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Meditations on a Quiet Year

By Garrett Epps

The past year was filled with anxiety in its passage. Yet in retrospect it appears to have been a constructive period when attitudes began to alter, and restorative forces have reasserted themselves.

THE CLASS of 1972 studied for spring exams this year for the first time in their college careers. Over coffee in the dining halls, students argued about free speech, or about equal admissions for women at Harvard. But for most, the spring was the reserve book desk at Lamont or Hilles, and writing papers alone in rooms late at night.

Or it has been sitting by the river and drinking beer, or falling in love, or writing novels or painting pictures, or watching the Dick Cavett Show on a color television. But whatever we have been doing, it has been personal and private, and there has been time to think. And most of us have realized that yes, the smug predictions are probably true, and the wave has crested. This is the quietest year at Harvard since Robert McNamara came to town in 1967, and Nathan Pusey's values have been reasserting themselves.

It is one year after the nationwide strike hit Harvard, the Faculty voted examination options that meant we could spend as much time as we wanted opposing the war, and hundreds of students repeatedly surrounded University Hall and prevented the Deans from going to work because they would not give pay to striking workers as they gave grades to striking students. And Harvard no longer seems to be a place where any of that could ever have happened.

The student movement as a whole has been less in evidence this year; but the eerie silence on the Harvard campus cannot be explained only by the forces of national faddism. The student movement here has indeed suffered because it was no longer glamorous; but it has also been smashed by clever repression and by Harvard's institutional identify, one of the strongest in America.

TO BEGIN with, there is the war: it spawned most of the radical movement, and fueled it for six years. Harvard has always been a strong anti-war campus. But the war got lost for a long time this year, and most of us were no longer sure that it could affect us, or that the villain we were fighting was real any longer. While patient bombardiers were dropping tons of napalm, defoliants, white phosphorous and fragmentation bombs on Indochina, Nixon told us that it was almost over, and that he was winding it down. Nobody trusts Richard Nixon-but over the summer, like hypnopaedia, the message began to get through. Maybe he's right, maybe this time he's not lying (it is hard, after all, for people raised on George Washington to realize that the President of the United States is an unprincipled remorseless liar). Maybe if I just sit tight it'll all end.

We had, after all, cut our political teeth on Lyndon Johnson, who sent his killers over to nail the coonskin to the wall. Johnson organized us as effectively as any antiwar campaign, for his defiant cowboy style would admit no doubts or hopes for respite: he intended to win no matter how many are killed or who might protest. Nixon learned from Cambodia that the shoot from-the-hip style was a risk. If he told the people what he intended to do they would get angry; so, instead, he lied, couching plans for victory in the rhetoric of withdrawal, calling mass murder a decrease in the level of action.

Fighting Nixon this year was like pursuing a shadow: his outrages were so transient, so ambiguous, that one could never land a punch before the opponent had disappeared. The bombing of North Vietnam this fall was a nightmare of impotence: it began on the Friday before the Yale game (and before major football games across the country) and was over, temporarily, before the sleepy celebrants woke up on Sunday. How could students mobilize against something that had already ended? And so, somehow, he had wiped out the major gain of the antiwar movement over the past six years, and he could bomb the North whenever he felt like it.

The invasion of Laos was another nightmare of shadow and substance: no one knew when it had begun, no one explained why it was going on. Nixon refused to appear on television and organize us with smug face and hackneyed rhetoric into a movement that, whatever its internal political differences, hated him and wanted, above all, to destroy him and all he stood for. And we were confused, and tired, and we could not understand. And it seemed better to wait for spring.

AND THEN there was the Movement: in the nation, the Panthers were being crushed by legal repression. The government was not dramatic: the murder of Fred Hampton had proved almost counterproductive, so it chose to paralyze the Panthers with hearings and indictments and briefs and writs; to use as weapons all the legal trappings which most students still felt, under it all, were safe nets to catch us when we fell. And the Panthers fell apart.

And there was the Weather underground. Who could relate to a group of faceless terrorists? The bombing of the Center for International Affairs came and went, and nobody was particularly unhappy or particularly glad: it had nothing to do with us.

