All the books in this remarkable collection, except for Mr. Wakefield’s novel, are works of reportage; and all of them are perceptive and sophisticated in their understanding of how life goes on in America today. Each is well worth reading; together they complement and reinforce one another. Two of them, Mr. Lester’s Search for the New Land and Mr. McNeill’s Moving Through Here, are incomparably fine. The quality of Mr. McNeill’s work is almost entirely a reflection of the human qualities of its author, whose accidental death by drowning, at the age of twenty-three, just at the moment when his tough gentleness was most needed by the kinds of young people he understood best, and might have defended, suggests that God is petty and meanspirited as well as cruel—but this, presumably, has always been evident to those who believe in Him and may even be what most attracts them. Certainly, little evidence of divine mercy appears in the composite picture of America that these books present.
Nevertheless, the persons appearing in these books who make the strongest impression—and Mr. Lester, who dominates his own, surely makes the strongest of all—would clearly agree with the statement of A. Finley Schaef, the minister of the Washington Square Methodist Church, whom McNeill quotes: “We’re trying to say that life can still be celebrated. It’s still in our hands. I think that’s the essence of the Gospel. However hard times get, it’s still our life. We’re not victims.”
Unfortunately, this belief, taken as an article of faith by minds more naïve and less educated politically than Mr. Schaef’s or Mr. Lester’s, serves a profoundly reactionary political purpose by leading those who hold it to blame themselves for what social forces have done to them, and for their failure to overcome odds that the American social and political system has set insuperably against them. The ideological cornerstone that has thus far supported an increasingly insupportable American society is the conviction, so widely shared among Americans, that their lives are still in their hands, however little influence they may actually have on how those hands and lives are to be used.
Therefore, paradoxically, though these books vividly portray social conflict as it affects the individuals involved in it, and make it poignantly clear how their often heroic lives develop or are truncated by it, they provide almost no sense of what, in most countries, would be called political life. A partial exception should be made for Uptown, since its authors, old SDS activists, were founders of one of SDS’s early urban political projects, JOIN—Jobs or Income Now—which began operations in 1964 and provided them the opportunity to live among the Chicago poor whites whom they allow to tell their own stories in the pages of this book.
But this is, quite literally, the exception that proves the rule; for JOIN, like most efforts to promote social change by legitimate political means, failed. Uptown is an account of that failure, shrewdly and movingly told from the experiences of a small number of poor Chicagoans, largely in their own words, and with some superb photographs. It is a story of what happens in Chicago when the poor attempt to claim their formal right to demand a better life. As such it is an excellent political case study, since Mr. Gitlin and Miss Hollander combine the skills of James Agee and a more involved Oscar Lewis with much political acumen and cold candor.
But the four-page chronology of JOIN’s activities that they place at the beginning of the book to help the reader synchronize the lives presented in it concludes by observing that “roughly speaking, the history can be broken into four phases, overlapping but distinct,” of which the last two read:
(3) January, 1967, through October, 1968: Not being able to win concrete changes in the neighborhood, or to sustain work momentum, the organizational forms break down. Radical organizers, most of them indigenous, hunt for new approaches to poor and working-class white youth, looking beyond the limits of the neighborhood.
(4) November, 1968, through 1970: Popular movement against urban renewal secures the neighborhood as an arena for organizing. New organizational forms make explicit alliance with revolutionary groups. [All italics in original.]
This is to concede—as the life stories in Uptown indeed demonstrate—that what Americans define as the normal processes of political life and hence as preconditions of both freedom and legitimacy simply do not work; or, rather, serve to bring especially brutal forms of oppression down on those with the audacity to really try, with some prospect of success, to use them to change the reward system of the society.
