Perspectives: A Review of 2010
by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - December 13, 2010) The past haunts me and always has. The un-haunted life is hardly worth living. The other day, walking in the rain I was haunted by my days in the 1970s as a fugitive, and as a member of a clandestine organization. Forty years ago, I would have instinctively and automatically slipped into hyper vigilance, made sure I wasn't followed, listened to footsteps behind me, and bent my eyes around corners to see if cops were in waiting. I suppose you could say that I was paranoid, but I did have real enemies. The FBI was watching me; just how closely they monitored my comings and goings I learned from reading my files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
I can still go quickly into the mode of an underground operator; in fact, it's second nature to me. I may have forgotten the ideology, but my body hasn't forgotten the gestures and gaits and rhythms of the clandestine life.
In 1970, I thought the United States was on the brink of a revolution that would topple the Nixon administration and upend US imperialism. It was a grand illusion, and, to borrow a phrase I learned from Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, it was also "the sweetest dream." I remember the day in London when Lessing described the novel she was writing and wanted to call "the sweetest dream." She explained that the "sweetest dream" was not the dream of romantic love, as I might have thought, but the dream of revolution. The Sweetest Dream was about 1960s revolutionaries. I knew what she meant, though in my version of the revolution, romantic love went hand in hand with the ideological underground.
By the time I visited Lessing at her flat in London in 1970, she had given up almost all hope of a revolution in her lifetime. Her sweetest dreams had turned to dust, and at times she could be bitter about her own past. Joining the Communist Party during World War II, she explained, was the "most neurotic act" in her whole life.
And yet strangely enough she seemed ready to repeat her "neurosis" or something very much like it. When I showed up at her London doorstep to ask if she would help the underground organization to which I was attached, she sprung into action, took a code name, gave me one, and explained how we could correspond with one another secretly. She had not forgotten the ways of her underground.
When I look back, not 40 years, but to the year that is now ending, I think about the students that I teach who do not for the most part dream dreams of political or cultural revolution à la 1960s or 1970s. If they have dreams they are of another sort altogether -- dreams of revolutions in cell phones, running shoes, cars, and computers. Perhaps this generation will be better off not having the sweetest dream; perhaps they won't become disillusioned in the manner of 1960s revolutionaries and even older communists from the 1930s and 1940s.
I live among students 50 years younger than I am; rarely do I see fellow protestors from the past who live in New York and in Chicago -- or others such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Mario Savio, who are dead. Most of the students in my classes come from pockets of Southern California affluence and safety. They are mostly white and suburban; some are Asian; others are Latinos. Their parents are middle class and upper middle class and often without college degrees. The students do not read Marx, Lenin, Mao, or Che, as 1960s radicals did. In fact, they do not read much at all -- at least not books, newspapers, and magazines, unless they're quizzed on the reading.
By and large, they are not readers at all, though they send and receive text messages and stare at computer screens. They have been influenced by revolutions in technology that they have had little if any hand in creating. They are largely acted upon; rarely are they actors. Just teenagers, they have been shaped by the wealth and the power of the American Empire in the 20th century and they have seen the cracks in the Empire.
9/11 is the most memorable event in their entire lives, and so I would describe them as the children of terror and torture. Yet they look to other countries of the world not as seedbeds of oppression and insurrection, but as vacation destinations. They have traveled around the world fearlessly despite a near-continual stream of stories about kidnappings and murders.
I like the 17- and 18-year-olds in my classes. They are energetic; they talk, discuss, and argue. They are willing to look at issues from different points of view -- even from opposing points of view; they are driven in part by the fear of failure and punishment and they are skeptics. In one recent class, it was a challenge to persuade them to see that a dissident in this country might be patriotic and burn the flag, and that burning the flag might be freedom of speech protected by the Constitution. Still, they were willing to try the First Amendment on for size and see if they liked it.
I rarely lecture them or even talk to them for extended periods of time. At long last, I have adopted the Socratic Method and ask them dozens of questions every day. I do not feel the need to "tell" them anything; I believe that they will discover what they need to know on their own on campus -- and beyond it as well.
In class, I do not provide a narrative about my own years as a member of a clandestine organization. I don't feel a need to boast nor do I need to confess secrets about the past that haunts me. Even if I tried to explain, the students would not get the idea and the raison d'être of an underground organization that aimed to overthrow the US government. They would not "get" the zeitgeist of the 1970s. Now, I know how Doris Lessing felt when she told me how difficult if not impossible it was to convey to readers in the 1970s what it felt like to be a communist in Southern Rhodesia in the 1940s. "A time in history comes and goes," she said. "And if you weren't there it's lost, and so it seems to me that most experiences are really private."
The current generation of students in the U.S. probably will not make a revolution, or even want to make one; but they will be swept along by a revolution that will alter their lives, their thinking, and their working habits as profoundly as any revolution in the last forty years. It will be a global revolution and they will have a harder time surviving than any previous generation in the United States. If I can help them survive I will have surpassed my hopes and expectations. I want them to think like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who died in 1937 at the age of 46, and I want them to borrow Gramsci's pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. I want them to see the prison of injustice and the injustice of prison, and to believe that they can change the world for the better.
So, I walk alone, haunted by my past. Late at night, I look over my shoulder and listen for the sounds of footsteps on the pavement behind me. My body knows what I thought I had long ago forgotten and I remember the sweetest dream.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. (back)