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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

1974

Local versus National Corruption
Organized Vice, Then and Now
Planned Chaos
How to Get Away from It All?
How Evil Rises to the Top
The SLA
More on the SLA

 

 


 

Local versus National Corruption


In the last few months, a good many people have written me asking why I no longer write about national and international events in this column. “Have you sold out?” No. It is a question of the function of the column in relation to the magazine as a whole. San Francisco is now much more locally and community oriented, and so is this column. However, since a lot of readers have complained about my silence during one of the gravest political crises in American history — a period of profound economic disorder, a war that threatened the peace of the world, and a worldwide pandemic of uncontrollable inflation — it is time to discuss all these catastrophes in terms of their meaning for San Francisco.

Our leading newspaper columnist once said, “San Francisco City Hall is riddled with honesty.” Yet whenever he has voiced any sharp criticism of the power structure, something he assiduously avoids on the whole, he has had to back down a couple of days later. There has not been a serious investigation of the hidden political life of the City since the Atherton Investigation, long before the Second World War, and that was not precipitated by the newspapers. San Francisco is an inordinately smug city. The editors of the local papers would deny that there was anything to investigate in our political life. What they mean is that the owners are part of the elaborately interlocking Establishment, and besides, are too tight to spend any money.

What the current contretemps in Washington demonstrates is the total collapse of political morality. The defense says, “Everybody does the same thing; why shouldn’t they, they were just unlucky enough to get caught.” Unfortunately this is all too true. The use of the FBI dossiers for purposes of political intimidation dates back to Franklin Roosevelt, who as every old-time political journalist knows, began it with the exhaustive investigation of Huey Long, and of all people, Paul McNutt. He had a quite irrational fear of both men. (Huey Long’s assassination, incidentally, was the first political assassination to raise a cloud of rumors and paranoid accusations.) Lyndon Johnson’s use of bugs and tapes was both illegal and in the case of Martin Luther King, shameful. So it goes. The only president since Teddy Roosevelt not to be accused of some kind of skullduggery was Eisenhower. He had a very simple recipe for avoiding accusations of crooked activities: avoid activity.

If the top of the political structure and the majority of the electorate on which it is based are as corrupt as they seem to be, what right have we to assume that the bottom, the grassroots, our little local political scene, is cleaner than driven snow and hounds’ teeth? The evidence is all to the contrary. The entertainment industry of San Francisco has been turned into another Calumet City, or Cicero. The red light district swarms with male and female prostitutes, most of them on drugs and most of whom roll their tricks. Yet the Mayor and the Chief of Police say there is no organized crime in San Francisco, and San Francisco policemen never accept payoffs. If evidence you require, look about you. Furthermore, such statements raise serious suspicions of complicity.

But that’s just the beginning. Who is making money and how, out of the Manhattanization of the City? What is the role of banks in this destruction of what was once the most beautiful city in America? What is the relationship of the officers of the major financial institutions to the political structure of the City and to its cultural life? Who, for instance, controls the Art Commission? And who is he? What are the investments of the leading political officers of the City? Who stands to profit from Urban Renewal? It’s been demonstrated many times that the taxpayers always lose on it.

What San Francisco needs is a big dose of Watergate Spirit, a whole bunch of Ervins, Cox’s, Siricas, and at least some of those dedicated political reporters who dug away for months and months. And, of course, newspaper owners and editors willing to back them up. Self-satisfied San Francisco says, looking at the mess in Washington, “It can’t happen here.” Yet a leading foreign political commentator has said, “What we are witnessing in America is the introduction of typical California politics into the national arena.” “Oh!” says the San Franciscan. “He means Southern California. We vote for grass and McGovern.” I’d like to quietly point out that McGovern may have been a clean-living cowboy from the lone prairie, but both his vice-presidential candidates were deliberately chosen because of their connections with two of the most corrupt political machines in America: St. Louis and Chicago.

How are you going to organize a pure and clean government movement when nobody admits its necessity? And when in fact the majority of the citizens are proud of the existing state of affairs. This includes even radicals. My friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti thinks North Beach is just wonderful. He denies the evidence of his sense and lives in a North Beach which, in fact, he has never seen — the days of Izzy Gomez and Casa Beguine, and fifty-cent tables d’hôtes with wine — while the streets swarm with heroin pushers and pimps and the joints stock go-go clip artistes. (Chicago was proud of Al Capone. His lawyer was a member of one of Chicago’s leading firms, a partner of which was the great radical Clarence Darrow, and his banker was Charles Evans Dawes, Vice President of the United States.)