One reason for this failure is surely the absence, from the minds of most Americans, of any conception that political life is concerned with anything except wheeling and dealing out the power and resources that exist. Instead of ideology, or, better yet, of an earthy, concrete, yet realistic and comprehensive idea of one’s position in the political scheme of things, and hence of the possibilities for altering the scheme as well as improving that position, there is a vulgar demonology. Thus Ras Byrant, a West Virginian born in 1903, comments in Chicago in 1965:
I’ll tell you, if I was a president of the United States, I’d rather help the pore people. I wouldn’t send my money to these foreign countries and let people starve to death. They ought to do something for the old people, the same way they’s bringin them furrners over here. Every month they bring about seventy-five a month over here. And bring cars over here and build them big mansions to live in, modern house, bathroom right in the house. They don’t have to step out for nothin. Take em hunkies and put em in big hotels and feed em up until they can get these apartments ready for em, you know. Get these houses all ready for them, and then they turn around and give em the best jobs that they are in the United States, the biggest-paying jobs. There are a lot of pore people all over the world, but listen—let them take care of their poor people, we’ll take care of ours. And there wouldn’t be so damn many poor people if it weren’t for them. Listen, can you find an American store in town. There are very few.
But Mr. Bryant is relatively advanced politically. His account makes it clear that he has always been an independent and intelligent man; he becomes active in JOIN. A month later, he returns to West Virginia, with Mr. Gitlin; the following encounter occurs:
Ras catches the eye of a florid man sitting on the ground near the depot, hands crossed on his knees, a battered hat beside him. A moment of recognition happens in the casual, unexcited way it has happened with all Ras’s relatives.
“Hello Ras. Set yourself down. Heard you been up in Chicago.”
“Yeah. I’m working outa JOIN….”
“JOIN? What’s that?” the man snaps.
“Oh, we’re just tryin to help the pore people. You know, somebody needs to go to the doctor, we get em to the doctor. Somebody needs to get on the DPA we take em down there—“
“You a Commonist, Ras?” The man has been staring at the “JOIN Community Union” button on Ras’s army jacket. His show of strength requires no answer. “I’d rather be called a cocksucker than a Commonist. Any Commonist sets foot in this county, I’d withdraw him. Better a cocksucker than a Commonist, I always say.” Ranting, he is plucking at the JOIN button.
With enormous dignity Ras shoves him away. “Don’t fuck with my button, man. Don’t you fuck with my button.” After some seconds, the man pulls away, sullen, muttering: “Better a cocksucker’n….”
There is hope in Uptown the book and, perhaps, in the district. The young members of JOIN are vastly different from their elders, more realistic and more militant, if not much closer to a coherent understanding of the political forces that use and abuse them. The suppression by Mayor Daley’s police that JOIN continually encountered is the best evidence that the organization might have been succeeding in generating the kind of political awareness that would make peaceful, democratic change possible. The Chicago authorities, however, are notoriously apt to overreact to challenge.
Mr. Lester, too, is in the revolutionary bag; but when he is being most doctrinaire, his otherwise considerable genius eludes him. The contrast between his two books confirms this. Revolutionary Notes is a collection of short pieces from the Guardian, two or three pages long, which are essentially hypes for a variety of revolutionary mini-doctrines, illuminated by flashes of the author’s dry and acid wit but often false and sentimental.
Since Grove Press has forbidden any quotation from the material without their permission, omitting the usual exception granted reviewers, I cannot conveniently illustrate why I say this; but the title of one of the selections, “Che is Alive—on East 103rd Street,” may give the flavor.
Che isn’t alive, there or anywhere else, and those who admired or loved him have the greatest obligation to recognize this fact and not mess around comforting themselves with metaphors. Besides, if he were, it would follow that Dwight D. Eisenhower was also alive in Kent, Ohio; Gamel A. Nasser on Jerusalem’s lower east side; and Senator Edward Kennedy on Chappaquiddick—none of which would do anybody much good. The back jacket of the book bears, in bold-faced type, the statement: “This is a book to carry to the barricades.” It isn’t, since it would tend to inspire overconfidence in whichever side read it, though for contrasting reasons.
