The Death of Political Idolatry

Resistance or Despair for Alienated America?

With Bobby Kennedy passing and Eugene McCarthy licking his wounds, the United States, in 1968, was forced into a new age of political iconoclasm. No "image-maker" can make much of what serious presidential timber we have left. McGovern, who is the nicest of the bunch, and Lindsay, who is the handsomest, have little fire to offer compared to the heat generated by either the Kennedy or the McCarthy campaign. Shirley Chisholm, whose personality is far more electrifying than any other candidate's, is unlikely to get the kind of money or delegate support needed to be elected president. Not only do Democratic Party leaders doubt the political viability of a black national candidate, Ms. Chisholm must face the overt anti-feminism of male and female voters alike.

I say we were forced into this age because, surely, the lack of inspiring leadership evidenced by either party cannot coincide with the people's apparent longings. As one woman stated her case in the New York Times three autumns ago, after voting for Kennedy in '60, Goldwater in '64, and Wallace in '68, where does one go now? The answer, it seems, according to the mood of the country, is an uneasy and remorseful: "Nowhere." It seems there's no one to turn to these days but ourselves.

Karl Marx would laugh a knowing laugh in the midst of our presidential campaign. Deprived of an idol who somehow seems capable of transmitting a sense of purposeful unity and of moral social enterprise, longing for a human god to awaken us to our future and to make idealism fashionable, the activists of our country, the students of the first moratorium and their parents, the New Frontiersmen, retreat into despair and acknowledged political impotence.

It is instructive to contemplate the few heroes still left us, "us" in the sense of the country as a whole, "us" in the sense of John Kennedy's mourners. Certainly, it's for the better that we've been deprived of some illusions, stripped of the comforting passivity of political idolatry, forced to see the New Frontier and the Alliance for Progress as a sham, compelled to recite eulogies for the War on Poverty and for the Great Society, and thrust into the reality, again, of war's immorality, seeing the innocent we've killed and living we've helped destroy. Still, there was some good in feeling some value in believing that we would grow up to join the war to end social injustice, in believing that somehow, for some reason, we were going to fight together toward an undefined, but better, destiny. That much we had under Kennedy, a sense of our own sincerity, progressivism, and vibrancy created from a character we, ourselves, molded for Kennedy.

Marx's chiding would focus on the crucial point in America's accelerated spirited decline: people must run the political process themselves. It cannot be separated from their material lives; it must not be an abstraction, but a reality for each individual.

In our removal from real politics, our distance from the activity of community organization, we are forced to find in one man, one image, the qualities we each know we should pursue individually.

As Tocqueville wrote in the 1830's, an electorate severed from the workings of its government surely can't be expected to choose its leaders wisely. When no idealistic projection is possible, we continue to ignore the potential, salvation that lies in our talents, in human resources. Rather, we, the activists, despair.

Americans despair not only because they are removed from the political process, but also because they are basically alienated from their material lives, from the process of production and from industrial enterprise. Work seems like drudgery, like misery and a hardship whose central object is the sanctification of leisure. We lend no credence to our own stated goals, feel no control over our own day to day activity, sense real estrangement between ourselves and those with whom we work, and atrophy while feeling that there is something else we should be doing if only we could define it. It is our distrust of ourselves that leads us to look for leadership elsewhere; it's because we are alienated from the people closest to us that leadership must come from a distant figure. Hence, we continue to pick our glorified candidates, mortals upon whom we bestow an imagined "gift of grace."


It is a reality of the power structure in the United States today that, besides the means of production themselves, the trappings of power--money, prestige, and access to the mass media--are concentrated in a few hands. While this concentration of power is a target for resistance regardless of who is pulling the strings, the figure of the string-puller does make a difference. For instance, activists are clearly better off under a Ramsey Clark than a John Mitchell, and this has nothing to do with seeing in Ramsey Clark an imaginary radicalism or a mysterious saving power.

There are two reasons for political preferences of this sort. While progressives may forestall better than reactionaries the economic collapse that appears a prerequisite to fundamental social change, they will make it easier for dissent to coexist with ruling class practice and enable organizers and writers to expand popular consciousness in relative political freedom. Indeed, their inability to resolve fundamental economic contradictions may appear to the people as the strongest argument possible for restructuring the economic, social, and political orders.

Secondly, they will not do the consciously inhuman things that conservative, self-consciously business-oriented administrations might. While their practice will inevitably full short of their preaching, liberal activists will at least preach many of the right things and begin, in a small way, to make the right kinds of human sentiment fashionable.

In this light, the case of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg '52 is particularly unusual he is something of an archetype par excellence for the sort of interim activist leader we have described. His admitted role in helping to circulate The Pentagon Papers strikes a few themes central to the current American crisis.

