A Parting Shot
IN APRIL 27, 1891, Colonel Charles Colcock Jones Jr. addressed the Confederate Survivors' Association, over which he presided, at its thirteenth annual meeting in Augusta, Georgia. Colonel Jones suggested to the assemblage--an aging, decimated group, decked out in faded gray uniforms--that the sons of Confederate survivors be admitted into the Association, so that it could live on after its current members' imminent deaths. "They are the legitimate transmitters of the aims, doctrines and principles which we held dearer than life," he said; they would glorify the memory of Confederates "who imperiled all in the defense of home, in the cause of truth, in the maintenance of right, in the support of freedom."
Shortly thereafter Colonel Jones died, and his Association merged with the larger and more prosperous United Confederate Veterans organization, which in fact preached reconciliation and moving ahead. But if reconciliation prevailed, there must have been some people--the sons of the survivors, the ones Jones talked about--who felt it was somehow wrong, who felt tied to a cause that was dead and that they only dimly understood and that seemed better off over with. It must have stood like a shadow over their lives.
I mention this story because it reminds me of my experience at Harvard; although I don't have any sympathy for what the Confederate survivors were glorifying, I have a Lost Cause of my own, and I think I know how their sons must have felt. I haven't been particularly enthusiastic about the mood of reconciliation that has prevailed in the time I have been in college, and I have been told many times that a few years ago, before I was here, students were fighting for a cause that was noble and just. The idea is a wonderful focus for the discontents of college life--students saw, then, that something was very wrong with Harvard and the world, and they knew of and fought for a better way. I'm not as sure as I once was of what, exactly, that way was, but the idea of people refusing to accept--indeed, revel in--the system of values that now prevails here appeals to me. Here was a deeply corrupt world, where murder and suffering were deeply institutionalized, and Harvard was preparing people blithely to take their places in it and indeed helping to shape it; and students were objecting.
I've tried to understand that period--what it was that students were objecting to, how they went about carrying on the cause, and especially why what they were doing feel apart. Someone who was at Harvard then, whom I asked how it started, wrote back:
There was to be a debate on the war, in Sanders Theatre. I forget who the professors were who were giving the anti-war case; what I do remember is Arthur Goldberg, there to sell the war. Up until that point, I had had every expectation that Goldberg, or whoever else was in the know, would have reasonable answers to all these impolite questions about the war. The shocking upshot of the Goldberg debate was that he didn't have anything to say, that he had no reasonable answers to the reasonable questions.
PERHAPS THAT WAS IT, then: there was an established set of values, and it was clearly wrong--it was killing people--and Harvard had a part in it, and there was something which was better. If the established system didn't have the answers, the people who opposed it did. For all the appeal that that idea has, though, for me it's too often been the opposition that didn't have the answers.
A trivial example: a couple of months ago, I went to a demonstration to write a story about it. The demonstration was being held at Holyoke Center, in support of a kitchen worker who was, the marchers told me, having a grievance hearing upstairs in the Personnel Office. I went up to the office; they said the hearing had been postponed. I went back and asked the demonstrators about that, and they said they knew the hearing was going on, that Harvard was lying again, that, essentially, here was another case of the people who were supposed to have the answers not having them. As it turned out, they were wrong--the hearing had been postponed. Harvard, being liberal, doesn't make an easy villian.
Maybe that's one of the things, maybe even the main thing, that happened to the Lost Cause--when pressed it had no more answers, perhaps even fewer, than Harvard. The idea of a clear and imminent alternative way must have fallen apart, and in its wake, left people either accepting what prevailed or, like me, vaguely and not particularly coherently objecting to the prevailing order without knowing exactly what I wanted in its stead.
None of this state of affairs at Harvard has changed much since I came here, well after the age of student protest, just after the last veterans of the student strike had graduated. There were a few more demonstrations at first than there are now, but not many. I used to run into a few more people who called themselves radicals and who didn't envision themselves ever stopping their active opposition to the dominant strains in American society, but they certainly didn't predominate. The cliches about college students have been relatively constant in my time here--less protest, economic pressure, preprofessionalism. Having a feeling that something deep in the roots of America was dreadfully wrong but lacking anything approaching a focus for that feeling, I spent a lot of time thinking about a struggle that, sadly, was obviously over.
My preoccupation with the past seems funny because so many things have happened in the course of the last four years that I should have been happy about. Looking back, it seems to have been four years full of political change very close to what students were fighting for before I came here, but as victories they didn't have much impact on me. When I came here, Richard Nixon was being overwhelmingly reelected president; the United States was dropping countless tons of bombs on Vietnam and Cambodia and systematically killing people there; the Harvard faculty was over 95 per cent white and male; the University's tenants were trying to become a force to be recognized. It's striking how much of that is different now, and how little it all meant to students here.