You see, I haven’t really fulfilled my promise. I haven’t said anything about the relation of the San Francisco political scene to international politics, with its recurrent crises. The fact is, it shouldn’t have any. It is absurd that we should judge local politicians by their attitude to Mao, Brezhnev, Sadat or Golda Meir. That was what was wrong with the Movement. All of its leaders had pipelines to their favorite capitals and spoke for Moscow, Havana, Peking or, at the end, when the big powers began to divide up the world, North Korea. It’s all right, personally, to oppose Papadopoulos and support Allende, but it doesn’t have much to do with what goes on in the woodwork — or rather the marble wainscoting — of City Hall.

[January 1974]

 


 

Organized Vice, Then and Now


Following my last column, people have inquired “How has San Francisco changed? Wasn’t it always a wide-open town? You object to the scene today. What’s the difference?”

Maybe I’m just a petty bourgeois. The difference is between big business and small business, between domesticated “vice” and organized vice verging into high crime. It must be borne in mind that so-called crimes without victims — gambling and prostitution especially — were until recently what we might call civil service occupations in most countries. The only highly organized business at that time in San Francisco was the Chinese lottery. It was at least as common as policy or numbers in the East, and it was played by all kinds of people, of every race. Runners visited stores and offices and even many homes all over the City. Obviously, such an enterprise is big business, but it was tightly regulated both by the police and by the so-called fraternal associations that ruled Chinatown. No hanky-panky was permitted — the control was so tight that nobody was so foolish as to attempt any. Other forms of Chinese gambling were strictly closed to Caucasians, although at night all of middle Grant Avenue resounded with the rattle of mahjong pieces. Similarly, no Oriental-Caucasian interracial prostitution was permitted by the rulers of the Chinese community (following the well-known “Gentlemen’s Agreement”), although limousines with sing-song girls herded by fat, drowsy Mamas came and went in Chinatown all night. Oriental women who came from elsewhere and attempted to work as interracial prostitutes were reputed to vanish. Very few tried. Dolly Fine had a girl whom she could provide for big spenders and leading politicians, named Lala. She was over six feet tall, with a vaguely Oriental caste of features — I think she was Jewish. Her favors could be enjoyed for a minimum of fifty dollars, later a hundred, in the days when an ordinary favor cost two dollars and a half. If the customer objected, Dolly explained that Lala was North Chinese, “They’re very tall you know, and almost as white as we are.” That was it.

Most black people were unskilled working men and domestic servants. Although as the Depression deepened there was a good deal of compensatory prostitution, black and white, on the part of women who simply didn’t have enough money to live on, these girls were strictly controlled by the cop on the beat — who shook them down for whatever he could get, from two bits up, the theory being that “if you clout them you control them.”

Brothels were a different matter. As the Atherton investigation revealed, “The Organization” in San Francisco was the police department itself, ruled by a small group that called themselves the Iron Ring. They permitted, with one exception, no other organization whatever. If you paid off, you could run one brothel, but not two. There were card rooms all over the City, but each was a separate enterprise. Pimps, in the strict sense of the word, were not allowed to exist. A girl could keep an “old man” but she had to keep him out of sight. Any male who tried to hustle the streets for his old lady got short shrift from the police. Although it’s supposed to be completely illegal nowadays, the Municipal Court commonly ordered questionable characters to leave town within twenty-four hours and the police were even more peremptory. A friend of mine from Chicago who had handled some of Capone’s business with that city’s leading law firm visited me unexpectedly one morning and we went over to the Star Dairy Lunch next to the Hall of Justice at noon. A lieutenant of detectives, later Chief of Police, called me over to his table. “Isn’t that so and so?” he said. “Yes.” “Send him over.” My friend came back shaking. “What happened?” “He said ‘Hello Terry? What are you doing in San Francisco?’ ‘Oh, just traveling through on my way to see my sister in Los Angeles.’ ‘Ever been here before?’ ‘No.’ ‘That’s nice. It’s a great place. Get Kenneth to show you around. Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, Seal Rocks. Have dinner at Tait’s at the Beach. If you need a car, we can lend you one. And then, Terry, you get on the Daylight to L.A. tomorrow morning. That’s all, Terry.’ ”

“What in the hell kind of town is this?” my friend asked.

“They run it,” I said.

