Wednesday, April 10, 2019

still the same

On Sundays, the Boston Globe prints a column that lists authors who will be reading during the upcoming week from their recently published books.   There is no shortage of these readings. This past Sunday nearly thirty events were listed.

I read the column weekly and often think that it would be good to go to a particular one.  Occasionally, I actually do go to these readings, but far less frequently than I consider doing so.  Almost always when I go, I enjoy the hour with the author even if, after I read the book they are essentially peddling, I am not so keen on the product.

Usually the attendance at these gatherings is small--maybe twenty to thirty interested persons. Often the readings are held in a small section of a bookstore. The proprietors hope that those who come to the talk, might subsequently pay for a copy.  Other times the readings are held in libraries in the area-- of which they are dozens. Big names draw bigger crowds of course. Joseph Heller, way back, filled a room in the Boston Public Library. Richard Price got a smaller but still healthy turnout when he read from his then just published excellent book, Clockers at the Cambridge Public LibraryMost of the time though, you can easily count the house.

One listing I spotted this past Sunday was for a book entitled You Say You Want a Revolution.  It seemed to be about the student protests of the 1960s.  I was there then, and it looked interesting. So I went last night.

When I arrived I saw what I sort of anticipated: a crowd of aging hippies who I could only imagine shouted "Free Bobby Seale" and "Power to the People" back in the day.  I started to speak with a woman to my right and I realized that while I was in the right ballpark, I was in the wrong section.

These folks were no ordinary student protestors. These were people from the far left who, in a number of instances were leaders of student movements. We are talking very far left. The book is a collection of memoirs from those who were active during the era on the far left.  Several of the memoirists were present.  About seven of them spoke reading parts from their sections in the book and interspersing comments about their experiences.

Initially I was intrigued, engaged, and sometimes amused.  Here were aging activists who had not relinquished their idealism, or so it seemed.   Yesterday, I discovered, was an anniversary of a student protest at Harvard. Nearly all those who spoke were active in that protest. Many people in the audience were also at the protest. The two men seated directly in front of me appeared to be strangers but then one leaned over to the other and they realized that they were acquaintances from then. They  had not seen each other in decades but discovered joyfully that they had been then as they were last night, shoulder to shoulder together.

The second speaker I found to be the most effective. She spoke about all the things the people in the vanguard of the movement did wrong.  She spoke of how subjugating leadership was to women, and how they did not tolerate disagreement among the rank and file. An irony this; how a group screaming for democracy did not practice it within its ranks.   Other speakers were similarly self effacing and often cited the group's unwillingness to accept philosophical diversity within the movement.  Yet, despite the self-criticism I did not get the sense that to this day the ideology of the far left was any more flexible.  The speakers talked of how change could not take place unless they embraced the working class. There was talk about how capitalism is evil and the root of the subjugation. They referred, only half in jest, to their colleagues as Comrades, and the women in the group as Sisters.

Well, nothing wrong with the word comrades, I guess, except if it conjures up an autocratic system that is left leaning as opposed to an autocratic system that is right leaning. And the reference to "Sisters"from men, beyond being outdated, struck me as paternalistic rather than egalitarian.

Some of the speakers intimated that with dedication, the left could still fuel an uprising and it was important to keep the faith. At one point I thought that this rhetoric was the same stuff I heard when I was 20 and knew then that it was myopic.  I recall being in classrooms filled with smoke and puffing pontificators who condemned the "system" and the oppression of the working class. Yet at the end of the rambling and self serving speeches and speakers, the classroom was littered with cigarette butts and empty paper coffee cups and desks askew, while the "working class" janitors were waiting outside to clean the room, now filthy.  Occasionally one of the speakers would see a janitor and in a forced effort to enact their philosophy, attempt to engage the cleaners with conversation that reeked of paternalism and noblesse oblige.

This was a well attended event, much more heavily attended than those I typically go to.  Maybe as many as 100 people there.  So, there is some support.

But we were in Cambridge, MA.  We were in the only state that McGovern carried in 1972.  All you have to do would be to go North into New Hampshire or the northern suburbs of Boston and these guys would be seen as fringe folks at best. Even in Cambridge these folks would not be persuasive to the majority.

If you want to change the world, you have to see the world as it is, not like you would like it to be.  You don't like capitalism, fine. Given the impulses of most people, not to mention the history of the world, describe a system that works better.

Irony 1 they were really pushing their books. Why not give them away?

Irony 2, the bookstore wanted the program to end because customers could not get to the section of the store where the talk was being held. The group kept going beyond their time limit.  Power to the people. Hmm. I guess power to the people who have similar ideologies.

When I left the bookstore I was no longer amused.  While I admire the philosophy and ideological commitment, there was not enough recognition of how short sighted the far left movement was and is. I once mused (and thought myself clever) that utopia is the stuff of myopia.  It is.  You say you want a revolution? Well, as Lennon (not Lenin) crooned, "we'd like to see the plans."   And the plans need to account for our own human tendencies.

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