We must begin, as with the Kennedys, by emphasizing what Daniel Ellsberg is not. While he stands under indictment and may go to trial and while, regardless of the outcome, he is unlikely to be put on Pentagon projects again, he has made a relatively small sacrifice in material terms. Any prestige accorded him by the conservative or moderate establishment is now extended ten times over by the liberal establishment and by his younger audiences. He claims to have withdrawn his intelligence from the service of power, but we do not know--as, in fact, Ellsberg may not--what his position would be under a McGovern administration. For example, would he not be the ideal candidate for a McGovern National Security Council?

It would be wrong to underemphasize new injustices Ellsberg faces--from having his phone tapped to being a police target at demonstrations. However, he is not likely to have to go hungry either, and, in our admiration for his obvious courage, we must steer clear of dressing him in robes borrowed from our romantic memories of John or Robert Kennedy.

This is not to call Dr. Ellsberg hypocritical. Speaking here at Harvard last November 17, he admitted his own uncertainty about the meaning of his new role. Perhaps, he suggests, he is unwittingly serving the administration's cause. After all, he once thought the war was right. Can he be absolutely certain of the rightness of his new stance?

We thus wish to prevent the enshrining of Dr. Ellsberg, but we do not deny his achievement, nor the value of his advocating resistance, nor his suitability, in many ways, as a role-model for young activists. His action was clearly inspiring and unites three themes of the American crisis. The themes are confession, sacrifice, and initiative.

Almost more inspiring than the release of the Pentagon Papers is Dr. Ellsberg's confession that, having passed the age of 40, he found he had wasted his life. Such an admission to one's self, much less to an admiring audience, is an act of courage; one must not forget the years of effort Daniel Ellsberg had endured in validating his passport to the circle of corrupt power. A Harvard man, a former member of the Crimson and a president of the Advocate, a successful fellow of the Center for International Affairs, and currently a research fellow further up the Charles, at MIT, Ellsberg has been consultant to Henry Kissinger '50 and director of the 1969 Rand Project for the development of alternative plans for Vietnam which were presented to the National Security Council. Still, he saw his energy and intellect employed for wasteful, immoral, and inhuman ends. For any figure now in power who helped foster the Vietnam catastrophe, this recognition is the first step towards liberation; in order to create a future, one must first face up to his past.

Ellsberg's sacrifice has already been mentioned. There is, we must realize, no particular certainly that a McGovern-like president will come to power soon. There is no skirting the fact that Ellsberg may go to jail. Clearly, he's foresworn large categories of lucrative government work. Finally, the adulation of student crowds is notoriously short-lived. If he gave up nothing else, Ellsberg at least gave up security for pressure, certainly for uncertainty. For the time being, at least, he has given up the vagaries of academic freedom for the burden of academic responsibility. That seems like little to outsiders, but to an entrenched academic such sacrifice is enormous. We should not ignore, not only what Ellsberg has given up, but what he certainly could have had. The "rewards" at the center of the web of power would have been considerable.

A final theme is initiative. It is somehow fitting that only by committing what may prove to be a felony could Ellsberg help release the documented truth of an immoral, unjust, and illegally pursued war. For 26 years, America has supported an increasingly intense display of inhumanity. Only civil disobedience could reveal the facts of our involvement to the public, facts which, unsurprisingly, are still denied in much public reaction to the Pentagon Papers.

Here is a measure not only of the initiative required to get at the truth, but also of the basis for the effort required to get the truth acknowledged. The American public is so removed from political decision-making that the truth could be denied them for two and a half decades. Nixon did not judge his constituency unperceptively in invading Laos on a weekend when football scores dominated the headlines. Nixon relies on the gap between the people and the center of power. Covering up the consequential alienation becomes his most difficult task.

There is another motif running through the Ellsberg affair, the motif of the Harvard Man, of intelligence delivered in the service of power. Ellsberg stepped forward and removed himself from the past; while not absolving himself of guilt, he at least has attempted repentence. It is better that he should self-consciously but actively atone than atrophy amidst his own regrets.

Now, what about the men to whom Ellsberg gave service? What about the men who helped fashion the Vietman quagmire? What about the Kennedys, Bundy, and Kissinger, et al? Does their involvement in the war have something to indicate about Harvard?

Is Harvard's apparent role in directing the war an innocent string of striking coincidences, or does Harvard actively prevent potential activists and resisters like Ellsberg from stepping out of the web of power? Does Harvard suppress confession? Does Harvard ignore sacrifice? Does Harvard repress initiative? What could resistance mean in the context of Harvard? Why does alienation, rather than activism, dominate the life of this university?


