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We Won’t Go

In response to:

"We Won't Go" from the May 18, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

Paul Goodman’s account of the recent draft-card burnings will doubtless be criticized on factual grounds by more authoritative voices than mine. Holding no official position in any peace group, I am more concerned with the ideology and strategy he is pushing. Its widespread adoption would, in my view, check the growth of the peace movement and markedly reduce prospects for ending the war.

Goodman calls for direct action (“no more talk”) to end a war which is still supported (though in many cases reluctantly) by a majority of the American people. In the name of “populist democracy” he wants to impose the policies of a minority on a majority.

Granted that the war is both immoral and appallingly destructive. Granted that majority support for it has been achieved by a campaign of mendacity with few or no historical precedents. The question still remains: can a minority, abandoning efforts to convince the majority, attempt instead to assume the powers of the majority? I don’t suggest that the answer is a sample yes or no; I do say that there is a moral issue here which Goodman—and many other direct actionists—have not faced up to.

Morality apart, will direct action along Goodman’s lines work? His own pipe-dream projection of its future supplies a clear answer.

As 2S begins to evanesce, the draftcard burnings will increase.” (Who says 2S will evanesce? Johnson should only be so dumb!)

Other young men” will mail draft cards to their senators, requesting an auto-da-fé on the Senate floor. (And the Senators will surely be happy to cooperate.)

We can expect thousands of Negro youth” to follow the injunctions of King and Carmichael. (We can call spirits from the vasty deep—but there is as yet no evidence that they will come.)

Make no mistake about it, attempts to “escalate” the peace struggle along the lines Goodman proposes would not stop the war. They would help LBJ prolong it, by disrupting and isolating the peace movement, making impossible the extension of its influence to the millions of Americans who still, reluctantly and passively, support the war.

For all his fantasies about walkouts in war factories, Goodman has evidently written off these people as essentially hopeless. He speaks of “polarization” and “the big majority” supporting Johnson as though they were fixed in heaven. This ideology of desperation might have had some justification before April 15, for the peace movement did seem to have reached an impasse. Since that magnificent outpouring, however, things have started moving. Some indications:

The Republican “Blue Book.”

The Westmoreland fiasco, leading to denunciations in the Senate and back-tracking by both the General and his Commander-in-Chief.

Teddy Kennedy’s projection of civilian war casualties (up to now, strenuously played down by the Administration) into the public prints.

A general spine-stiffening of many establishment and quasi-establishment figures (names on request) who had been wavering toward Johnson.

Painful as it may be to some of us, the great majority of voting Americans are over thirty, unalienated, and, in fact, as squares as the pages of the New York Times. They are as uninterested in Goodman’s anarchist millennium as they are in the splinter Marxists’ dogma; they are interested—or can be interested—in ending the slaughter of their sons and other people’s sons.

The day-to-day, week-to-week, job of reaching these people—conducting vigils, organizing meetings and rallies, circulating petitions, giving out leaflets, raising money for advertisements—is tough, dull, and unromantic. It is also the way things get done in this part of the real world.

Robert Claiborne

New York City

Paul Goodman replies:

I thank Martin Jezer for his kind words. (Too bad for the VFW; I should have known.) Since Martin is passing compliments, let me say the following: I don’t know about him in particular, but the We Won’t Go people in general tend to be excellent students with impregnable 2S deferments. Their actions put them in jeopardy not only of prison but of immediately being re-classified 1A; there have been numerous such cases. They are examples of principled courage for our common good.

Then I am puzzled that my admiration for the good sense and courage of the draft-card burners embarrasses Mr. Shand. He was not there. Or does he think that it is impossible that there could be admirable young people? In fact, I did not much notice their “idealism”—for better or worse, they do not have enough tradition or philosophy to have high ideals But I was struck by their sensible appraisal of the situation, their fearlessness, and their loyalty to one another. Also, as my readers know, my esteem of the young, even the radical young, is not unalloyed. For instance, I thought the people of the Free Speech Movement were superb, but their successors of the Vietnam Day Committee were thin-lipped and prone to lie. Generally I have admired the young guerrillas of SNCC, but I have been dubious about many of the young bureaucrats and tough realists in SDS—if this is where we end up, we need not leave Washington, D.C.

Naturally I am buoyed up by having young allies in seeking to make my country decent, but it is entirely Mr. Shand’s own projection that I am “using” them for preconceived ideas of mine. It is rather hilariously clear that he does not know them if he thinks one can use them, even if one wanted to. (Incidentally, my “ideas” are largely on the level that in our country we have dirty rivers, smog, bad schools, and not enough democracy, and that it would be decent for it to be otherwise.) I wonder, however, why Mr. Shand does not have an “uncomfortable feeling” that Lewis Hershey, Lyndon Johnson, and North American Aviation are using other young people for their preconceived ideas. They are.

