A Parting Shot

There are no lost causes: only causes not yet won." Norman Thomas

HOPE MAY BE the most irrational force on earth. When' Poland began its brief flirtation with dignity two years ago, everyone knew it was only a matter of days before the Soviets took exception A matter of days attached into a matters of weeks, but, still, who could believe? And then, at time wore on, as Lach Walesa grained and workers demanded and freedom eroded some of the ugliness, hope began to rise, It started out as hope against hope, but by last fall had become almost cockiness: Solidarity had survived so many confrontations that surely it would once more sidestep the crevasse. When the inevitable happened, we of course hurt for the people of Poland, condemned as they were to who knows how many more years of grayness. But we hurt for ourselves too, became the hope that grew up around Poland was cradled at some level in this wish: that some 'how, silently and without our noting, the world had changed enough to permit such a thing.

In a suburb of San Salvador last week, government security forces found 20 young men in 20 different houses. Students and workers, their parents said; "subversives," the government replied. Twenty more dead Salvadorans. Last month, 1500 Salvadoran military officers arrived in this country for training; two days ago, the administration announced a $55 million increase in military aid to that country's ruling junta. The worst thing of it, of course, is that people and dying for during to ask not to live in hell. But for Americans there is, or should be, another tragic sadness. Some--with more faith than reason--thought Vietnam had taught us a little about our nation and the world. That may be we had changed.

Ronald Reagan has done a lot of nasty things--EI Salvador is me, and ketchup-as-vegetables, soaking the poor, and loose talk about nuclear war are others. But nothing lower than the announcement last month that segregated schools would be officially aided with tax exempt status. We knew that large parts of Martin Luther King's dream remained unrealized, that brotherhood was only a word in much of the country and for many of its people. But we thought the bloodshed in Sunflower County and in Philadelphia. Mississippi and Memphis. Tennessee, had at least brought the promise from the federal government that it would no longer officially countenance hate. We thought the civil rights movements had changed something.

There is in this world an enormous war being fought, a war that's been fought a long, long time. The people involved in it, both as soldiers and spectators, don't always know it's going on: we mistake the momentarily hot fronts for the entire struggle, because the war is so huge. It's worn on so long that the sides have gone through a dozen different uniforms: we can figure out who they are only for a little while, because adaptation is a necessity in this fight. But the essence of it is this it is the war between the old order of things, and a new way, as yet unformed. You can give a lot of examples of the old order. There's imperialism, either the old-fashioned Trade Follows the Flag sort, or the post World War II brand which held that anyone asking for liberty was a puppet of either the CIA or the Kremlin. or the new IMF. "Make the world safe for Alcoa!" sort. There's racism-from slavery to Jim Crow to Bob Jones University, a racism so strong that in this country, even in the wake of the 60's. Black men make less compared to while men than they did a decade ago. There's corporate power and avarice, from feudalism through the Pullman strike and on to the "hogs" "David Stockman watched feed on the carcass of the New Deal this summer. And there is the horror of so many individual lives without purpose: the grinding misery of the hopelessly poor: the Valium cum General Hospital somnambulism of the "comfortable."


And on the other side there are only those few words that people haven't yet figured out how to sustains as real things in this world--words like brotherhood, justice, equality, charity, freedom, respect and love. Almost every time, despite occasional initial success, the attempt to make them part of this world has failed. What was Marxism, but a try at institutionalizing some of those vague notions? And yet, if any experiment has ever failed resoundingly it is that one, for the forces of greed, ambition and control have been able to pervert the idea of communism until it is an unparalleled abomination. And what were trade unions in the West, but a stab at something called living decently? When there was enough in this country to go around they sometimes worked for the quarter of the labor force they protected; now that the squeeze is on they are crumbling against the power of the other side. What were the independent governments set up in the Third World revolution but an attempt at bringing dignity, freedom and food to people always denied the first two, and often the third as well? But how many have been successful in breaking the bonds of subjection--certainly not Cuba, slave to Moscow; certainly not Chile, a wholly-owned ITT subsidiary; not Jamaica, or Ethiopia, or Gustemain. And the New Left and the civil rights movement and the Freedom Summer and Moratorium Day and SDS and smoking dope--what did they mean except this world stinks, and we've got to make it over. But the love wasn't strong enough to transform us, and carpenters repaired the CFIA, and now the President of The Crimson is a Park Avenue lawyer.

