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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

1972

Nixon’s Economic Policies
Architecture and Religion
My Philosophy of Life?
Why the U.S. Is Bankrupt
The Manhattanization of San Francisco
American Violence
McGovern versus Nixon
The Politics of Heroin
Political Commedia dell’ arte
The Abandonment of Principles

 

 


 

Nixon’s Economic Policies


Every so often somebody writes in and refers to me as “a prophet of gloom.” I don’t feel particularly gloomy. In fact, I find the contemporary world extremely entertaining. Cecil B. DeMille discovered that catastrophes had great audience appeal. I find that living in Apocalypse has all the virtues of the super-colossal spectacular — as long as it doesn’t catch up with you personally. Now of course for Americans, when it does it will probably be mercifully quick. Nor do I feel particularly prophetic. The facts speak for themselves. Of course, almost all human communication, especially now that the word has acquired a capital C, is designed to hide facts in hopes they will go away. Almost anything in the media, now a singular noun, “any media,” can be safely assumed to be untrue. This makes for fun, too. Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken never had it so good.

Nixon’s economic revolution is certainly a case in point. Supposedly it is primarily designed to fight inflation. The cause of the present inflation is quite simple. Ever since the Cold War began, but especially since 1955 and the escalation of the Vietnam War, the enormous expense of military and other geopolitical operations was handled by a series of financial deceptions that amounted to outright fiscal lies. Not only was no attempt made to finance a war economy out of current taxes (an impossibility), no attempt was made to even service the debt, to actually pay the interest. So the country finds itself with a national debt of such astronomical proportions that it bears no relationship to the economy. As was pointed out by the liberal economists of the early 19th century, the expansion of capitalism (which must expand or die) is ultimately underwritten by the national debt, and this is never paid. It is inflated away and the due bills are refinanced. Read Macaulay’s panegyric to the national debt in his History of England. As he would say, “any schoolboy” could do the arithmetic. Compare the interest on the national debt in the Harding-Coolidge administrations in the deflationary period after the First War; the height of Roosevelt’s New Economy in 1936; the post-War II deflationary period, which was also the beginning of the Vietnam War; and the present, when the chickens have come home to roost. This is the inherent rate of inflation, and if we had a totally laissez-faire economy the value of the dollar would fall in exact proportion to the rise of the gross interest bill. Frightening, isn’t it? This is real inflation. There are other, minor kinds — currency credit, price, but they are all subsidiary and they are tied to the primary form. Input-output economics, jargon for old-fashioned “supply and demand,” never faces reality. Demand collapses because the economy collapses, not the other way around. Corporate debt, of course, follows directly behind the rising public debt, and in a war economy overtakes it until it too becomes unserviceable without enormous inflation.

Almost without exception every measure of Nixon’s new economic policy is inflationary. This is most especially true of his tariff policies, which already amount to a return to the notorious Hawley-Smoot Tariff that, along with the collapse of the European fiscal structure, precipitated the world economic crisis of 1929.

It is true that we do not live in a free-trade world, but in a neo-mercantilist one. All of the United States’ important competitors subsidize exports and inhibit, often in concealed ways, imports. So much the worse. If all governments are forced to manipulate their trade, a trade war is inevitable. There is an incidental factor here: overall American production is no longer competitive, basically because the chaotic American economy is less efficient by far than the welfare states of her competitors. Remember, there is no poverty in Germany, little in Italy north of the Tiber, none — by their standards — in Japan. This is competitively even more important than the wage rate.

The only way in which the government and the business community can refinance what should in fact be bankruptcy, and find working capital for future recovery and expansion, is to take it out of the working class. But the tiny minority of the working class — organized labor, the labor aristocracy — will permit this only if they get theirs. So we have councils, committees, boards of Business, Labor, the Consumer, who are going to manage the managed economy. Labor means organized labor, the strongest high-tariff force in the country. Business means, by and large, not big business or small, but medium business, the kind that cannot compete on the international market, or, for that matter, function efficiently at home without government help. The Consumer means simply a crooked politician. Their jobs will be to siphon off existing consumer savings, hold down wage increases not matched by productivity (in other words, the wage raw labor power), and protect American business from foreign competition, which as the world economy becomes more and more critical will accelerate in rapacity. To be effective, such a managed economy must create a monstrous new bureaucracy. Were it devoted to human ends rather than profit, the first job of its managers would be to tackle conversion to peace, to what could be the highly profitable enterprises of housing, education, pollution control, and all manifold activities of a true “war on poverty.” It can be taken for granted that they will do none of these things. We will have a managed economy, yes, but it will be the same old economy with the same old values and run on the same old gasoline — war, preparation for war, and inflation. What they call this kind of economy is The Corporate State.

[January 1972]

 


 

Architecture and Religion


I planned to do it and kept putting it off. Finally I got around to visiting San Francisco’s new Roman Catholic cathedral. Maybe I had been afraid to go inside. Sticking up there like a hypertrophied desk cigarette lighter, it didn’t bode well as an architectural experience.

Is it provincialism? True, the skyscraper is an outward material sign of the inward reality of an inhumane social order. Nevertheless, they do build rather pretty and interesting skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, along with a lot of monstrosities. In San Francisco, our high-rise buildings have been, with very few exceptions, so hideous as to be comic, or at best, immense expressions of mediocre provincialism. This wasn’t true once. Maybeck and Willis Polk were uniquely original architects. The Mills Building may be provincial Burnham, which is provincial Richardson, but it’s a nice looking building.

Is architecture in some way a direct expression of a kind of social sensibility, that German bogey, the Folk Soul? It is certainly true that San Francisco does not have a single architecturally significant church, and churches are certainly a direct expression of their congregations. The most satisfactory is probably the extremely modest old Danish Lutheran St. Ansgar’s, which is modest indeed. Frank Lloyd Wright once remarked that San Francisco was the world’s outstanding example of what human greed and vulgarity could do to one of the world’s most beautiful sites. That was before contemporary Hong Kong had blossomed out into hundreds of hideous 20-story concrete barracks. Do you suppose there is something in the air or water that makes San Franciscans aesthetically defective? It’s certainly true that although it swarms with painters it’s the worst market for pictures of any large city. The Bay Area’s leading painter has dealers in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, and even barbarous Los Angeles. It is not worth his while to have a San Francisco dealer.

