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1970; 366 pp.; $6.95
RETROSPECTIVES about the Sixties are invariably depressing. The Sixties was the first decade of unanswered questions, eroding faith, and enduring bitterness for many of us. But the painful distortions of adolescence only sharpened the nausea that Americans of all ages felt. The Sixties, by all accounts, was monstrously, unique. The American Dream was polluted as steadily and inexorably as the nation's air, water, and earth, until the young hands that had once reached out eagerly to grab their legacy recoiled into rigid fists.
The Making of an Un-American is a personal history of the Sixties by one of its spiritual orphans. Paul Cowan ??. The story of his journey through Kennedy liberalism and unresolved revolutionism is so artfully told that it escapes being a cliche. It rises above the mountain of literature, autobiographical to clinical, on youth "alienation" to deserve amply Jack Newfield's praise as "the collective biography of the generation that was born on the New Frontier, baptized on the Mississippi Delta, and educated by Vietnam."
Those of us who were still in junior high school when Cowan was leaving Harvard have a strangely marginal relationship with the generation that Newfield describes. Any inclination we have that work within the system is work wasted stems from an ex post facto education. Our disillusionment was rooted in hearsay, however close the source, rather than experience. We never organized black people into voting blocks in the Deep South only to see white power groups intimidate them into submission while the law looked the other way. We never followed the "new politicians" to the brink of social challenge only to have them retreat in the face of party pressure. And we never spent years in the Peace Corps helplessly watching people starve to death in third world cities, our hands tied by a bureaucracy that wanted tranquil, innocuous show-cases of American benevolence.
All this has happened to Paul Cowan. The radicalization of Cowan and thousands of his peers was not the permissively-reared child's petulant reaction to his first frustrations, as psychologists such as Bruno Bettleheim smugly tell the world. It was the rational exhaustion of every sanctioned approach to winning back the Dream. These were the first casualties of the affluent society's rupture. Their confidence that hard work and good will could stir the national conscience died shortly after Jack Kennedy. They travelled the "proper channels" to dead-ends that became increasingly suggestive of a coherent pattern. They became "un-Americans" because their aspirations for America eluded any "American" political style.
As their little brothers and sisters, their younger friends, or their tutorial students, many of us have less claim to first-hand experience than they do. Cowan's book (subtitled "A Dialogue with Experience") can be rewardingly informative for the movement's second generation. The college student of the early Seventies has a real problem articulating his unwillingness to work from within to change his government. He often feels disarmed by liberal parents who insist that he "give it a chance."
AMERICA failed the chances Cowan gave it. The liberal credo on which he was nurtured (described with almost poetic beauty in a passage about his childhood fantasies of stalwartly crushing Joe McCarthyism) went so deep that it inhibited his anger for years. He treats his involvement with the Civil Rights movement and the Peace Corps in Ecuador so thoroughly, tracing his individual frustration back to the power source that fundamentally opposes meaningful change, as to argue convincingly that the chance-giving approach must fail. The implications for those younger than Cowan bring to mind George Santayana's maxim that people who never learn their history are condemned to repeat it. Skeptical as we may be about America's reformist institutions, ignorance could conceivably allow us to join the Peace Corps in the belief that we could do some good. Cowan's experience is consistent and compelling enough to prevent us from repeating his mistake, to convince us that there are more fruitful ways to work for change.
But the book's primary value is not as a warning to those who already share Cowan's sentiments. The same subjective passion that may flaw the book as history makes it a uniquely persuasive political statement. The Making of an Un-American owes its uniqueness as a polemic to the fact that it is first and foremost about people, which (as often as we may forget) is also what politics is about. Cowan's development as a human being, which encompasses his development as a political activist, becomes all-important to the reader. Parts of the book read like a diary and relate to the main theme of radicalization in non-analytical, human terms. One recurring thread is a joyfully gentle love tribute to his wife Rachel, who shares and resonates his experiences. Wherever Cowan has appeared recently, strangers seem to want subsequent news about the book's characters more than his advice or autograph.
