From Christianity and Crisis, August 7, 1972, pp. 190-193:

Notes From the Late Student Movement

by Daniel Brandt

Five years ago middle-class teenagers frequented Hollywood's Strip, which was then a poor man's Haight-Asbury. One day they rioted against excessive police harassment. Today, on the spot where a police bus once burned, the Strip boasts a billboard advertising Earth magazine (Madison Avenue's answer to Ramparts) in three-foot letters:

Enough to kill 5 million people was used in
Cambodia in a test killing of North Vietnamese.
Earth. On sale here.

The color scheme is Peter Max-psychedelic, and a picture of Buddhist monks offsets the lettering. Below the billboard, the long-haired hip capitalists drive by in their Rolls Royces and Cadillacs. Expensive boutiques and record shops line the boulevard, and all is very, very quiet. What began as moral outrage has turned into a consumer item. A funny thing happened to us students on our way to Utopia. We got co-opted.

We can't be sure when the Movement first started slipping. Carl Oglesby, former president of SDS, and Ray Mungo, co-founder of Liberation News Service, took their clues as early as 1968 and promptly got off at the nearest rural commune. Others dropped out during the 1969 Moratorium, when McCarthy-Kennedy innocents chased the campus crazies offstage and legitimized our protest into oblivion. Then there are those who seem to be long on faith and short on evidence. Now that the bandwagon has broken down, even established back-seat journals search their files for the lost vanguard to ask them how long it will take to arrive.

Editors usually want concrete predictions, but here is one torpid radical who can no longer phantasize over parallel institutions, viable life styles and models for social change. I can only offer some observations on current campus moods and how they evolved. Even such limited speculation could prove embarrassing. Student alienation has seldom been more pronounced, yet very little of it finds expression. No thanks, prognosis is much too tricky.

In Search of a Medium

Today students feel suspended between the Movement's ruins and the false ideals of the system. We are searching for a lost identity, for a medium with which to express our visions and frustrations. It's an uncomfortable feeling, because revolutionaries without slogans are often called psychotics. Nietzsche said that we have art so that we don't perish from the truth. In other words, we cannot afford to lose faith in our potential to realize the ultimate. Notice the cynicism in the way Nietzsche phrased his statement. Nietzsche went insane. There's a lesson in this somewhere.

An ultimate medium is one that finds its motivation beyond simple ego-gratification. Politicians don't make it, but a Weatherman might qualify. The difference, suggests Camus, is that the authentic rebel is motivated by the cosmic energy that comes from losing himself in the struggle. Winning the revolution would upset his dynamics, because power is never an ultimate medium.

Once you find a medium -- once your identity focuses on something beyond yourself -- there are two ways to approach the experience. One is from a position of weakness that seeks to deny the self through diversion and escape -- a psychological survival mechanism. Not that this is bad: it can be the first step toward self-affirmation. When this happens the ultimate medium is approached through strength and transcendence that broadens one's perspectives instead of narrowing them. And that's much more fun than cynicism and ego-gratification.

We had a medium once, you see. Our counter culture was simply the heartfelt statement of a beleaguered generation, a generation that hadn't yet lost faith in their potential for the ultimate. Janis Joplin represented the Dionysian in the Movement -- the raw, driving spirit that feeds on and consumes the self unless balanced by its Apollonian counterpart. Apollo -- symbolized by Oglesby -- attempted to inject order and understanding into the chaos with sophisticated critiques. We had nothing less than a dialectic between heart and head, with room for self-expression of any sort.

Our counter culture grew so rapidly that quantitative differences soon became qualitative. In the Movement's early years our actions had a way of enhancing the critique. Radical numbers were negligible, so administrators proved quite unaccommodating. The upshot, they discovered, was that their overreaction to small demonstrations led to larger demonstrations.

By 1969 even former McCarthy-Kennedy workers took to the streets. College administrations switched tactics and endorsed the Moratorium. This caused the Moratorium, big as it was, to leave a vacuum in its wake. Kent and Cambodia precipitated the next effort, and that was short-lived. The system, by doing nothing, could absorb, dilute and co-opt all of our energy.

