily from the view parliament and cabinet. Halevy’s version of change is an organized, quiet, top-down order. This interpretation represents neither history nor human nature.

Though Halevy reveals an annoyed, subjective attitude towards agitators from below, his descriptions of parliament and cabinet are positively robotic. Halevy was an academic historian dedicated to truthfully representing leadership with dispassion. His descriptions are dry. To be fair, the English version is a translation from the French, which may have beaten even more caffeine out of the project. Also, British parliamentary motions do not provide the most gripping read. But Halevy does bear responsibility for how he presents a topic. For example, the ascendency of Canning caused upheaval in the British cabinet, involving intense partisan acrimony and a parade of resignations. But Halevy’s description drones like a biblical set of begats as Canning cronies take over positions: “Another of Canning’s friends, Sturges Bourne, received the Home Office at the Ordnance, and the Duke of Portland succeeded Lore Westmoreland as Lord Privy Seal. W Lamb, a supporter of Catholic emancipation, replaced Goulburn as Chief Secretary for Ireland” and so on.  (Halevy, p. 252). Happily, The Liberal Awakening will not interrupt a restful night if read before bedtime.

Halevy, Elie. The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. Watkin, E.I. (trans.) New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961.