Revolutionary Notes is not so much a bad book as a phony one. And the reason I feel so sure of this is the extraordinary quality of Search for the New Land, published in the same year, by the same man, and constructed, like Revolutionary Notes, from contemporary materials; so that the difference between the two can be accounted for neither by personal growth nor by the greater mastery of content in one book. Search for the New Land, appropriately subtitled “History as Subjective Experience,” which is the kind of history that means most, really is a revolutionary book in every sense of the word. In format: Mr. Lester makes savagely effective use of news reports of events that show what America is, presenting them without direct comment as found poetry.
The book begins perfectly with the sentence, “The Sixties is what happens when a child looks at his parents and hates what he sees,” followed immediately by The New York Times’s report of February 7, 1968, of the suicide of Linda Ault whose parents ordered her to shoot her dog in retribution for what they viewed as her act of adultery the night before; she shot herself instead. Mr. Lester prints this, the text unaltered, as blank verse, as if it were a translation of a barbaric passage from Aeschylus; and proceeds to use it, in effect, as tragic prophecy.
The book then gives us Mario Savio’s beautiful, bleak statement about stopping the odious machine with your body, if that is how it must be done; and flashes back to present a “History of the World Since 1945”: forty-eight entries, each a different neocolonial war, with the observation “Weariness makes the list incomplete.” From there on, Mr. Lester’s running account of his experiences as a black militant participating in what was thought of, with deceptive simplicity, as the civil rights movement is set into historical context by a marginal chronology of the significant events affecting or illustrating the quality of life in America, concluding with December, 1968: “Trip around the Moon. Julie and David marry, Mideast. Pueblo crew released.”
Mr. Lester will not be delighted by the comparison, but the way he uses his mind in this book, and even his way of mixing literary techniques and structures—though not, of course, his style—are more like T.S. Eliot than anyone else I can think of; the book might have been subtitled, though I am glad it wasn’t, “So you think that was the Waste Land!” The levels of irony in the book are, as in Eliot’s work, many and brittle:
There was no spring in 1968. The winds of winter died as our northern half of the world tilted toward the sun, but there was no spring. April was scarcely old enough to know its name when Martin Luther King was hurled into Death. (I was sitting on the toilet when Joan yelled, “King’s been shot!” I had no reaction. Black people had been getting shot all my life and I accepted it as one of the facts of life. A few minutes later she came to the door and told me that he was dead. I hadn’t loved him and there was no point in pretending otherwise. I turned the radio off and turned on the TV, figuring that one of the networks undoubtedly would be showing an instant replay in slow motion. Instead, there was the terror-filled voice of a white newscaster who knew that white folks had just lost their best friend…. Then Lyndon Johnson came on and he looked like he’d just seen the Vietcong sneaking up the back lawn. It was obvious that he was going to use all that bullshit rhetoric to tell niggers to please not burn down his country…. Then I reacted and I was angry. Black people die and the government covers the grave with bullshit.)
I found, to my surprise, in the days following the assassination that I loved him and I felt guilty that I had let my disagreements choke that love until he was no longer alive to disagree with. So I watched his funeral on television. All day I sat there and it only served to increase my anger as I saw McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon and the rest of their kind enter the church. It was the social event of the spring that never was. And Dr. King was laid to rest without one of those good Baptist funerals which he knew how to preach, those funerals where the preacher knows you want to cry have to cry just gotta cry, Lord, and he knows what chords in the soul to play to make the tears come pouring down your face, the sobs choke in your throat…. Naw, they didn’t do Dr. King right. They talked over his body, but they didn’t lay him away like he was supposed to be laid away. He was the biggest nigger in the country and the funeral should have gone on for two days at least.