But there is something else wrong with the cathedral. It is a completely irreligious structure, comparable to the St. Louis or the Lausanne airports — in which comparison it comes off poorly indeed. If it expresses anything, it expresses power. Not the power of God. Not the power of the soul. Least of all the power of the mystery of being. But secular power. The baroque grandeur of St. Peter’s in Rome does that, too. But, still, amidst all the gilt and twisted columns and monumental sculpture and painting, religion, God, the soul, mystery do lurk in the corners, like mice, maybe, but they are there. No holy mice could ever get into St. Mary’s. This is not some special evil of the Catholic Church. All the old, organized Christian churches are caught up in a frantic drive for total secularization. Meanwhile, we are in the midst of the greatest religious revival since the Reformation — but they don’t know about it in the churches. The Roman Catholic church abandons Latin, Gregorian chant, incense, gorgeous ritual, while the children of the parishioners sit in the lotus posture and do zazen, induce visionary experiences with drugs, strobe lights, hypnotic music, and incense, or shave their heads, dress up in bedspreads and romp about the streets chanting “Hare Krishna.” The churches go right on, blindly preaching the Social Gospel and Muscular Christianity they have resurrected from 1860. It’s not that people like the Berrigans are social revolutionaries — that’s fine. It’s that they are Low Churchmen, busy emptying wonder out of religion. What makes any truly realized religious experience revolutionary is that it is based upon wonder, on total realization of a transcendent experience which is incompatible with any materialistic society. Organized religions all perpetuate themselves by making unholy alliances with worldly power and appetite, and grounding out the revolutionary potential of any vision of total reality. If all the Christians, Buddhists and Mohammedans in the world suddenly became good Christians, Buddhists, and Mohammedans, organized society as we know it would instantly collapse, just as would happen if all the Communists suddenly became communists.

Notice that the major Christian churches in America all have well-financed, active organizations for social action and youth work, with plenty of money to spend and commissions of scholars busy translating the Bible into Kiwanese — and all this has had no effect. Membership in the organized churches steadily declines. Then the Jesus Freaks came along with that old-time religion, old-time hymns, the King James Bible (which the churches had convinced themselves “youth couldn’t understand”), a charismatic, ecstatic, pentecostal worship, and they swept the country.

The idea that youth would be captivated and captured if the most fundamental experiences of life were exorcised with a philosophy indistinguishable from the lectures of the late Norman Thomas could occur only to people who have never had any fundamental experiences in life. Life is miraculous and mysterious. It is out of its miracle and mystery that true social action that changes the world is born. Radical young people, hippies, and freaks trot hither and yon over the world seeking the places where the green grass grows all around, and I have never known one who has gone through Barcelona and visited Gaudi’s vast mysterious, miraculous Church of the Sagrada Familia who wasn’t totally thrown by the experience. It does what the light shows of Fillmore West tried to do. That’s the kind of church architecture which speaks to the contemporary religious revival. They’ll come just to experience the architecture and if you add far-out music, vestments and incense and sermons which stress the miracle of life, they’ll come in droves. If you build a cathedral that looks like the underbelly of a freeway, once the older generation who do exactly what the Holy Father tells them dies off, who is going to come? Then, what are we going to do with the great big building?

[February 1972]

 


 

My Philosophy of Life?


“What is your philosophy of life?” This is a question the young ask the old and laymen ask the specialist, the putative thinker. As you pass the midpoint of life you are supposed to acquire wisdom, and wisdom is supposed to entail a more or less systematic reordering of values. It is assumed you have learned from experience. I wonder. It seems to me that for the wise, life is a long unlearning. Systematic philosophy, like creative mathematics, is a sport for the young when it is meaningful, or a remote specialty by which academicians make their living — when it is meaningless. How do we know we know? Is there anybody else out there? Is there anything out there? Think of the thousands of people who make a good living figuring out new, complicated answers to these questions — which are not questions and which have no answers. The final, unquestionable question is “Why is it there at all?” Why does existence exist, being be? This is the final, totally unfathomable mystery. Religious philosophers have said that it is because of the overflowing love of God and they equate the three words — love, God, and creativity. But this is a “circular definition” and like most answers only restates the question.

Once you’ve had enough of it you learn that experience has very few pointers and those point around in circles. Experience is its own content. There are only questions linked to each other, marching along like the elephants in the circus parade, their tails in each other’s trunks. The answer is just another elephant. Last night I sat out in the moonless winter dark, looking out past the stars with a four-inch telescope. There are quite a few extra-galactic nebulae you can see with so small an instrument if you know where to look, and the nearest, the Andromeda nebula, you can see with the naked eye. There are more universes visible in the largest telescope than there are stars visible in this one. They stretch out and out for billions of light years to the limits of the speed of light. I came indoors and Carol said that her dress Stewart tartan skirt was wearing out. Think of that piece of cloth, woven in a certain pattern, cut in another pattern, the fibers plucked from sheep and picked from cotton plants. It came into existence at a certain moment and endured for a certain number of years and soon it will cease to exist. It embodied its own little tradition, and Queen Victoria loved to wear it when she frolicked sedately at her Scottish castle with her Scottish lover and the neighbors called her “Mrs. Brown.” Did the Young Pretender wear it as his lovers hid him and smuggled him back to Europe after the failure of ’45? A piece of cloth from which reality is known to stretch out for six billion light years in every direction, whirling along through the night with giraffes and sowbugs and people and wheelbarrows. The elephants march by, tails in trunks.

“Who am I? What can I do? What can I hope?” Life takes care of those questions by presenting its own questions. It is itself a question. Today, when it appears that my own life may be coterminous with life itself on this planet, I wonder sometimes if the pure solipsist may not be right, and it may not be just a dream going on in my own head, and being itself will turn out to be something else entirely when I awake, or as the Indian philosophers have said, “For a world epoch Shiva dances. For a world epoch Shiva sleeps. You think this is a time of Shiva’s dancing. It is not. He is asleep. You are Shiva but you dream.”

