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On Action and the Reasons for It

By James K. Glassman


" is absolutely necessary that rebellion find its reasons within itself, since it cannot find them elsewhere." --Camus, The Rebel

There are a lot of people who are very confused by everything that has happened here over the last two weeks. Erik Erikson said at lunch the other day that our "objective referents" have been destroyed. Much of the order has gone out of our lives--things we believed in like the authority of the faculty, the benignness of the deans have suddenly been snatched away, he said. It is only natural that we are confused; Erikson said that he was confused, and he intimated that even Stanley Hoffmann may be confused.

Now, I am not one of those guys who knocks confusion. I find it very hard to imagine "objective referents" that are good enough to have around for more than a few weeks anyway. Still, this essay is mainly an explanation of things, and please forgive it.

The main reason that people here are confused is that they have been trying to interpret the events of the last two weeks the way that Harvard students have been taught to interpret everything--by holding it still (and it won't hold still) and examining it. Mainly, we are intimately concerned with why this is going on. It is a silly thing to be concerned with. Billy Pilgrim (in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) was concerned with it after some people from another planet carried him away in their space ship, but they set him straight:

"Welcome aboard Mr. Pilgrim," said the loudspeaker. "Any questions?"

Billy licked his lips, through a while inquired at last: "why me?"

"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter. Why anything? Because this moment simply is. have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?"

"Yes." Billy in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment, There is no why."


But we search for why, and we become hopelessly bogged down in worldly metaphors, which are our second problem. We believe in Boyle's Law and various aspects of Newtonian Physics, and so we think that "outbreaks," "explosions," "eruptions," etc. occur when there is a lot of pressure built up. So when the newspapers and everyone else say that the campus "exploded," our mind moves to the physical metaphor. Next, it moves to the causes of explosion--what enormous pressures have built up and have no place to go and go explode? And so we look for the reasons: the channels are not smooth enough, there are bottlenecks, students are oppressed, the war is creating tensions, people hate something intensely (ROTC, expansion). Our explanations of explosion are based on the metaphor of explosion, and they miss the point.

But metaphor is something that we revere at Harvard. (In fact, Harvard is a metaphor for Harvard.) Thomas Schelling, the game theory professor, was able to convince a large number of faculty members to support his amendment to the Bruner motion on ROTC by comparing ROTC with the Anglican Church. Think of ROTC as the Anglican Church, he said. Now, even if we realized that the Anglican Church is teaching ministers here and that is something we think is wrong for a university to allow, we would not want to boot the Church off the campus so promptly and meanly. The argument is wonderfully persuasive. It was hard for faculty people to think of ROTC as being ROTC for so long without a solution. When ROTC became the Anglican Church, it moved farther away and was easier to deal with. Obviously, you are not mean to a peaceful, sensitive Anglican minister.

Of course, there is a problem with all this. The Reserve Officers Training Corps is not the Anglican Church (or even the Unitarian Church), and it probably never has been. Also, Harvard did not explode last week. There were no buildings flying around and limbs and grass and heads. So why do we look for "unbearable pressures?"


Try to accept what happened for what it is all by itself, without any reasons and without any metaphors. What happened two Wednesdays ago, was that a group of 300 students committed a willful action--they acted. They walked into a university administration building, asked the people inside it to leave, and stayed there after the closing hour of 5 p.m. What had they done? Most people said that they "occupied" (obviously) or "seized" the building. "Seizing" means capturing for reasons of defense, or alternatively, stealing. I don't think they stole the building, since they could not move it anywhere, and I don't think they captured it for reasons of defense because it was of little use to them. It was fairly uncomfortable; it had no beds and no very good facilities for cooking. Also, they did not attempt to hold it in very forceful way when the other people tried to get it back with the help of police. We are also told that the students trespassed on private property, even before closing time. That seems to mean that the university can decide at will when you are trespassing and when you are merely using facilities that you pay tuition to use.

The reason that everyone became upset when the students committed their own particular crime of willful action was that everyone knew what it meant right away. Without any hesitation, everyone knew that these students "had seized a Harvard administration building in another in a series of campus disorders." The action had no purity, then, it was a symbol that everyone recognized. It was all a script that everyone knew because they had read it in the New York Times, and the administration knew it had two alternatives, etc.

Even though walking into University Hall was a symbolic action, an action that others had done before, it was still far better than no action at all.


Action in American society is an enormously forceful thing. Mainly it is forceful thing. Mainly it is forceful because very few of us act; very few of us even fully recognize that we have the capabilities of action. This is especially rue in a university, where acting is scorned because it is not calm and rational. Still, the man of action is respected, again, especially by members of a university community, because members of a university community figure that a man of action is a man feels things very intensely (this has to do with the Physics metaphor). Actually, a man of action may or may not feel things more intensely than others. Action has little to do with intensity of feeling. Some men act; some men don't. That is all there is to it. The other day I came up to Andy Jamison and punched him in the arm. I wasn't feeling anything particularly intensely. Then he asked me why I did it.