The humanization of Cowan's story is the source of its power. By the time Cowan confronts the bureaucracies that always seem to tower over his activities, we know much about him. Even those who can't directly identify with his upper-middle class liberal background (Choate before Harvard) will have trouble not liking him. He recalls his past ingenuousness critically, sometimes with a sense of humor that chides our own intellectual pretensions. He questions every step of his wavering journey in the same way and with many of the same questions that we do (or should). Nor is this humility the false pandering of a psychological manipulator with the good fortune to star himself in his own book. Some of Cowan's self-examination is genuinely damning and elicits little sympathy, such as his cold withdrawal from the Ecuadorian peasants after his skirmishes with the Peace Corps. Cowan is as straightforward about his own feelings as he is about America's, and what he has learned in the past few years disinclines him from expounding on the next few.
That same modesty underlies the book's most serious limitation, at least for readers who already share Cowan's disillusionment. Making of an Un-American looks behind us: its few implications for the future are cautious and vague. Cowan is, as Mark Rudd would doubtless sneer, an armchair revolutionary. He freely admits his inability to reduce the bankruptcy of reformism to personal revolutionary action. He brilliantly delineates how he got where he is, but takes us no further. His book ends with a disappointing abruptness after his revulsion for the Peace Corps comes to a climax. He is "un" -Americanized, without under-going any complementary process in a positive direction.
But if this incompleteness for those who share Cowan's outlook prevents the book from being much more than interesting (and, for the inexperienced, substantiating), it also makes him a compelling advocate in front of everyone else. His impulses from his pre-Harvard days are manifestly decent and humane, by almost anyone's definition. In the bitter cross-currents of the Sixties, when the Domino Theory rhetoric was abating without a suitable replacement and more and more people began to wonder just exactly what we were doing all over the world, it was inevitable that Cowan should lose his innocence. In his hard-learned (and well-documented) discovery that powerful men were not in fact open to rational discourse when it came to discussing America's place in the world, Cowan had to become angry and defiant. And his book might for the first time explain why that is so to worried parents, might make radicalization a lot more real to those people who smile and explain who they are basically "apolitical." A reader would have to believe that nothing is seriously wrong with America and its government (that a bunch of haircuts and baths wouldn't cure) to not be moved in profound ways.
MIDDLE-CLASS America will recognize their older children in Paul Cowan much more readily than in Jerry Rubin or Mark Rudd, partly because it wishes to ignore hostility. For temperamentally, Cowan is not an angry young man. He is a kind, gentle man who has been fucked over by a system that promised it would listen to him. He came to radicalism with more sadness than fury. A possible reason for his mellowness (aside from the love of his private life, a small but vital part of the book) is that his Peace Corps years in Ecuador, 1966-7, were pivotal ones in the lingering death of active student liberalism. He explained that though he was never fond of Lyndon Johnson, neither was he consumed by the vicious, almost pathological hatred for the man that swept much of the movement. Cowan was taking his knocks from a remote extremity of the system while the typical liberal-turned-radical marched on the Pentagon and contemplated the fires of Detroit and Newark. The news he got from the home front was half-expected corroboration of his miniature battle. "We were learning," he says, "to trust our own anger."
The distance may have afforded him a singularly clear vision. He is slow to paint anyone in unrelieved black. He describes middle-level bureaucrats, the same men who undercut his efforts at every turn in the Peace Corps, as victims of the Machine no less than himself. His condemnation of institutions rather than men may be equivocating from a radical's point of view. But the multi-dimensionality of the officials in Cowan's account (like Erich Hofmann, the "poor schlemiel of an ex-Luftwasfe pilot" who wanted to squelch all boat-rocking at least until he secured his U.S. citizenship) underlines the truth that the tragedy of America admits of few clear villains. In like manner, Cowan understands that the shocking racism of many Peace Corps volunteers (one wanted to enlist in the Marines after his Ecuadorian stint so that he could shoot Vietnamese and pretend that they were "Ekkies," i.e., Ecuadorian spic/nigger/kikes) was a horrible perversion of their stymied idealism.
The Making of an Un-American deserves a serious reading from anyone who wants to put together something like a theory for the Sixties. It is a must for an understanding of how we arrived at the brink of civil war. And because of its eminently readable style and warmth, it may be the first eloquent plea for revolution that ever reaches our parents' bedstands.
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