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San Francisco in the Sixties

Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967),
the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975)

 

 

San Francisco Magazine

1970

The Threat to Civilized Life
Depression and Revolt
The Administration of Calvin Coolidge Jr.
Dissolving Power
What’s Happening at Santa Barbara?
Nixon in Drag
The Reign of Lies
How Many Americans Have Ever . . .
Remarks on a Shaky Economy
What Lies Ahead?
Invisible Power

 


 


 

The Threat to Civilized Life


All responsible people, that is, largely well-read people under 50 comparatively uncorrupted by the dog-eat-dog, fast buck, business ethic of the American Nightmare (excuse me, I mean Dream), are aware that the world has been in a state of chronic crisis since 1914, and our own community since World War II. The State of California, the Bay Area and the City of San Francisco are all still running on an economic, financial, and industrial structure inherited from the frontier and the period of primitive accumulation of capital, the time Marx was writing about. Like most Western states, basic factors in our lives are still those invented to solve the problems of 1850. This primitiveness has enabled the enormous overlay of the flashily modern society that slick magazines and news weeklies already describe as “typically Californian.” This is true of the tenebrous region of public morality. San Francisco, as I have said many times, in the only Northern city not colonized by the overland spread of the Puritan ethic. Most people came by sea and most of them were rascals — whether miners, whores, or merchants — who found life elsewhere too inhibiting.

When I was a boy, landladies in Greenwich Village and the Near North Side demanded to see the wedding license before they’d rent a couple a room. Every older first-class San Francisco hotel has a rear or side entrance with elevators where you could take up your lady visitor inconspicuously and, in case of what college students call “unlimited intervisitation,” could change your registration to John Doe of Kokomo and wife. Quite ordinary restaurants had booths to modestly shelter intimate encounters. Even between the wars, San Francisco was both wide open and closely controlled. You could run one whorehouse or one gambling room or one speakeasy but no more. San Francisco entered the post-World War II world of computers, astronauts and conglomerates — the last truly Mediterranean city on earth.

There’s only one trouble with laissez faire dolce far niente. In the face of the big artillery it is defenseless. As society has become more and more tolerant, and less and less violent, there has grown up an ever-proliferating class of racketeers of nonviolence, sociopaths who fear only corporal punishment — or capital — and who know that’s not going to happen to them, and so are confident they can get away with anything. As a kind of perverted utopianism comes into being, the old problem that bedeviled the writers on Utopia becomes a critical threat. What do you do about people who simply remain invasive, exploitative, disloyal, totally dishonest, who say, even as society becomes more and more communitarian, “Fuck mutual aid.” The hippie communes have discovered that if they don’t turn themselves into little garrison societies, moral thugs, to whom anarchism is the greatest hustle ever invented, will drop in, bindle on their back, just to crash for the night and within a few weeks have turned the place into an organization of petty criminals, despotically ruled by themselves. Those who won’t accept their rule have been forced once again to opt out. There are thousands of these people, and the Haight-Ashbury has become almost exclusively a settlement of them, where they prey on each other.

This is only a minor example. The permissiveness of San Francisco’s culture has led to its entertainment district being taken over by organized vice. When public officials say “There is no organized crime in San Francisco,” they automatically convict themselves of complicity.

Again, this is not the major disaster that has struck the City. Our physical environment is being rapidly destroyed by exactly the same kind of people — except that they are multi-millionaires. San Francisco for years fancied itself the financial center of the West but it was a dreamy kind of financing — the long Indian summer of quiet, almost automatic exploitation after the initial period of capitalization, of heavy agriculture, the extractive industries, and shipping. Since World War II the commercial banks and other sources of credit in northern California have permitted themselves, and the community with them, to be overwhelmed by absentee get-rich-quick promoters of the most ruthless and destructive character. The Bay Area generally is being economically demolished in a long-term sense. Hundreds of light industries of the transistorized-technocrat epoch line the Bay shore. Within 20 years they will all be obsolete. Their growth has been completely unplanned and motivated only by the same ruthlessly irresponsible greed that has created a megalopolis of slums from Gilroy to Santa Rosa.

These people and their $20,000-a-year and up employees have given California a government of the militantly mindless that horrifies the world. The appalling thing is that the hidden faceless men who manipulate arthritic tap dancers and drugstore cowboys have been able to recruit individuals of some, however modest, intelligence and responsibility. The most shocking example is one who for years presented himself to the community as a kind of small-time avatar of Teddy Roosevelt, Hiram Johnson and Sen. Norris of Nebraska. He has been the instrument through which mindless rapacity has struck at all the foundations of civilized life: public health, the care of the aged and mentally ill, education, and the protection of the environment. Had the old elitist oligarchy that still thinks it rules San Francisco been awake to what was happening, this personally rather decent man would not have been lost. Alas, they live in a world of dreams — dreams of Mrs. Koshland’s salon and the witty repartée of Kathleen Norris and Gertrude Atherton, and bring themselves up to date by humming passages from Sir Stafford Cripps’s rendition of the “Eroica.” (It seems to me I’ve got that name wrong somehow.)

As H.G. Wells became aware that the world was headed for disaster, he began to call for an “open conspiracy” of the responsible elite of the world to plan for the day they could take power away from the psychopaths and the indifferent and the mediocre who run the world. What San Francisco needs is such an open conspiracy. We’ve got plenty of material, even among the sons and grandsons of the old oligarchy. I know most of the people now between 35 and 45 of San Francisco’s 100 families. Many are close friends. Do they have anything to say? No. Not just their parents and uncles, but in some cases their grandparents, still run the family business. In addition, there are thousands of new people, highly trained, intelligent, cultivated members of the technical and professional intelligentsia brought to the Bay Area by the new economy. What in hell they do with themselves I’ve never been able to figure out — drink, watch television, play musical beds? Nobody ever sees them.

Civilized life is gravely threatened, so obviously in all of America, most especially in San Francisco where it was once most civilized. Us rotten apples, arrogant liberals, self-styled intellectuals, effete snobs, merchants of hate, parasites of passion, ideological eunuchs, national masochists, pushy youngsters, and middle-aged malcontents had better get together, or as the man said, “We can afford to separate them from our society.”*

________

*Rexroth is quoting a few of the many alliterative denunciations of anti-Vietnam war protesters by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who concluded: “We can afford to separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel.”

[January 1970]

 


 

Depression and Revolt


As I write this, the news weeklies, the picture magazines and the butcher-paper weeklies of the liberals are full of summaries of the Sixties and prognostications of the Seventies. With the exception of sheets still lost in the McKinley Administration, everybody agrees that the prospects are uniformly gloomy.

