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On Being Busted at Fifty

Az m’lebt, m’ lebt alles,” my grandfather began telling me when he was fifty and presumably thought me old enough to understand, “if you live long enough, you live through everything.” And, I suppose, justice being as imperfectly practiced as it is in our world, one could consider getting arrested as inevitable a function of aging as getting cancer. But some people I know would have to reach 150 at least before falling afoul of the law, and others have sat in their first cell by sixteen or seventeen: so there must be some other, more specific reason why I find myself charged with a misdemeanor just past the half-century mark of my life.

Where did it all begin, I keep asking myself, where did it really start—back beyond the moment those six or eight or ten improbable cops came charging into my house, without having knocked, of course, but screaming as they came (for the record, the first of their endless lies), “We knocked! We knocked!”; and producing only five minutes later, after considerable altercation, the warrant sworn out by a homeless, lost girl on whom my wife and daughter had been wasting concern and advice for over a year. It seems to me that the actual beginning must have been, was the moment I got up before the Women’s Club (an organization of faculty wives and other females variously connected with the State University of New York at Buffalo) to speak to them of the freedom and responsibility of the teacher.

I have no record of the occasion (was it a year ago, two?), can remember no precise dates or names or faces—but I do recall the horrified hush with which my not very daring but, I hope, elegantly turned common-places were received. I spoke of the ironies of our current situation in which a broad range of political dissent is tolerated from teachers, but in which no similar latitude is granted them in expressing opinions about changing standards in respect to sex and drugs. I invoked, I think, the names of Leo Koch (fired out of the University of Illinois) and Timothy Leary (dropped from the faculty at Harvard, I reminded my ladies) and ended by insisting that the primary responsibility of the teacher is to be free, to provide a model of freedom for the young.

Needless to say, tea and cakes were served afterward, and one or two members of the Program Committee tried hard to make conversation with me as I gallantly sipped at the former and politely refused the latter. But there was a growing space around me no matter how hard they tried, a kind of opening cordon sanitaire, that kept reminding me of a picture which used to hang in my grade-school classrooms, of Cataline left alone on the benches of the Roman Senate after his exposure by Cicero. That evening there were phone calls rather drastically reinterpreting my remarks (I had it was asserted by one especially agitated source, advocated free love and “pot” for fourteen-year-olds), as well as—for the very first time—voices suggesting that maybe there was something anomalous about permitting one with my opinions to teach in the State University.

It was then, I suspect, that my departmental chairman as well as some officials in the loftier reaches of Administration began receiving hostile letters about me—not many in number, I would judge, but impassioned in tone. Still, though this constituted a kind of prelude, it all might have come to nothing had I not then accepted an invitation to speak to the High School Teachers of English in Arlington, Virginia, at the end of January of this year. It was an intelligent and responsive group to whom I tried to talk as candidly as I could about the absurdity of teaching literature, i.e., teaching a special kind of pleasure under conditions of mutual distrust and according to an outmoded curriculum.

I said many things both in my initial presentation and in response to a considerable stack of written questions about what students should be asked to read in high school (essentially, I said, mythological material from Homer to Shakespeare, and similar stuff from the twentieth century, which they themselves prefer, e.g., J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring); what they should not be asked to read (such old standards as Silas Marner and Ivanhoe, such splendid but currently irrelevant poets as Spenser and Milton, plus the stuffier verse entertainers of the nineteenth century like, say, Tennyson); and what the teachers themselves ought to be reading to have some sense of the group they are theoretically addressing (the obvious New Gurus: Buckminster Fuller, N. O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary, etc.).