At Harvard, there was SDS and its guiding force, the Progressive Labor Party: this year's freshmen met the movement at Harvard only in them. Now as never before their rigid ideology seemed stultifying and irrational, their activities seemed clamorous roboticism, their causes obscure: as the bombs dropped on North Vietnam, SDS held a demonstration against Harvard's system of parking fees for workers; as crowds marched to Boston Common to protest the invasion of Laos, SDS demonstrated at Holyoke Center against Harvard's apprenticeship program. Many felt that if SDS was the best that radicalism at Harvard could provide, even the stacks of Widener would be more fertile ground for finding a viable sense of self, and a vision of the good and true life.

The November Action Coalition (NAC)-the radicals who once would have formed the New Left Caucus of Harvard SDS-had fallen apart after the spring strike. NAC had been a strong city-wide campus-based radical group which had organized Boston-area students to support the Panthers; it achieved prominence when a NAC-organized march from the April 15 Boston Common antiwar rally last spring exploded into streetfighting in the Square. Many of the NAC leaders left Harvard-voluntarily or involuntary-after the spring of 1970. Fall found them organizing in small collectives or trying to get jobs. The successor group, the Radcliffe-Harvard Liberation Alliance, held meetings and showed films, but never staged a demonstration of any kind.

THE "Counter Teach-in" and its aftermath showed dramatically the state of Harvard's movement. Radicals had felt deeply the galling fact that they had done nothing of note all year to stop the carnage in Indochina; most felt that the movement was dead, and that its enemies-a White House aide and puppet officials of the South Vietnams and Thai governments-were coming to town to dance on its grave before the eyes of the world and the cameras of USIA.

What wonder then that pure blind rage-the feeling that " there is some shit I will not eat " -drove many into an action that both unjust and stupid.

The disruption of the Teach-in proved practically indefensible: most students who disrupted had followed an ad hoe strategy compounded of impotence and blind rage, and they did little organizing before or after the event. The ball landed in the Administration's court, and Harvard fielded it well. The Faculty Council issued a statement, and the Deans blitzed the Houses with mini-teachings on free speech and the liberal university.

The propaganda barrage was effective: administrators sensed a weakness in the radical position and struck for the jugular. Many of the cries of pain and outrage from University circles were sincere, but they were also overstated in an attempt to isolate the radicals from the main current of student thought. One dean went so far as to call the disruption "the most serious thing which has happened in my thing which has happened in my thirty years at Harvard-and that includes the occupation of University Hall."

The student body proved more receptive than ever before to University counterattack: before long, most of the disrupters were spending their dinner hours defending the action to students who asked how anyone could excuse such a vicious attack on free speech at Harvard. Three years of explanation that the University was not neutral, that it was inextricably tied to the war-making apparatus of the monster society it lived in, that it could not honestly pose as the defender of liberal values-all seemed wiped out. More students than ever seemed willing to believe that Harvard could be a sanctuary, a safe liberal harbor, unaffected by the storms of the dirty world outside.

AND WHILE it counterattacked with ideas, Harvard also brought to bear the repressive mechanisms it had boned so well: the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities and the eagle-eyed tutors and cameramen who served it.

The CRR had been a target for two major demonstrations the preceding spring: most students peered beyond the pseudo-legal trappings it had sprouted and recognized it for what it was: a court of star chamber, an Administration witchhunt in which the Committee had all the rights and the defendants all the responsibilities.

But the CRR had served Harvard well in the past: in the spring of 1970 it had expelled some students, and had contributed greatly to breaking the back of Harvard's student movement. In the fall, however, no students had stepped forward to take their places on the panel: those Houses charged with selecting students to replace the retiring members had simply failed to do so. Any ballot for CRR membership also allowed students to vote against sending any representative at all, and the majority chose this option.