The so-called anti-inflation measures of the Calvin Coolidge Junior Administration have not checked inflation but rather increased it, and they have pushed the American unemployment rate above that of any major industrial nation. The stock market slid steadily downward all autumn and around the world the experts on the various financial papers agree that the United States is entering a depression — they call it recession. So, for that matter, do conservative publications like Time and the New York Times. They, however, say bravely, “The Nixon administration cannot afford to allow the country to slide into a serious depression.” This optimism is based on the assumption that the Administration has on its economic general staff people intelligent enough to stop it. This is whistling in the dark. Since Goldwater’s capture of the presidential nomination, the Republican Party has been the party of the militantly mindless. The fiscal policies of the country are in the hands of people who believe not just that John Maynard Keynes was an agent of the Comintern, but that Adam Smith, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill were, in the words of an aging pin-up presidential spokeslady (name of Magnolia), all communistic liberals. To manipulate as stupefyingly vast and complex a structure as the American economy requires brains. There is no evidence that brains are tolerated inside the fence around the White House.

At the moment, the United States is engaged in an immensely profitable war and has an economy geared to permanent war. At the same time it is moving steadily, month by month, deeper into depression. At the same time the rate of inflation is becoming liquidationist. At the same time government bonds pay more than the most fly-by-night, get-rich-quick schemes paid five years ago for their bonds. The entire sector of the world economy dependent on the dollar is being pulled after it. Even the famous West German Miracle is teetering. The bright spots are Sweden, Australia, and of course Japan. Except for periods of catastrophe, the growth rate in Japan has been the highest in the capitalist world for almost 100 years. Yet even Japan was caught up in the world economic crisis that began in 1929 and was solved nowhere except by the introduction of an economy of permanent war.

The most ominous sign of the threat of the new economic crisis is that both objectively, with the ending of the Vietnam War, and in the muddled minds of the self-styled economists in the Administration, we should be several months into a deflationary period. Quite the opposite is the case — sufficient indication that forces of such profound contradiction are operating within the economy that they threaten to pull it to pieces. Macaulay, in his History of England, has a famous panegyric to the national debt: he points out that it is never paid, it is inflated away. Have you any idea what the national debt of the United States is at the beginning of 1970? Assuming that the debt is never paid, compare the interest on the present debt with the interest on the debt at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Deficit financing is all very well, but you cannot destroy bombers that cost many millions of dollars day after day — to, at best, blow up bamboo bridges that are repaired in the night — without subverting the foundations of economic life. Since the outbreak of World War II, the entire U.S. economy has been treated as an extractive industry, as a mine, not a crop.

Any economist who knows more than can be learned from pamphlets put out by the National Association of Manufacturers or mouthed at luncheons of small-town boosters clubs is kept outside the picket fence around the White House along with all the other pickets. For a decade Washington has been a city of pickets. It has also been a city of uncontrollable “crime in the streets.” These were years when prosperity, war, civil liberties legislation and the Welfare State should have fostered a high degree of social cohesion. Of course, the exact opposite was the case. The social turmoil that has accompanied an overall upcurve would have been inconceivable during the economic crisis of the Thirties. Now, historians and sociologists who have devoted years of objective scientific study to the etiology of revolt all agree that the greatest social turmoil, usually culminating in the breakdown of society or revolution, occurs shortly into what they call a J-curve, or fishhook. In other words, a long period of prosperity with ever-increasing participation in the affairs of state and social mobility is followed by a sharp downturn economically, and then with a social stasis and repression. The curve does not have to go very far — no more than the hook of the “J” or fishhook in relation to the shank — when the whole business blows up. This is true of every major outbreak and breakdown in history in every civilization. Men do not revolt out of hopeless poverty. They revolt when their so-called “rising expectations” are cut off and comparative prosperity is suddenly inhibited, and they still have enough physical health, strength, stamina to fight back. This is obvious is the steady rise in black militancy. There are more members of the Black Panthers still alive today than there were Negroes who revolted in all the history of the slave revolts from the first shipload to the Emancipation Proclamation, and this is due to the relatively mild frustration and disappointment of hopes following the first civil rights legislations and court decisions. What will happen when the whole affluent society has been a year or two on the downgrade?

[February 1970]

 


 

The Administration of Calvin Coolidge Jr.


Faced with economic crisis, Herbert Hoover’s administration proposed measures that, had they become law, would probably have ameliorated the severity of the collapse and might even have enabled an eventual recovery. Within the context of the private enterprise system they were intelligently considered, but an antagonistic Congress refused to pass the emergency bills Hoover submitted. This at least is the orthodox Republican position, and there is something to be said for it. Hoover and old Andy Mellon got where they did because they knew what they were talking about.

The present situation is a different matter altogether. Now, as we look back on the first year of Calvin Coolidge Jr. [i.e. Richard Nixon], it is easy to see how his administration handles its problems. The method is that of soap and cigarette advertising. Sell the product on the basis of a minute quantity of a secret ingredient. “Our detergent contains the wonder-working miracle chemical paleoiridiumoxalate, protects your hands, improves your digestion, children cry for it.”

The United States claims it is withdrawing its armed forces from Vietnam. Actually, it is taking a limited number of men out of the field, consolidating its position, and attempting to fight on interior lines. Meanwhile, it is buffering itself with native expendables it hopes to keep fighting by stiffening and policing South Vietnamese troops with American “advisors.” And backing them up with American regiments — literally, with guns at their backs. This is one reason for talk about doing away with the draft. The present strategy would be more effective with a volunteer — i.e. mercenary — army. The trouble is, many volunteers are not forthcoming, so America must continued to rely on gadgetry. Gadgetry has not defeated the enemy in the past, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to make money. The loss of a giant bomber worth millions in an attempt to take out a bridge of bamboo sticks that can be rebuilt in a night is just what the doctor ordered. It’s all very well to talk about fighting on interior lines if you can establish a front, but the front is in Saigon, where a complete underground apparatus is functioning.

So too with the administration’s measures to cope with inflation and the oncoming economic crisis. The only anti-inflationary measure put through so far is to increase unemployment. All the other measures, including high interest rates, are, in the final analysis, inflationary. When respectable credit for bona fide enterprises costs as much as the extortionist loan sharks were charging desperate people only five years ago, this is not deflation but inflation and, furthermore, it is inflation before collapse. The economic processes now operating cannot be turned off. You can’t go back; all you can do is someday bail out. You don’t remember, but 1928-29 saw a boom bond market, but not, as I remember, with anything like the present fantastic interest rate.

So too with crime in the streets, which simply means the breakdown of urban civilization. The present administration measures add up to “get more cops and get them tough,” and turn the authority over to local police forces. In other words, if what you’ve been doing is wrong, you have to do it harder.