Yet at the same time San Francisco was a moderate sanctuary. It wasn’t Toledo, Ohio, but still it was a hard place to get expedited from, unless you were hotter than a two-dollar pistol. So, if you kept your nose clean, and didn’t volunteer, the forces of law and order not only ignored you but left a good deal of law and order up to you and your kind. As long as you didn’t try to organize something.

Bookmaking is an activity which naturally proliferates. It’s hard to run just one bookie joint, so the City’s principal bookmaker operated through a chain of cigar stores. He was a very respected citizen, but he got too big for his britches, and they broke him. I had a good friend who was a commission merchant. He liked to think of his business as a cover. He dropped a lot of money at the races, in poker games, and laid a lot of it on very expensive broads. He liked to fancy himself a Big Time Hustler, but he was really just a businessman. One day I was waiting to lunch with him at Tadich’s. In came two characters out of a grade-B gangster picture with their right hands stiff in their coat pockets. They kicked open the wicket and pushed the terrified receptionist out of their way. In about a half hour they came out, and a little after them came my friend, green and quivering like lime Jello. At lunch I got it out of him. “They were from Chicago. They want me to take over the distribution for Capone’s sugar moon business in Northern California.” (Capone had just organized all the big beet sugar moonshine distilleries in Colorado, with a good deal of gun play — a forgotten episode in his career.) “Nothing’s going to happen.” I counseled. “What do you mean, nothing’s going to happen? They’ll dump me if I don’t play ball.” “Don’t worry, you’ll never see them again. They will have them out of town by night.” He never did see them again, but a week or so later their car was found at the foot of the cliff below the narrow road out to Point Reyes Light House. They were both dead, but showed no signs of violence.

[February 1974]

 


 

Planned Chaos


Things are getting out of hand. A generation ago, for everybody even slightly right of center, “planning” was a dirty word, an eight-letter synonym for Communism. For better or worse, today we live in a planned economy in a planned society, but none of the plans seem to be working out, and the wrong people, whatever their position in the political spectrum, seem to be doing the planning. For six months before the assassination of Jack Kennedy, rumors were emanating from the inner White House circle that the President and his very brainy brain trust were in a state of profound depression in every department — foreign affairs, the economy, poverty, race relations. They were beginning to feel that they had done little more than uncover insoluble problems, most of which foreboded disaster. President Johnson had one problem he couldn’t solve — Vietnam. Over the others he rode roughshod, with typical cowboy bravura. He accepted an economy of deficit financing and controlled inflation, and the Great Society was constructed by a wholesale onslaught on all the problems that had stymied his predecessor. The important thing was to get something drastic done, on the assumption that if the solutions didn’t work, they could be corrected in the future. In his Christmas speech in the middle of his term, he made the dumbfounding claim that mankind had never had it better, that the Great Society had arrived. Utopia was here. The Vietnam War was raging and a dozen volcanoes were rumbling under his feet.

The first Nixon Administration promised to balance the budget, stop deficit financing, reverse inflation, stop crime and violent protest, and bring peace to the world. Although a great deal of propaganda of the American Right still talks as though we were living in 1850 in an economy of complete free enterprise, in fact controls in every department of life, let alone just economics, have increased. There are more planners than ever, but they seem to be planning wrong. The monetary system of the world is in complete chaos, and any attempt to reform it is blocked, first from one side, and then from another. Inflation is worldwide. In some countries it is fantastic.

In America it is not as bad as it is in many other places, but measured in the price of gold, which still, in spite of everything, is the only measuring rod we have, the drop in the value of the dollar is incredible. In the prices of many basic commodities, the dollar will only buy a quarter of what it did at the end of World War II price controls, and now the economic columnists are talking about one-dollar loaves of bread and more than one dollar a gallon gas for 1974. The price of bread in California is controlled, as is milk. Both were ten cents a loaf or a quart, for a generation. The price of gas, of course, is also controlled.

Somebody is planning. Certainly the energy crisis gives every evidence of very thorough planning indeed. Yet it is almost impossible to get reliable statistics. Estimates of the use of Arabian oil in the United States vary from 6 to 10 percent, with the lower the more probably figure. If that’s correct, you would think the loss could be made up by a couple of telephone calls to Venezuela. More and more people, industrialists, the editors of conservative newspapers, and conservative politicians have come to believe that the oil shortage is a complete fake, and the energy crisis is a propaganda stunt borrowed from the conservationists for the specific purpose of destroying them with their own weapons. Certainly at the moment they have been thoroughly routed. Strip mining, off-shore oil drilling, the burning of high-sulphur coal — all have been given a green light. Yet a highly respected economic columnist in one of the newsweeklies says that the country is awash in oil being held off the market.