A reporter for the Washington Post was present and moved enough to do a feature piece (marred by minor inaccuracies and odd conjunctions born in his mind rather than in mine) headed: COOL IT ON MILTON, TEACHERS ADVISED, which became, as the article was reprinted throughout the country: AUTHOR: STUDY LEARY, NOT MILTON. And under an even more misleading rubric (ENGLISH TEACHERS TOLD TO STUDY LEARY) the story appeared on the front page of Buffalo’s morning newspaper, a journal dedicated to scaring itself and its readers about where the modern world is going, largely—I would gather—to keep mail from the Far Right. Such readers may not ever have read either Milton or Leary, but they know which is the honorific and which the dirty word. It was at this point, at any rate, that the notion of me as a “corrupter of the young” seems to have taken hold in Western New York at least—spreading as far as the State Legislature, in which a member arose within a couple of weeks (representing as I recall the Hornell District) to ask why my presence was being tolerated in a publicly supported institution of higher learning.

I did not at first pay much attention to all this, nor to the fact that in a pamphlet on pornography, prepared by the same body of New York lawmakers, the cover of a Nudist magazine advertising the reprint of a review I had once done of that unexpectedly amusing movie, The Immoral Mr. Tease, had been given a prominent position. On the one hand, the small local furor had got lost in the overwhelming response the garbled version of what I had said in Arlington brought from all over the country—offers to publish my remarks in publications ranging from Fact to the Catholic World, invitations to run seminars for grade-school teachers, and pleas to join such organizations as America’s Rugged Individualists Spiritualistic Entity (ARISE) and the Friends of Meher Baba. On the other hand, I had come more and more to think of what I had to say about young people and where they were (all that had begun with my immensely ambivalent and much misunderstood article on “The New Mutants” in Partisan Review) as being directed not to the young at all.

To be sure, in spite of their publicly announced contempt for the opinions of the aging, those under thirty desperately desire reassurance and confirmation from those beyond that magical boundary; but it is weakness in them which makes them ask it—and I had resolved not to respond. No, it seemed to me that it was to my own peers that I had to speak, to explain, to interpret—translating for the benefit of teachers what their students were saying in an incomprehensible tongue, deciphering for parents what their children were muttering in a code they trusted their parents to break. What did I have to tell the young about themselves (about Shakespeare or Dante or even Melville and Faulkner I could talk with special authority, but that is quite another matter) which I had not learned from them? One of the things I had learned—something I might have remembered from the Apology but did not—is that the young cannot, will not, be “corrupted” or “saved” by anyone except themselves. Out of my own ambivalence, my own fear, my own hopes and misgivings before a generation more generous and desperate and religious than my own, it seemed to me I could make a kind of sense—at least what might be made to seem “sense” to those in whose definition of that term I myself had been brainwashed.

But I found an adult community more terrified than myself, more terrified even than I had then guessed, of the gap between themselves and the young; and therefore pitifully eager to find some simple explanation of it all, something with which they could deal, if not by themselves, at least with the aid of courts and cops. “Dope” was the simple explanation, the simple word they had found (meaning by “dope” the currently fashionable psychedelics, especially marijuana); and once that was licked, the gap would be closed, the misunderstandings solved, the mutual offense mitigated. For such a utopian solution, a few arrests on charges of possession and selling, a few not-quite-kosher searches and seizures would be a small enough price to pay.

MEANWHILE, however, some among the young (and a few out of the older generations as well) had begun to propagandize in favor of changing the laws against marijuana, or at least of investigating the facts with a view toward changing those laws; and this seemed to the simple-minded enemies of the young a new and even greater cause for consternation. To legalize pot would be, it appeared to them, to legalize long hair and scraggly beards for young men, new sexual mores for young women, Indian headbands and beads and incense for everyone: to sanction indiscriminate love in place of regulated aggression, hedonism in place of puritanism, the contemplative life in place of the active one. And everyone knew what that meant! At this point, the fight against marijuana with the aid of the police and strategic lies began to be transformed into a fight against the freedom of expression (though only in the case of those interested in changing the marijuana laws, to be sure) employing the same weapons.