The Faculty then unveiled a new plan which, in the words of the CRR's chairman, was "designed to produce students" to sit in judgment on their fellows: each House would simply select by lot a fifteen-member panel, and from this group the four student members of the CRR would be randomly selected. The system would have worked had even one House agreed to select such a panel. But, embarrassingly enough, every single one-every Radcliffe and Harvard House and the Freshman class-defeated the proposal in referenda, and declined to participate.

For a moment it seemed that a real victory had been won. Whether because they objected to the CRR itself or because they found its shoddy procedures unacceptable, the students of Harvard and Radcliffe had told the Administration that they wanted no part of the CRR. But it soon became apparent that the referenda had been as meaningful as the Presidential election in South Vietnam: the Administration was not interested in how students felt about the CRR. In times of need-as after the disruption of the "Counter Teach-in" -it would use it, students or no. The CRR functioned smoothly without undergraduates through the spring, ultimately convicting nine of the 22 students charged with disrupting the Teach-in, and suspending four from school.

AND students realized that Harvard's film crews and photographers would be watching them from now on: no one could act on impulse any longer, for everyone was aware that one still photograph might bring him before the tribunal, charged with being a menace to Harvard and the academic community.

Most students found that they inhabited a much smaller world this spring than the one they had moved through the year before. The most intense perception of the nationwide strike had been the panic feeling after Kent State that we were all the enemy to the people who ran this country: Vietnamese peasants, black people, white students-all one free-fire zone to be eliminated when they made trouble. The shots fired at Kent and Jackson had hit all of us, and we had felt that we must move now or face total defeat.

Our world last year had included Phnom Penh and My Lai, Jackson State and Chicago, Berkeley and Kent State. We felt that what happened to Fred Hampton, David Dellinger, and Allison Krause was part of our lives, and that we could not be the same because of it. But the long summer and the Yale game and the silent winter and the CRR had changed all that by April, and it now seemed more prudent to think of the victims as them to keep our noses clean and wait for it all to pass. We were so tired after last spring-what more could the world want from us? And the killing escalated in Asia while we studied in Lamont, or saw plays at the Loeb, or munched knockwursts at Elsie's, and stopped talking about what was bothering us and turned inward.

This year passed like an uneasydream-the bombing of the CFIA, the occupation of 888 Memorial Drive, the disruption of the Teach-In-until the Spring Offensive. Mayday and the JFK Building sit-in came, and some went and took risks and were arrested or clubbed for trying to stop a monstrous war. But most didn't, and most found it hard to understand those who had, because a new fear had crept into all of us, a panic quite unlike the panic of last May, and a lot of us were worrying about it all the time.

THE world outside, we had learned, was a cold and ugly place, where black people or students or troublemakers could be murdered, or whole Asian populations destroyed, and no one could stop it. And the revolution was not coming soon, and those who lived for it seemed destined for death or jail or the empty lonely life of the old leftist, his battles lost and forgotten, his brothers and sisters scattered filling his days with memories.

And around us was Harvard, its self-assurance as great as ever, its institutions as splendid: and we looked at its gleaming buildings and its immaculate potentates and felt that perhaps we cannot trust ourselves at all until we have learned from these men and these buildings how to think and to feel, that we are very small and our desires infantile and unattainable-that what we think we want is an illusion, that our desire to change is folly.

And we looked for ways out: law school, med school, careers, or identities, and mostly of us thought at one time or another:

Maybe I, all alone, without help from anyone, must be all right, must fit in, must carve out a little niche where I won't be bothered in a world which can grant me nothing of what I really desire. Maybe I must adjust my desires to what the world will grant, and be what has been, and thus hope it will always be, because vicious and unpleasant though it may be, it is real and requires no faith, no struggle, to achieve it; and it will accept me in my smallness and not blame my failures but reward me for them and ask only passive allegiance and silence while it does its work,

I don't know-maybe that's right; maybe that's growing up. But I hope not. Sitting by the river and drinking beer this spring has been very nice-perhaps as pleasant as any spring I've spent here, even if I had to work very hard. But at night in the Yard I see the gleaming buildings and the great pool of silence which surrounds them-us, the students, on our lawful occasions, drinking, making love, reading books, playing basketball, writing letters-and I am afraid and alone as never before.

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