Like Malcolm X in his autobiography, Julius Lester has worked his way through to a level of compassion extending to, if not exactly embracing, white people and the society we share together so unequally. Unlike Malcolm, he has so far been allowed to survive. If, in Search for the New Land, Mr. Lester comes on rather like a ghost it is because he sounds as if he were now beyond the reach of good or evil; in fact, he sounds like a particular and familiar ghost—that of the Commandant in the last act of Don Giovanni—no longer even angry, merely just. And like the Commandant, a good man to invite to dinner, if you want to learn just where you stand.
Mr. Wakefield’s novel, Going All the Way, would be out of place among these works of social criticism if it were primarily to be valued as a novel; but it is not. And although it is not really a very good novel, for the characters lack depth and the situations in which Mr. Wakefield contrives to involve them are familiar and not very interesting, it is nevertheless a very good book. This is his first novel, but Mr. Wakefield is a veteran author of books of social reportage, and I am not certain that in Going All the Way he took his mission as a novelist very seriously. His touch throughout the book is deft and sure, and there is none of the awkwardness of a writer who sets out to do something and fails. What he apparently meant to create, and certainly did create, is a nearly perfect period piece, the period being that of the 1950s as it affects the lives of two young veterans of the Korean War, high-school acquaintances, who re-encounter each other on the train trip back to their homes in Indianapolis. The device is conventional, as is Mr. Wakefield’s decision to draw Gunner as the more attractive, sexually successful ex-high-school athlete, whom Sonny, thinking himself a nonentity, had worshipped from afar; or to provide Sonny with a passively sweet girl friend whom his mother and friends keep thrusting at him and whom he can’t stand. William Maxwell covered all this ground in a much better novel with much more real and moving characters—also set in Indiana—years ago: The Folded Leaf.
But what Mr. Wakefield achieves is still considerably more than a waxwork fidelity to the physical features of life in the 1950s. Going All the Way—the title is clearly sarcastic—is really a book about the varieties of sexual alienation and the way sexual alienation is related to loss of self-esteem and hence to most forms of social viciousness, especially racial prejudice and what, in the United States, is called economic conservatism; as well as to sensory perversion in general. (One of the most convincing things in the book is the account of the horrible meals of sweets and overcooked roasts with which Sonny’s mother and grandmother reduce or inflate him to an ever more slobbering and dependent mess.) Gunner, unlike him superficially but basically similar, has a young swinger for a mother, who seeks to deprive him of his real artistic talent and succeeds in depriving him of his few hundred dollars of GI savings by enrolling him without his knowledge in a fake correspondence school of drawing.
The book seems less candid than, say, The Folded Leaf because no hint of sexual feeling is allowed to develop between the two young men, who are obviously close only to each other. But this is exactly the point; none would have developed, for what Gunner, who is easy and successful in relations with girls but blocked by the conventions of the time from having a relationship with them—they are defined, and define themselves, as targets and trophies—needs from Sonny is not erotic love but merely spontaneous and authentic response of any kind, to validate his failing conviction that real relationships based on real feelings are possible.
This Sonny cannot give, since, if he allowed himself to feel anything at all except a craving for sweets it would have been love for Gunner; and this, in Naptown, is out of the question. Mr. Wakefield’s contribution is to make us see, in grotesque vividness, just how out of the question it is and exactly what follows from this. He thus defines very sharply the major contrast between the Fifties and the present; and perhaps the only point in our favor.
Of all the revolutions we now feel ourselves engaged in, only the sexual revolution has, in fact, been genuinely if only partially successful. It is too early to be sure; it may yet be crushed in counterrevolutionary hatred by hardhats, Kentish lowlanders, and other Middle Americans—some of them, indeed, from Naptown. But along the coasts and among large portions of the middle class, barriers to expression of feeling have fallen, and distinctions between the sexes reduced to the minimum Nature demands, which proves to be very little, most of our conception of what is male and what is female being social convention enforced by severe anxiety. The frontier has been breached at many points, and the war between the sexes has become a war of liberation, with gay liberation turning out to be a not-so-special case. Mr. Wakefield makes this point beautifully by indirection. The Fifties, seen in perfect detail, seem very remote; it is rather like watching The Graduate through the wrong end of a telescope. Or, perhaps, under the circumstances, this is the right end.