The most serious crisis we face is the general one of the human species itself, the breakdown of the environment. How does the administration propose to handle it? By setting up a small commission to advise the President on what measures he can submit to private enterprise and to encourage the business community to de-pollute itself. This is hiring the murderer to solve the crime. Modern capitalism is no longer productive in the sense that a farm is productive. It no longer operates by cycling its resources, whether of men or materials. As a whole, modern industry is one great extractive industry, a mine. You take the stuff out of the ground, process it, sell it, use it, break it, throw it on the rubbish heap. The gismo is the rubbish heap. If the tin cans went back to the smelter the system would blow up. The point in Vietnam is precisely the destruction, for trivial ends, of billions and billions of dollars’ worth of matériel. The system’s built-in falling rate of profit was once met by dumping manufactured surpluses onto the coffee-colored brethren, sometimes in exchange for extremely cheap raw materials or luxuries like ivory or diamonds. We’re still dumping surpluses on the same brethren but now it’s no longer cheap tin trays. It’s napalm, fragmentation bombs and blazing bombers. Don’t forget, they are commodities, too. They are also a form of technologically highly improved pollution or garbage.

To overcome the lethal destruction of the environment, it would be necessary to totally reorganize all methods of production and distribution “lock, stock and barrel” — a catch phrase which in this case is singularly fitting. Where will this reorganization come from? Not from the other side, certainly. From 1929 to 1939 I watched the world economic crisis affect Russia as deeply as it did Germany and the United States, and I watched it partially solved in the same way — by war production. The Five-Year Plans were just a nastier, more hysterical, WPA. When the facts finally came out, hunger and unemployment were at least as great in Russia as in Germany or America. The only difference now is that the Rhine is not as polluted as the Hudson or Japan’s Inland Sea or many Russian rivers. So Calvin Coolidge Jr. plans to save the human species with the aid of the San Bernardino Chamber of Commerce?

[March 1970]

 


 

Dissolving Power


I hope everybody’s strapped in, because the acceleration is going to get terrific. Calvin Coolidge Jr. and the One-Man Greek Junta wanted a politics of confrontation, and now they’ve got it. Bang. Bang. Bang. They free the cops in Detroit. They sentence the Chicago defendants to bigger raps than they give second-degree murder in that murderous town. They throw not one, but a whole stack of books at their lawyers. The district attorney makes a public speech that they are all faggots. Three more oil slicks hit three different resort coasts. The Safeguard program will cost over $600 million more than estimated — already, on the trial run. The University of Santa Barbara blows. The Onassis of Chesapeake Bay demands that the press self-censor itself and stop printing news of those dope-crazed, sex-crazed, commie university children. And, with few exceptions, the press does.

There has ceased to be any communication whatsoever between the dead society and the living. They make totally imbecilic remarks, like Pat in the atomic power plant: “And, just think, isn’t it wonderful! It doesn’t cause any pollutions!” The press solemnly reports that since Operation Intercept the use of heroin in New York high schools has doubled. And Cal Jr. twists the arms of the Turks to stop the export of, believe it or not, marijuana! And the Daddies and Mommas cheer and nobody ever tells them that Turkey is one of the three principal exporters of illegal opium. What’s happening? When the Mafia took over Haight-Ashbury, for weeks grass became unobtainable, but young sinister strangers were peddling smack all along the street like newspapers. Who is taking over what, when the same thing happens on a national-international scale?

The most profitable counterrevolution in history occurred when the Syndicate discovered they could sell middle-class youth drugs as revolution. But dope wears out. You build up tolerance and have to kick it and start over. What is the power structure going to do when all the dope wears out and there is no drug that can narcotize youth so that they can face their parents without vomiting? It’s a 45/55 ratio now, what is going to happen when 55 percent of the youth of the land say, “I find this social order of institutional murder and lies utterly, totally unbearable and I refuse to stand it another minute.” What will happen then?

I am a neo-Flower Child. I believe nonviolence is incomparably more effective than violence. I believe the techniques of nonviolent social action have hardly been tried. I believe that quietly living a lifestyle of love and respect for all sentient creatures can completely subvert a power-crazy society. I don’t believe in Black Power, or Student Power, or Gay Power, or any other kind of Power. When push comes to shove, all power is Pig Power. I don’t believe in power at all. If they get you wanting power, they’ve got you in their bag, doing their thing.

But what is happening when the school that students put down as the country club of the university system (their parents have a median income of over $35,000), where you can’t buy a single radical newspaper, where a former leader of SDS asked me to explain very briefly the difference between socialism, communism and anarchism, blows up? Don’t blame it on Kunstler. Kunstler is still trying hard to be a pacifist, and he certainly is not going about uttering direct incitement to violence. Never, anywhere, is riot due to “outside agitators.” When students from homes in Palos Verdes burn down banks something has gone terribly wrong. It is not the youth from the slums who are saying this year, “I refuse to accept a life devoid of all meaning.” It is youth from split-level utopia.

Power comes out of the mouth of a gun. That’s right. But it is absurd as a slogan for the alternative society. You pull out your piece, they pull out their piece. You pull out your next piece, they pull out their next piece. The last piece pulled is theirs — it’s the cobalt bomb. The peaceable kingdom will not be won by fire and sword. They’ve told us that’s what they were doing for 6000 years. All wars are fought for freedom and peace. The plastic dolls at the top of the power structure are more vulnerable than you think. When you’ve seen one synthetic statesman you’ve seen them all. They are non-inflammable and impenetrable by bullets. But they can all be dissolved by very simple solvents.

It’s never worked? But it’s never been tried, except maybe by the Buddhist Emperor Asoka.

Meanwhile, the Black Panthers topple over like black bowling pins — like black sitting ducks.

What’s the solvent that dissolves the Enemy? That’s the solution. The problem is, how do you apply it?

Yet here we are trapped in the air-conditioned nightmare — and the air-conditioner has broken down at last.

[April 1970]

 


 

What’s Happening at Santa Barbara?


What happened in Santa Barbara? Ecology. What’s wrong with Academia are the destructive relationships of the biota. As a friend said on resigning as chairman of the economics department at a Texas university and director of several businesses and banks to devote himself to writing poems and painting pictures: “How absurd to sit here and talk about Newman’s Idea of a University. Universities are designed to keep young adults — not ‘kids’ — in deep freeze, off the labor market until they can be thawed and turned into bureaucrats, academicians or soldiers. The environment is soul-withering. The philosophy is custodial. The courses are irrelevant. The administrators are authoritarian. The professors are pusillanimous. The students are infuriated.” He got this out, red-faced, shaking, tears in his eyes, and retired to a remote valley in the Rockies at the age of 40. As economist, he’d gotten rich in the stock market.

