A Father for Our Time
by Michael Rossman
I read in the New York Times of the fate of yet another fragment of the radical Left, the National Caucus of Labor Committees. Born from the breakup of SDS in 1968, conceived as an alternative to the violence of the Weathermen and the passivity of drug communes, the NCLC was committed to rational Marxist organizing among the workers, toward a world revolution. I don't know the details of what happened during five years of violence, government repression, and national demoralization, or how its members came increasingly to submit themselves to the "guidance" of its fifty-one-year-old charismatic Leader, Lyndon LaRouche. But today, from the Times' account, the NCLC seems to have become a small totalitarian state. Its members are expected to be totally committed, honoring no other bond; the Leader's word is Law. He has come to believe that the fate of the world depends upon him, and that a vast conspiracy is out to get him and his group, stealing their minds. And so his followers believe this too; they resort to "preventive detention" and direct brainwashing of their erring comrades, and literally submit their thoughts to the Leader to check if they're okay to think. Their proudest political product is violence, having sent forty of their ideological opponents to the hospital this past summer.
All this makes me extra sad because I am of the Left, but it's nothing new these days. The Children of God and lesser-known Jesus cults work the same way, change only the vocabulary and perhaps the beatings; and so do Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, the Lyman Family, and, in essence, hundreds of other spiritual and therapeutic and political and agricultural communities now growing in America, involving hundreds of thousands of people. The dominant organizing form of this decade seems to be the sheep herd. In every valley I hear the tinkling bells of the leaders, see those patriarchal rams butting heads, watch them leading their followers toward the glorious pastures.
I sit watching, a middle-aged radical, chewing my solitary cud, that old dream of participatory democracy, and try to remember when and how my peers started turning into sheep. I think back to 1964, to the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the very first campus revolt, which at this distance seems still more an amazing watershed. During months of struggle there was born among us a new vision of community and of culture, to make whole the vision of social justice that had moved us to action in the New Left. During the rest of that decade, in the Movement and the counterculture, we saw millions of young people moved by their versions of these visions, which even today, in curiously altered forms, guide the herds through the meadows.
At the time I was rapt in the existential wonder of it all, but something gave me the creeps. Distorted in the mirror of the media, the FSM was a caricature of the movement I knew. Around me thousands of people, self-organized into a hundred spontaneous groups, were coordinating an intense web of learning and action; I saw my sisters and brothers turning all their intelligence and energy to something they cared for, for the first time in their lives. But to read it in the papers, the FSM was simply a campus mob organized by a disciplined cadre of radicals and inflamed by a brilliant young charismatic leader. Mario Savio's angular figure grew familiar on prime-time TV; the publicity made him a national celebrity. It was relentless: ten years later reporters were still at me, asking how they could get Mario's reaction to this and that. Eventually the pressure of being seen as what he was not proved ruinous to his life.
This made me bitter slowly. But I hated immediately, on my own account, the way the media reduced us to how people wanted to see us, as simple and familiar. For when I left my former life and committed myself to a political existence, I wasn't playing follow-the-Leader. It's true that Mario had a moral eloquence that gave him a special place in our hearts and made him a natural media target. Before him and since, I have known men who put into words the feelings that I could only mumble, exciting my love and trust by speaking for me. But my voice is only one part of me; I have ears and hands and a stomach. Who now remembers how Lee Felsenstein tended our electronics, how Lynne Hollander organized our research, how Steve Weissman devised strategy, how sisters I never knew invented the logistics of sit-in support?
But to speak of us as simply the sum of our talents is still a lie. Listen, this is how it was, something we didn't know how to talk about even among ourselves, let alone to reporters. Emboldened to risk and dare only by each other's presence, we were out there on the existential edge, where what we knew dropped off into the unknown, toward a vision of a different reality. Everything was torn loose for a time: our careers cast off, our lives at times in jeopardy, our very conceptions of who we were and how to be a person among persons were shaken and revised as profoundly, though differently, as in any current transcendental conversion. In this chaos and mystery, alone together and equal facing the unknown, no one led or followed. We were cast into a desperate spontaneous democracy, which was our ultimate and only magic.