The city of Indianapolis has been unfortunate in its public relations. Not notably more obnoxious than other leading American cities, it seems to have become symbolic of all that is most uptight and emotionally destructive in Middle American life. President Nixon chose it for his first airport adventure in bringing the government to the people, and was warmly welcomed when he did. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—a native son of whom I suspect the city, given half a chance, would like to be proud—has the central character in The Sirens of Titan, after surviving several cosmic encounters with a chronosynclastic infundibulum, freeze to death while waiting for a bus there.
But Mr. Nixon, Mr. Vonnegut, and, in the present work, Mr. Wakefield, are all authors of fiction, with no special commitment to accuracy in reporting what they have observed. Mr. Neugeboren, in his modest and scrupulous book Parentheses: An Autobiographical Journey is, however, speaking the truth so far as this is possible. He, too, lived a part—and one of the least satisfactory parts—of his life in Naptown (both he and Mr. Wakefield call it that), as a General Motors Junior Executive trainee, living in an apartment in a complex of luxury units called “The Meadows,” which sounds very much like the apartment complex called “The Meadowlark” to which Gunner Casselman comes home in Going All the Way.
The social climate, the attitude of working and middle-class whites toward blacks, identifying property as desirable for being too far North for niggers to have reached yet—these are pictured virtually identically in the two books. Neugeboren, however, moved to Indianapolis in 1960 and left after a year. Though that was ten years ago, it was then also ten years after the Korean War began, and it is possible that Mr. Wakefield is being artful, not in his selection of cultural detail, but in his evocation of nostalgia for what may not, after all, be passed beyond recall.
Certainly Ras Bryant’s antagonist in his West Virginia hometown would have found the literature General Motors supplied its employees as unexceptionable as he found Mr. Bryant’s button appalling:
The most significant piece of writing for me during that time was a company pamphlet which I picked up from the information rack at the exit to the factory on my way out one day. It was entitled “My Blessing Not My Doom” and it was “Published for GM Men and Women” by the “Information Rack Service, General Motors Personnel Staff.” (Ralph—and his superior, the Director of Personnel—knowing I had been an English major, and praising me for the quality of my reports—had suggested that I might someday work in this division of GM.) The titles in the racks changed regularly—“What We Must Know About Communism,” “Handbook of First Aid,” “The Untold Story of OUR FLAG,” “Easy Ways to Better English,” “How Reliable is 99.9%?”—and I used most of them for toilet-reading.
The fascinating central message of “My Blessing Not My Doom,” Mr. Neugeboren reports, was that “realizing that you actually enjoy working is part of growing up.” Though born on Memorial Day, 1938, and hence over twenty-one at the time of his employment by GM, Mr. Neugeboren evidently hadn’t—at least, not on these terms. For him, too, the question of how you relate to a nation and a society that you cannot accept, including the possibility of joining a revolutionary movement, became salient. Parentheses opens on his thirtieth birthday, when he and his wife Betsey are about a third of the way into a period spent, rather idyllically, in the French village of Spéracèdes; he is writing, and entertaining what seems an increasingly forlorn hope of evading the draft which was still pursuing him, notwithstanding his age.
A Columbia graduate school dropout, he had proceeded from General Motors through a series of minor academic posts at the University of Indiana, then Stanford. He had become increasingly involved in the movements and causes that succeeded each other as preoccupations of young radical academics during the Sixties. In fact, Parentheses is unexcelled as a brief but precise history of the form these movements took at these universities. For Neugeboren, the turning point was the conspiracy trial of Spock, Coffin, et al., which seems to have convinced him that the American political scene, however tragic or brutal in its effects, was too absurd for a man to build his life around.
