The Working Class Stranger
by Fred Gardner, September 22, 2011
“Carl Oglesby dies at 76; led Students for a Democratic Society,” was the headline on the obit in the LA Times. The description of SDS seems accurate (although nobody ever called it “the SDS”):
“The SDS had been founded in 1960 at the University of Michigan, and its early declaration, the Port Huron Statement, helped embody the idealism of the early '60s. The SDS supported civil rights and opposed the nuclear arms race. It was strongly critical of the U.S. government, and called for greater efforts to fight poverty and big business. By the mid-'60s, when Oglesby joined, the U.S. had committed ground troops to Vietnam and the SDS had expanded nationwide, with a more radical purpose.”
During Carl's time as president (the 1965-'66 academic year), SDSers helped organize “teach-ins” on U.S. campuses —an innovative tactic that he promoted and participated in to the hilt. A teach-in is basically a set of talks on a political subject, with ample time for questions and discussion.
Carl was extremely eloquent and persuasive. In high school in Ohio he had been a state-champion debater. Todd Gitlin described him to the obit writers as “the great orator of the white new left.” Both the LA Times obit and Margalit Fox's in the New York Times acknowledge the impact of Carl’s speech at an antiwar rally in Washington in the fall of '65. Fox wrote, “He condemned the 'corporate liberalism' —American economic interests disguised as anti-Communist benevolence— that, he argued, underpinned the Vietnam War.”
Backstage that day Carl had suggested to Judy Collins that she speak and he sing. “She almost went for it,” he said.
Although our expressions of dissent grew louder and stronger, Lyndon Johnson kept ordering more and more GIs to Vietnam and escalated the bombing. It may be hard for younger generations of Americans to grasp, but those of us who grew up in the aftermath of World War II —when all the other industrial economies were in ruins and the our role was supposed to be to be healing the world and rebuilding it along rational, democratic lines— were ashamed to realize that “we” had taken over where the British and French and Dutch left off as imperial powers. We were humiliated by pictures of huts with thatched roofs on fire and mothers holding burned children in their arms and bombers spraying defoliant on the jungle. “Who made us the cops of the world?” was a question that more and more Americans were asking.
The heavier U.S. military involvement in Vietnam became, the higher the death toll, the more our loved ones, friends and acquaintances taken from us, the more our shame turned to outrage. In many cases, the outrage turned to desperation and madness. There was murder in the air, and it wasn’t just blowback from the war. At home non-violent civil rights workers were lynched and killed. The world knows about Martin Luther King (killed after he started using the word “socialism” non-pejoratively) and Malcolm X (after his outlook became internationalist) and Bobby Kennedy (after he became a peace candidate), but millions of us knew about Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, Reverend Reeb, Viola Liuzzo. Those four little girls in Birmingham, who did they ever hurt? The three South Carolina State students shot dead by troopers on the campus in Orangeburg, shot while lying down to show that they posed no threat, with bullet holes in the bottom of their feet… If you were born in 1935, or 1941, and brought up to believe in American righteousness, your disappointment and shame could become all-consuming.
In 1968 a group known as “the Weathermen” took over SDS and expelled Carl and others who dismissed as hallucinatory their efforts to initiate “armed struggle” in the U.S. We were close friends in this period as the '60s came crashing down and our marriages disintegrated and our allies rejected our advice and we tried to find consolation in marijuana and guitars. Carl, whose dad had worked at an Akron tire plant, described his relationship to the “new left” in a song that began
They called him the working-class stranger
And he turned to the people just to have him a little fun
Saying “What will you do my good buddies
When the bosses get through telling you that you've won?”
In the winter of 1970-71 Carl summed up the movement's achievement in four words: “Cultural victory, political defeat.” He was acutely aware that U.S.-led multinational corporations were investing and building plants in countries where labor was cheaper. That’s what capitalism is all about —the most efficient exploitation of labor. Nowadays the pundits —even the supposed lib-labs like Ed Schultz— act as if the export of US manufacturing jobs is some recent development. They can’t even say the words “working class,” it’s as if a living wage somehow made an auto worker “middle class.”