At this point precisely—it was in March of this year—I became Faculty Adviser to LEMAR, an officially recognized student organization on the campus at Buffalo, dedicated to employing all possible legal means to make the regulations on the consumption of marijuana no more stringent than those on alcohol—and which, incidentally, asked all of its members to sign a pledge not to possess or use pot. I was asked to assume the job, I gather, in large part because I was notoriously “clean,” i.e., it was widely known that I (and my wife as well) did not and had never smoked marijuana. Though this may have been in the minds of some of the students who approached me a purely strategic reason for their choice, it seemed to me a principled reason for accepting the position. I would, given the circumstances, be able to fight for the legalization of “grass” not in order to indulge a private pleasure, but in order to extend freedom for everyone. Besides, the situation struck me as intolerable, with exactly the same discrepancy between the actual practice of a community (in this case the subsociety of those under thirty) and the laws which presumably regulated it, as had prevailed in respect to alcohol during the late Twenties.

The same considerations which had led to the repeal of Prohibition early in the following decade, seemed to me to demand a change in the laws controlling the consumption of marijuana in 1967. Certainly I felt this with special urgency as one committed to limiting rather than extending or preserving the possibilities of alienation, hypocrisy, and lawlessness for the young. Moreover, I was convinced that if the University could not provide a forum for the calm and rational discussion of the real issues involved, the debate about the legalization of marijuana would continue on the same depressing level of hysteria and sensationalism on which it had begun. Finally, even if I had disagreed totally with its aims, I would have become faculty adviser to any intellectually respectable group that found as much difficulty as LEMAR was apparently having in persuading someone to take on the responsibility.

As a matter of fact, it depressed and baffled me that a score of applicants for the post of faculty adviser had not already stepped forward; though the student leaders of the organization explained to me that there was real cause for fear on the part of reluctant faculty members that sanctions might in fact be taken against them. But what sanctions, I asked in my innocence, could possibly be taken? A few anonymous letters to the President of the University calling for dismissal? Another indignant “editorial” on TV or in the Press? I began to learn soon enough and in an odd way, when an application I was making for an insurance policy was turned down, though my health was fine and my credit good. The letter from the life insurance company was vague and discreet: “like to be able to grant every request…not always possible…many factors must be taken into consideration…I am sorry indeed…” But private conversations with people involved made it quite clear that at the moment of associating myself with LEMAR I had become to the pious underwriters a “moral risk,” unworthy of being insured.

While I was considering whether my civil rights had in fact been infringed, and whether I should make an appeal to the American Civil Liberties Union—the local head of the narcotics squad (a man more vain and ambitious than articulate) had been attempting to argue down the students in public debates organized by LEMAR, and had ended in baffled rage, crying out, according to the student head of LEMAR who was his interlocuter: “Don’t worry kid—when we get you LEMAR guys, it’s gonna be on something bigger than a little pot-possession,” and “Yeah—there are some of those professors out at U.B.—bearded beatnik Communists. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to go out there, but that’s all right—they’ll be gotten rid of.”

THE ISSUES are clearly drawn—not criminal issues at all in the first instance, but differences of opinion and style felt to be critical enough to be settled by police methods, even if this requires manufacturing a case. After all, what other way is there to cope with an enemy who is bearded (i.e., contemptuous of convention and probably cleanliness as well), and “beat” (i.e., dangerously abberant), and a Communist (i.e., convinced of ideas more liberal than those of the speaker), and—worst of all—a professor (i.e., too smart for his own good, too big for his britches, etc., etc.). Indeed, the case against one bearded professor at least was being “prepared” for quite a while. The statements quoted above were made on April 18 and April 20, and on April 29, the day of the arrest, a spokesman for the police was reported as having said that for ten days my house, watched off and on for “months,” had been under “twenty-four-hour surveillance”—a scrutiny rewarded (according to police statements in the press) by the observation of “many persons, mostly young, going in and out….” All of which seems scarcely remarkable in a household with six children, each equipped with the customary number of friends.