It's difficult when your ideals and indignation are so perfectly fused into a counter culture to see it infiltrated by the enemy wearing your disguises. In Chicago the world could see that one side had a lot of morality and the other side had a lot of bayonets. This was all right because our energy didn't come from victories -- it was the struggle itself that set us free. And there were two sides, which facilitated a sense of identity.

By now students are closer to psychosis. The high school ideals of freedom and justice never correlated with the realities around us; yet we were frustrated in our efforts to rewrite the textbooks. So today some take options on insanity through makeshift mediums such as the Jesus movement, drugs, health foods, yoga or whatever. A few stronger students moved their activism into the community with food co-ops and child-care centers, where progress is local and the politics long-range. But most of us simply wander around campus, trying not to think too far ahead or too far behind.

Freaking the Media

There is still another reason why the Movement may never resurface in a familiar guise. Hindsight prompts the suspicion that student radicals thrived only because of their symbiotic relationship with the communications media. Protest was the media's darling of the sixties. It was something novel in postwar America, and novelty makes good copy.

The fact that white, affluent youth were involved makes even better copy, and at times the TV crews outnumbered the demonstrators. Once in 1968 two friends and I managed to entice several cameras on campus by using homemade napalm on a plastic doll nailed to a cross. Less than 50 on our campus of 15,000 had spoken out against the war, but somehow the cameramen preferred their own angles.

Another time a sizeable contingent of mothers from Women's Strike for Peace picketed the induction center with a few students. The TV crews naturally chose the student with the most disheveled appearance for an interview. After the footage was edited, no one would have guessed the women were even there. Thus our ingenuous media further counterpoised the Movement with the Establishment. They made everything very simple, very exciting and quite compelling.

Saul Alinsky told us that political power is partly a function of how much strength the opposition thinks you have. In this sense, then, the Movement owed its growth and potency to the media, since they inadvertently sensationalized whatever growth and potency they could find. Public fear and antipathy soared to the point were administrators felt obliged to send in the riot squad, an overreaction that invariably mobilized the peripheral students. And whenever something happened on one campus, a sense of urgency and purpose was communicated to all the others. A strange sort of Movement-media synergy evolved over a period of several years. The radicals naturally used it to their advantage.

Perhaps in response to criticism from Spiro Agnew and other quarters, the media finally became more cautious, realizing that they had the awesome responsibility of defining reality for most Americans. Radicals lost their prime time to issues such as ecology and consumer protection, and this had a calming effect on the country's metabolism. It if is true that yesterday's activism was overindulged by the media, then it may also be true that today's apparent apathy merely reflects the need for new strategies.

But there seem to be other complications. In a time of future shock, a new generation evolves every few years, each with a world-view based on its own unique experiences. Many students from the last decade applied to college on the inertia of a soon-outdated achievement syndrome -- and besides, the alternative to the II-S draft classification was usually the Army. A vague discontent, from Mad magazine to the neighbor's fallout shelter, was buried in their subconscious. They were ripe for an identity crisis en masse.

Today students discover that many issues of the New Left have been absorbed into the electoral process, a process that for the first time includes them. The impotence that once encouraged young people to occupy the nearest building is now replaced with a guarded optimism at precinct headquarters. Moreover, relatively few students have draft worries these days. For some of these part-time activists, a very fine line separates idealism from self-interest. What little frustration remains will fit easily into a ballot box.

Still another group of young people cannot express themselves on a ballot, for they have abandoned protest and achievement in favor of what I call "transcendental cynicism." Many are Movement veterans who try to believe they accomplished something. In Viet Nam the corpses are a different color -- isn't that something? Selective Service is grinding to an eventual halt, and students (isn't this something!) with high lottery numbers chortle at draft resisters of four years ago, some of whom are just now facing prosecution as the judicial backlog catches up with their outdated idealism. And those who talk of amnesty assume that the exiles need their forgiveness. (Shucks, my draft conviction was finally reversed, and I'm still tempted to leave.)

"There's no such thing as altruism," I overheard a student say recently. The last time I came across that gem was from a psychology professor. I almost believe it again, six years later, with one difference: back then it was an excuse to do anything, but now it's a summons to do nothing. I can understand why some Harvard graduates are pursuing careers as house painters, taxi drivers and garbage collectors.