On the other hand, there’s an old story that when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, Dulles wanted to go to war right then, but Eisenhower persuaded him to feed all the relevant data into the first great computer at Harvard, known as Mark IV. Mark IV answered: “You will win the war, but you may have to use the atom bomb, and you will have exhausted many of the natural resources of the country.” So they waited awhile, but finally they went, and, for one thing, the gasoline that you can’t get in your tank was burned up in air raids greater than all those of World War II.

Since Franklin Roosevelt’s “Quarantine the Aggressor” speech in Chicago, almost a lifetime ago, we have been living in a war economy. The significant thing about a war economy is that it reverses, at least for a very long time, the general tendency toward a falling rate of profit. What is happening now is planning to sustain the super-profits of a war economy. They never had it so good, and they don’t want it taken away. Yet what is happening is that we are building a society in which not just economic, but social and interpersonal relations are moving from dangerous to deadly.

San Francisco has all sorts of plans and planners. On paper, you’d think we were going about carefully and systematically constructing Utopia. Our planning may not be deadly or even dangerous yet, but it is certainly planning for economic dislocation, social tension, and confusion, if not demoralization. Welfare programs, far from curing social sicknesses, intensify them. The reorganization of traffic flow has made San Francisco one of the most congested cities on earth. Everything is overcrowded, restaurants or freeways, and the statistics compare with those of Tokyo’s Ginza or Munich’s Stockhaus. Urban renewal has led to the destruction of square miles of handsome, characteristically San Franciscan single- and two-family dwellings, has resulted in serious dislocation of populations, with resulting slummification in the surrounding areas, and has yet to result in a significant tax profit for the City as a whole. Almost every respected urbanist in the country has condemned the Yerba Buena project and has claimed that the public buildings are unnecessary, will be too expensive, and that the private construction will be slow to materialize and promises to be unprofitable. And of course, just incidentally, there is the inhuman treatment of the residents of the area, a large proportion of whom are elderly single people living on welfare or social security pensions. It looks as though the rebuilding of San Francisco was being planned all wrong, at least to an increasing number of professional urbanists, who presumably know what they’re talking about. Yet processes have been set in motion over which the public seems unable to exert any influence. 1974 may see $1 bread, but I think it’s also sure to see a general revolt against planned chaos, from Congressional investigations of the oil crisis, to local rebellion against the planners who have refused to listen.

[March 1974]

 


 

How to Get Away from It All?


Writing a column of general social comment nowadays is an onerous task. I get tired of crying doom and disaster, and pointing to the innumerable symptoms of the collapse of civilization all around me. They used to call the Ottoman Turkish Empire “The Sick Man of Europe.” I am sick and tired — I am bored — with watching the United States become The Sick Man of the Western Hemisphere. Violent terrorism, riots, kidnappings, the endless unraveling of all the disgusting threads of Watergate, inflation, petroleum hold-up, manufactured shortages of everything from beef to toilet paper, a manufactured depression, and over it all an atmosphere of frustration, hysteria (the war of each against all) — after a while you simply get bored. You wonder what you did in a previous incarnation to get born into this species, and look forward to the day when you’ll be reincarnated as a quiet polyp or sea anemone.

It is spring in California, or rather it is April summer, the first spring begins with the rains before Christmas. Anemones (land ones, not sea ones) are in bloom in the garden. There are flowering trees everywhere and ceanothus and a dozen other flowering shrubs in the chaparral on the mountainsides and wildflowers in the fields. The field flowers have already passed their prime and soon the last godetia, which the books call “Farewell-to-Spring,” will be blooming amongst the yellowing grass.

In California you can still get away from it, although it’s less easy every year. In midsummer the Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierras looks like Haight Street, 1967. Once you could leave cameras, fishing tackle, food safely in your tent. Now you can’t leave the tent with any assurance that it will be there when you get back from a walk. Still, if you know where to go, even a few miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles, all the madness vanishes.

Many years ago, in discussing the ideal society of the future, Bertrand Russell, after outlining basic economic and interpersonal desiderata, made what seemed then a very curious stipulation: that “every man should be able to get away from the pressures of urban society, or even the best communal living, and renew the sense of his own aloneness in contact with the earth.” It seemed then like a notion of a scoutmaster, but how right he was.

