On January 21, Donald Trump is going to look down from his high tower, in whichever dimension it may be, on the women marching in protest against his assault on civility and think to himself, “Melania and Ivanka look a whole lot better than these vixens.” He might know better than to tweet that exact sentiment, but one way or the other, he’ll find words to belittle them.
Political protest invariably has hallmarks of ridiculousness. I’m reminded of this unfortunate truth on re-reading James S. Kunin’s diary-based account of the 1968 Columbia University demonstrations in The Strawberry Statement (published that same year). A reader predisposed to sneer at 1960s protestors would find ample support in Kunin’s remarkably honest book. Here’s a passage describing the early stages of the sit-in, before billy clubs started flailing:
In stroll an inspector and two cops. We link arms and grit our teeth. After about five minutes of gritting our teeth it dawns on us that the cops aren’t doing anything. We relax a little and they tell us they have neither the desire nor the orders to arrest us. In answer to a question they say they haven’t got MACE, either.
In through the window like Batman climbs Professor Orest Ranum, liberal, his academic robes billowing in the wind. We laugh at his appearance… He confides that the faculty had been nudging Kirk toward resignation, but now we’ve blown everything; the faculty will flock to support the President. We’ll all be arrested, he says, and we’ll all be expelled. He urges us to leave. We say no.
The students fear and yet are also eager for a confrontation with “the pigs,” only for the police officers to act non-confrontationally. Then the liberal professor arrives to urge the students to give in. But by now they’re resolute.
This second passage quotes a man vaguely identified as “Dan”: “Of course liberals are the most masochistic people around. So they went into the streets chanting ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Columbia Strike is going to win.’”
Except for references to Ho Chi Minh, protest chants have hardly changed over the decades. In 1981, I found myself marching in a small oblong at the narrow front of my employer’s building in “solidarity” with our support staff’s wages and conditions demands. We lapsed into a robotic chant of lines beginning “Hey ho, hey ho” and ending with rhymes suited for a two-year-old. It’s still the sound of demonstrations today.
Although not in the least didactic, Kunin’s book has a lot to teach about protest. Accept one’s own absurdity. Be aware that people who share one’s views may be more discouraging than one’s opponents. Don’t despair when gestures feel as though they’re made in vain. Beware the power of television and other media to make protestors look frivolous and disreputable.
I do worry about the violence Kunin describes here and there. The idea of being struck with a billy club terrifies me, never mind being subjected to tear gas and today’s other devices of crowd control. I wonder if it’s necessary to expose oneself to violence. For the most part, Kunin spares himself.
Another lesson from Kunin’s book: the majority of people prefers to keep things the way they are. Status quo always has the upper hand. One of my early childhood memories has me sitting in an eight-person compartment of a train speeding from London to the Hampshire seaside. I was either eight or nine that summer. Wanting to open the compartment’s window to get some air, I whispered to Mum for permission, but she shook her head. To open the window after that, I’d have had to make a scene. In that moment, I recognized that anyone who wants to change a situation is certain to meet opposition from those who accept the way things are. Well, that’s how I put it years later. Who knows how I articulated the idea to myself at the time. (It’s also possible this was the trip when our train was pulled by a steam locomotive, in which case the reason to keep the window closed was to shut out smoke and ash.)
Most of the time, it’s more fruitful not to rock the boat. You don’t offend anyone, and you appear safe. People who don’t rock the boat get promoted in corporations and are awarded tenure at universities. With exceptions, naturally.
In my essay on the Samurai and ISIS, I suggest we need to channel unhappy people’s energy into avenues that aren’t just more productive and social, but also aesthetic. Kunin writes several sensuous scenes. Here’s one:
Friday, June 28: I think maybe I just did something I wasn’t supposed to do… I just went away. Left things no one can leave. Laura and I went to the top of the Empire State Building during a thunderstorm. We went to live in the clouds…
I saw lightning. I heard it work. Who has stood beside lightning? I looked down into the measureless mists and shouted “Hey, New York! How does it feel to be down there when I’m up here?”
Youthful, arrogant exuberance? Perhaps. But it’s also a moment when intensity of emotion heightens Kunin’s appreciation of nature. In another passage, he reports a university administrator saying, “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on an issue is like telling me they like strawberries.” Kunin transforms this statement into the book’s artistic title.
Still, moment by moment, political opposition is graceless, confused, aimless. Yet with time, something substantial emerges. Columbia’s students succeeded in stopping the construction of a university gym inside a park used by local Harlem residents. It would be more years before the government decided to leave Vietnam, but the success of Columbia’s students in uncovering the secret connection between the university’s administration and a government defense agency may have contributed.
Entering a different college in 1972, though at the time I was politically neutral bordering on conservative, I developed a special respect and affection for the seniors who had either been on campus in 1968 or been close to others who had. Many of them had delightful senses of humor, but they were also earnest, carrying themselves with a gravity that comes from hard-won experience. The next year, they were all gone, and the college changed. For the worse? That would be unfair. Still, nothing gives dignity to a life more than purpose, and that particular sense of purpose was gone. For America, the war in Vietnam was already fading into the past. Among all of us born nationwide in 1954, no more than 646 were drafted. (Online draft statistics sources are annoyingly inconsistent.)
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. I remember walking back to my dorm either that night or the one after and hearing cheers and jeers in the distance. Assuming (perhaps wrongly) that the raucous noise was a celebration of that event, I was distressed. Would the seniors my freshman year have gloated? True, ending our destructive involvement in Vietnam had been crucial, but the war had been a tragedy, and the tragedy for Vietnam was to continue long after our departure.
Kunin’s Strawberry Statement was written at a time when a Democratic administration was lying about the progress of the Vietnam War. I believe it’s different today. While liberals can manipulate the facts, lately they haven’t been making them up, something Republicans have got into a habit of doing. It makes a difference. When politicians won’t flat-out lie, they can be held accountable when subjected to effective questioning.
Republicans have also departed radically from American political norms. Senate Republicans violated centuries-long tradition by holding up hearings on the president’s Supreme Court nominee, a candidate previously praised on both sides of the aisle, for the better part of the year in the hope (now realized) that they would be able to appoint someone more to their liking in 2017. North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature has just acted out its resentment on losing the governorship by cutting back on the incoming Democratic governor’s powers.
As if all that weren’t enough, Trump has embarked on what he promises will be an ongoing series of rallies. His shows may lack Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic production qualities, but they hardly lack for drama, with the press fenced off in a separate pen so that Trump can hurl ridicule at them. By summoning up memories of twentieth century European demagogues, the rallies can seem to make U.S. history for the 240 years preceding 2016 look incredibly naïve.
A lot of people will be out protesting against Trump’s administration on January 21, and there will be many more demonstrations after that. The protestors will risk appearing naïve, but it will only be a short-lived impression. By contrast with Trump at his rallies, they will be vindicated because they will give fresh impetus to the American experiment. I didn’t think it at the time, but that’s also what college students did in 1968.