The oil slick that destroyed the life in the Santa Barbara Channel and turned the town of hotel keepers and real estate speculators into momentary radicals was nothing compared to the anti-life environment of the student slum, Isla Vista, a kind of Warsaw Ghetto of gerry-built apartments and patched-up, cheap beach cottages where there is nothing to do. Students are hated in the town and find it almost impossible to rent anything. An eminently respectable girl, one of the most brilliant students, rented a nice little cottage in Santa Barbara and paid two months’ rent in advance. When she came back to move in the landlord asked if she was a student at UCSB. “Yes.” “Here, take your check. We don’t want any of you whores and dope fiends here.” She moved in with friends and left at the end of the quarter. As for the curriculum, still powerful in many departments are what the head of the English department at another university calls “the decrepit alligators in the back bayous of tenure” who think Montessori is that gummy cheese you put on pizza and that A.S. Neill is slang for a sexual perversion. Students believe, rightly or wrongly, that no other university in the California system is more subject to hidden pressures or so interpenetrated by the local business community. Sure, the Board of Regents and the Drugstore Cowboy kick Berkeley around, but very abstractly. They are way off on Olympus, like Marx’s Capitalist System. In Santa Barbara pressures are applied by the local luncheon clubs, Chamber of Commerce, real estate agents, travel agencies, AMA, but worst are the bankers, businessmen and university personnel who are slumlords in Isla Vista.

The incredible contretemps over the appointment of the young anthropologist Bill Allen, incomparably the most popular teacher in the school, which led step by step to the final major riot, demonstrates clearly the attitude of the administration and senior faculty to the students’ right to have something to say about who will teach them. He was hated and feared precisely because he was so popular with students. The intricacies of his left sectarian politics were far over the heads of his colleagues. Certainly the scientific myths which governed his interpretation of ethnographic fact are no more mythological than dime-store Freudianism, Norman Thomas Marxism, or the empty, highly fashionable structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, which are the superstitions of most anthropologists.

A generation ago a young friend of mine came out from Harvard and got a job in the Berkeley English Department. In the late spring the head of the department called him into his office and said, “You have a habit of fraternizing with students. We don’t do that at Berkeley. If you wish your contract renewed you will stop it.” Said my friend, “You old ten-letter word! You can take your seven-letter-word contract and stick it up your three-letter word.” He went back to Harvard, where for 30 years he has been one of the brightest jewels in their crown. There are still far too many people like Dr. — at large and unburied at UCSB. A member of the faculty referred to my own class, whose tremendous creativity constantly astonishes me and whose atmosphere of joy and agapé fills me with delight every session, as “the Old Hippy’s Singing in the Shower Sessions.” I know students who have been told by their professors, “I am the teacher. You are the student. My job is to teach you. Your job is to learn. You have nothing to do with how this university is run or with what you are taught. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else, or drop out of school and be drafted.” Then they wonder why they riot.

As long as the student ghetto slum, Isla Vista, is not torn down and rebuilt, there will be trouble.

As long as the hatred of townspeople for the students endures, there will be trouble.

As long as petty shopkeepers and small-time speculators can exert pressure on the university, there will be trouble.

As long as teaching methods that were antiquated in the days of Pestalozzi (another Italian dish) are still permitted, there will be trouble.

As long as teachers behave like authoritarian custodians of an asylum, there will be trouble (read Erving Goffman’s Asylums).

As long as students cannot find creative social relationships, sources of information and simply things to do in Isla Vista, there will be trouble.

Last and not least, unless the size of the university is reduced and another university is opened, there will be trouble. One cause of the trouble in all universities is the population explosion. You can’t have 7000 Mark Hannas on one end of the log and 50,000 questioners on the other.

As a final note, it is curious that many of the oldest administrators and faculty understand the problem and agree with me. The younger men are often people who have grown up in the Age of Smog and think things were never any different and probably can’t be changed.

[May 1970]

 


 

Nixon in Drag


Ellsworth Huntington’s works on sunspots, climate, history, business cycles, and the rise and fall of civilizations are usually dismissed as pseudo-science. Nevertheless, there is something terribly convincing about them. America is capitalist. Russia is “revisionist socialist.” China is “real socialism.” The Iron Curtain countries are People’s Democracies. Cuba is a mixture of all three. Yugoslavia is real revisionist socialism. Sweden is the Middle Way. The nations of the former colonial world are Liberated. Right?

Theoretically, according to anybody’s sociology or economics but especially Marxism, economic conditions and social movements should differ vastly. They do not. Russia is in the depths of a serious economic depression. So is the United States. So is most of the rest of the world — Western Europe, Japan and Australia the least, Africa probably the most. According to the papers, the American depression is due to inflation, over-expansion of the stock market and the benighted economic policies of the J. Walter Thompson administration. In Russia it’s supposed to be caused by the relative impoverishment of the civilian economy by military expenditures the country cannot afford. In Africa it’s because those natives don’t know any better. That all these disparate social systems should converge in one worldwide deepening economic depression is certainly a remarkable coincidence. One would think that when the capitalist world went down, the socialist world, self-sufficient within its own autarchy, should go up. But this has never been true. Bolshevik policy has always followed the American stock market, if you want to interpret it that way, although the Bolsheviks must be given credit for foreseeing the end of their New Economic Policy — their Coolidge prosperity — in the summer of 1929. “The Republicans bring depressions; the Democrats bring wars.” It’s not so simple as that.

It’s as though some external factor was operating — sunspots or cosmic rays — or astrology. But even more ominous, there seems to be a subjective factor operating all over the world. Reaction, repression, dictatorship, the seizure of power by the militantly mindless — it’s the same the whole world over. Sacramento, Washington, the Vatican, Peking — on the thrones of power everywhere is just another costume. It’s the same Dick Nixon in drag. Brezhnev and Nixon even look alike. We are entering a period of counterrevolution triumphant. We are also entering a period where the population explosion and the destruction of the environment are catching up on us at a geometrically accelerating rate. Resources, said Adam Smith, grow by addition; population grows by multiplication. Four plus four is eight; but four times four is 16, and the higher the number the greater the difference. That’s back in those old square days. These are the days of breakdown by cube. To raise the standard of living of every man on earth to that enjoyed by American blacks with a median income, it would be necessary to have 27 planets to exploit at the rate we exploit this one, and those would wear out pretty soon. These problems may be capable of solution but they are not being solved now, and the proposed solutions on the part of the state are frauds, all of which would work backwards exactly like the current “control of inflation.”

Liberal political theorists who have said the state was turning before our eyes into a service state, and the Left that said the state was simply the coercive organ of the ruling class, have both been proven wrong. But the Left that said its state was to be a true service state, is wronger still.

Once a regulative order of the body politic, the state has become cancerous and now has metastasized throughout all the tissues of society, and even its former beneficent activities become malignant. So all political terminology becomes Newspeak and means the opposite. We are tapering off the war in Vietnam. Tricky Dick’s ecological revolution pollutes the Arctic Ocean and turns the national forests over to the lumbermen. But though he or Brezhnev or Montini actively enjoy behaving that way, they couldn’t help it even if they didn’t like it. At a rough estimate I would say that it is physically impossible for a contemporary politician to utter three sentences without lying five times. I should hate to ask any of our rulers if he had two eyes, one nose and one mouth. I fear the answer would be an embarrassment to all concerned. This is not just rhetoric of the Mr. Dooley-Will Rogers-Mark Twain variety; the joke has come true.

