In response to:
"We Won't Go" from the May 18, 1967 issue
To the Editors:
Paul Goodman has written a very moving account of the draft-card burning in New York but that poetic, mystic sense is the central weakness of the article and of the act. While beautiful, it was not political. The objections of those who refused to participate were not fear of sticking one’s neck out at a moment of weakness but serious questions about the political object and goal of that form of protest; not a broad generalization about civil disobedience being non-political but questions about this specific form of civil disobedience. If effective resistance is going to grow, it must be organized and coordinated to a degree that no radical movement has accomplished in this country. Reliance on the individual, existential act is individual, existential suicide.
Mr. Goodman reveals the basic weaknesses of the draft card burning himself: where were the other 157 burners on April 19 when the Special Forces member was arrested? Why didn’t anyone know each other and why don’t other resisters know who they were? What kind of movement could possibly grow out of the vaguenesses of that meeting in New York: maybe trial, maybe Canada, maybe jail, maybe underground? The strength of the government, and particularly of the Selective Service System, is its ability to isolate the individual, to pick him off for violating a peripheral law against burning a draft card, to move him across the country for a physical or for induction, to enforce at random the law against advocating resistance. The only way in which that power can be overcome is to attempt to match organization with organization.
Such organization requires not only coordination and solidarity but numbers. This brings me to another major weakness in the proceedings of April 15. Who was the audience? Not in Sheep Meadow, but around the country. Who was educated? Who saw this act as an illustration of the alternative to service? Mr. Goodman mentions the press. The futility of relying on the press to speak to men of draft age around the country was demonstrated all too well. While the Times may have published a reasonable number, its headline read “several,” a term rarely applied to 158. The press directs its attention to the act itself but will not carry the message, and convey the thinking and explanations which the actors have developed. The kind of education needed is closer to what Mr. Goodman described on campus before the burning: the series of discussions and debates, the consideration of alternatives. But more, illustration will have to take place in direct confrontations with the system at points where many men are feeling its effects and witnessing the alternatives. Only in this way can anyone hope to bring more and more men to the point of saying I won’t go.
The symbolic act, separated from its enemy and separated from those it seeks to move, is pathetic because it is hopeless. That individual and momentary purgation must be transformed into a less glamorous and less spiritual political organization if the ultimate aim of stopping this war and bringing about radical social change is to be accomplished.
Ann D. Gordon
Department of History
University of Wisconsin,