I can assure Mr. Shand that my “scheme” of a populist social revolution is a very recent hope in my heart. It post-dates the shelter-drill protests, the civil rights protests, the fall-out protests, the urban renewal and highway protests, Berkeley, the public school boycotts, etc. Or is he implying, as seems to be the conviction of the FBI, that 350,000 people converged on New York on April 15 because of “outside agitators”?

Most basically, what Mr. Shand probably finds it hard to understand is that some of us think we are living in a pre-revolutionary period, if only because the unique problems of modern times are not susceptible to old formulas, especially administered by old farts. But if this is so, it is to be expected that young people must often make more sense than their elders, for they are native sons of modern times. It is certainly hard to build a social and political order on the basis of fraternity and individuality—I strongly deny that the draft-card burners were “unstructured”—but what would he propose as an alternative in a dehumanized era? Does he really think that the present power structure is honest and intelligent? or beautiful? Does he think that five years and $10,000 is a rational penalty for burning a draft card and passed by a vote of about 400 to twenty? Does he think that mass sedition trials are unthinkable?

Certainly the eighteen-year-old should have the vote, if only to picket the polls and say Don’t Vote Till We Have a Candidate.

Miss Gordon has bad scholarly manners. Her letter simply repeats, and not as pointedly, the predominant SDS objections which I stated at the beginning of my article. In fact I think I got them, at second hand, from Wisconsin. Since to stop Vietnam, other Vietnams, and the probably imminent bombing of China, might require a revolutionary upheaval in American society, we certainly need organization and numbers. But how to get them? For two years the SDS majority played games with the draft, against the urging of some of us. She knows perfectly well that the April 15 draft-card burning was not “individual” but political, although sacrificial; it was political in the same way that the first lunch-counter sit-ins or Freedom rides were political, or the refusal to take shelter by Dorothy Day and a few others that within two years killed the shelter program in New York. Were the Buddhists who burned themselves to death a-political?

She also knows that the student grapevine does not get its information from The New York Times. And the parents of students visited by the FBI do not need to read it in the Times. But behold the astounding speculation of Tom Wicker in the Times: “What if 100,000 refused to be drafted?”—surely that came from Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael, and these draft-card burners.

My main objection to Miss Gordon’s line, however, is that the elaborate underground preparation she envisages is élitist, and I frankly don’t trust her élite from here to there. We are back to the revolutionary populism of Luxemburg versus the party of Lenin. Comes the revolution by her method and we will never shake Miss Gordon. But American conditions make a democratic revolution at least thinkable, and it would be grand.

As to the arrest of the Special Forces reservist, my information is that six new burnings occurred on the Court House steps when he was arraigned—the Times said four—and there was some support in the audience. I don’t know who, nor what the soldier asked for. Does Miss Gordon? Why does she have to be so spiteful?

Mr. Claiborne’s statement that I want to “impose” the policies of a minority is an unwarranted slander. I take it that he would concede that customary parliamentary procedures are not working well and that the gap between law and morality is yawning wide. Then those who vote with their feet or by putting their bodies on the line are asking society the democratic question: How seriously do you mean your official position? to what length of tyranny and inconvenience are you willing to go to maintain it? The Vietnamese are suffering plenty of inconvenience. What is the General Will? How can we find out except by trying? It is precisely because we refuse to believe that the will of the Americans can be this detestable war that we seek out means to confront them more seriously with the question: Do you really intend this?

Certainly the big fact was the 350,000. The point of my article—and it was adequately expressed—was to put the 158 in this context. Would Mr. Claiborne deny that the slogans and speeches of the 350,000 had dramatically escalated from “negotiations” and “protest”? Would he deny that the speeches and the tone of despair and exasperation were approaching civil disobedience? Did the crown disown King? Did Bevel disown the draft-card burners?

I don’t mean to be quarrelsome with Mr. Claiborne because, at bottom, our difference is one of basic hypothesis. It seems to me that our present foreign policy is so deeply embedded in the American system that we cannot change it without terrible troubles. (I hope mainly non-violent.) He obviously believes otherwise, and may be right.

In one proposition, however, he is certainly wrong. Administrators are administrators, that is finks and double-talkers who sacrifice truth and substance for the image, harmony and administrative convenience of the system and themselves. This is not silly infantile leftism but sober sociology in the 20th century. I do not think Bevel is such an administrator; but at the moment when they thought they were being disowned, the students did think so.

Incidentally, the fact that I praise and am “partisan” of these students does not mean that I identify with them. I hope I conveyed that they are extraordinarily in-group and astoundingly heedless of our over-thirty existence and political weight. But that is itself a brute political fact, it is how they are. How did they get to be that way?

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