Yet what comes through the illimitable web of questions is the direct experience of transcendence, unqualified, unpredictable. We know The Other in a different way than we know the details of experience. If we probe deep enough we discover that this knowledge is the basis of all knowledge, the answer to the “epistemological dilemma.” The experience of persons transcends and originates the experience of things, and the experience of Reality, of being as such, breaks in upon us as an experience of the same kind, and we recognize it as the final source of all the rest. This is what is meant when people call Buddhism “pure religious empiricism.” Buddhism says the religious experience is ultimate and unanalyzable. It cannot be described or named but from it flows the love of all sentient creatures and the reverence for all being. This experience and this knowledge, if it can be called knowledge, is available to all men. All that is needed is a turning into The Right Way of life. It is itself the Way.

Is this a philosophy of life? If it is, it’s pretty simple. Nietzsche said that no philosophy was any good unless its fundamentals could be written on a postcard. Everything else is play. What we call philosophies are really works of art. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is just another Gothic cathedral. The fancy dynamic engineering which theorists like Ruskin thought they saw in the Gothic cathedral have been proven to be illusory.

A philosophy of being and knowing and hoping is simple. The great mystery of life is the behavior of man, what used to be called the Problem of Evil. How could the things which have happened and are happening in our own lifetimes happen? How can an economic and social system in which man is wolf to man endure an hour? Why does anybody consent ever to go to war? Why doesn’t everybody rise up and take an axe to the television set after it’s been in the house for 24 hours? Why do people hate each other because of the color of their skins? How could millions of people have consented to Hitler and Stalin exterminating millions of other people? How can Americans consent to their society of unbridled violence and lies? How can people go right on committing suicide by befouling the earth? These are the mysteries. Of course there are all sorts of books written to explain human conduct, but they do not explain it. Socrates said that if a man really understands the alternatives he will always choose good rather than evil. There isn’t the slightest evidence for this, either in history or in one’s own experience. At the end of his life, H.G. Wells believed that about 10,000 years ago the world had passed through a poisonous interstellar cloud which had deranged the human race. Perhaps he was right.

[March 1972]

 


 

Why the U.S. Is Bankrupt


Time Magazine recently ran a cover story “Is the U.S. Going Broke?” with a picture of Uncle Sam turning out his empty pockets. Shortly before that Los Angeles’s leading reactionary newspaper had come out with one of the most imbecilic headlines of all time — “Nixon Devalues Dollar in Fight Against Inflation.” European papers are asking “Is the U.S. Bankrupt?” The answer is yes, if by bankruptcy is meant the legalized repudiation of a percentage of money owed. A “bad” bankruptcy pays one cent on the dollar; a “good” bankruptcy perhaps 60 cents, but both are bankruptcies. Bankruptcy is like pregnancy — you can’t have a slight case of it. Measured in Swiss francs and German marks, the dollar has recently come close to 60 percent of its 1971 value, and it was then already slipping. This promises eventually to be a more massive devaluation than Roosevelt’s, when at the beginning of his reign he took the dollar off the gold standard and reduced it to a gold 50 cents. It is amusing to remember, for those of us old enough, that The Analyst, then the leading financial newspaper, continued to quote its statistics in gold as well as in Roosevelt money until the gap in the graph made it all too apparent that the economic crisis was deepening, not lessening. That crisis continued to deepen in spite of all emergency economic and relief measures until it was solved by ever-accelerating production for war. Since that time, almost 35 years ago, the primary buttress of the economy has been war.

There is only one trouble with war production as a solution to the contradictions of an economy — I almost said a capitalist economy, but it is true equally of the Russian economy, whatever you want to call it, state socialist or state capitalist. It is like a heroin addiction. It steadily builds up a tolerance which eventually becomes so great that the habit it too expensive to support and the shot in the arm no longer provides “a lift” or “a whirl.” Then you have to kick the habit, stay off long enough for the junk to get out of your bloodstream, and start over again with the old, small dosage which, however, is never as small as it was the time before. Drug addicts do not kick the habit to get cured — they kick it to get back on. This pattern applies exactly to the economy of the modern world since at least the First World War, and with France and Britain since the Franco-Prussian War and the Boer War.

In 1970, the national deficit — federal, state and local — was $60 billion. As the deficit comes to overtake and surpass the servicing of the debt, in other words, the interest on bonds, the nation enters a phase of forced repudiation. This can be postponed by various devices but only over a very short term. The chickens insist on coming home to roost. Eventually, the inflation-repudiation process overwhelms private investment also. The only refuge is concrete possession — things, diamonds, real estate, or certain equities. The house I live in at present could have been bought before the Second World War controls went off for less than a tenth what I paid for it. Since I bought it a couple years ago it has appreciated about 15 percent in value on an immediate sale. However, the taxes are more than the rent of such a place would have been about seven years ago. I bought it for cash, but the interest rate on such mortgages is almost double what it was 20 years ago. In this trivial example can be seen all the peculiarities of the peculiar economy in which we live — insofar as it reflects real, tangible values. Outside that limited region everything becomes completely unreal.

The most interesting thing about the Time article, as later correspondents almost unanimously pointed out, is that it most decidedly played down war expenditures and never so much as hinted that ours was essentially a war economy. The meaning of war economy is that it is production for production’s sake. If the economic system produces only real values it will strangle itself. Therefore production for production must be production for destruction. The innocent say, “What is the sense of destroying a bomber worth many millions of dollars just to blow up a bridge of bamboo sticks that the Vietcong can repair in a night?” The sense is the very sense of the economy itself. Everybody makes a hell of a lot of money and the end product does not return to the economy. Of course eventually the day of reckoning comes, but it can be postponed indefinitely. The trouble with “indefinitely” is that it comes to an end. We are now living in the year that “indefinitely” is over.