The Neugeborens left the United States for Spéracèdes on September 29, 1967; they returned in March, 1969, to be part of the faculty of the then new and promising “experimental” college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Long Island. Neugeboren’s concluding formulation of where his head now is may best be given in his own words:
Having lived in Spéracèdes and having tasted, over the course of sixteen months, the kind of daily life there that I did, I find that I cannot (do not want to) live here. And it will not, I suspect—sense—be substantially different anywhere in America…. As with the college at Old Westbury, I would say, so with other things: since Old Westbury is in America—part of America—why should (how could) it be better than, different from, America?
Yet—the part I have no reasons for, cannot analyze—I know I can’t live any place but in America. A question—it seems at first—of roots, of history, of my subject (for fiction). But more than this: at the least, I know that for me, living even semipermanently anywhere outside of America, even in Spéracèdes—seems, in prospect, unreal….
Give things time, we say—a year, a year and a half—and if life here is still intolerable, if our friends are still there, we’ll return to Spéracèdes. Long-range plans and decisions stay unresolved, our life remains transient (we systematically shed possessions)—and that’s all right, too. The readiness, as always, is all.
I began this book, I thought, in order to trace my own political activities—their origins, and where they might lead; yet I end without having really done either—I end without any conclusions, political or otherwise, with—at the most—merely the attempt (doubtless an attempt which is politically counterrevolutionary) to discover, in terms more personal than political, who I am and where I’ve been. I.e., in the fall of 1969 it seems enough to be finishing the narrative of some of the things which, in my own life, I thought had their beginnings at General Motors in the summer of 1960—not in order to persuade or convince or prove, but simply because it is what I have been writing.
It isn’t enough, of course; and there may not be a year or a year and a half left in which Americans may choose among personal options. But it may nevertheless be, in America, the only thing possible. It is this inability to feel oneself a citizen, or to conceive of the general welfare even at the limited level of class consciousness, as distinct from immediate economic interest, observed and noted in some degree in all these books, that most hampers Americans in even conceiving a model of how things might work differently.
Every political alternative which assumes that collective action may be both necessary and legitimate seems—if directed toward any goal more novel or comprehensive than getting a larger slice of the kind of pie already being baked—both threatening and profoundly unrealistic. Consequently, no political solution to the self-inflicted miseries of American life seems possible, and radicals are tempted to speak longingly of revolution, apparently on the grounds that if nothing else works, that must. They may be right; Clausewitz certainly did not except civil war from the scope of his most familiar aphorism, and revolution, too, is merely politics carried on by other means. But it is a means singularly ill-suited to most Americans, who hate and fear failure so much that they cannot bear to think of the poor at all, much less to side with them or to tolerate those few of their number who do.
This applies—indeed, a fortiori—to most of the poor themselves, who choose either to think of themselves as middle class or to attribute their defeat to misfortune, malevolence, or corruption—all of which may be involved but which, if accepted as the basic explanation, nevertheless comfortably conceal from them the fact that they are willingly playing a game so organized that they cannot win; and God help those who would end the game, or even change the rules basically, before they are dealt their next hand. Even the Indochina war is defended in these terms and hardly any others. The administration has no supporters who defend its policies, only those who complain, with depthless self-pity, that longhaired radical student commie finks are spoiling America’s shtick, and threatening the careers and success stories of those who depend on it.
This, I suspect, is why, despite the central data banks and the wiretapping and the massacres, oppression in America still seems quite unsystematic. Americans play games with other people, and all they want to do is win. If the people who are being used as pawns, foreign or domestic, are destroyed in the process, hell, that’s only part of the game. Middle Americans expect everybody to respond, as they do, to a massacre like that at Song My as if it were something disgusting but understandable that was best not talked about, like our boys drinking more than they should have one Saturday night and vomiting over the village.