Perhaps this is why the famous high school radicals never materialized in college. They simply discovered that those spoon-fed notions of social progress amounted to just so much maya. Formal education, forever based on those notions, seems more intent on the mere transmission of values from one generation to the next. Creative and critical thinking is better developed by dropping into your "own thing," which often postpones plans for college. It's a type of Consciousness III without much redeeming political significance.

Or is it possible that these radicals-turned-cynics suffer from a short attention span, fostered by an era of affluence and instant gratification? Like naive children we played with fire until Chicago, 1968, when the other side showed up with all the matches. Until then we tried to bluff our way into reform by using revolutionary rhetoric. When our bluff was called, only two choices remained: stop protesting or pick up the gun.

We threw aside the first toy and picked up on campus issues -- equally disappointing, since student turnover on campus made organizing all but impossible. University committees had a way of sucking the life out of our issues. And when radicals finally controlled student governments, many lost their integrity and charisma when it came to dealing with budgetary matters. Likewise, administrators discovered a foolproof way to get the Blacks off their backs: give them some funding and let them fight over their own programs. If nothing else, some of us learned that we have a lot of growing up to do.

Listening and Learning

Day after day we grow older and begin to notice the abject horror in the eyes of old Diogenes. The campus statue doesn't even long for our lost innocence. He only wishes the country would stand still long enough to field a few questions.

Johnson at least had a certain easygoing consistency to his style. His homespun predictability gave students time to develop and propagate their critique. Everything seemed straightforward. To most Americans, Viet Nam was as black and white as a domino, and wars were only minor inconveniences. Students hoped to enlighten the country with the facts, after which we could simply welcome the troops home and offer the world an embarrassed apology. Americans, after all, were good people, though temporarily misled.

Then came Nixon. While Johnson held steady on the wrong course, Nixon acts more like a speedboat without a rudder. Zero draft quotas one month and a grand jury investigation of draft counselors the next. One hand playing dominoes and the other greeting Mao. Infantry coming out, air force and navy going in. I think of Nixon as an errand boy for faceless bureaucracies with a life of their own, watching the power-interest crap games and double-thinking the results into a rationale of leadership. Small wonder the campuses are catatonic. After all, if we don't know where someone is going, how can we head him off?

Nixon's confusion has shaken our faith in the possibilities of the future. Movements require more than a set of conditions to react against; they seldom function entirely in the negative. Much of their energy comes from a belief in unrealized potential, from the bits and pieces of evidence that point to the latency of something more human and more loving. McCarthyism may have generated a few beatniks, but it took the seeds of hope from a Kennedy to spawn the New Left. After Nixon, the cosmic pendulum could return with a fresh reflection of our dreams for tomorrow.

In the meantime we must learn to live without the support of mass movements. They may resurface someday in another generation with different hopes and fears. If so, we can listen to them, and perhaps we can act. But it will never be quite the same. We must realize that our Movement was a historical aberration, a fleeting chance to excuse ourselves from today's business of growing up absurd. We are grateful for what we have learned.

At some point our gratitude will tempt us to look back nostalgically to the sixties. To be sure, publishers are ready to oblige this weakness. Economists will write about post-scarcity; sociologists might counter with the influence of the Baby Boom on peer group constituency; psychologists can refer to the traumas of over-gratification; and theologians, ever optimistic, will argue that the Movement bandwagon diverted the church from its true mission. Countless parasites will analyze everything except the issues to which the Movement addressed itself. Our work is cut out for us.

Enough of nostalgia. Let's pick up our disenfranchised egos and learn to sustain our activism without benefit of TV cameras, fashionable critiques and ready-made community. Such trappings made for the easy commitments that led to hasty retreats. Now that students have sobered, it's time to forget about the sixties as a phenomenon and remember what they taught us about ourselves. We must internalize the motivational energy the Movement so graciously provided. Only then will real social change become possible.

Daniel Brandt was a successful draft resister and an active member of SDS at the University of Southern California. He is now [1972] a teaching assistant in social ethics at the School of Religion there.

NameBase book reviews