How does a body fight this? Not by massive confrontation, certainly, with the cohorts of Ronnie Bloodbath, Don Alioto’s Tac Squad or the U.S. Army. It’s old Macdonald’s Green Beret Farm, and just as you are ready to pull your ace out of the hole, they can top it; their ace is the Doomsday Machine. Do you realize how far along we are? If in 1935 Hitler had said, “When you go on the campus of Heidelberg University, be ready to shoot; if we are going to have a bloodbath, let’s have it now,” his government would have fallen. The time has come for all men of good will to disentangle themselves from a dying society. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything overt. It means reorganizing one’s own life and redefining the meaning of life so that all the cords which bind one to implication in an order of death are cut, one after the other. The first step should be a private denial of collective guilt, something like an act of prayer. Once you no longer believe in the Gospel according to J. Walter Thompson or the Politburo, you can begin to act. You have found the fulcrum of Archimedes’ lever. How is another story.

[June 1970]

 


 

The Reign of Lies


They laughed when I sat down at the piano . . .” In this epoch of the dizzy acceleration of the breakdown of American world hegemony, of Western civilization — of the environment, of the capitalist system, of civilized interpersonal and family relationships, of ordinary morality — it is impossible for any sane prophet of doom not to be overtaken by facts. And the facts surpass all but the most outrageous paranoia.

If a really hip old-time political journalist were to tell what he really knows about the way the world is run, they’d ring the bell and call for the men in white to take him away in a straitjacket. The devil theory of history so long mocked by orthodox historians has come true at last and maybe — looking back from the daily newspapers to the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, who in my young days I thought were just romancing propagandists for the Senatorial party — maybe it’s always been true.

I was sitting one time in the Brasserie Lipp with France’s most liberal politician, discussing the international economic and military machinations responsible for his recent defeat. The woman with me said to the others around the table, “You have to take anything Kenneth says with a grain of salt. He believes the world is run by the CIA, the Pentagon, Chase and Citibank, the Communists, the Mafia, five American advertising agencies and the homosexuals.” Everybody laughed, but the ex-premier cocked an eyebrow, shrugged his shoulders and quietly said, “Mais oui.”

The major white-collar industry today is lying. Figure out the number of people who live by lying! Journalists, salesmen, advertising men, publicity men, movies, television and radio employees, writers and actors, novelists and playwrights, professors, schoolteachers, clergymen, all politicians without exception — left, right and center — all military and paramilitary officers — from cops to generals to admirals — employees of research institutes like Rand, doctors and “scientists” who write testimonials for cigarettes, DDT and leaded gasoline, conservationists who endorse the activities of the lumber and paper industries. So it goes, on and on and on. Sure, there are honest men among them, but they are few and far between. As such, the business of communicating with one another, not just the communications industry, has come to consist almost entirely of perverting facts and peddling fantasy. How many times a day does a clerk in a department store cosmetics counter say something that is manifestly false? As you go up the ladder the intensity of the lie increases geometrically until you get to the J. Walter Thompson shadow cabinet presided over by the Rice Krispies box into which they pour words, the programmed android who was hired by a classified ad.

Most sensible people know that the administration calls things by their opposite. “Invasion” cannot be called “withdrawal” without people catching on, but what is behind the PR, even the PR of the Left? The invasion has captured some cans of Spam and some Springfield rifles and consolidated the enemy deep in Cambodia. In other words, the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao, withdrawing from before the Americans, have not retreated but advanced. Was this a mistake on the part of the Pentagon and the White House? Obviously it was not. They planned it that way. More important than the military adventure is the constitutional one. The invasion was a deliberate act of defiance of those Congressmen — and the public opinion behind them — who were attacking the unconstitutional power of the President to make undeclared war. This is what is important: the deliberate planned defiance of the Constitution, amounting to a dry run for a military coup d’état. Greece, Iran, Santo Domingo, Guatemala, Indonesia and, of course, Cambodia were all defenses of freedom and democracy, dry runs over the body of the gooks. Now the boys are putting into effect the lessons they learned abroad on the home folks.

As for the domestic scene, is there really anybody so naïve as not to believe that the same technocrats of the lie write Spiro Agnew’s speeches as write Nixon’s speeches chiding him for being too rough? It’s the old technique of the bad cop and the good cop, with the American people getting the third degree. Only one trouble: Nixon is not as convincing as a good cop. It may be paranoid to believe that everything is going according to plan here at home, but isn’t it? Do you really believe that 150,000 hard-hats could be mobilized for a demonstration in 48 hours and that then hard-hat clubbings, hard-hat clubs, hard-hat demonstrations could spread all across the country during the following week all as a spontaneous eruption of the stalwart patriotic American working class? Do you believe this? It takes months of planning and preparation to organize such a movement in New York City alone. Furthermore, it takes a cadre of organizers. Who were the principal organizers of the New York demonstration? The labor unions most notoriously identified with the Mafia. Are you aware that in these hard-hat demonstrations the bully boys are being paid for their time by their unions and/or their employers — and this includes construction workers on government and state jobs? A queer kind of spontaneity.

At one blow the men behind Nixon (And who are they, these faceless men behind their faceless masks? Certainly more powerful and more anonymous figures than the pipsqueak Southern California millionaires who hired him long ago with a classified ad and coached him to libel and slander Helen Gahagan Douglas out of Congress.) have been able to call up an army of hoodlums of a size it took Hitler years to muster.

How are you at cutting barbed wire, getting through electric fences, dodging searchlights and strangling police dogs? Better practice.

[July 1970]

 


 

How Many Americans Have Ever . . .


This piece is being written in the lull between massacres on the campus and holocausts in the black ghettos. By the time it is published something awful is sure to have happened; but in the meantime, all is calm — at least here in our cottage in the midst of its overgrown, disheveled garden. Peacocks cry off in the middle distance before dawn. Crows fly away cawing to each other at sunrise. Where to I’ve never known. The cat goes out and hunts mice and gophers, usually successfully. Towhees go over the ground scratching busily. As soon as the sun is well up the hummingbirds begin their rounds. Most flowers seem to produce honey about every two hours. The jays show up at mealtimes and beg for food. The woodpeckers send the same Morse code messages of love and territorial claims over and over and over. Nothing happens here. We are walled away from the world by cypress and pittosporum hedges that are now 30-foot trees. The only intruder is a black Labrador that tips over the garbage can. Turn off the radio, turn off the TV, stop the newspapers and magazines, disconnect the telephone. The human race is its crisis vanishes.

Earth Read Out comes in the mail. They’ve moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. They say there isn’t enough water to go around even now. With rational exploitation and balanced use there is enough for less than two billion people. I take a daily bath and water the garden every day. Do swallows smell water? Whenever the sprinkler starts they show up, otherwise I never see them. In the slums of Brazil, it says, people stand in line for hours to get a couple of quarts of water.