I knew many who felt this way. I wanted to believe that all my comrades did, and that only the media and those who feared us were responsible for the heresy that we were sheep. But well before the FSM's climax I witnessed the sweet flesh of our imaginations turning rank. Though we scoffed at the media portrait of the FSM as a disciplined, effficient organization, with Mario as its Leader, we subtly came to adopt a kindred view. Rather than take responsibility for the simple complex of our action — and the terrifying freedom we briefly felt, in which everything depended on each individual and his or her will to bring a different reality into being — each of us chose in some way to say, "It wasn't me who did this, it was the FSM." Though our spontaneous cooperation reached its tactical perfection in the first campus sit-in and strike, already we were falling back toward a state of mind in which almost everyone depended upon "the FSM" and its leadership structure as reflected by various media, rather than upon his or her own cooperative initiative, to define and undertake what needed to be done.
Rebelling against the deathly authority of the university and the State, we found ourselves re-creating the same forms of authority — in part because we had no language or training to support the different forms we had briefly materialized in our freedom, in part because we were afraid to. Events moved so rapidly that this retrogression was more latent than realized; the FSM may well have been the most intensely participant-democratic political event of its decade. But the many later movements of the New Left were less fortunate. Save perhaps in the women's movement, political organization grew increasingly hierarchical, bureaucratized, and authoritarian. Even the Yippies, ostensibly clowns, had cloven hooves, being the first Left group to define itself purely by the media projections of charismatic leaders. By the end of the 1960s, the political Left had once again largely degenerated into a squabble of ideological splinters, lines of dwindling perspective for sheep to follow. We blamed the cold climate, government murder and repression, weariness; no one had the heart to speak of the failure of our will.
The same retreat from democratic collectivity was also happening in the cultural Left. More than I wanted to believe, the groups and communities that formed from the initial chaotic freedom of rural communes and urban hippie ghettoes were organized around one charismatic man, re-creating the power structure of the patriarchial family, which corporations also enjoy. Still the "hippies," romantically apolitical, proved more able to sustain the democratic impulse and create new power forms than did the political Left, which studied power explicitly.
That the New Left turned toward authoritarianism is deeply ironic, for our political action set the public tone of our culture for a decade. Before the FSM and after, we were putting ourselves on the line to challenge the illegitimate practices of social authority. The anti-authoritarian impulse spread through the entire educational system, and into the domains of sex, psychiatry, consumerism, child rearing, medicine, drug use, journalism. In some fashion not only the dictates but the very workings of established authority came to be questioned in every aspect of our lives. The feeling that everything was coming unglued spread, reverberating with violence, and underlain by the fact that, indeed, many things are coming unglued. And America convulsed, killing its children, who had lost all respect, in the streets; trying to tighten the old lines of control; trying to pretend that the 1950s were back again, stable and familiar, with everyone in his or her place.
The campuses have been quiet for four years now; on and beyond them the sheep herds multiply. Watching are many survivors of the New Left, still engaged in low-profile struggle to bring into being what they dreamed, who wonder what all their efforts of a decade wrought in our society. Some are sourly cheered by the prospect of Nixon's downfall, and the revelation that all our paranoias were absolutely accurate; and it is choice to see him meet his Watergate directly as a result of his own paranoid reaction to us. But I find in the matter a deeper meat. For when a majority of citizens come to recognize that the president is a self-serving crook running a gang of thugs, the highest symbol of secular authority in our culture is challenged as illegitimate. As much as the Kent State killings, this event is part of the mythic climax to the Movement of the 1960s.
