Monday, November 23, 2015

On Mizzou, and Yale, and Claremont Mckenna, Too

A passage from Joan Didion's seminal essay, "The White Album."  She does not answer many questions, much less provide solutions, but I suspect that many of her observations here would resonate significantly with events and figures of the current campus unrest.

. . . .


At San Francisco State College on that particular morning the wind was blowing the cold rain in squalls across the muddied lawns and against the lighted windows of empty classrooms.  In the days before there had been fires set and classes invaded and finally confrontation with the San Francisco Police Tactical Unit, and in the weeks to come the campus would become what many people on it were pleased to call “a battlefield.”  The police and the Mace and the noon arrests would become the routine of life on the campus, and every night the combatants would review their day on television: the waves of students advancing, the commotion at the edge of the frame, the riot stick flashing, the instant of jerky camera that served to suggest at what risk the film was being obtained; then a cut to the weather map.  In the beginning there had been the necessary “issue,” the suspension of a 22-year-old instructor who happened as well to be Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, but that issue, like most, had soon ceased to be the point in the minds of even the most dense participants.  Disorder was its own point.
I had never been on a campus in disorder, had missed even Berkeley and Columbia, and I suppose I went to San Francisco State expecting something other than what I found there.  In some not at all trivial sense, the set was wrong.  The very architecture of California state colleges tends to deny radical notions, to reflect instead a modest and hopeful vision of progressive welfare bureaucracy, and as I walked across the campus that day and on later days the entire San Francisco State dilemma--the gradual politicization, the “issues” here and there, the obligatory “Fifteen Demands,” the continual arousal of the police and the outraged citizenry--seemed increasingly off-key, an instance of the enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’clock news.  “Adjet-prop committee meeting in the Redwood Room,” read a scrawled note on the cafeteria door one morning; only someone who needed very badly to be alarmed could respond with force to a guerrilla band that not only announced its meetings on the enemy’s bulletin board but seemed innocent of the spelling, and so the meaning, of the words it used.  “Hitler Hayakawa,” some of the faculty had begun calling S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist who had become the college’s third president in a year and had incurred considerable displeasure by trying to keep the campus open.  “Eichmann,” Kay Boyle had screamed at him at a rally.  In just such broad strokes was the picture being painted in the fall of 1968 on the pastel campus at San Francisco State.

The place simply never seemed serious.  The headlines were dark that first day, the college had been closed “indefinitely,” both Ronald Reagan and Jesse Unruh were threatening reprisals; still, the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy about college life.  “No chance we’ll be open tomorrow,” secretaries informed callers.  “Go skiing, have a good time.”  Striking black militants dropped in to chat with the deans; striking white radical exchanged gossip in the corridors.  “No interviews, no press,” announced a student strike leader who happened into a dean’s office where I was sitting; in the next moment he was piqued because no one had told him that a Huntley-Brinkley camera crew was on campus.  “We can still plug into that,” the dean said soothingly.  Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment: the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be “addressed,” plans to be “implemented.”  It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be “a very healthy development,” that maybe it took a shutdown “to get something done.”  The mood, like the architecture, was 1948 functional, a model of pragmatic optimism.

Perhaps Evelyn Waugh could have gotten it down exactly right.  Waugh was good at scenes of industrious self-delusion, scenes of people absorbed in odd games.  Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious: they were at any rate picking the games, dictating the rules, and taking what they could from what seemed for everyone else just an amiable evasion of routine, of institutional anxiety, of the tedium of the academic calendar.  Meanwhile the administrators could talk about programs.  Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerrillas.  It was working out well for everyone, this game at San Francisco State, and its peculiar virtues had never been so clear to me as they became one afternoon when I sat in on a meeting of fifty or sixty SDS members.  They had called a press conference for later that day, and now they were discussing “just what the format of the press conference should be.”

“This has to be on our terms,” someone warned.  “Because they’ll ask very elading questions, they’ll ask questions.”

“Make them submit any questions in writing,” someone else suggested.  “The Black Student Union does that very successfully, then they just don’t answer anything they don’t want to answer.”

“That’s it, don’t fall into their trap.”

“Something we should stress at this press conference is who owns the media.”

“You don’t think it’s common knowledge that the papers represent corporate interests?” a realist among them interjected doubtfully.

“I don’t think it’s understood.”

Two hours and several dozen hand votes later, the group had selected four members to tell the press who owned the media, had decided to appear en masse at an opposition press conference, and had debated various slogans for the next day’s demonstrations.  “Let’s see, first we have ‘Hearst Tells It Like It Ain’t’, then ‘Stop Press Distortion’--that’s the one there was some political controversy about . . .”

And, before they broke up, they had listened to a student who had driven up for the day from the College of San Mateo, a junior college down the peninsula from San Francisco.  “I cam up here today with some Third World students to tell you that we’re with you, and we hope you’ll be with us when we try to pull off a strike next week, because we’re really into it, we carry our motorcycle helmets all the time, can’t think, can’t go to class.”

He had paused.  He was a nice-looking boy, and fired with his task.  I considered the tender melancholy of life in San Mateo, which is one of the richest counties per capita in the United States of America, and I considered whether or not the Wichita Lineman and the petals on the wet black bough represented the aimlessness of the bourgeoisie, and I considered the illusion of aim to be gained by holding a press conference, the only problem with press conferences being that the press asked questions.  “I’m here to tell you that at College of San Mateo we’re living like revolutionaries,” the boy said then.

. . . . 

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