THE NIGHT NIXON resigned, a couple of hundred people converged on Harvard Square and shouted a little and climbed on top of the subway kiosk. When the National Liberation Front finally drove the last vestiges of an American-supported and -armed government out of Vietnam, perhaps twenty people held an impromptu March past the Houses while students inside their rooms yelled at them to be quiet. When Harvard finally wrote an affirmative action plan and included some tenants in drawing its plans for expansion, nobody noticed. It makes a lot of sense, really, that students didn't regard all these things as great victories. All of them happened well after students had quieted down; worse, the success of some of the more immediate causes of the sixties and the demise of some of the more obvious villians only made it clear, to those who still cared, how little immediate causes and obvious villians are at the root of what is wrong. The United States government still allies itself with murderers and exploiters, and vast inequities persist, and larger systems still manipulate peoples' lives. None of what has happened--the NLF's victory, or Nixon's resignation, or reforms in the CIA--seem to have much to do with these root problems; indeed, the changes of the last few years will only allow their causes to continue in a more stable form, their obvious excesses checked but their basic structure unchanged. We're left with a kind of double failure: not only did we win, after a fashion, only when we stopped fighting but our victories leave us, a little while later, with an overpowering sense of defeat.
These days defeat and despair hang heavy in the air and sit thick in the interstices between us. Perhaps they always did--we're all mortal, after all--but they seem to grow and flourish especially in an environment where people know there are things terribly wrong with the world and have resigned themselves to the impossibility of doing anything about it. What was happening here five years or so ago seems to have been an attempt to deal with that despair by embracing and working toward an alternative vision of how things could be. That vision fell apart, and we live now in its ruins. The strike and its aftermath have certainly not left us with the notion of an alternative, one that answers the political and personal problems that the prevailing system cannot; what it does seem to have left, unfortunately, is the idea that without an alternative an attitude of reconciliation and resignation is all that is left.
SO IT IS THAT most Harvard students deal with their despair by assuming that things as they now exist are, if not actually good, at least unchangeable. If they don't seem particularly happy about this state of affairs--both for its larger political implications and for the distasteful adaptations andaccommodations into which it forces them--they accept its inevitability. The sense now seems to be that we are in the inextricable grip of the tough and sad business of life, and that college is a very serious and real affair where there is little room for slipping ever so slightly off the track. Whatever we came as, we're emerging as pragmatists who have purposively gone about getting a good idea of how it is that the world, as it is, works.
If five years ago the Harvard students who got the most public attention, the symbols of the age, were radicals, in the time I've been here the emblematic figures have been people who went a little too far in their quest to succeed within the prevailing value system. There was Steven Rosenfeld, the stellar pre-med whose drive carried him to the point of forging medical school applications that would have been glowing anyway. There are Spiro and Monette Pavlovich, who forged transcripts in order to stay on the prestige mill of Harvard graduate schools. These people are extremes, but they attracted, in this day and age, an inordinate amount of attention because they represented extensions, past the indistinct borders of logic, of impulses that are widely present in Harvard students. They are embodiments of the primacy of process and systems and the importance of staying within them, to the exclusion of the niceties of morality.
One of the failures of the student movement has been its too-specific focus on situations and villains, at the expense of examining the processes that create them and make them recur. Similarly, the despair in students' lives now is not the product of specific circumstances or individuals. It is a story without any villains, the story of what is left in the wake of a period of idealism and vision that failed. Its central characteristic is not an embracing of the status quo or a blindness to its failings, but a sense of its irrevocability. The vast majority of students here see no alternative at all to the set of values that is presented to them in their time at Harvard; there is nothing else, usually not even a sense of place, for them to feel rooted in, and they are left with no choice.
ALTHOUGH I'VE tried to anchor myself--through politics, and journalistic detachment, and ties to my hometown, New Orleans--to things outside of the liberal and pragmatic value system that prevails at Harvard now, I don't mean to imply any separation between myself and the phenomena I am describing. Like most people here, I think the world taken as a whole is a sad place, where suffering and lack of freedom far outweigh happiness and liberty. I think that sadness is deeply rooted in the present structure of things, but not in the nature of things; in the abstract, it does not have to be. But if the world is in need of the most major sorts of changes, I do not really think I will see them come about; I think with a few minor changes, the sadness is likely to persist, and whatever reforms have happened in the last few years have only strengthened that view. I don't like to say so, but I think the idea of a vastly different world is a lost cause, and the problem now is how, believing that but hoping no less for change, to behave.
So I find it hard to end in a blaze of optimism. One of my predecessors wrote confidently two years ago of the coming time when we can take this planet away from the murderers and liars, and I believed him then, but I can't write that now. I think some whom he was particularly referring to--Nixon--Colby--are gone now, and others have taken their places. I don't even think it's specific people that are the problem, but systems that somehow force people--even us, maybe, some day--to murder and lie, especially when they are in power.
All that is left, then, is one small and strange out--to behave as if all these things were true and possible, as if by working and caring and not accepting we could make the world the kind of place it should be. If we cannot take this planet away from the murderers and liars, there is little to do but behave as if we can. Resignation is not the best frame of mind in which to go out into the world; it implies committing ourselves to lives in which we will continue to see wrongs all around us and, for reasons that are practical to the point of insanity, do nothing about them. The despair and defeat in the world, if we watch it and accept it, can only extend further and further into our own lives. President, 1975-76