Harvard now has four vice-presidents whose combined salaries would pay off the undergraduate housing debt. The administration has attempted to charge rent to the wives of house tutors, and has considered charging rent to the tutors themselves. The costs of the building projects undertaken by Harvard (e.g., the science center) have risen astronomically, while the uses of these buildings have been called increasingly into question. Meanwhile, Phillips Brooks House, which serves high school students, disadvantaged youngsters, prisoners, and minority communities in the Cambridge-Boston area is scraping for money. All this is accompanied by skyrocketing tuition and the administration's refusal to relieve that burden with Yale plan-type loans.

These are only a few of the more tangible issues. One also might contemplate the dubious legitimacy of the CRR as now constituted, Harvard's failure to act decisively on educational policy reform, and the adoption of 2.5 to 1 as an acceptable level of sexual equality. There is no shortage of debatable issues and no-evidence of effective popular debate. Do undergraduates enjoy being manipulated, or may we assume that something deeper underlies a prevailing malaise?

It is remarkable that a university in which government is invariably one of the top three concentrations by enrollment has no student-organized body to collectively act on the undergraduates' behalf. The unremarkable reason for this phenomenon is the suspicion on the part of a great number of the students that any such union would be taken over by young men and women on the rise, undergrads who, through conciliation and compromise, would hope to prime themselves for future office in the "real world" of opportunism and hypocrisy. No one willingly subscribes to the legitimacy of such representation.

However, there is a deeper implication expressed in such suspicions. Those who raise these objections to student unions apparently expect that they, themselves, would not stop a takeover by opportunists. Either they suspect their own unwillingness or inability to make the effort, or they believe that not enough individuals will feel as strongly as they to make a united and effective stand. No one believes he or she will take on the burden, and, consequently, no one believes anyone else will shoulder it either.

Now, the basis of these doubts appears more clearly. We Harvard men and women--indeed, all American students--despite the endless resources at our disposal, have been educated to respond to the social system passively or to participate only in support of traditional goals which, of course, results in much the same thing.

High school education tells us to sit back and learn while some authority outside us teaches us something for some reason we are not to comprehend. Political parties urge us to cast our votes one day and to get out of the way the next, while party leaders and candidates run our communities and our country. The corporate model reminds us that we each have our place, our aiche in the process, while those above our niche determine the frontiers of our decision-making and we provide the same constraints for those who, to their misfortune, remain below us.

Harvard University, in the condescending style of Richard Nixon, repeats every day--in its bureaucratic administration, in its hierarchy of scholars (leaving undergraduates at the bottom, of course), in its undefined defense of "academic freedom" and of the "sanctity of the university"--one single theme, one single idea. The idea is that Someone Knows Something that We Don't. If We sit back and listen, maybe Someday We will be Someone, too. Such absurdity reaches even the trivial level. For example, Buildings and Grounds responded negatively to a student wanting to paint his own suite; "The Faculty of Arts and Sciences will decide the colors of the rooms!"

Harvard students are now powerless to effect real policy change. Most are infused with a sense of meaninglessness, with a sense that whatever we're doing helps no one, including ourselves, and that each person is more interested in the preservation of his or her ego than in his or her contribution to the community. This is not an indictment of Harvard students per se; it is a sketch of the spirit of American society today, a spirit resulting from the deliberate, persistent attempt to preserve the economic, social and political status quo at all costs.

People at Harvard are unusually good targets for a campaign in support of passivity. Like Dr. Ellsberg, we have the most valuable interests to protect. Like Dr. Ellsberg, we have the most sins to confess. Like Dr. Ellsberg, we would have to take drastic initiative to break loose, even to preserve an academic integrity in an institution whose social attitudes often grow from nineteenth century intellectual seeds.

The trouble is that throughout our lives, we shall never leave our particularly dangerous perch. Not only are we alienated among ourselves, not only are we searching for leadership outside ourselves, but we are part of a system of other expectations that looks to us to provide leadership for the rest of the nation. We are supposed to plan wars. We are supposed to defend law and order. We are supposed to be active sentries in support of policies and ideals we are not to actively question. We will be paid well for our trouble.

Those of us who feel alienated from our political environment thus despair, retreat, reject, and disapprove. Those who feel at home in these surroundings do plan wars and plot their paths to corporate presidencies and material riches.

There is the minority, working on a community level, which tries to raise the level of awareness among students and faculty to the point where those who have power will join to help save all of us. To win even that interim power, however, there must be more who work, more who insist on making the political process a part of their lives and the welfare of the community their self-conscious self-interest as well.

If we can afford to be elitist about anything, we do have one dangerous irony to ourselves: because we are at an institution like Harvard, we are the most able to effect change through power in society, and the most likely because of our background to preserve the status quo.

We can choose our idols, or we can step out of the web. We can create more mythology, or we can steal more truth. Resistance is no more than a daily responsibility, no more than the effort to make community life one's own. Blocking our resistance is the inertia of an alienating past and a society predicated on our submission to impersonal, frequently inhuman, authority. We have left Bobby and Eugene behind us; when we turn to each other is yet to be seen