The primary elections have shown that the taxpayers revolt which elected Nixon and Reagan is not only still going on but has intensified. What the politicians have done is to divert the attention of the taxpayer from the destruction of values in war to the innocent — to the mentally ill, the aged, the universities, the blacks, the deteriorating infrastructure of civic life. The last item is an excellent example of what is going on in the world of real values. Think of the difference between the beautiful, demolished Old Hall of Justice and the present sterile, jerry-built structure, which serves as our courthouse — as well as the skyscraper motel which has replaced the original building. Think of what it would cost to build the Old Hall of Justice with its hand-carved stone and fancy marble and bronze hardware — almost as much as a couple of bombers which the country cheerfully sacrifices every day. The point is that not only are the profits incomparably greater in war production than they are in production of real values, but they are profits of a different kind. To survive, the economy must become more and more self-destructing. Galbraith to the contrary, the economy cannot be turned around in mid-career and focused on real values — housing, anti-pollution, education — and remain the same economy.

What should replace it and how? The appalling thing is that nobody really knows because the same processes operate, leading to the same dilemmas, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. We can’t all become one great Sweden for the simple reason that Sweden is able to function as it does because it is a small country, parasitic in its “production for use, not war” on the worldwide self-destructing economy.

[May 1972]

 


 

The Manhattanization of San Francisco


As things stand now it looks like the June ballot will contain a new anti-high-rise measure, Proposition P. Since the defeat of Alvin Duskin’s measure, the city has permitted buildings that violate every control in its own Urban Design Plan, and immense high-rises are projected all over the City and enthusiastically approved in advance by those Establishment groups which pretend to be the guardians of a sane urban development — including the Planning Commission.

The innocents, the squares, the straights, are going to have to learn that the hottest pitch in PR and advertising today is conservation — “ecology” — a word that has overtaken “viable” as the most misused term in the American language. The primary source of pollution of the environment is the oil industry. Everything it does pollutes, from the well head to the final smog. Petrochemicals provide the fertilizers, insecticides and other agricultural poisons that will kill the world ocean within a generation. They provide the detergents, the undegradable plastics, and even the coal tar drugs, as our parents used to call them, that poison our children. Who are the principal boasters in the most expensive advertising about their passionate care for the environment? Pick up most any slick magazine.

The Forest Service, whose motto used to be “Forests Are a Crop, Not a Mine,” has become the principal instrumentality of the most rapacious lumber companies, while the big outfits growing lumber and paper over millions of acres buy the most expensive advertising and spend fortunes on “public education” to prove how passionately devoted to conservation they are. They aren’t, but at the present their record is better than that of the Forest Service.

Even the Great Mother of Conservation, the Sierra Club, is beginning to look a little odd. The good grey college professors and old ladies in tennis shoes, devotees of peanut butter soup and raspberry jam mixed with mountain [illegible word] rose in revolt against David Brower because he was using in the business enterprises of the Sierra Club the methods of business enterprise. Today the club is still a conservationist organization, but it is Establishment conservationism and its methods are more and more those of real business enterprise. It is certainly far from being a representative of the radical “people’s” ecology revolt.

George Orwell’s 1984 has long been here. Of course it owed its cogency to the fact that it was a satire on the times in which it was written, and, like his Animal Farm, just as much a satire on the Western world as on the Communist. Soon nobody will be able to understand you unless you speak Newspeak. “Nixon bombs Hanoi and Haiphong to insure peace.” “Dollar devalued in fight against inflation.” Pretty soon “Black is beautiful” will be adopted as a motto by Sammy Davis Jr.; it will refer to the Swedes.

The French have long called the destruction of the urban environment Urbanisme — French for city planning. Freeways along both banks of the Seine. Skyscrapers on the site of the Gare Montparnasse. Kilometer-long high-rise apartment houses in the suburbs. It’s all urbanisme, enthusiastically approved by that esthete and embittered adventurer, André Malraux, an old lefty, by the way, like half the reactionaries in the world.

Plans for the Manhattanization of San Francisco are already on the books, ready to be put into effect in the next five years: Homewood Terrace. Balboa Reservoir. Sunset Reservoir. Sutro Baths. Playland — (by passionate conservationist and passionate “developer” Jeremy Ets-Hokin) eight blocks at Fulton and 25th. The car barns at Masonic and Geary. Fort Mason. The piers adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf. The whole Fisherman’s Wharf area. Finally, Urban Renewal in the entire inner Richmond, South of Market and inner Mission districts. These are the objectives of the Chamber of Commerce, supported by the conservationist and urbanist organization SPUR and the Planning Commission.

Who is going to occupy these places? The City is already over-built with high-rises, both office and residential. Almost all this projected stuff is called middle-income housing, but it is not. It will be far too expensive for families with $10,000 a year income, while the flats and single-family dwellings that will be torn down now house such people at prices they can afford. This does not mean that they will not pay the rentals of the new buildings. They’ll have to. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “What would happen to the phylum Aves if birds had to spend one quarter of all their time building their nest?” Nowadays, one quarter of gross income for shelter is commonplace and the poor and the so-called “new professionals” spend more.

When the City is thoroughly Manhattanized, where are the people going to come from to occupy all these square miles of 11- to 35-story “middle-income” apartments? Meanwhile, single-family residential taxes tend toward confiscation, and office and commercial taxes proportionately decline. The theory is that the high-rise residential buildings will solve the tax dilemma. But this has never been true anywhere else. New York is in a far worse tax fix than San Francisco. What the demand for federal aid in the urban crisis means now is that dozens of cities in the United States are applying for welfare. The whole City wants to go on relief.

What’s the solution? The same solution to all the crises bedeviling modern civilization. Sweep the board clean and start over. Is this going to happen? Not by choice. But probably before the end of the century the human race will number only a few million people at the most, living far from the obliterated urban centers in small villages closely connected to the land. The politicians will have brought this state of affairs about, not by sitting in planning commissions but by pushing those red buttons.

[June 1972]

 


 

American Violence


One of the most interesting aspects of the Wallace shooting has been the reaction of the country’s liberal writers and what Westbrook Pegler used to call “the butcher paper weeklies” — “This isn’t the real America.” It’s a reaction of guilt in the face of international criticism, because everybody else outside the country thinks it is the real America. Left, right and center, the rest of the world is scared to death of the United States. It does no good to say “In a population of more than 200 million you’re bound to have a lot of dangerous nuts at large and in a democracy it’s impossible to control them sufficiently.” “You cannot attribute to an entire people a national personality, a folk-soul, with attendant syndromes. There cannot be such a thing as a sick national character.”

