The Strawberry Statement

From the Shelf

"NOBODY likes a smart-ass, remember that," someone over thirty told me last summer. I had doubts about the dogma even then, but now I'm certain that it's false. James Simon Kunen, 20 years old and a sometimes Columbia revolutionary, is a smart-ass if ever there was one, and Time, The New Republic, Newsweek, and the New York Times all love him and his first book, The Strawberry Statement.

And not without reason. Kunen is funny, at times profoundly funny, and The Strawberry Statement is one of the easiest books to pick up and read through to come along in quite a while. A case in point is his comparison of the roaches in his apartment to the enemy in our current war:

Actually the parallels between my roaches and the Viet Cong can hardly be ignored. There are seventeen parallels. Both my roaches and the V.C. are indigenous forces, are ignorant, ill-clad and underfed; they both drag away the bodies of their slain, come back no matter how many are killed, move by night, avoid prolonged engagements with the enemy, are not white, are fighting against people who are, have been fighting for generations, are of uncertain numbers, move via infiltration routes, are wily, are outarmed by the enemy, are contemptuous of death, are independent of outside control, are inscrutable, and are winning.

There is a certain savagery implicit in this word play with the rhetorical commonplaces of what President Nixon called the other night our most serious political problem. But part of Kunen's Statement seems to be that the Vietnam War is simply to grotesque to be taken seriously--it must be an outrageous hoax, perpetrated on everyone with sensibilities by some anonymous "Biggies." So it is also with the military-industrial complex, which Kunen can only talk about with the elaborate fantasy of "The Big Letter" which he expects may arrive any day -- "I wasn't sure what it would be, except that it would be a directive or executive order from my superior telling me to do something." This tone of wise and bitter taunting comes to be Kunen's most frequent voice. Reflecting on how the narcs busted Jerry Rubin, he writes.

In America' you shouldn't have to worry about police busting into your apartment and beating you up. I specifically remember seeing a TV show around thirteen years ago about an immigrant couple who still had their old country fears and thought the mailman was a cop coming to take them away. They weren't confused; they were just ahead of their time

The Strawberry Statement is, or a least tries to be, more than a collection of such deadly wise cracks. But as a book, it faces some formidable problems. The Columbia affair, in which Kunen was a front line-participant, is pretty well wrapped up by page fifty, and where the book will go from there is by no means certain. The rest can be read as a chronicle of Kunen's incestuous relationship with his Random House contract. He treats the book like a colossal term paper, trying to get started and finding ever-fresh devices for procrastination. Like Mailer at the conventions he casts about rather self-consciously for figures to interview (Mark Rudd, Dean Deane, the station manager of WABC) and events to experience and record (a Red Sox game, a McCarthy rally). This processor for filling out the book does not work out nearly so badly as one would expect, though. The instant success that followed Kunen's first appearance in New York magazine did not spoil his cruelly observant eye. Nor does frequent borrowing from Mailer and Salinger corrupt a clean and engaging style.

"DON'T SPEND too much time reading the book," Kunen advises in the last of a series of four introductions, "because I didn't spend much time writing it." Still, it would be good to know what Kunen thinks he's doing with the book, and that's not easy to say. Perhaps all the wit, self-deflation, and incidental reporting are just softening up Mr. and Mrs. America for the punch of Kunen's radical message." "A good D.J. is friendly, congenial and amusing, the sort of person you trust," he notes after the WABC interview, and perhaps a good young revolutionary author is the same sort of person. But this strategy is one which Kunen only flirts with. The pose of spokesman for the militant young does not come naturally to him, and the preform statements of serious revolutionary purpose at the book's beginning and end (and a couple points in between) are without question Kunen's most strained and unconvincing writing. It is not clear whether deference to his publisher or a dim consciousness of how important a book this well-written might be tempts Kunen to include lines like "What we do have is hopes and fears," or "Since the First Republic of the United States is one hundred ninety-two years old and I am nineteen, I will give it one more chance." This sort of portentous pronouncement must chafe at Kunen. He acknowledges himself that an accusation of status-groping within the movement "kind of hit home with this boy, because I've been angling for a position as Lord High Propagandist or something.

So Kunen is not altogether qualified to act as a delegate from the disaffected of his generation to the outside world, and the great danger of The Strawberry Statement is that despite the author's disclaimers it will be read as a typical case of a phenomenon people are now desperately anxious to understand. Moderates will be reassured by Kunen's self-doubts--his hones confessions, for instance, that should the war end, he might have nothing left to hate. But this teetering, and essentially apolitical commitment to revolution, is by no means universal among radical students. Kunen doesn't know or pretend to know any economics or much political science--in fact he approvingly quotes a friend's mother who advises her boy to "go out and earn something for a change ... take economics." But there is a group among the militants who have studied such things, who take their own analysis seriously, and who may even act on it themselves in a quite rigidly disciplined way politically. This group would never recognize an on-again-off-again radical like Kunen as their spokesman, and might at times find him disturbingly frivolous.

BUT WHILE Kunen must not be read as representative of student radicalism as a whole, he does speak for a significant wing within the movement. These are the people who were inside University Hall the night of the bust, not so much because they supported the six demands, but because they felt it better to be inside than outside, better to be with the people occupying the building than with the people outside scoffing at them. As a group these students are openly zonked out by the War and big business, fiercily skeptical about taking any part at all in the technocratic or post-industrial society, ready in an instant to form counter-communities. Like Kunen, they are aimiable, easier for moderates to understand and sympathize with than their more doctrinaire associates. But they will not be easily appeased. Their discontent is sweeping and the quality both of their own lives and of American life will have to get a great deal better before they cease to be a threat to the custodians of things established.

Kunen's wit captures this shapeless but intense anger very lucidly, and while his book is far from the last word on radicals, it is as sharp a statement of radical disgust with liberals as one can hope to find. With great glee, Kunen relates second-hand The Ad Hoc Faculty Sandwich Decision -- a scenario in which votes have been taken, dissident factions reconciled and the body has determined how it will mediate the battle between jocks blocking off the entrance to an occupied building and any protestors trying to pass in food. Kunen discovers the trouble with the liberals as he talks with a jittery student-faculty committee type in July. "He wanted very badly for me to tell him he wasn't incompetent. I didn't. He is incompetent." The same though surfaces even more vividly in Kunen's account of the first night inside Low Library:

In through the window like Batman climbs Professor Orest Ranum, liberal, his academic robes billowing in the wind. We laugh at his appearance. He tells us that our action will precipitate a massive right-wing reaction in the faculty. He confides that the faculty had been nudging Kirk toward resignation, but now we've blown everything, the faculty will flock to the support of the President. We'll all be arrested, he says, and we'll all be expelled. He urges us to leave. We say no.

Liberals, of course, expect that they will often fail, but also expect that their earnest efforts will be properly appreciated. They cheerfully acknowledge that people disagree with them but cannot believe that they are being laughed at. If Kunen's Srawberry Statement encourages a few liberals to reexamine their reflexive rhetoric, to wonder if they are thinking in terms as large as are the radicals they feel threatened by, then the book will in the end be good for some education, as well as some amusement.