Thursday, January 08, 2009

Remembrances of the Radical Left, 1972: what it wanted, what it taught me

Back in December of 1972, only a couple of months before I would “come out” for the second time, I spent a Saturday evening in a drafty, frigid tenement in Newark, NJ, spectating or eavesdropping on a meeting of the Peoples Party of New Jersey, the radical leftist group originally connected to Dr. Benjamin Spock. I remember the day well, having taken skiing lessons, Graduated Length Method, somewhere in the highlands of Northern New Jersey, which reach all of 1800 feet.

I had been drawn to the Party by a charismatic young man running for Congress, and I had met him all the way back at a meeting of the Sierra Club a couple months before. That was how my social life went at age 29.

He had a girl friend, and they were given to mini-rants like, “I don’t see why we need to have capitalism” – and yet they opened up a “Make Up Your Mind Bookstore” in Madison, NJ – the independent book store, now getting eaten up by the huge chains – was at central example then of entrepreneurial capitalism.

In the meeting, they railed about racism and sexism, and started making up platform suggestions. One idea was that no one would be allowed to earn more than $50000 a year. They took a poll as to how much everyone made. Did anybody make over $5000 a year? I made $14K as a systems rep for Sperry Univac then and remained silent. I realized that even as a middle class single man, I would be a pariah.

There was something about the Far Left that caught me at that cold, dark moment. It could be so moralistic. They talked about people in groups and categories – blacks, gays, women, etc. But come down to the individual, and no one was allowed to distinguish himself. The Left could become especially loud with its indignation about some bourgeoisie practices: for example, it wanted to eliminate (that is, confiscate and redistribute) all inherited wealth. I caught a glimpse of what the Left was so worried about at a personal level – that we depend upon sacrifices from others and never want to be come aware of these sacrifices. We could be made to share these sacrifices – but that’s what totalitarianism does. Chairman Mao, with his Cultural Revolution, managed to extract “absolute justice,” said some radical paperback floating around then. The young candidate for Congress thought that the Chinese had it right, not even the Soviets were serious.

The Left, however, had no solutions. Pretty soon, progressives extracted the “personal freedom” part of the message, and some of us would take a 180 degree twist—and eventually embrace libertarianism. The socially conservative part of the Right, as it would develop into the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s, wanted to make the nuclear and extended family the universe of equalizing “sacrifice” and make matters external to the family the business only of those who had set up their own families according to the “rules” (monogamous lifelong marriage). Marriage was to be given that kind of power. Of course, we know that this kind of system was so easy for “the powers that be” in a patriarchy to abuse. The extreme Left squashed individuality and initiative, and the libertarian “third point” of the triangle would let the less competitive drop off and still not take into account hidden sacrifices. It’s all interesting, and that’s somewhat the reason I came up with the notion of a “pay your dues” system of social morality.

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