Take a compass and enclose any other area of two hundred million people on the globe — do you find the kind of violence you find in the United States? You find a different kind of violence in Latin America. You find state-directed, organized violence in China as you once found it in Germany and Russia. All you have to do is compare these kinds of violence to see the differences that distinguish, precisely, national character. What is the real America is determined by the facts and the facts point more and more to uprootedness, alienation, lovelostness, frustration of every wholesome life aim, with the resulting violence.

We are so busy with the rush of commonplace events in our own lives that even those of us who think of ourselves as social critics seldom stop to really know in our guts how profoundly the reality of life is changing. The average American moves about 14 times in his life, but 42 million change their home addresses at least once each year and this rate steadily increases. It is almost twice that of Great Britain and France and three times that of Japan. Americans are becoming a homeless people. This is very different from bygone nomadism. Even the Mongols swept across Asia and eastern Europe in remarkably stable communities. The aristocracy of Europe still claims to be descended from the tightly knit communities of the Goths — their directory is called the Almanac de Gotha. Our American nomads whirl in the winds of change, as lonely as the monads of Leibnitz, which, as he said, “have no windows.” God told Leibnitz’s monads what to do. The American monad has television. When they gave him the third degree to find out if he was a Communist, the man who shot at Roosevelt and killed Mayor Cermak of Chicago, said, “I belong to nobody and I suffer,” a phrase that is gradually replacing “E pluribus unum.”

It is interesting that, at that time, now so long ago in what seems a far mellower and kinder age, even though it was in the depths of the most severe world economic crisis, the wise guys all believed that it was part of a plot, that the assassin was a tool of the Chicago Mafia who wanted to get rid of both Cermak and Roosevelt. People, most especially the wise guys, cannot bear to face the fact that history is meaningless and that even its most crucial events are purposeless accidents. There must be a reason; there must be a plot. It all fits together — that way lies paranoia. Significantly, “paranoia” has become a catch phrase among youth more common than “neuroses” amongst their cocktail-drinking, couch-lying elders. Rightly so. As Western civilization declines and falls we’ve seen an historical pattern in mental disturbance. The old-time hysterical lesions so common in the practice of the young Freud rarely show up in the analyst's office today. The anxiety neuroses and the death wish of the later Freud have followed them. Today we seem to be in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, not of neuroses at all, but sub-psychoses spilling over into outright madness.

During the Tet offensive a news photograph of a South Vietnamese police officer blowing out the brains of a defenseless prisoner circulated all over the world and Robert Kennedy asked in the Senate, “What is happening to America?” It was not long before he received a terrible answer. My Lai was not an action that came down on orders from the White House or the inner recesses of the Pentagon. It was just the way the cookie crumbled. Was Adlai Stevenson poisoned on orders of a secret committee of faceless men? The same ones who ordered the shootings of all the rest — Malcolm X, and George Wallace; Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers? Is it all connected? Even the murder of Yablonsky? Dow Wilson? Is America really ruled by a vast, secret organization, like something in an old Pabst movie? What was the reason for the rash of suicides of high government officials that followed the death of Roosevelt? Did the same people kill the anarchist Carlo Tresca, who was exposing the hookup between great wealth, the Mafia, and the New York Communist Party in his newspaper, and Huey Long, of whom both the president and every Democratic machine lived in mortal terror? Has it been going on for over forty years? History must have a meaning. All the violence must have a connection. “I belong to nobody and I suffer” — but if there is somebody there operating it I won’t suffer so much; it must all be a plot.

It’s all connected all right, but not through a committee of masked men at the top, but at the bottom, by the quality of American life. Even the efforts to change the society now are defeated by the universal breakdown of interpersonal relations. What happened to CORE? SNCC? SDS? And a hundred other radical organizations, even the poor Diggers of the Flower Children? They were shattered by plain, ordinary hate. Every radical group in America today hates everybody else, most especially their closest potential allies. The black militants are anti-Semites; women’s libbers hate all radical men. Meanwhile there exists in an America in the midst of an economic crisis, a lost war, wholesale unemployment, inflation with a rapidly falling wage rate, not a single effective economic defense organization. Considering the situation, there should be massive welfare rights organizations all over the country. The only effective one seems to be in Harlem and it’s not very. What’s the matter with the American people? The answer is, “They can’t get together.”

[July 1972]

 


 

McGovern versus Nixon


The poor Democrats, they do have a time. Whatever McGovern did about the Eagleton problem, it was heads you win, tails I lose, damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Actually, he did the best thing. It is perfectly true that a swing vote of cautious people would have decided that anybody who had ever had shock therapy was not to be trusted with the red button, and they would be quite right. However, although I have always said that there is only one justification for capital punishment — it should be administered to psychiatrists who order shock therapy — nevertheless, at least half the incumbents for the American Presidency in my lifetime would have been greatly improved by a course of what the orderlies in the puzzle factories call “the bumps.”

But that’s no excuse. The fact that the country is in the gravest danger with Spiro Agnew in the vice presidency doesn’t justify taking another chance. But, alas, McGovern will undoubtedly lose votes of people who think he sacrificed votes to expediency. I don’t think he did, but younger people with tighter definitions of principle and expediency may think so. Enough to vote for Nixon, or not to vote? I doubt it.

It is right that all extraneous issues should be cleared out of the way if at all possible. Implicit in Nixon’s whole campaign last time was the assumption that America was very sick and that he could make it well. This will be the issue this time with both candidates. It will be hard for Dr. Nixon to deny that the patient has not improved under his care, but of course, deny it he will. As I have said so often, people who stay in the United States don’t realize how bad things are. The rest of the world just isn’t like this. A friend of mine whom I have often quoted, a cool, calm, collected man, the most respected newspaper editor in Europe, recently said to me: “All the rest of the world looks on America as an immense diseased giant stumbling toward death. When he falls the crash will be one of the major events of history, as determinative as the fall of Rome or the Russian Revolution.”

