A Year Without Order


1981 BEGAN by bringing 52 American hostages to the point of return and ended by bringing the Polish people to the point of no return. In between, the world's most powerful religious leader and political leader were attacked unsuccessfully by assassins. The statesman most widely associated with peace died in military uniform. Lady Di said, "I do," and David Stockman said, "I don't." As Time magazine asserted in its second-to-last issue of the year, 1981 offered many opportunities for enterprising or fortunate photojournalists. Yes, the pictures speak for themselves. But what of the captions? Perhaps 1981 marked a turning point (the dimming of the New Innocence? the dawning of the New Ignorance?), yet perhaps we must wait and see what kind. Suddenly, East and West face new, even more pressing choices as gulfs deepen and dichotomies grow more sharply defined. Like Time, we like to resolve time into neat little packages--years, decades, centuries, millenia--to impose a sense of stability on the events that fly by. And if ever a year offended our sense of order, 1981 did.

Looking back, though, it is not the jolts but the symmetry of 1981 that seems most disturbing. In the United States, the gap between the privileged and the poor widened, while the Soviet boys on the bloc underlined how great the gap is between political power-holders and the politically powerless. The champions of political liberty reacted primarily on the basis of economic considerations, while the upholders of historical materialism reacted mainly on the basis of political interest. A pernicious but burgeoning sentiment in Western Europe equated the misdeeds of the two superpowers.

SOME VERY INTELLIGENT people spent a great deal of time trying to distinguish between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes. (FDR '04 once succinctly endorsed a dictator friend: "He may be an S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B.," essentially what these very intelligent people were attempting to intellectualize.) Other very intelligent people spent even more time discoursing on "winnable" nuclear war. The Middle East affords just one specific example of the 1981 tendency toward pointlessness. The United States, friend of democratic Israel, strikes a deal with authoritarian (or was it totalitarian) Saudi Arabia, avowed enemy of Israel, for the largest arms sale ever. The United States then makes hostility to authoritarian Libya the cornerstone of a vague Mideast policy. Democratic Israel grows distrustful of the democratic United States and takes provocative and uncalled-for action against authoritarian Syria. The United States then violates a treaty with Israel. With the two democratic friends at loggerheads, authoritarian Saudi Arabia undertakes rapprochement with authoritarian Libya.

And on and on. Poland's military/political leader imposes his version of order by imposing martial law and immediately appeals to his people's sense of nationalism to curb their nationalist aspirations. His appeals to the "Fatherland" evoke memories of the formerly martial Fatherland to Poland's west and provide a neat mate for the martial Motherland to Poland's east. Iran's religious/political leader imposes his version of order by imposing harsher measures than his military/political predecessor.

Order. Stability. While Poland finally threatened to shake Eastern Europe out of its Yalta stagnation, both the Right and the Left in the West found themselves firmly behind the freedom fighters. Until, that is, the bankers found more of an interest in the status quo and the detente-worshippers discovered a threat to international peace. In Poland, in Iran, arguably in Nicaragua, much more attention is being paid to political determination than to the economic self. In the countries of the Western Alliance, including the United States, the reverse is apparently true.


NOWHERE IS THE SENSE of order and timelessness more comforting than at Harvard, where things come and go in imperturbable cycles--registration, the Yale Game, a vacation, reading period. At Harvard, 1981 saw old struggles replayed. After much debate, a Foundation to improve race relations was implemented, an updated recasting of the Afro-American Culture Center of the 1970s. It was determined that students here remain racially insensitive to some extent. After even more debate, it was decided that a new student government must await the machinations of even more bureaucracy. It was reconfirmed that students remain too unreliable to have a meaningful say in the University's affairs. And in an attempt to revitalize the protest spirit of the late 60s, rallies were organized to show support for the leftists in El Salvador and the unionists in Poland--and for longer library hours. But reading periods, as they always do, imposed a sense of order. We got an all-night study center.

A new dean of the Law School was plucked, and a new dean of the Education School--the first woman dean at Harvard--was picked. In the Medical School Area, clerical and technical workers voted down union representation, another leftover struggle bound to continue. The Med Area power plant finally cleared its legal hurdles, many years and dollars behind schedule. The "revolutionary" Core Curriculum became fully implemented, but many courses bore a disturbing similarity to their predecessors in General Education. The Corporation sold $50 million worth of Citibank stock in accordance with its policy established in the late 70s--to divest itself of holdings dealing with the South African government--but was too bashful to tell anyone about it. Administrators and Faculty grappled with the issue of technology transfer and the propriety of University-business ties, another matter sure to resurface.

Tuition rose by 15 per cent, another development which is rapidly hardening into a sturdy tradition. Commencement came and went, the Class of '85 arrived, and we all feel safe and snug under Harvard's wing. Indeed, against mounting external pressures, the University proved remarkably resilient in 1981, as resistant to change as ever.

1981 LACKS THE RING of 1688, 1789, 1848, 1917--years of revolution. But it may eventually come to acquire an inherent meaning, recognition as a symbol. If counterrevolution and revolution can be said to exist in a cycle, then 1981 bears many characteristics of the beginning of a new age. The supply-side tonic in America and the repressive policies on display in Poland may prove but two manifestations of a failure to come to grips with the future by resorting to methods of the past. The social fabric both East and West is straining at the seams, and the apparent desire to impose order where there is none is evidence of a disturbing unwillingness to confront forces for change.

If reflection upon a single year has any use besides tidying up 12 months, it is as a lesson. In 1982, let us seek the rational rather than the rationalization.