Today, when the majority of people are terrified of their aloneness and know of nothing else to do with the earth than rape it, with dune buggies in the desert, snowmobiles in the winter mountains and great rejoicing when television becomes accessible to their weekend cabins, privacy and wilderness grow ever more precious to the sane, and ever more difficult to find. Even quiet is hard to capture and may be destroyed without warning by the mass society.

The great American critic Edmund Wilson, one of the last gentlemen of letters, escaped from New York City to his home town, Talcotville, a remote village off the main lines of travel in upstate New York. Bit by bit, step by step, like the march of the golem or the statue in Don Giovanni, the mass society intruded. As he lay dying last year, his front yard was ripped up by earth-moving machinery to make a completely unnecessary freeway bridge approach. It demonstrably served no purpose, except it gave an opportunity to local politicians to divert some coin into the pockets of their contractor-supporters. Wilson was old and sick and never much of one to go for walks in the woods. He was a curmudgeon, but to be a curmudgeon you have to have people.

I certainly don’t know of any town in California, not even those old, insulated communities of the rich like Piedmont and Santa Barbara, let alone Pasadena, and obviously not Atherton, where no matter what you pay you can escape it all into a modest, stately home, but I do know places in which I can find a square mile or more of wilderness where I am very unlikely to encounter another person for days on end, within fifty miles of San Francisco. Where? You don’t really think I’m going to tell you, do you?

I live in a small community which miraculously has managed to protect itself. If the houses were all torn down, in twenty years it would be a dense forest. Flocks of migrating robins pass through in the early spring and eat all the berries off the cotoneasters. Trees bloom one after another in succession from February to May. There are three species of woodpeckers who nest on my one acre, and jays, and mockingbirds, and doves, and quail, and a raccoon who steals the dog’s food, and an opossum that I see sometimes scurrying across the road in the headlights of the car, and beautiful wood rats who look like Alice’s dormouse, and a flock of crows, and all the extra spaces of the garden are planted with wildflowers. The mountains rise up less than a mile away.

Around us are the homes of the great rich, but the people on my bosky lane are in very modest circumstances. Recently they have become agitated. An open car with “sinister-looking young men” in it have been seen driving up and down the lane — which goes nowhere. Everybody is worried. Are they casing the houses, planning to rob them, or attack the inhabitants? They are almost certainly just some young guys driving around, but in 1974 all they had to do was pass up and down the two-block-long lane to have everybody worried. Peace, it’s wonderful.

[April 1974]

 


 

How Evil Rises to the Top


I practically never review books in this column. But perhaps you remember that I once said that no one could possibly understand why and how the United States was involved in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong people, in Vietnam without reading that extraordinary book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. It gave the CIA running and barking fits, but they were never able successfully to challenge its massive evidence. The Vietnam War, amongst other things, was and is The Third Opium War.

Now here’s another one, Operation Splinter Factor, by Stewart Steven (Lippincott, $7.95). It is the story of the planting of counterintelligence agents, double agents, agents provocateurs, and false evidence in the Iron Curtain countries, most successfully in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the late ’40s and early ’50s. These were the years Allen W. Dulles, John Foster Dulles’s brother, turned the OSS, the more or less liberal intelligence organization, the product of a “united front” war, into the present CIA. His policy was to drive Russia and its satellites deeper and deeper into Stalinist terror, and to feed Stalin’s natural paranoia with false evidence of plots and defections in high places — on the theory, which originated with the Russian anarchist revolutionary and very likely police agent, Nechaev, “the worser the better.” Just incidentally, this resulted in the forced confessions and the execution of most of the liberal communist leadership in the East, and the imprisonment, torture, and death, exile or concentration camp for many many thousands of quite innocent people. These were the very people who would have resisted the establishment of a monolithic Stalinist empire. They were usually accused of, and confessed to, being agents of both Tito and Dulles. At the time, of course, American passports were stamped “Not for Travel in Yugoslavia.” The first Cold War was with Tito. Dulles’s theory was that the main enemy of the United States was liberal socialism, which stood a chance of being successful, but that Stalinism would collapse if undermined by the dirty tricks of the CIA and free enterprise would rule once again from Vladivostok to Berlin. All you had to do was just push it to extremes of terror that no population could accept. At Stalin’s death a whole new wave of forced confessions, show trials, and executions was being mounted, and the evidence is that if Stalin had had his way, this would have led to an anti-Semitic program not much different than Hitler’s.