He spoke as though he had no doubt but that the giant would fall. “It sounds like the Golem,” I said.

“That’s right,” he said. “It is a Golem.”

All you have to do is get out of the country for a year or so, the culture shock on your return is devastating. I personally don’t think the disease is necessarily fatal, but it’s going to take a good doctor who can give the patient four, or better eight, years of intensive care. It should be McGovern’s job between now and November to present his diagnosis, prognosis and prescriptions in the clearest possible terms and with the fewest distractions. Even the war is a distraction if he makes it his major issue. Obviously, if Nixon can make peace he’s lost his issue.

For the war is just a symptom. It’s a big symptom, while the people who uproot the plants or break up the benches in Golden Gate Park are just a little symptom. A ruthless exploitation of the country and to hell with the public like the smokestacks at the Four Corners polluting the atmosphere of the entire southern intermountain country and filling the Grand Canyon with smog is a big conspicuous symptom. The hundreds of thousands of old people swept under the rug to die in squalor, that’s another symptom, and not very noticeable. When the Danish Director of Institutions says that California, the richest political entity on the face of the earth, has the worst care of feeble-minded children in the world — that’s another symptom. You can be sure the Romans didn’t notice, although the temples decayed and tumbled down, while taxes drove millions into poverty, until the barbarians attacked the city, and some of them didn’t even notice then.

What America needs is to turn around and go in the opposite direction. This hasn’t happened very often in history, not without wholesale bloodshed, but there have been exceptions. It’s going to take more than charisma, more than magic. Roosevelt was a master of both, but it is doubtful if his magic did very much to solve the economic crisis. Dr. New Deal kept the patient alive; and it was Dr. War Preparation that got him back on his feet. Jack Kennedy had plenty of charisma and for that he is still worshipped by common people all over the world. Looked at dispassionately, he didn’t have much else. There is plenty of evidence that on the eve of his assassination he and his Administration didn’t know what they were doing. Things have got a lot worse and it’s going to take a lot more than a hair cut invented in a Harvard Square barbershop to get us out of the fix we’re in.

The trouble is, everybody has his own little vested interest in the status quo. There aren’t very many people running around anymore with nothing to lose but their chains. McGovern and his speech writers and advisers have got a hard job ahead of them. He can only win if he faces up to the grave issues confronting the country, but he can also only win if in so doing he doesn’t antagonize too many people. It’s quite a trick to sell revolutionary change without hurting somebody’s feelings.

Some of the objections are idiotic. Is it really true that there are people going to vote for Nixon and Agnew because McGovern is “soft on Israel”? Far more important than this is something sly and nasty which has already begun. Did you by any chance get a letter from your broker asking you to write for a free copy of a brochure describing how your income from tax-exempt securities is threatened by McGovern? I did and the guy wasn’t even my broker. As of the first of August thousands and thousands of letters like this went out all over the country. That’s just the beginning. I think we are going to see a counterattack almost exactly like that which defeated Upton Sinclair when he ran for governor of California in the thirties on a program of End Poverty In California — EPIC. The Nixon Administration and Nixon himself are the creation of the biggest advertising and public relations firms in the country and this time they’re going to pull out all the stops, for McGovern would fire them all.

[September 1972]

 


 

The Politics of Heroin


The Left, committed to an economic interpretation of history, has always been hard put to find the primary motive for the war in Southeast Asia. Indochina, as a French colony, was certainly operated as an overall loss, both to the French state and to French capitalism as a whole. Individual Frenchmen of course made fortunes there, but their activities were strictly peripheral and parasitic. In recent years my friends of the Left tell me that the war is being fought for the offshore oil; but nobody knew there was any offshore oil until the war was well under way. Wars for colonial empires are out of date because colonial empires are unprofitable. It’s better to let the “native” demagogues handle the politics and let the economy sink or swim in the seas of modern monopoly.

The war in Southeast Asia, like the Korean War, like the support of Pakistan, like the debauching of Greece, Turkey and Iran by the CIA — or on the other side, like the East German, Hungarian and Czechoslovak invasions by Russia — are only remotely adventures of economic imperialism. Primarily they are part of an elaborate game of geopolitical Go or Chinese checkers. South Korea and South Vietnam were the anchors of the outer shield, of which the center was Taiwan and Okinawa. The outer shield has been made obsolete, or at least too expensive to be worth maintaining, by the development of the technology of destruction. When bombers can make round trips to the mainland from Guam and when every city in China can be obliterated from a couple of stateside air bases in a few hours, it’s not worth the trouble monkeying with a lot of what Lyndon Johnson called “yellow dwarfs” who don’t know what’s good for them and won’t do what they’re told. Hence peace.

There is only one trouble. A new factor had entered American business enterprise. As the newest of the giants, it still behaves like a child, like all businesses behaved in the 19th century. If Time magazine says that the Mafia is today one of the six largest conglomerates or trusts in the world, with a larger cash flow than any of them, it must be true — they ought to know. If the United States Bureau of Narcotics officially admits to more than 500,000 heroin addicts in the country, and its employees privately admit to more than a million, and say that there is no high school, in no matter how remote a region in the United States, that does not have a drug problem, two million would be a safe guess and a conservative one for the heroin addicts in the country.

When Tom Dooley made his last tour of America to raise money for his medical mission in Laos, I was on Kupcinet’s yack show in Chicago with him. During the breaks for commercials I questioned him about the principal crop of Laos, who controlled it and where it went — opium. He knew that he was going to die of cancer in a few months so he spoke with complete frankness, even though Kup was terrified that we might start discussing it on the air. He placed the responsibility directly on the U.S. State Department, Army and CIA and prophesied that once the proper connections were made with the Mafia in the United States and the Corsican and Greek syndicates in the Mediterranean, there would be a deluge of heroin over the world, moved in the first instance from Laos and the Shan states of Burma and northern Thailand with the complicity and in some cases the direct participation of American officialdom, and that if the war dragged on an appreciable percentage of the armed forces in Southeast Asia would become addicts. Perhaps he had the prophetic foresight that comes in the face of death, because it all came true, just like he said.