Linked in electronic simultaneity, we watch the archetypal drama unfold at a grave and appropriate pace. Cowboys saddling up, cops and robbers: for six months, every day on the radio, the TV, the papers, this gang of guys has been out to get the president. Nobody knows whether they will or won't; but I think the damage has been done already. For our lives are ordered by myth and symbol, and such events of public theater move within us more deeply than we are aware. This drama brings a further erosion of confidence in the structures we have created to deal with reality, which will bring in turn a more desperate grasping for an authority which is clean and sure. If Nixon finds Christ as his Savior during this last crisis I won't be surprised, for I'm sure that the disintegration of secular authority will lead many others to do so.
In this light, the herds of Jesus freaks, and all the other herds, are as much a product of New Left action as is anything else we set out deliberately to inspire. I recall, during the FSM, the hysterical warnings by S. M. Lipset and other reactionary liberal academics that our direct challenge of the State's authority would work toward a fascist America. Children picking at a pimple, intent on exposing the implicit fascism that already ruled our lives, we would not listen to those who saw us as the mindless shock-troops of an authoritarianism they could recognize only in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However blind they were to the reality of democracy among us, and the quiet ways in which it has since developed outside the sheep paths, their prediction was as accurate as our perception. For surely we have unleashed, or brought into the open, something we are ill-prepared to deal with.
But I believe that we had no other choice, and that we moved as best we could in harmony with the true temper of our civilization's age. For all the confines of our reality are now shifting and breaking. Our institutions of city, economy, education, and marriage are failing; our concepts of work, sexuality, and sanity are opening bewilderingly; the plants, the whales, and the stars call on us to discard our old egocentric impressions of them; as the domestic political consensus comes unglued so does our perception of the nature and limits of consciousness itself. All these influences bear on every citizen, be he or she ostrich or sheep. Less directly but more thoroughly, and increasingly, each is being moved toward the existential state we glimpsed in miniature during the FSM, in which what it is to be human among humans becomes once more unknown and re-formable, as we gape with wonder and terror at a world different from all our conceptions.
The crisis may be drawn out, but it cannot be averted. To survive we must break the hold of old conceptions on our minds and lives; and when we tried to do this in public space, in the FSM and the Movement, we were not sheep but fish swimming with the natural current, or perhaps the social poets of our time. And we paid a natural price. If many in the New Left turned, in the 1970s, to narrow ideological disciplines or spiritual gurus, to isolated farms or tight therapeutic enclaves, this was due to nothing so simple as a common personality disorder that made us suckers for seeking the Answer. Rather, our daring had made us vulnerable. More intensely than any other class of citizens, those who moved in social protest — washed in apocalyptic culture and risking themselves — became aware of the true depth and completeness of the impending breakdown of our culture's cognitive and social frames. Those who stand at the edge of chaos are most exposed to dizziness. It is no wonder that each of us grabbed in some way for a small piece of solid ground to ride a ways in the general fall.
Brave enough to go before the guns unarmed, we knew a deeper fear, in which we were united with those who saw, in our drugs and protests, the very symptoms of things coming apart. For this fear acts on all now, moving most to look for some Leader to take control and make things right. All the King's horses and men won't put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but that doesn't stop people from wishing; and in America's most important regularly scheduled symbolic theater — the presidential elections — this wish has been clearly reflected. After the Kennedy murders, the electoral passions of the young turned to McCarthy and McGovern, or rather to those media images of decent, calm Daddies who would make it all better, if only ... I forget which one's slogan was "to bring the children home again," as if that were possible. But what a cruel hoax! In cold calculation their political advisers fed them platitudes, tied the bells around their necks, and sent them out to lead the flocks. Ah, but the flocks were willing, though the images were shoddy; they wanted so to believe. Not Dad Himself, nor even great Pan, could have fulfilled the expectations thrust upon those two men of orthodox politics. Instead, the lesser expectation of law and order, of stasis, was voted in. It was unfortunate that Nixon, the stern Daddy of an older frightened generation, triumphed. For his regime has proved corrupt too cheaply; there is still room for a virtuous fascism under its banner. And even Nixon's downfall will leave those who were young in the 1960s, and many others, wide open to belief in yet another benign Leader who will solve it all.