The interesting thing is that this maneuver of Dulles’s was borrowed directly from Hitler. The Nazis planted false evidence that the Russian Army, from Marshall Tukachevsky down to field officers, was ridden with Nazi agents. Stalin exterminated them all, without public trial, and the Russians entered the war with a seriously crippled army. Dulles simply inflated this maneuver to geopolitics on a global scale. “Incidents” like My Lai are symptoms of the same morality on a minute scale. But the death of the innocent to satisfy the aims of the corrupt is not quantifiable. It is like pregnancy. You can’t be just a little pregnant. Certainly the movement of the opium crop, from the Shan States to the politicians and gangsters of Saigon to the “Corsican Mafia” in Marseille to Harlem, is not worth the tears of one abandoned Vietnamese baby.

What has all this got to do with us, safe in front of our television sets in our condominiums? Over a generation ago, at the time of the Moscow Trials, I pointed out that the Russians belonged to the same species — Homo sapiens. Their blood had the same chemical composition as ours. This was an infection which had smitten the human race in one country, and like the “Spanish” flu and the “Asian” flu, would not be confined to one people but would spread throughout the world. Ten years later I said the same thing about the Nazi extermination of Jews, Gypsies, political opponents, and the “unfit” (we tend to forget those last two categories). By most interpretations of the word, the Germans are considerably more civilized than the Americans. We have yet to produce a Beethoven or a Goethe. We have only just got around to subsidizing a few of our orchestras and serious theaters, and of course, Bismarck invented Social Security. We are not immune to the disease that produced the extermination program.

What has happened is that the normal process of democracy, the delegation of authority, has turned into the delegation of responsibility, which, in turn, has become pure irresponsibility. But pure irresponsibility throughout a society is very far indeed from being a chemically pure solution or mixture. When a society reaches that state, evil rises to the top like rotten cream. If everybody says “let George do it,” “it’s not my fault, I wasn’t there” or “everybody else does it, why shouldn’t I” or even that first moral principle of hangmen, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will, and I can do it better” — George will do it, and George turns out to be a very nasty man. This is why Aristotle said that democracy is the worst of all forms of government, turning automatically into the exploitation of mobs by criminal demagogues. This isn’t necessarily true, but it is only the eternal vigilance of a widely diffused sense of responsibility, individual responsibility for the social order, which keeps it from becoming true.

If a society operates on the principle that anything is justified in war, cold or hot, eventually this principle becomes internalized, and the society itself becomes a war of each against all, and at the top: a handful of utterly unprincipled demagogues whose contempt for everybody else is absolute. This is certainly one instance where reform begins at home. The past year has shown that the people have a hard time making their wills effective on the international or national level. The smaller the political unit, the more immediately effective their will can be. There’s nothing happening in Watergate that isn’t happening in different forms in Sacramento and San Francisco. As long as the people turn over all responsibility to superannuated movie stars, TV personalities, organization men, and faceless speculators in the public good, they’ll get what they deserve. But it’s always possible to begin at home, right here, in front of your face, as Carl Sandburg said long ago:

“When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool — then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck or a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.

“The mob — the crowd — the mass — will arrive then.”

[May 1974]

 


 

The SLA


As this column is being written, there has been no resolution of the case of Patty Hearst. But whatever and whenever, if ever, there is a resolution, there are certain things that can be said about it that will not change. Long ago when the Movement of the ’60s was beginning to develop an uncontrollable lunatic fringe, I said in a column that just because somebody’s conduct was revolting was no sign that it had anything to do with revolution.

After the rash of assassinations in Russia in the 19th century, radicals of all types (except a small and isolated group of anarchists in France, most of them common criminals before they discovered an anarchist rhetoric to justify themselves) had given up individual terror. Not only that, but it was universally accepted, practically a dogma, that anyone who advocated assassinations and bank robberies and bombings was ipso facto, prima facie, a stoolpigeon and agent provocateur. They were proven right. The famous “Azef” was eventually unveiled as the chief stoolpigeon and provocateur for the Czarist police after a long career as the head of the secret terror organization of the revolutionary Populist Party, equally efficient at planning assassinations and turning in his comrades. Probably the principal reason why many students of revolutionary movements and most non-Bolshevik radicals believe that Stalin was a police agent, is that he seems to have been in charge of an “ex”-squad, “ex” standing for expropriation, that is, bank robbery. The assassin of McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, called himself an anarchist, but he was patently crazy and the anarchists repudiated him. Throughout the early 20th century individual violence was almost entirely confined to the more conventional labor movement. No acts of individual terror or even planned group violence have ever been proven against socialists, communists, or anarchists, and few against the revolutionary syndicalist IWW, and anyone in such groups who advocated such action was certain to be expelled. In spite of all their rhetoric, the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers have never been convicted of acts of planned terror.