It’s easy to see why most people don’t understand what’s happening. How many Americans have ever gone hungry for a day? In fact, how many have ever gone two days without toothpaste? How many have ever met anyone who had been in jail or smoked marijuana? How many people can recognize a homosexual man unless he swishes and uses lipstick and mascara? How many have ever had that proverbial Negro home to dinner? How many have an honest, undistorted memory of their own childhood and youth? How many ever come in contact with actual poverty? How many San Franciscans have ever been to Hunters Point? How many customers of the chop suey joints and gewgaw shops in Chinatown have any idea of how the people upstairs are living?

This is the silent majority, who if they are well informed read Barron’s Weekly and Reader’s Digest. It is for them that the sports pages, the stock market quotations and the funny paper are printed on a green or pink sheet — they can pull it loose and that’s all they read, while Mom reads the recipes and society and fashions. Careful, laborious research has revealed that almost nobody, only the minutest percentage, reads the editorial page — a good thing, too. If the working class had read the editorials in the Hearst Press we would have had fascism in America by 1905. (Ed. Note: As late as July 6, 1970, Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner defended the fascist Greek junta.)

Social critics are always talking about America as the land of mass man, yet no people live more locked in upon themselves. Every day a typical Frenchman socializes for a while on a café terrasse. Italian life is organized around the piazzas of the cities. Even Germans spend considerable time in bierstubes, clubs, and walking with their friends in the parks and countryside. Go to Golden Gate park on a Sunday and keep your eyes and ears open. Most of the people strolling about have foreign accents or are colored. Polo is one of the most exciting games to watch. How many people will you find sitting in the free seats at the Polo Field?

Americans socialize in bars. Do they? They socialize in gay bars and sexualize in pickup bars; otherwise they seem to go there solely to get drunk, and each drinker resents bitterly any intrusion. It seems to me a very expensive method of lonely drinking. Why not take a bottle home? Maybe it’s a kind of exhibitionism. The typical American drinker spends all that money just to show other lonely drinkers how drunk he can get.

Try talking — if you know anything about it yourself — to your friends or your associates at work about the actual personal life and problems of a college student, a Negro, an agricultural worker, a mother on welfare — not their stereotyped sociological or economic problems but the real, personal, human, day-to-day facts of their lives. You’ll discover that even in the most liberal circles you meet total incomprehension, and answers of empty formulas.

It’s no better on the other side. Black militancy has led to an upsurge of frankness which has revealed that most blacks have fantastic ideas of white life. They are completely unaware that it differs hardly at all from their own. Theirs is just more old-fashioned because it’s southern. They are always complaining about prejudice and discrimination when what they mean is the way everybody treats everybody else. Jerry Rubin’s notion of the mores of the Establishment is a childish nightmare. Even my students have the most profound misconceptions of the motives and activities of their own parents.

Vietnam is far, far away, and tiny yellow men and great helmeted monsters in outlandish uniforms are doing terrible things. It’s all a science-fiction film, something happening on the planet of another sun.

I prune the ivy and feed the jays and read the Prajnaparamita Sutras. I’ll tell you a secret. I have never had an affair with a typical, straight, square American woman, and only two dates, one in high school. I wouldn’t know what to say or what to do, or how to do it.

[August 1970]

 


 

Remarks on a Shaky Economy


Prosperity is just around the corner, I hope you’ve ordered a dozen boxes of apples in advance. Hawley-Smoot is here again. All through the recent boom years the economy of the European nations has had a more rapid growth rate than the American, and has had a far broader and firmer base, for precisely the reasons that American reactionaries look on as creeping Communism’s attempts to undermine free enterprise.

Social security measures, from medical care to pensions, reach practically all the populations of the leading industrial countries where, except possibly Italy and England, wealth is much more evenly distributed. In the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain poverty that is commonplace in the most prosperous cities of the northern U.S. is unknown. The percentage of unemployment has dropped below what is usually considered efficient functional unemployment, people moving from one job to another, etc. In some countries it has hovered around two percent for long periods. It is the people from economically depressed or underprivileged areas — Greece, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, West Ireland — who are in great demand in the industrial countries and who do most of the heavy work: In other words, those people who in the United States are redundant and unusable — Negroes from the South. Similarly, young people are in tremendous demand; instead of being held off the labor market in irrelevant universities, they are encouraged to go into industry after high school. Solidly based or no, the European economy is beginning to shake. The reason of course is the immense power and pervasiveness of American capital. The French are notorious for their anti-Americanism, yet there is a higher rate of American investment in France than in Germany or England, which the French consider American vassal states. No one goes to greater lengths to protect their own industries than the Swedes, as you’ll find if you try to buy stock in a Swedish company, yet SKF, known to all Americans for fetching ads for ball bearings, has many American hookups.

What frightens Europeans is not American imperialism. It is the passionately committed mindlessness of American capitalism and politicians. Johnson’s taste in painting or Nixon’s preference of theologians are widely publicized in Europe and send chills up and down the spines of German generals and industrialists and even politicians. What do you suppose an English businessman thinks when he discovers that his American customer or seller believes that John Maynard Keynes was a Russian Communist? What do you suppose the editors of The Economist or Le Monde Financier think when they read Barron’s Weekly?

Essential to the continued life of the Free Enterprise World is the free flow of commodities, because on that depends ultimately the free flow of capital. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff was the direct cause of the 1929 collapse, which was not what the American newspaper editorials called it, “The Depression,” but what the Communists called it: The World Economic Crisis. They should know because for all the camouflage and bluster of Five-Year Plans, it affected them as severely as it did the United States. Yet they were supposed to enjoy all the benefits of a planned economy in a practically closed autarchy.

Germany, the economic keystone of Europe, is not today in a state of chronic bankruptcy propped up by Dawes Plans and Young Plans (and being economically badgered by France) but the worldwide export of American capital performs the same function as the Dawes Plan — or the Marshall Plan — in a more wholesome fashion. The great prosperity and rapid growth rate of the Common Market countries is obviously dependent on the newly opened large area of free trade, but input and output from the Common Market itself must be relatively free compared with the high tariff times. Switzerland, which belongs to nothing but itself, is equally prosperous, but that prosperity depends totally on exports. So does Sweden’s, so does England’s.

The oncoming tariff policies of the American Congress and of the J. Walter Thompson Administration are not going to cause a trade war, as the more enlightened editors are saying. A trade war takes time. What is going to happen, unless these policies are reversed, is an economic crisis. Considering that the present economy is put together with cards and toothpicks — ten to fifteen percent industrial development money and ten to twelve percent home mortgages as conservative base levels — what will happen is that once it breaks the economic crisis will deepen with ever-accelerating rapidity. Never forget, people are now paying interest rates to build skyscrapers of the sort charged a few years ago to people to play the horses. Usury is a measure of risk. Credit has little to do with “tight money” in a purely monetary sense. And where are we now? War, inflation, unemployment, soaring interest rates, unbalanced balance of payments and so on, and on; negative factors of the economy that are supposed to be contradictory and to occur at opposite swings of the business cycle are occurring at once.