I have been repeating his information ever since, but all my friends except Allen Ginsberg seem to have thought I was a paranoiac. At last it’s documented — the bone-freezing story of America’s Opium War is told in exhaustive detail in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred W. McCoy with Cathleen B. Read and Leonard P. Adams II, Harper and Row, New York, 464 pp., $10.95.

I have never reviewed a book before in this column but this is certainly the most important book to be published this year. Everybody should read it. It should be taught in schools. Wise guy sociologists and jazz critics and bleeding heart academicians should be forced to memorize it. Marxists and others dedicated to an economic interpretation should study it with great care. They will learn that the Hobson-Lenin thesis — that economic imperialism of 1910 was the “final form of capitalism” — was wrong. Orthodox business enterprise has gone merrily on its way, growing fatter and meaner every hour. It may not be the final form, but now we have a new kind of world-encompassing business with many of the characteristics Hobson first pointed to before the First War. Most important — super profits which would make the East India Company look like a bunch of pikers. Percentages cease to be applicable. Like Malthus’s population, the profits of the drug trade increase geometrically. The price of heroin on the streets of San Francisco is more than the cube of the price of opium in a peasant market village in Laos or Burma.

The book is by no manner of means a wild-eyed, irresponsible exposé. In fact, McCoy is very conservative in his charges. He accuses the United States government, the Army and especially the CIA of complicity, and carefully denies participation — for the obvious reason that this cannot be documented. It is not the custom to bring CIA generals and officers to trial for participation in the heroin business. However, everybody in journalism, and a small but appreciable percentage of the public, knows at first or second hand of somebody who has got fabulously rich in Vietnam from dope. More obviously still, McCoy has had to proceed with caution because he knew beforehand that the CIA would move heaven and earth to suppress the book legally and if they could not do that, to deny the charges and vilify the authors. Helms has already issued a series of hysterical blanket denials and by the time this review comes out, Harper’s may have been forced to withdraw the book from the market. Don’t forget as you read the book that the CIA does not consist exclusively of Green Beret types, international adventurers, and thugs. At the top it is run by recruits from the top of the academic community and to a lesser degree from business, good gray scholars and executives. McCoy, Read and Adams are all in their late twenties. Who is responsible for the “Dope Culture” — that absurd term — youth or age?

This horrifying tale is God’s own gift to McGovern, but I am willing to bet he won’t touch it. Every urban political machine in the United States is dirtied to a greater or lesser degree by what addicts call “a connection.”

[October 1972]

 


 

Political Commedia dell’ arte


I hate to be suspected of agreeing with Stewart Alsop, but he has something in the way he’s been hammering on the Watergate affair. With a peculiar reverse English, he so faults Ted Kennedy for not investigating it adequately that you’d think Ted had secret information, or had masterminded it. In a sense, a rather subtle moral sense,  he is right. The most overt, clownish criminality is pervading American society. One of the most interesting things about the Watergate mob is their startling resemblance to the unsavory crew that Jim Garrison tried to convict of killing Jack Kennedy. More and more messes like this are staged with the same cast of characters. It’s like the Commedia dell’ arte. The names are different for each play, but it’s always the same — Harlequin, Pierrot and the Captain. That’s why Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe is so effective. It has become realistic drama.

As I write, martial law and police terror have shut down the Philippines. Marcos is saving the country from the Communists, but it’s not Communists who are being arrested, it’s his liberal opposition, bourgeois politicians considerably to the right of the late Adlai Stevenson. What is shutting down over the Philippines is a government of corruption and venality unsurpassed even in Southeast Asia’s American satrapies. Why? The anchor of the Outer Shield is being moved to Manila Bay. We can expect to see all the concomitants of a CIA dictatorship bud, blossom and flourish in the next few years — organized and unbridled vice and crime as big business. Greece, Turkey, Iran, Portugal, Brazil, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Bangkok. Why are all these outposts of empire such sinks of iniquity? Granted the CIA and the armed forces are minions of what the old-time radicals used to call the capitalist class. But what class of capitalists? The boys at Chase and Citibank, Standard Oil and ITT don’t act this way; “they are all honorable men.” Still, Time magazine said that the Mafia was one of the six largest corporations in America, with a cash flow greater than any of them. Is the answer that the only people who believe in the American way of life are criminals?

I for one have long had a surfeit of books about the Vietnam war until I read McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. Here’s another one — James Hamilton-Paterson’s The Greedy War. It is the story of the Vietnamese experiences of Cornelius Hawkridge, a dedicated security officer and anti-Communist, and his long-drawn-out runaround as he tried to bring to the attention of the American government and armed forces at all levels the incredible graft and corruption and wholesale theft that is the Saigon way of life, and then of the quiet shutdown when he tried to publish his findings (the book was finally published in England and is imported by the David McKay Company). It’s a story of black markets where you can buy every kind of armed forces materiel from toothbrushes to tanks just a short walk from general headquarters, of wholesale waste and looting and an unending avalanche of the junk commodities of conspicuous consumption pouring into the homes of Saigon’s bureaucrats and thieves. That’s all just sin and can be dismissed as one of the new and minor horrors of war. What is important is the presentation of exhaustive evidence that the principal supplier of the Vietcong is the United States via the South Vietnamese military and officialdom. Exactly the same thing has been going on in South Vietnam as went on in China. The Chinese Communists armed and fed themselves by direct purchase of American supplies from the Kuomintang generals, politicians and gangsters.

The general public, most especially its liberals and radicals, believes in all sorts of far-fetched historical, sociological and economic interpretations of the Vietnam war, a vulgar reflection of the value-neuter fashion in the sciences of man. It’s all depersonalized and abstract. Indeed, it is not. The American military is engaged in a game of geopolitical strategy, the nailing down of positions in a kind of Chinese checkers. Back home they have the support of the military-industrial complex but abroad they can rely only in the final showdown on criminals. You can’t deal with Chiang Kai-shek’s Green Gang in Chungking, with the Corsican Syndicate in Marseille, with the opium lords of Southeast Asia, and the criminal secret societies of Saigon without getting the virus into your bloodstream. And it’s a very infectious virus. In no time at all it jumps the oceans and at last it’s a raging pandemic back home.