I moved back to San Francisco in the fall of '71 and we drifted apart. We would talk on the phone once in a blue moon, and stayed connected on a level deeper than ideology.
In the years that followed Carl did original research exposing the extent to which Nazis had been recruited as U.S. government operatives after World War Two. He wrote two books challenging the official version of the JFK assassination, and contributed to another by Jim Garrison, the ex-DA of New Orleans. He entertainingly (but incorrectly, I thought) espoused a theory about capital being split between Northeastern (“Yankee”) and Southwestern (“Cowboy”) factions. A play he'd written about the Hatfield and McCoys was produced in Boston and had a short run. It was great, but never made it to Broadway.
He cut two records for Vanguard, and I gather they've been brought out as one CD, “Sailing to Damascus,” the title of the second record. If you want to hear that clear, intelligent voice, click here.
In 2008 Scribner's published Ravens in the Wind, Carl’s book about himself and SDS. Last time we talked he said he had crossed paths with Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn, a key figure in the book. Bernardine had told him, quietly and seriously, the words he'd been longing to hear from her: “I'm sorry.”
From SDS to SSDP
(We are Devo, D-E-V-O)
The musicians who formed the great band Devo (at Kent State, Carl’s alma mater, after four students were killed there during an anti-war protest in 1970) also came from Akron and also realized that America was heading in the wrong direction.
Compare the names “Students for a Democratic Society” and “Students for a Sensible Drug Policy” and you see what became of the movement of the 1960s: it splintered into a thousand single-interest groups and sub-groups, each pursuing its own “issue” rather than fundamental social change.
Carl Oglesby and the early SDS leaders understood and carried the message that the U.S. is controlled by corporate elites and that students have a key role to play turning it into an actual democracy. “Students for a Sensible Drug Policy” implies that America is a functioning democracy and that students can effectively pursue their interests by legislative means.
SSDP, founded by student activists in 1998, is supported financially by the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA leader Ethan Nadelmann receives millions of dollars annually from the enlightened hedge-fund magnate George Soros to allocate as he thinks Mr. Soros would see fit. SSDP’s focus has been opposition to provisions in the Higher Education Act of ’98, which denied Pell Grants and other federally backed loans to students convicted on drug charges. This is a very laudable goal, but it’s also a tactical constraint, as if lobbying legislators is the pinnacle of activism.
The appeal of a small, legislative reform like amending the Higher Education Act is that it seems achievable. But the elites are most likely to grant small, finite reforms when we, the people are making heavier demands —in other words, they tend to throw us reforms as a sop. In early August Dale Gieringer of California NORML observed that the Israeli government led by the rightwinger Netenyahu had authorized a medical-marijuana distribution program, while the U.S. government led by the liberal Obama was cracking down on previously tolerated mmj distribution. Dale didn’t note the context in which Netenyahu acted: more than a quarter million Israelis, led by students, were camped out in “tent cities” in parks and public squares throughout the country to protest the cost of living and the extreme disparity of wealth and power. A rough equivalent would be 8 or 10 million young Americans camping out — in thousands of local Burning Mans — to demand forgiveness of their student loans and meaningful work that would enable them to own homes and start families.
Perhaps SSDP should organize teach-ins focused on the unfairness and cruelty of being made to start life with a huge burden of debt, i.e., slavery by software. If that would be too “off-topic” for their funders, how about teach-ins on medical marijuana, demanding that Student Health Services approve its use as an alternative to alcohol and SSRI antidepressants (which they give out like candy)? The real public health problem on U.S. campuses is binge drinking, and access to cannabis might be the best way to reduce it. The SHS director at each campus could be invited to speak, along with doctors from the Society of Cannabis Clinicians who actually understand cannabis. Just an idea. It certainly would draw more participants than a teach-in protesting the punitive provisions of the Higher Education Act.
Well I’m rambling on. ‘Bye, Carl. Bleeding with whiskey I dream of my old Cherokee.