Why did I punch him? Why did the SDS guy walk into University Hall? The enormous power that a man of action has if that after he has acted he then has the privilege of telling people why he acted. And he can tell them anything he wants. The people who walked into University Hall said they acted for no less than six reasons (later eight). I have yet to decide what I will tell Andy I hit him for. The power of the man of action is similar to the power of the person who decides to commit suicide. The suicide has the enormous power to take anyone along with him. Murder in the open (and most murders are not secret) is suicide. Assassins are murders too--something we often forger. Sirhan Sirhan merely acted, merely killed Robert Kennedy, probably to kill himself in the most powerful way he could. But the reasons Sirhan killed Kennedy (that he was an Arab and Kennedy liked the Israelis) are reasons we ascribe to Sirhan. We have to have explanations; that is why we cannot admit that Oswald did it. We have to have an explanation for the 300 people seizing the building. By demanding an explanation, we give them the enormous power of giving it to us. And for the next two weeks we are in a state of turmoil, trying to answer the riddles that they offer us, because we know, since they "seized" the building, that the riddles are incredibly important to solve.


The occupation of University Hall by the students and the calling in of the cops (can you imagine Pusey on the telephone calling in the cops) by the administration are the only two actions that have occured in the past two weeks. These actions told other people what was to be important in their lives for the next two weeks or more, and they responded.

There are a huge variety of things that we may think of as important in a given week, but each week we have to choose a few very important things to concentrate on. The sit-in helped everyone choose ROTC, expansion, restructuring and so on for this week. Again, it is a case of What and not why. Reasons are not hard to find for anything; as long as you can keep most men thinking about something long enough, their thoughts will come around to your point of view. This is what has happened to the Harvard faculty. It is like a newspaper: what is most influential is not what a newspaper says on its editorial page but what it decides to put on its front page, regardless of editorial comment.


Willful action must be distinguished from violence, although many have called the walking into the building violence ("We seek only peace in Vietnam"). Willful action has more impact than violence, because violence, especially police violence, has become banal. It may seem remarkable that scarcely a word has been said at faculty meetings about the incredible brutality of the police in the Thursday morning bust. But why? Police violence has become accepted in our society, built into our ideology. Killing in Vietnam, remember, is not murder. It is not murder because it has a reason rooted in ideology. ("Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose--even for transforming murderers into judges."--Camus.)


This is hard to admit, but the act has nothing to do with the demands(no one blew up the ROTC building). The situation that the students who took over the building called intolerable was just as intolerable before they took over the building as it was at the exact moment they took over the building.


Faculty members and administrators stand in awe of men of action. They are very frightened of them, and they respect them, because they know all about the laws of Physics. One of the wonderful things about an undemocratic university like Harvard is that men of action will always get their way. And men of action, most of the time, are good men. They are good because they not been socialized. Socialized men will almost never act. They believe too much in the system that they have been taught. Socialized men are middle class dullards and right-wingers. They only commit acts of violence--like cops beating kids, or soldiers killing Viet namese--they are basically banal. Men of action, however, are "alienated," as various people have told us. They have not been socialized. They have realized the idiocy of quietly acceding to society. The only reason that some men act and others do not is that the ones who do have not been taught well enough not to.


Last year, I wrote a highly irresponsible piece on the editorial page called "The Sit-Ins Work." The piece pointed out that the remarkable thing about students actions against Dow and the Army and things was successful--the students almost always won their demands. That is what happened at Harvard this April. The sit-in worked. I think I understand better now why it worked. It worked because the people in charge thought that what it was about was obviously important--since action in our society is so rare, and since everything has its reason. The sit-in worked--not because the kids threatened violence, which is banal--but because they acted. That is all we have to do. And we should do it again, and quickly, if there is anything else we want. Because soon, dreary democracy will be upon the university. And then, people will despise men of action. Action will lose its value, then. There is more work to be done. Governments to be eliminated. Investments to be ended. Fellows and Presidents to be deposed. Think of all the reasons there are for acting.


Once we realize the possibilities, our power, as men of action, is enor mous. It is tru-300 people can 'shut down" (i.e., cut down the attendance of classes at) a university like Harvard, or even Harvard itself. The bigger a big corporate organism gets, the more that organism demands that its members acquiesce (even though it demands benignly). In a situation like this, men who are willing to act will have the greatest impact, because their actions are so unusual, and because their opponents will not attack them. A big corporate organism is also easier to attack because it is big and unwieldly--it has more places where it can be hurt, and it has a harder time fighting back (as North Korea vs. the U.S.). The possibilities of willful action (as opposed to violence) in contemporary America are fantastic. This is very didactic, I know, but it puts "why" in its proper place. Action is its own reason for existing. Rebellion can only be understood by a rebel, who knows that the only "reason" for rebellion is the pleasure (or whatever feeling) of rebellion itself. Revolution for the hell of it, because there is no other reason big enough for rebellion. Now, right here, in this country, no matter how big and ugly the cops are, the possibilities are endless

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