The terrible things that have happened in my lifetime — the Moscow trials, the slaughter of the Russian peasantry and the great purges, the extermination of the Jews, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — these were just the beginning, the first outbreaks of a deadly disease for which apparently there exists no treatment and no isolation ward. We’re all human, so were Hitler and Stalin. No one is immune. Harry Truman was a likeable, kindly little petty bourgeois who surely thought of himself as a moral man, yet he was loyal to the criminal Prendergast machine, the political face of organized crime in St. Louis and Kansas City, and he, this gentle haberdasher, dropped the bombs.

The primary diagnostic sign of a psychopathic personality is “Everybody does it, why shouldn’t I?” Steward Alsop implies that the reason the Democrats haven’t made an issue of Watergate is that they do the same sort of thing and fear that if they investigate too enthusiastically they will be investigated in turn. Granted, all politicians are psychopathic personalities. That’s been pointed out by sociologists and psychiatrists before. But what is significant in this case is that the public doesn’t seem to care. They’re happy to trust their own fate and the fate of the world to such psychopaths. They too seem to believe “Everybody does it, why shouldn’t I?” So, what is their diagnosis?

When I was a youngster in Chicago the public was proud of Big Bill Thompson and Al Capone. Is America proud of My Lai, the Mafia, grammar school heroin and Watergate? For sure, they’ve sold more tickets to The Godfather than they did to John Huston’s The Bible.

[November 1972]

 


 

The Abandonment of Principles


One thing, perhaps the most important, that the recent election demonstrated was that a very large section of the electorate, probably the majority and in both parties, are completely uninfluenced by principles of any sort. The politicians of other nations have always laughed at the high moral tone of their American colleagues and the lofty principles used to justify purely mundane interests and behavior from the Declaration of Independence, the Monroe Doctrine, the Emancipation Proclamation, Wilson’s 14 Points and his League of Nations, down to — when? Perhaps Walt Rostow’s nobly moral Domino Theory finally washed principle out of politics as its absurdity became manifest in thousands of My Lais. According to the polls, shocking scandals like ITT and Watergate shocked nobody and played little role in determining the election, although both were at least as grave as the scandals that made the Harding Administration a byword. If the repudiation of Eagleton shocked anybody they were only sentimentalists and idealists, too old or too young to know better and with no place else to go. Principle in American political life seems to express itself only in virulent opposition of a time-lagging sector of the population to long hair, dark skin, sexual honesty, different costumes and the use of an untaxable substitute for alcohol and nicotine.

One of the most remarkable things about San Francisco is that issues of principle still seem operable in the life of our community. A principled opposition may not win but it is always sufficiently strong to keep the opposition off balance and it does endure. It does find at least a necessary modicum of continuity and centralization of efforts. All our progressives, reformers, bleeding hearts, freaks, dirty commies and queers, whatever one’s individual taste chooses to call them, do manage to work together on the most important issues, even though they may be divided in everyday practice by the most bitter factionalism. Over six years ago bishops and bankers, the Longshoremen’s Union and the Trotskyites managed to unite and prevent a freeway from destroying Golden Gate Park, and there have been a steadily increasing number of such united actions since, although not all of them have been victorious. The City is slowly but steadily being Manhattanized, both with high-rises and the Mafia, two by no means unrelated phenomena, but there is still plenty of resistance and the resistance manages to unite around principles.

I think we all too seldom take thought about what is happening fundamentally to contemporary life. We have passed the tipover point into a mass civilization, the final megalopolis of Spengler’s Decline of the West. Life becomes more and more like that of the Hard Boiled School of science fiction patterned on the Hard Boiled School of detective stories. You know those tales of vast domed cities of a billion people on a dying planet ruled by gangsters with hearts as cold as interstellar space and populations of serfs distinguished by the color of their collars and the varying idiocies of their superstitions. You know the heroes, astronauts on the Albebaran run, who talk exactly like what intellectuals imagine truck drivers and garage mechanics do, who hang out in wild bistros on Venus that serve weird drugs from Alpha Centauri instead of booze and where the entertainers are blue nymphomaniacal mermaids. And the climax — “Xeroxia lay on the electronic Jacuzzi bed and regarded me with lambent purple eyes, glowing with satisfied passion, her feathery antennae pulsed slowly with rising expectations. I cleaned myself with the supersonic douche and then quickly snatched my blaster from my pants and shot her in the belly. ‘Daddy, I didn’t think you’d have the guts,’ she murmured as she died.” Lenin said Bolshevism was socialism with electricity and American efficiency expertise. This didn’t come about, but the free enterprise system is becoming Raymond Chandler with electronics. Remember the conversations that have come back from the first boys on the moon run? They’ve all sounded exactly like what intellectuals imagined the conversations of truck drivers and garage mechanics to be. And amongst these heroes of “the greatest step forward since the invention of fire” have been petty racketeers speculating in postage stamps. The future world of Robert Heinlein didn’t just come true in the backwoods of Hollywood and the California desert, it’s all about us.

Can this be changed? Are we in the grip of an irreversible, all-conquering historical process? Arnold Toynbee is always saying it can be reversed, but as he gets old his words more and more lack conviction. What of course is required is a complete change, a restatement of significant life meaning, the rebirth of a unifying social myth, the reclamation of a body of principles which most people will accept implicitly and on which they will be prepared to act. That’s a very big order. In the history of mankind it has usually taken about 500 years of a Dark Age for such a state of affairs to come about. We have just gone through a presidential election in which the struggle for principle was a significant factor, although the abandonment of that struggle was an even more significant factor in the outcome. But can an even more significant outcome come out, be ensured? Can the idealism, the demand for a meaningful social life, be given any enduring form? Can all the far-out people who made such passionate pleas at the Democratic convention ever not unite, but just plain get together? Can there be created within the Democratic Party, or, if necessary, outside it, a swing vote, a balance of power, of all those people to whom principles are meaningful and the great documents of human liberty are not just expediential incantations to rope in the suckers? I wonder.

[December 1972]

 

 


“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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