What is remarkable is to live under “surveillance,” a situation in which privacy ceases to exist and any respect for the person and his privileges yields to a desire to “get rid of” someone with dangerous ideas. Slowly I had become aware of the fact that my phone kept fading in and out because it was probably being tapped; that those cars turning around in nearby driveways or parked strategically so that their occupants could peer in my windows, though unmarked, belonged to the police; that the “bread van” haunting our neighborhood contained cops; and that at least one “friend” of my children was a spy.

It was the police themselves who had released to the press (the unseemly desire for publicity overcoming discretion and reticence) the news that this “friend,” a seventeen-year-old girl with a talent for lies, had been coming in and out of our house with a two-way radio—picking up all conversations within her range, no matter how private, and whether conducted by members of my household or casual visitors. She had the habit of disappearing and reappearing with a set of unconvincing and contradictory stories about what exactly had happened to her (she had been in the hospital for a V.D. cure; she had been in jail; she had been confined to an insane asylum; she had been beaten up by incensed old associates)—but always she seemed so lost and homeless and eager for someone to show some signs of concern that it seemed impossible ever to turn her out. For me, the high point—the moment of ultimate indignity—in the whole proceedings came at my last Passover Seder when, just after I had spoken the traditional lines inviting all who were hungry to come in and eat, the “friend” had entered, bearing (we now know) her little electronic listening device, to drink our wine and share our unleavened bread.

The ironies are archetypal to the point of obviousness (one of my sons claims we were thirteen at table, but this I refuse to admit to myself), embarrassingly so. I prefer to reflect on the cops at their listening post (in the bread van?) hearing the ancient prayers: “Not in one generation alone have they risen against us, but in every generation…. This year we are slaves, next year we shall be free!” I cannot resist reporting, however, that at the end of the evening, the electronically equipped “friend” said to me breathlessly, “Oh, Professor, thank you. This is only the second religious ceremony I ever attended in my life.” (My wife has told me since that the first was the lighting of Channukah candles at our house.)

Fair enough, then, that the first really vile note I received after my arrest and the garbled accounts of it in the local newspapers (made worse by a baseless reference to “trafficking in drugs” in the initial release from the University concerning my case) should have struck an anti-Semitic note, reading, “You goddamned Jews will do anything for money.” Though I had not really been aware of the fact, anti-Semitism was already in the air and directed toward the University of which I was a member. (Hate mail from an organization calling itself MAM, or more fully, Mothers Against Myerson, had already begun to refer to Martin Myerson, the President of our University, as “that Red Jew from Berkeley”). It was all there, ready to be released: hostility to the young, fear of education and distrust of the educated, anti-Semitism, anti-Negroism, hatred for “reds” and “pinkos,” panic before those who dressed differently, wore their hair longer, or—worst of all—dissented from current received ideas.

I SHOULD HAVE BEEN PREPARED by my experiences only a few weeks before the police invasion of my home, by some of the responses I got over the telephone when I had agreed to explain the nature and purposes of LEMAR and to comment generally on the culture of the young over one of those three-hour question-and-answer radio programs which appear to bring out all the worst in all the worst elements in any community. The tone of the whole thing was set by the letter of invitation in which the conductor of the program ended by saying that he could not understand why a man so often quoted by Time-Life would agree to act as faculty adviser to LEMAR, or in his terms “would willingly take up the posture of Pied Piper to those young louts….”

Still I was not merely distressed but astonished when, just as I was recovering from being mugged, fingerprinted, misquoted, and televised, I received an anonymous letter purporting to be from “a group of Central Park neighbors,” which began by assuring me that I and my children were “condemned to a ghetto life,” went on to refer to their Negro friends (two of whom were also arrested after the police broke into my house) as “the colored, thieving and prostituting for a ratish living…”; and concluded: “If Myerson doesn’t dispose of you and you leave our neighborhood in a reasonable length of time be assured of total harassment….” What such “total harassment” involves has teased my imagination—though I begin to have a clue or two, since having received only recently a notice that our homeowner’s insurance policy was being canceled out of hand (in the extra-legal world of the insurance companies, all men are presumed guilty until proven innocent), which would mean—unless we can replace it—the loss of our mortgage.