In this time of urban crime, industrial chaos, environmental crisis, economic misery, and educational disaster, the citizens look to Authority to save them, rather than to the reconstruction of their own lives. And as in public society, so within the individual who has nothing at his center. Those who have a hole inside look for something or someone else to fill it; it resonates to any tinkling sheep bell.
I too have a hole inside. I like to think it a bit smaller than the norm, but it may not be, for I have stared into it enough to know its terrors more clearly than most do. But my center survives it, and I am not moved to flock in a herd. For everyone I see has a hole somewhat like mine, and I don't expect to find anyone to magically fill it. I think the hole is there because my culture is falling apart, and as a creature partly of my culture I too am dissolving inside. I stand as close to my hole as I dare, seeing in it not emptiness but the vortex of transformation, the chaos from which new wonder may be born, without as within. I know I am a mystery; I know no simple program of politics or spirituality can deal with all that has opened and all that threatens; I know the hole will be here changing all my life. All I hope for is to find others with whom to share the struggle to make a wholeness which includes the hole and honors it. I am fortunate enough to have a few comrades who share my feelings. I imagine many others do—not a herd, but perhaps a quiet, scattered commonweal.
Which brings me to my father, a short man who stood tall because he was proud of his competence, but who never thought himself much, not even as much as he was. It took my leaving home for me to see this, for during my boyhood he had perhaps more than his share of the routine authoritarian character that is the macho heritage of our culture. Even today I wince at his tone of tight righteousness about the right way to nail a nail or run an election, and despair at how much of that voice I hear in mine. Sometimes I wonder what saved me, after I found that he did not always know what to do, from seeking a father figure who did, or from becoming one myself. But I came back, a man, to be his friend, and for half my life now have watched him in his changes. A Communist, he survived the destruction of the Left in the witch hunts of the 1950s with his humanity intact; but his faith in the nth International was failing well before Hungary finished it off. He remained his own man, continued his craft of journalism, chronicling the affairs of his unions through the years while the progressive flames of union spirit faded and organized labor finished becoming a bulwark of the reactionary status quo. His children grew up, committing themselves to their time's causes and strange experiences. He recognized in them the flames transformed, and listened while he sought to renew the struggle of becoming who he was.
At sixty he left his marriage, unwilling to endure its dying frame. Another speck of flotsam on a sea of crumbling institutions, he moved through the world of singles, exploring open liaisons and diverse quests, learning painfully to open himself in encounter. He stuck to meditation; it steadied him while he learned how to publish a new paper and became involved in a mild union insurgency. On a clear winter day in the Sierras he ventured with acid up to the Light, knew the naked Tao that builds this universe, and came down through the fire place, coming to terms with the death of his flesh as he watched one log burn to embers, while I fell asleep wondering when his will for justice would turn him actively to the politics of age, and how.
And so not long ago he sat before me crying, while my son played off somewhere in the debris of the old house we are making new. "I always thought I'd be wise when I got old," he said, the sunlight catching in his tears as they trickled through his goatee and dropped in his forgotten tea. "And here I am old, and I don't know anything." And I was crying too, but all I could say was "Thank you, thank you." I couldn't tell him it was for promising me the soft strength to be forever putting it all together from scratch.
Now I am writing this, and he drops by. I tease him: "It's a letter to you. A love letter, in fact, though it's kind of contorted because of the age. But you can't see it 'til it's done." So show it to me then, he says, and launches into the anecdotes of his painful human comedy, tells me of his wonder at the hints of his capacity to maintain a new kind of relationship with my mother, one he cannot name but must explore day to day in the swirl. Our talk shifts to the guru trade; he smiles ruefully above his tea. "Here I am, getting old and paunchy, and nobody's gonna sit at my feet, because I'm moving too fast."
Oh Daddy, dear Dad, you're the only Dad for me! May I do as well by my kid and my friends.
First published in Rolling Stone, May 9, 1974.