But the games America plays with people are mostly a variant of cat-and-mouse; and there doesn’t seem to be much inconsistency about which is the cat and which is the mouse; they don’t take turns. It would be hard to imagine two better books for learning about those games and how they feel to the people who are involved in them than Mr. von Hoffman’s Left at the Post and Mr. McNeill’s Moving Through Here. Treating the two books together is really a little unfair to Mr. von Hoffman, whose book is excellent; it is his misfortune to have published it at so nearly the same time as Mr. McNeill’s as to make comparison almost inevitable. Both books are high journalism, and consist of essays written for publication in newspapers. Mr. von Hoffman’s were published in the Washington Post in 1969-70; Mr. McNeill’s in The Village Voice from Spring, 1967, to Spring, 1968.
Mr. von Hoffman is a skillful reporter and a man of humane sympathy who writes sharply and well; the best of his essays are incisive and moving. But he is a reporter, and stands a little aside from the artifacts he creates—though not, certainly, from the movements and events he reports. Mr. McNeill’s essays, which are about people and places he knew intimately, and in some instances loved, are living flesh. And he himself is dead—a fact which will not distinguish him from most of us as long or as much as his book does. It would have been a blessing had he been allowed to stay longer; but he did what he came to do, or part of it.
Left at the Post covers a wider range of topics than Moving Through Here. In an earlier book about the San Francisco hip scene, We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against, Mr. von Hoffman showed many of the same concerns, and some of the sensitivity, Mr. McNeill displays in Moving Through Here. Left at the Post is reporting-in-depth; it is eclectic but bound together by the author’s consistent sympathy with radical, or at least countercultural, causes. I suppose it is not really a paradox that, while he intrudes much more freely on what he reports with expressions of his own point of view than Mr. McNeill, he seems much less present personally in what he recounts.
The quality, tone, and limitations of Mr. von Hoffman’s work are pretty well illustrated in the following excerpt:
Rich and splendid, Washington has nothing of a wartime capital about it. No sense of drabness or feeling that it might be in bad taste to display and enjoy nonchalant luxury when American soldiers are dying. The White House sets the tone of silver and velvet, brocade and satin, dinner jackets and footmen, ball gowns and wine. Call it the spirit of San Clemente, the decorum of mourning lasts only as long as the red dot on the TV camera glows.
The city is bereft of a sense of the fitness of things, of a knowledge of what is meet and becoming in conduct. It has confused pomposity with dignity and cannot remember that once these buildings, smaller and less opulent, were guarded not by soldiers but by citizens’ affection and reverence.
The war doesn’t exist here. Except when the people occasionally intrude, Washington’s daily life is given over to fighting about boodle. The liberal, non-ideological political scientist Harold Lasswell inadvertently summed up Washington in his little Eisenhower era book, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How.
“The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential,” he wrote. “The influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. Available values may be classified as deference, income, safety. Those who get the most are elite; the rest mass.” So, welcome visiting mass to the city of the elite.
This statement is certainly relevant to an understanding of life in America, and it is inaccurate in only one respect; but that is a revealing one. Harold Lasswell, who was a professor of political science in the Washington School of Psychiatry, could hardly have been inadvertent in summing up Washington. And he published Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How not in the Eisenhower but in the Roosevelt, New Deal era; it was welcomed as a radical critique of American society around 1940. My point is not to suggest that Mr. von Hoffman is careless, though his present editors were; the press of deadlines in daily journalism doesn’t allow newspaper writers to check routinely facts they have no special reason to doubt. It is rather that, despite his critical tone, he does not quite seem to understand how ineluctably America is what it is and how long it has been that way.
Mr. McNeill, who confines his attention to the youthquake in New York and the countermeasures taken to suppress it, and its inner deterioration, writes as if he must have known that what was wrong with New York was once also wrong with Babylon; had been, and once more would be, wrong with Peking, if the earth is spared. His Village is the world; and, though he never raises his voice, he can be heard as plainly as the man in the Edvard Munch portrait. It is, after all, a little late for ambiguity.
November 19, 1970