In this context of abject fear and pitiful hatred, the actual arrest, the charges, the legal maneuvering and courtroom appearances seem of minor importance, however annoying and time-consuming they may be. The elements of enticement, entrapment, planting of “evidence,” etc., involved in “the well-prepared case” of the police will be revealed if and when the matter comes to trial (it is now adjourned until September 5), and the charges against my wife and me, my children and their friends are, as they must be, dismissed. Meanwhile it seems proper and appropriate only to repeat a couple of paragraphs from a letter I wrote to Time after they had published an account of the events which seemed to me to verge on slander, a correction which they shortened and slightly altered:

When the police recently broke into my home in Buffalo, after weeks of unseemly surveillance, they did not discover—as your columns erroneously reported—anything remotely resembling a “pot-and-hashish Party.” They found rather my wife, my oldest son, my daughter-in-law and me at the point of setting out for the movies, and another son plus two friends at widely scattered places in a large and rambling house. That second son—absurdly charged with “possession of marijuana”—far from indulging in some wild orgy, happened to be in the process of taking a bath.

The context of your article suggested that university students may have been involved in the events; this is untrue. It further seemed to imply that I was smoking pot. This is also without basis in fact. Neither my wife nor I has ever used or possessed an illegal drug, nor are we charged with this even in the case manufactured by the police. What we are accused of is “maintaining a premise”—i.e., keeping up the mortgage payments and maintaining in good repair our home in which other people are alleged to have been in possession of marijuana.

Beyond this legal considerations forbid my going at the moment, though I suppose two items could be added without indiscretion. First, I was initially surprised and pleased that the cops did not tear my first-floor study apart after they had crashed in on me: I attribute their unlooked-for courtesy either to a lurking respect for professors (they were only really rough—as could have been predicted—with the two Negro boys in the house at the time), or to their being unnerved at finding themselves for once in so grand a neighborhood (one of them could not help exclaiming in awe, “You can bet this is the biggest house I ever seen!”). But I have learned since, alas, that their whole “search” of the premises was a perfunctory sham—except on the third floor, where their young agent had been sent in an hour before the bust to leave a “little present” of marijuana, and where, she had assured them (exiting just five minutes before), it safely reposed. And second, the movie we were headed for was Casino Royale—a spy and pursuit film which, for obvious reasons, we have felt no need to see since.

I do not mean to say that even the courtroom is not penetrated by the hysteria that affects the community; at our original arraignment, for instance, a respectable judge was disturbed enough to lose all sense of decorum and to lecture those attending the proceedings (quite as if he were speaking over the heads of a group of condemned criminals) on the folly of considering a university a place where one learns “through the sweat of marijuana smoke…. They are taught this is not habit-forming. The records indicate otherwise.” There is, finally, little doubt that agencies entrusted with law-enforcement have in Buffalo become instrumental in creating an atmosphere in which not only I, but my wife and children are persecuted and chivvied (largely for the simple fault of being my wife and children), my whole life at home and at school harried—quite as if we were all living in a Nazi or Communist totalitarian state supervised by Thought Police.

Even my children’s friends have had to pay for their friendship, as the police have diligently tried to shore up their shaky case. One of them, as a matter of fact, was arrested before the 29th of April in the company of the same teeny-bopper spy who swore out our warrant; though it remains unclear whether this was a rehearsal for her, or the occasion of recruiting her for “police work.” Since our arrest, there have been a couple more: one of a girl who plays in the same rock-and-roll group as my youngest son—the most shameless frame-up of all, in which, according to her story, the police simply broke down her door, walked into the middle of her living room, plunked down a packet of marijuana on a table, and looking up with a smirk, said, “Hey, see what we found!” More publicized was the second, which involved the arrest in their farmhouse home of what the police called “the operator of an electronic-psychedelic nightclub” and his wife—along with two of my sons and my daughter-in-law who had just come to call.