Weathermen, White Panthers, Venceremos, a number of other fugitive local groups, and now the SLA — what do these people represent? Not revolution, certainly, but a kind of devolution. They are symptoms of the sickness of the dominant society, what Toynbee called “schism of the soul.” They are recruited from what is in fact America’s ruling class, the upper-middle class, and they are predominantly young women, who in the first instance are profoundly alienated from parents who have “given them everything their hearts desired.” Certainly it is obvious that it is the women — upper-class women, the old-time radicals would call them — who dominate the SLA. This is one of the few ways the SLA differs from the Manson Family.

As instruments of social change, such little groups are necessarily completely ineffectual — except, of course, when they do something which arouses the dominant society to wrath and repression. The murderous capers of a similar group that call themselves (using the English words) “The Red Army of Japan” left the entire Left of Japan shattered and demoralized (even though the Left was not subject to repression or even harassment). Here, the SLA and similar tiny groups have sown prejudice, fear and racism in what had been one of the most tolerant cities in the world.

Why is San Francisco giving birth to these monstrous babies? Even Manson formed his family here before he moved south. And it was he and his girls who introduced the custom of public fornication to the picnic grounds above the children’s playground in Golden Gate Park. Is it for the same reason that people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge? For years, just beyond the Palace of the Legion of Honor, stood a life-size statue of a dying Indian, slumped over an exhausted horse, entitled “The End of the Trail.” It was the most famous statue of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Skid Road, Haight-Ashbury, the high suicide and alcoholism rates are all symptoms of the end of the road — the end of the rope. They are the negative side of the phenomena which have brought thousands upon thousands of the Playboy Set to settle in luxurious villas in Marin County and the Peninsula, or to spend a quarter of a million dollars rehabilitating a Victorian slum and furnishing it with antiques, but they are a reverse reflection of San Francisco as the most liberal, enlightened, and oh-so-highly cultured city in the United States — the last stand of la vie Méditerranée — so tolerant that you can get away with almost anything.

That’s how the Haight-Ashbury came into existence. It was a neighborhood largely populated by “people of the ’30s,” intellectuals, trade union organizers, writers, artists, a successful bohemia that had migrated from North Beach, who were willing to rent to freaks who wouldn’t be allowed to light in more conventional neighborhoods. It’s the reason San Francisco must have almost as many gay bars as straight bars. It is this tolerance and atmosphere of unlimited freedom that reduces the New Left daughters of the rich, and the criminal sociopath, to impotent rage. They feel they are punching mattresses and stabbing fog. The community simply bends and lets them pass. Out of frustration comes wrath, and out of wrath comes terror.

Anything else is too much hard work. Actual social change is accomplished by long, hard, slogging work. Addressing cards, stuffing envelopes, running duplicating machines all night long, speaking to uncomprehending and indifferent audiences, organizing on the job as a worker amongst workers, getting into a legislature or a city administration body and struggling with corrupt politicians who think you’re a fool, and struggling to keep from becoming corrupt yourself. Careers like this are not very attractive to spoiled darlings of the rich or to chronic sociopaths who have spent half their lives in prison.

Yet these people truly suffer. They are alienated, far more than the proletarian on the production line, and they are incapable of persisting in large-scale positive social action. They are types which the orthodox radical groups soon reject. Almost all the SLA people have been, for a time, members of conventional radical groups which rejected them, until they found themselves alone. Being a member of a tiny terrorist group that must stay hidden 24 hours a day is certainly being very much alone. “I belong to nothing and I suffer,” said the crazy man who shot at Roosevelt. Our sick society no longer needs to hire agents provocateurs.

[June 1974]

 


 

More on the SLA


As the inner workings of the Manson Family were being revealed in the press, many people pointed out that he must have been influenced by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a decidely unpleasant science-fiction romance. It is hard to tell whether Heinlein was an advocate or a satirist. On the whole I think he was an advocate, primarily because he describes his perverted society in a prose saturated with generalized hostility.