Poland and EI Salvador, two more in a long list. Very similar in their commitment to a mixed economy and forms semblance of a political democracy, and they're not winning either. The bottom line is, the bad guys are beating the good guys. That is cliche, Cliches are things that keep happening over and over and over again.

Another cliche--the nation's campuses are quiet: youth doesn't care. I don't know about Berkeley or Notre Dame, but I do have some idea about Harvard. In the four years I've spent here, the conversations about what is wrong with the world and how to solve it are few and far between. And if talk is scarce, action is scarcer. I've read the bound volumes of The Crimson from 1969 and thereabouts again and again, they mean more to me than most of what has happened since I arrived here. Not because students knew any more than, or had much better answers. But because they were agonizing. According to one source, 500 members of the class of '80 have sent their sources to a single New York investment banker. There are not that many people who--if they felt they had some choice--would really want to work for Chase Manhattan or Morgan Stanley.

THEN WHY IS IT so quiet here? One answer, given often, is that there's nothing to be upset about. That the war is over. As if, in the first place, Vietman was what this movement was all about, just Vietnam and not about a bigger war. Vietman did't happen by it self, or by accident. The same system that backed Thieu and Diem backed Somoza, backs Pinochet and Duarts; Vietman, is this sense, is still with us. In a bad mood, one can make the arguments that times have worsened. Vietnam, set against a backdrop of liberal progress at home and an awakening concern for others abroad, appeared a great aberration, an enormous contradiction. But EI Salvador would have made perfect sense in the 1950s, and it makes perfect same now, when the world is once again divided up into East and West and at home compassion has given way to "realism," that self-serving philosophy of men threatened by a change in the fundamental order of things. Nothing to the upset about? Not at Harvard, where "imperialism" is an I.D. on your Soc. Stud, generals, where the Reagan tax cut means a boost in most people's "disposable family income." People feel differently in Jefferson Park, a mile to the northwest, where the housing project is going to slowly crumble and the Food Mart is going to be held up half a dozen times and then probably close, where the bus is going to come less and less often and the public schools are going to turn into bigger jokes than they are new.

Why is it so quiet here? I decided to come to this school on April 27.1978. When I came in for a visit and found 3500 students marching through the Yard with candles and protesting Harvard's involvement in South Africa.

"Jeez. "I thought. "If this is an average day."

A year later, the movement to stop the University from helping to underwrite apartheid was dead, effectively quashed by an administration no more moral but certainly cannier than its predecessors. They set up a committee: they announced they would review companies and hoc: and nothing has happened since Nothing except Harvard abstaining on one innocuous shareholder resolution after another. Not even having the guts to vote against the damn things half the time, because that might get students angry again. And last month, after testing the waters for a year or two and deciding the campus really is quiet, the Corporation has decided it can again allow its money to be lent directly to the government of South Africa. And no one is upset: no one knows it is happening: everyone turns to the sports page when they pick up the paper. If there was ever a lesson in cooptation it is to be found on this campus. It's hard, though, to coopt people who are angry enough to insist on justice: that Harvard has done it so easily says something damning about the willingness of students to be lullabied.

Why is it so quiet here? No truism is repeated more often than the assertion "somehow we'll muddle through, "a proposition shored up with this bit of evidence: "We always have. "True enough, in the sense that the world is still here. (It is somewhat easier to muddle through in a Mercedes with a rear-window defogger.) But we are not so privileged--we are the generation that cannot muddle through. Which is as good a way to talk about nuclear weapons as there may be. Before, there was room for complacency: if you didn't change something, it didn't mean that someone else wouldn't sometime in the future, a philosophy buttressed by some ascendant liberal notion that the universe naturally tends toward improvement. The worst miscalculations--the worst cases of callousness or venality rampant--ended in wars. Where people were sacrificed in the name of the prevailing order or orthodoxy. When the war was over, people went back to muddling through--ideologies rose and fell, beliefs waxed and waned, fanaticisms spread and were eradicated. At worst, a generation of young men was wiped out. But now, war, fought to its utmost, carries with it the very real possibility (some scientists would say the certainty) of extinction. Not only the elimination of everyone alive today, but also of the next generations, however many until the sun explodes, and with them any human hope. That very horror--of a world left devoid of capitalists, communists or anything Only--may buy as some time to work out the problems on this earth. Sooner or later that time will run out, and accident or insanity or Just some badly charted cost--benefit curve wills launch Armageddon. If we don't solve the world, as one else many get the chance.

