Confessions of a Reluctant Revolutionary

During the campus protests of 1968, writer Phillip Lopate ’64CC, today a professor in the School of the Arts, joined an alumni group supporting the student radicals. Now, almost fifty years later, he’s still trying to make sense of his place in that time.

by Phillip Lopate '64CC Published Winter 2017
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What puzzles me now is why I gave so little thought to the validity of the demands. I seem to have been closer to the militants’ viewpoint, that it was all a pretext to confront the university as a surrogate for the Establishment, so who cared if the demands were manufactured? The point was to show our opposition to the Vietnam War and racial injustice — and to stick it to Columbia.

In my current thinking, I regard the American university as a soft target. Politically engaged students are in school; hence, they commence their political struggle where they are, using the university administration as a convenient though often misplaced opponent. I suppose it could be argued from a Marxist perspective that the university indoctrinates false consciousness, or, as Pierre Bourdieu maintains, that higher education reinforces the rigid hierarchical class structure. But colleges, I can’t help thinking, are not primarily responsible for the ills of society, and to the extent that they provoke critical thinking, they offer a line of resistance. True, my changed perspective may have something to do with having become a faculty member at Columbia, co-opted by the academic mindset and paycheck that lures me to identify more closely with the institution. William Blake wrote, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” I wonder whether I understood this Blakean adage in 1968, and now that I’ve become one of the faculty nags or ponies, have forgotten it. But no, I don’t believe that righteous wrath necessarily trumps every other kind of moral authority.

The corollary to “the personal is political” is that one’s involvements in politics may have a private as well as a public motive. In my case, I seem to have been trying to enact a youth that was fast escaping my grasp. What I did not realize was that it was not only five or so years that separated me from the student rebels. During that historical juncture there had been a sea change: thanks in part to the demographic bulge denoted by the term “baby boom” and in part to the marketing of youth culture, the students felt themselves part of a separate tribe, their age group serving as sufficient identity, one radically different from grownups. By contrast, I and those on my side of the divide had prematurely yearned to be adult; it was too late for us to learn the siren song of youth. I could not dismiss so easily my elders’ hesitations as “bullshit”: if anything, I felt a twinge of pity for and identification with those professors shuttling between the benighted university administration and the recalcitrant students.

The legacy of the ’68 strike was both positive and negative. Václav Havel said that the Columbia student actions emboldened the Czech rebels and inspired dissidents around the world. In France, the May uprising, les événements de mai, took the protest baton and ran it much further, even bringing down the de Gaulle government. It made us giddy to think we were part of a worldwide movement. At Columbia, Grayson Kirk was replaced by ex–United Nations diplomat Andrew Cordier ’69HON. Modest steps began to be taken to increase the diversity and gender balance of the student body, the faculty, and the board of trustees.

On the negative side, another SDS leader, Ted Gold — whom I had heard deliver a humorous, self-deprecating speech at a street-corner rally: the rebel as nebbish — was blown up on March 6, 1970, by a homemade bomb in the West 11th Street townhouse. That such a sweet, gentle guy’s life should end so violently testified to the runaway-train logic of revolutionary militancy. David Gilbert ’66CC, another SDS organizer, was involved in an armed robbery of a Brink’s truck during which two policemen and a security guard were killed. Mark Rudd joined Weatherman, which vowed to overthrow the government by violent or other means; he participated in the “Days of Rage’’ in Chicago; and then he went underground, working at odd jobs. When he came out of hiding decades later, he, practically alone of the Weather Underground veterans, confessed to regrets for making mistakes. He was particularly ashamed of having given the OK to JJ (John Jacobs) during the second occupation of Hamilton Hall to burn manuscripts belonging to Professor Orest Ranum. Had I known of this at the time I would have been horrified.

Most movement stalwarts never second-guessed their more questionable acts. In a 2015 New York Times follow-up article about the “kidnapping” of an NYU computer in 1970 — a computer, by the way, that had nothing to do with military uses — one of the perpetrators, Nicholas Unger, was tracked down and interviewed. “‘What do I say about being part of a generation of protests?’ Mr. Unger said . . . ‘The war was wrong, and people who tried to stop it were doing the right thing.’” It must be good to have such a Manichaean conscience. Still, one must remember that whatever was done, valid or preposterous, emerged out of the frustrated feeling that you had to do something about the war — you just had to act, not simply stand by. And in fact, the cumulative effect of all that protest activity was to help bring an end to the Vietnam War. The feminist activist Ann Snitow has written wisely: “No activism is possible without naiveté, some faith in action in spite of rational assessments of what can actually be done. And, also, no activism without some grandiosity, some earnest belief in the value of making an unseemly display.” I should keep reminding myself of that, as I think back with bemusement to the unseemly if lively posturing, naiveté, and grandiose play-acting in which I and my confederates indulged during that time a half century ago.


Adapted from A Time to Stir: Columbia '68, Edited by Paul Cronin '14JRN.  © 2017 Columbia University Press. Used By Arrangement with the Publisher.  All Rights Reserved.

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