There is a similar and even more uncanny premonition of the SLA melodrama in a play by the black playwright Richard Wesley, On Black Terror, which can be found in the Anchor paperback edition The New Lafayette Theater Presents, edited by Ed Bullins. In the introduction, Wesley makes it very clear that he was not an advocate. He says:

“I wrote Black Terror because of certain things I saw in the political climate of 1969-70. I had noticed that the rhetoric of the late sixties was going off in a direction that was not beneficial at all to Black people. The late 1960s saw the concept of revolutionary suicide, urban kamikaze, rather than concrete political theories that would ultimately lead to the survival of our people in this society.
     “So, I decided to write a play in which certain ideologies would be given, given a chance to be aired onstage, and the people, Black people, could come and see the play and observe these ideologies, and try to take from what they saw on stage an idea or hint as to what they had to do as people in order to free themselves of this rhetoric and move on to another method of action.”

It is the story of a tiny group of black terrorists dedicated to revolutionary suicide, who recruit the daughter of a successful member of the liberal Negro Establishment. She even changes her name to that of an underground African revolutionary martyr. The organization — if it can be called that, it seems to consist of less than ten people — orders her to assassinate her father as a “traitor to his race.” At the end, she does, and flees to the group’s “safe house,” where the police burn and dynamite them all out of existence, and precipitate a race riot. Wesley remarks that he doubts if the majority of his audience really understood the message he was trying to impart.

Suicidal terrorist groups like the SLA exist all over the world, and only amongst the Tupamaros of Uruguay do they have any political basis or social reality at all (the terrorism in Argentina is actually a sort of civil war between the left and right wings of Peron’s following). Their appeal lies precisely in their political irrelevance and their guaranteed doom. A process new to history is going on here. Even his own followers now admit that Freud invented the Oedipus complex — but his patients responded with enthusiastic Oedipus family romances of their own. There is very little trace of the characteristic Oedipus complex in world literature. Oedipus himself certainly did not have one, although Hamlet suffered from something like it. The revolt against the father and the symbolic rape of the mother begins with modern industrial/commercial civilization, with people like Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade, and grows steadily throughout the 19th century to become an overt literary mechanism in our time.

Far more important than any psychoanalytic theories is the simple fact that there exists nothing like this in the literature of any other civilization, even in its most advanced state of decay, nor in Western civilization prior to the French Revolution. Euripides and Catullus may have been neurotic, but they weren’t neurotic in the way Baudelaire was, much less many modern novelists. Something new has been added. The Russian 19th-century revolutionaries, the Naradnoya Volya — the People’s Will — were suicidal, as was the terrorist organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but like the Tupamaros, they were operating in a clearly defined political theater, dominated by terror from above. It is perfectly obvious that political terror by tiny groups of self-appointed executioners cannot demoralize conventional America enough to ignite a fuse which leads to revolution. It is hard to believe that any of these people believe this themselves. The political reality is masked for them by profound personal drives. The unaccountable thing is that this constellation of personal forces is new in history, at least as a widespread phenomenon.

As I have pointed out, most of these people have been raised in comfort, if not luxury. Even the blacks in Wesley’s play come from middle-class families. Proletarians are too busy working and too tired after work to get much pleasure out of terrorism. Television is a simpler discharge of accumulated hostility. But of course the hostility is different. In the millionairess with a machine gun, or blowing herself up making bombs in an expensive New York townhouse, it seems to come from something even deeper than the levels reached by Freud. The Oedipus complex is not enough. Is it the life tedium of a society with only purely material values in which the only satisfactions are commodities? But this isn’t really true of our society. We may be offered a commodity guaranteed to satisfy any need, but we soon learn to turn away, at least sometimes. There are plenty of spiritual transcendental values going around. Lots of people think there is altogether too wide a variety of them. Is it the lack of creative work and opportunities for self-realization? But these are precisely the people who have always enjoyed the most of such opportunities. Is it the profound immorality of the dominant society and its Establishment? Establishments have always been profoundly immoral. Neither Watergate nor Willie Brandt’s love life are unique in history. Furthermore, it is obvious that problems such as these are not going to be solved by immolating yourself in a burning building.

I think that melodramas like those of the Manson Family and the SLA are going to become more and more common. I am not personally acquainted with anyone who has read more about this type of social sickness than myself. I have certainly not found any satisfactory answers. It’s about time that people without pet theories and ready-made solutions begin to devote some serious scientific work to the subject.

[July 1974]


 

 


“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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