By this point in our history, it should he clear to all of as that change is not a matter of new lows and systems. The most thorough-going changes in the way people collect many and spend, it, the way they raise crops or build machines, the way they vote or don't west prove puny and anemic up against the forces--of good, hunger for power, racism and the must--that seek to dissolve them. You cannot legislate those righteous phrases into being: you cannot compel with and justice and love. If you pass a law against segregation but don't convince the segregationist that he is wrong, these his have will find a dozen other outlets; indeed, it the put the same man in charge of Poland or EI Salvador, and capitalism or communism won't matter--the countries will end as looking the same.

So the goal is to get at the causes, not the effects; to transform mean and then let then transform their world. Yeah, and how? Maybe through organized religion, a force for change in Poland and Latin America, the only force on this earth that with any regularity seeks to change wean for the better. But maybe not, too, because the same hatreds that have corrupted the rest of the world have corrupted religion in so many places--in this country, for instance, where some of the largest groups of Christians have become rabid fans of the New Right. Maybe through the example of a few great once--a Gandhi or a King, say. They transformed people; they filled the oppressed with dignity, and the oppressor with shame, and they, sometimes, won their battles. But great men often carry their magic with them to the grave; what other way to explain the silence, the slack, when they are gone.

NO--AT LEAST a part of the answer demands that individual men change themselves. And that will only come if and when they look at the world and realize it's screwed up. That realization can come any number of ways: the inability to reconcile the world preached in church with the would outside its doors; the recognition that there is a damning contrast between great men and those around them; even by reading something on the front page of a newspaper. The point is that once you know that things aren't all they can be, the battle is mostly won. Once you stop believing that everything is for the best in this best of all "realistically" possible worlds: once you stop thinking that things will take care of themselves.

People now at Harvard are the "leaders of tomorrow": they will "decide the future." More cliches, and more than a grain of much in them, which is why the unwillingness to see what is wrong is so depressing when it happens here. There are plenty of people in this city who could tell you that food is short, that it's no fun being Black because the cops are likely in chase you. And there are plenty of people elsewhere who could testify to all the other evils on this planet. But they have no way to say it, and no one to say it to, not in this country. Once people who will hold power--political, economic or what-ever--accept the idea, though, change cannot be far behind If, that is, one assumption is true: if when they wake up to the world around them people will then act to make things better, of maybe as important, not act to make things worse. That if they know that is going on in Vietnam, in Selma, in EI Salvador, they will act their bodies to the side the very least, they won't lend their brains and their bodies to the side that has caused the problems in the first place. That if they know about the recklessness of corporations they'll stay away from them. That forecast is optimistic. Many will decide exactly the opposite: if the world is breaking apart they're going to get theirs while the getting is good. Maybe there are more people who will fall into the first group, and maybe not. But finding out is worth the chance--if in blissful ignorance we just meander along. We meander along a precipice.

"THE PEOPLE UNITED will never be defeated"--that's what they were yelling in the streets of Cambridge the night I decided to come to this school. What idiocy The people united in Poland got their united ass kicked: the people united in EI Salvador, and 13,000 a year get shot separately Even it a lot more people in a lot more places unite, the chances are not so good. Original sin, mushroom cloud, freezing in the dark when the oil runs out--name your poison.

But, maybe in the confluence of a million, individual men and women suddenly worried about the world there is a chance--maybe not for the world, but at least for those million people, or dozen people, or however many. If you never figure out that there is trouble on this earth, then you can live a justifiable life however you please. But once you know, then there's a choice that must be made, and on one side of that choice lies some kind of personal salvation. Beyond that, one never knows. That hope is irrational is its great power; it can survive defeat and discouragement, and people the next try. But hope doesn't change things. It just allows us to think they might be changed.   William E. McKibben   President, 1981-82