How to cure it? Let the redneck cotton barons, the hopelessly inefficient American textile industry, the uncompetitive American manufacturers of precision goods stop the flow of trade. A year ago people were saying, “The Nixon Administration will never let the country go into a depression. American capitalism will not permit it.” The assumption was that those bodies could mobilize something better than the brain power of the Kansas State Shriners’ Convention. People didn’t realize that we were back in the Age of Mencken.

Somebody’s going to make money — the Wenatchee Apple Growers’ Association. Order your boxes now. “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

[September 1970]

 


 

What Lies Ahead?


Autumn, rather than January, has always seemed to me the beginning of the new year and so it is, of course, for lots of other people — students and others who have long vacations, Congress — and for many industries and retail businesses. Falling leaves always induce in me a mood of “what lies ahead?” What does lie ahead and how can we determine the future rather than be driven into it?

It must be obvious to almost everybody except the Greek Colonels in the White House, the Cabinet and Congress that the American Empire is smashing up. The country is headed for chronic tumult, riot and revolt and after that, a repression that will make the Nazis seem amateurs and may well make them look positively benevolent.

We are no longer faced with the breakdown of an economic system in which the methods of production and distribution are in flagrant contradiction, but with the most violent antagonism between a highly developed technology, an economic system which operates on principles that ceased to make sense in 1848, and a social, cultural order which has been completely emptied of meaning and can no longer provide significant life satisfactions to anybody.

There’s no question but what if humanity is going to survive there is going to be a revolution incomparably more profound than anything envisaged by Karl Marx. That revolution can take one of two forms: total collapse into a new dark ages or total change in society’s ideas of the values and meaning of life. There is no question but what it’s coming. The problem is to avoid catastrophe. It’s not a question of reform versus revolution; it’s a question of keeping society alive and functioning through the changes that will come. Shortly before his death, Jack Kennedy and his advisers were admitting privately that they were completely bankrupt. They saw no way out of the impasses that confronted them in every avenue of policy. The present incumbent and his PR men are busy fighting the Philippine War and coping with the Panic of the 1850s. Just trust in Billy Graham. Everything is going to come out all right.

If we want to just keep our heads above water, what will we have to do? First, stop the war and get out in a matter of weeks. Mobilize every means of transportation in the world the way the Muslims do to ship pilgrims to Mecca for Ramadan, and totally evacuate Southeast Asia.

Legalize marijuana, even if we have to turn it over to the cigarette companies. The present situation is more demoralizing than ever was Prohibition in the days of Al Capone.

Abolish poverty now with a guaranteed annual wage at the level of a decent life. It has been proven again and again that this would be far cheaper than the present methods of welfare and pensions.

We are not dealing with ideological reaction in America at the present. It takes intelligence to have ideology. We are dealing with an ignorant, brutal, greedy taxpayers’ revolt, the immense class of nouveau riche produced by the affluent society, by the tremendous wealth of energy and the resulting release of commodities produced by the new technology. Einstein was elated when he was offered $10,000 by an American university. The petty bureaucrat or technician who owes his affluence to Einstein amongst others says, “I worked hard for mine (which he didn’t) and I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let the government take it away and give it to a bunch of dope-crazy college punks and niggers.” We need to stop the war and stop spending money for war and yet raise taxes and use them for the improvement of the quality of life for society as a whole; for education, housing, health and all the rest. America is steadily dropping down the scale in world health and it is today the most expensive country in history to be sick in.

What can be done about black America? “You give them an inch and they want a yard.” That’s right. Today, juridically, black Americans are the equal of white in the quest for jobs, education, housing, but then they were 10 years after the Civil War, too. All the recent civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions only repeat rights granted over 100 years ago, and the second round has not accomplished much more than the first. People forget what it was like before the destruction of Reconstruction in the Eighties. Most of the social legislation that white southerners now enjoy was passed by the post-Civil War state governments by what the textbooks used to call “the Carpetbagger-dominated watermelon legislatures.”

It is extremely doubtful if White and Black America can ever live together with mutual liking and respect. On their little island, the English, Welsh and Scots can’t today. Englishmen talk of Welshmen the way Southern agrarians talk of Nigras, although both of them may be going to Oxford — and as for the English and Irish! Partition doesn’t seem to help, as witness present-day Northern Ireland. The only thing to do is to enforce absolute job equality and complete social mobility. I think the Muslims and secular militants are right. Sooner or later we are going to have to face the prospect of partition and set up an independent Black American state. However, if I were a Black Muslim I wouldn’t take South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, any one or altogether, as a gift.

It’s extraordinary. Presidential commissions of learned and dedicated men are set up to study and make proposals for solutions to all those besetting evils that promise imminent catastrophe — the educational crisis, the racial crisis, the alienation of youth, the historically unparalleled crime wave, the exploitation of women, the breakdown of medical care. They have come to describe it pretty much as it all is, without mincing words, and they make sensible, practicable proposals — and nobody does anything or, rather, usually does the opposite.

With a second Coolidge in the White House, and a second McKinley speaking for him on the lecture platform, the polarization of society has reached such a point that the “swing vote” may revolt against their own demagogues. Maybe the November elections will start to topple the present mindless regime. What a big maybe! May Day! M’aidez!

[October 1970]

 


 

Invisible Power


When Dick Gregory announced he was expatriating himself to Canada, and that the United States was already under the dictatorship of the military — and it would reveal its hand around the time of the fall elections — an enormous number of people must have agreed with him. There have been very few countries in all history whose constitution and accepted ways of life have so carefully protected them from the seizure of power by either the Army or the Church. Although the G.A.R. (the North’s veterans’ organization of the Civil War) dominated politics in America until the end of the last century, even the administration of President Grant was thoroughly civilian and secular.

Though the United States, whose citizens think of themselves as eminently peaceable, has in its short life been one of the most warlike nations in history, seizing vast territories from other nations, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War did not perceptibly militarize the society. In fact, the Mexican and Spanish-American wars were provoked by purely civilian political forces — as of course was the Civil War. And their economic and social consequences were manifested primarily in the civilian economy.