Quite as interesting to the cops as a “loose substance which will be analyzed to determine if it is marijuana, and several tablets and pills which will also be analyzed” were such other dangerous materials, which they confiscated along with them, as a pack of Tarot cards, some jars of macrobiotic foods, and “a lot of psychedelic literature,” i.e., several copies of a volume of short stories written by “the operator of an electronic-psychedelic night-club.” The local press found even more intriguing and, apparently, damning the exotic furniture of the place (“…there were mattresses on the floor, there were short-legget [sic] tables…candles were burning and there was incense in the room…”) and the garb worn by those arrested (“a long white cotton robe…a kimono…a black and white mini-skirt with black net stockings…”hippie-type” sportswear, including tight-fitting denim trousers…”). That the “tight-fitting denim trousers” were nothing more nor less than garden-variety blue jeans the magic word “psychedelic” concealed from the titillated readers of the Courier-Express; and the adjective “hippie-type” glossed it for others less literate but equally convinced that all who dress differently from themselves are guilty even though ultimately found innocent—especially guilty if devious enough to convince the courts that they are less insidious than their clothes declare them.

YET THIS IS NOT the whole story; for everywhere there is a growing sense (especially as the police in their desperation grow more and more outrageous) that not I and my family, but the police themselves and those backward elements in the community, whose panic and prejudice they strive vainly to enforce, are on trial. The ill-advised remarks of the police court judge at my arraignment, for instance, brought an immediate rebuke and an appeal to the local Bar Association for “appropriate action” from a professor of Law who happened to be present. And my own University has stood by me with a sense that not only my personal freedom but the very atmosphere of freedom on which learning depends is imperiled.

When there was some talk at an earlier stage of the game of “suspending” me pending an investigation, my own department served notice that they would meet no classes unless I could meet mine; the Student Senate voted to strike in sympathy if the need arose, and the Graduate Students Association seconded them. In the end, the President of the University announced that, “on the advice of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and after consultation with the State University attorneys and Chancellor Samuel B. Gould,” no action against me was warranted. The ground for this decision was, he indicated, “the American heritage of fair play in which a man is considered innocent until proved otherwise”; and for the ground as well as the decision, he won the overwhelming support and admiration of his faculty—some of whom, however, were prepared to go just a little further and insist on the principle advocated by the American Association of University Professors: “Violations of the civil or criminal law may subject the faculty member to civilian sanctions, but this fact is irrelevant to the academic community unless the infraction also violates academic standards….”

Meanwhile, letters, phone calls, and telegrams had been pouring in to both President Meyerson and me (for the first forty hours after my arrest I received not a single hostile or malicious message) from the faculties of America’s great colleges and from many schools abroad—all expressing solidarity and the conviction that at stake was the future of a major university and of higher education as well as my personal fate. Even in Buffalo itself I have begun to sense of late a considerable shift of opinion in my favor—not merely on the part of other teachers and those professionals closest to us, like clergymen and psychiatrists, but from every sector of the population; as it becomes clearer and clearer that the unendurably vague charge of “maintaining a premise” (what high school or university would not fall under it?) has been invented to justify the malicious persecution of dissenting opinion.

Needless to say, my awareness of this growing support lifts up my sagging spirits. I have no taste for martyrdom; I do not know how to find pleasure in suffering even for the best of causes; and I find it harder and harder to laugh at even the most truly comic aspects of my situation. But if the Keystone Comedy being played out around me can be turned into an educational venture (education being, hopefully, an antidote to fear itself) which will persuade the most abjectly prejudiced that everyone, even a college professor advocating a change in the law, is entitled to full freedom of speech—then the shameless invasion of my privacy, the vindictive harassment of my family, and the (perhaps inevitable) misrepresentation of all of us in the press will have been worth enduring.

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