Today the dominant power of the military-industrial complex has grown up largely outside the political structure of the Constitution. Finally we have reached the point Eisenhower warned against in the famous words of one of his last speeches. (These words, incidentally, are a direct quotation from Leon Trotsky, put in the President’s mouth by some cynical ex-radical speechwriter.) This all-consuming power structure has grown up outside the Constitution because the constitutional processes in the United States are no longer relevant. The United States is a country ruled like Russia, by apparats, organized power blocs struggling for the position and privilege of special interests. The juridical governmental structure, including the Supreme Court, reflects the shifts of power of the apparats only passively. This is doubly true of the military-industrial dictatorship. The Pentagon and the CIA are not the Army, Navy or Air Force. They are extralegal organizations of which the constitutionally created Army is a passive instrument. This is even true in a sense of the industrial half of the military-industrial complex. Most of these industries are new, undreamed of a generation ago, and independent of the old industrial financial empires of the “Robber Barons” in the 19th century, and to a large extent are located in hitherto nonindustrial areas.

The technological development of post-modern society, the cybernetic computerized revolution, has bypassed financially, technically and geographically the old capitalist world of iron, steel and coal and old-time J.P. Morgan-Rockefeller financial methods. This means, very conveniently, that much of this new dominant power is exerted invisibly. And of course it is also exerted by individuals unknown or unfamiliar to the general public, or connected only with the relatively small industries from which their vast empires have grown since 1941.

The list of visitors for luncheons and dinners, and even as house guests, at the California White House includes many of these people, subsidizers of radio stations and magazines and newspapers that give tongue to the thugs of the Lunatic Right, avowed Fascists who would make Hitler, take away the anti-Semitic program, look positively humane. Yet the public knows these people only as very minor small capitalists and manufacturers, if at all, and is completely unaware of immense empires that stretch from razor blades to textbooks and based solidly on war industry. There were no Rockefellers, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Strausses, Peabodies planning The American Century over the chicken à la king and other Silent American Cuisine at San Clemente.

One of the things they so obviously planned was to drive vigorously toward total polarization of American society — if possible before the November elections. Their demagogic Greek colonel started out immediately fighting an election between the hard hats and the students, the suburbanized working class and the blacks. The administration speech writers have done everything possible, too, to speak Pentagonese, to maximize social conflict. And in the universities and the ghettos and all the agencies of the once Welfare State, provocateurs have been as busy as stool pigeons in the old Communist Party. “If we’re going to have a bloodbath, let’s have it now and get it over with,” was very far from being a slip of the tongue or a piece of rhetoric. It was a perfectly clear, well considered statement of policy.

[November 1970]

 


 

Women's Liberation


Since everybody else is writing about it, I might as well speak my piece too. Women’s Liberation is almost as fashionable as ecology. The clitoral orgasm ranks with offshore oil as a topic of polite conversation. Being the direct descendant of a long line of suffragettes, including a great grandmother who wore masculine clothes, it all strikes me as a little unreal, and for a time puzzled me by its emotional violence and vindictiveness. The reason of course is that I have always avoided women who aren’t liberated. So much of the action in the black movement, the gay movement, the women’s movement, the students’ movement, and every other little movement that has a meaning of its own, puzzled me until suddenly I realized one day that I had spent my life in the radical and revolutionary bohemia with traditions and social and even family continuity back to the 18th century, in which the freedom and integrity of the individual was completely taken for granted; sex, color, condition of servitude was ignored.

What we are seeing today is a series of revolutions of people and classes who have never been revolutionary and are not used to being revolting. When I read Kate Millet and Shulamith Firestone I am constantly being brought up short in amazement. What kind of men have they known? Or what kind of women, for that matter? The answer is The Great American Male who double-parks in front of his favorite whorehouse and The Great American Female whose motto is “No minkee, no sackee.” In this region I am sure I would be a stranger and afraid in a world I never made, ignorant and impotent. I don’t really give a damn if these people straighten out their interpersonal relations or not. I’m afraid of what will happen when and if they are liberated. Except, every year they get more fouled up and when they get fouled up they get nasty and when they get nasty they get deadly, and when they get deadly I don’t want to dance with them.

Miss Millet and Miss Firestone are so right, righter than they know. Women run America, from U.S. Steel to the Frances E. Willard Grammar School. The female administrative assistant does the work, makes the decisions, books the planes, and portions out to the bosses t.i.d. valium while the male president or school principal attends business luncheons and even business breakfasts where the principal activity is consuming too much low-grade alcohol. The women are anonymous, invisible and powerless, although if each one flipped one lever of the nearest business machine the entire economy would come crashing down.

America is the most expensive country in the world to get sick in and dying is practically prohibitive. The AMA, like the building trades, keeps the number of doctors in America down to the level necessary to ensure our rank in the 12th place in world public health, while women, entering medicine, are subjected to relentless, not discrimination, but persecution from pre-med to retirement. Since they usually go into GYN and OB they usually don’t retire. These two specialties have a life expectancy comparable to that of trapeze performers. On the other hand, a highly trained PhD public health nurse executive with three or four years more education than the doctors “over” her, makes about one-tenth her masters’ income. Go into a big architect’s office. What do you see? Women. They aren’t, as you think, draftswomen; they are architects. They do the work. The bosses take the clients to business lunches, make fetching sketches and consume low-grade alcohol. How many buildings have you ever seen in a magazine or anywhere else signed by a woman? There are but two mildly famous women architects in America, and they are famous only among architects. The public has never heard of them. In the big New York publishing houses the second echelon editorial work is done almost entirely by women. The bosses take authors and agents to business lunches and consume low-grade alcohol. Women have all the responsibility but they have none of the power. The only power they can exert is by the exploitation of their sex as a commodity, and, as America gradually turns gay from top to bottom, they are losing that.

The principal trouble with the propagandists for Women’s Liberation, especially the ones that get in the picture magazines, is their unbridled emotionalism, the result not of being women but of being systematically frustrated and exploited. Like all the other movements in the contemporary turmoil they show a singular concentration on the essentials — complete equality — socially, economically, domestically, and in opportunity. It’s pointless at this stage of the game to engage in violent battles over the question of “natural differences.” If every opportunity is guaranteed open, the biological variations will sort themselves out. I for one am not impressed by the Russian woman’s “freedom” to be a coal miner, although, à chacun son goût, or à chacune sa goûte.

Will juridical equality bring about a ceasefire in the bitter war of attrition waged in the bedroom? I doubt it. Today in America blacks have juridical equality and the laws so guaranteeing are simply restatements of identical laws passed after the Civil War. Much good it’s done. Well, some. Ten years ago an old Negro militant friend of mine said, “I never thought I’d live to see light at the end of the tunnel.” There’s a light there alright, but for 10 years it’s been turning redder and redder.

The brutal fact is that the real problems — ecological, economic, social, moral, ethical, religious, sexual, intersexual — cannot be solved within the context of this society or any society at present known. And every year the problems get more insoluble, more lethal, the whole kit and caboodle errs from the prime foundation, and before noble men and women can live together as perfect equals we’ll have to start all over. The chances are the beautiful lives will be led in a million years by the descendants of the squids, the octopuses, the cockroaches, and the shriveled descendants of homo sapiens will be a kind of lice in their pseudopodia.

[December 1970]

 

 


“San Francisco in the Sixties” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


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