I have a birthday coming up in a few days, and because I’ve been very, very good this year, I’ve decided to make it an eight-day birthday festival. (What I want for my birthday is a column! If you can give me an introduction to an editor who might be interested in regular dispatches from the intersection of politics, culture and spirituality, please email me.)
On Sunday the 16th, I’ll turn 58. Although I hope to be blessed with many more years, I think 58 is a big enough number to entitle me to indulge in a little reminiscence at the midpoint of my personal festival. I hope you agree.
One of the most interesting things that’s happened to me this past year is that people keep thanking me for being an optimist — even though I’m not one. People mistake me for an optimist because they see me against the backdrop of rampant, desperate pessimism that has captured so many liberals and progressives as we enter year one of Bush II, part two. But an optimist feels positive about the future, whereas I am a complete agnostic. When it comes to predictions, I just don’t know.
I’ve been an activist in one way or another for most of my life. Lately I’ve been remembering one of my earliest, most intense, and most enjoyable activist experiences, working as a draft counselor nearly forty years ago when the Vietnam war was heating up. As with just about every other experience considered in retrospect, it teaches a lesson about expectations and surprises.
The draft had been intended to share the burden of military service equitably, but in practice, everyone knew it was unfair. Indeed, unfairness was intrinsic to its design, privileging those with the means to remain in college or achieve professional standing. Every 18 year old male was required to register for Selective Service. Each registrant was then assigned one of twenty-two classifications (including deferments for students, medical reasons, certain professions and conscientious objectors). The 4,000 local draft boards could grant or withhold these, entirely at their discretion.
This system, called “channeling,” was a form of social engineering, pressing men to pursue deferrable professions or maintain scholastic standards and thus student deferments. Its actual effect was to channel young men of color and those from lower income and educational strata onto the battlefields, where their deaths in Vietnam outpaced their population groups by at least two to one. By 1970, a lottery system was instituted to pacify critics of the draft’s unfairness. But there were still so many conscientious objectors, draft evaders, refusers of induction and deserters that the system was untenable, and in 1973 the draft was ended. If you’d asked me in 1968, as I talked with an unending stream of serious young men who could not bring themselves to kill Vietnamese, whether the draft would be dead five years later, I would have asked what you were smoking (and whether I could have some).
One of my coworkers at Draft Help was a man named Carl Wittman, who now has a large number of posthumous citations on the Internet as the author of a much-studied foundational text of gay liberation, A Gay Manifesto. In those days, the idea of gay liberation was just being articulated. It seemed perfectly sensible and logical to a generation of young people for whom questioning received social assumptions was as normal as breathing. If you’d asked Carl whether, in my lifetime, gay couples would line up for hours to be married at San Francisco City Hall, he would have laughed—in wonder, I suppose, but mainly because in the future he foresaw, it would have been absurd to imagine that people would make anything as conventional as getting married into the symbol and token of their liberation.
These were the early days of the mid-twentieth century women’s movement too, when sexism was pervasive in the antiwar and civil rights movements (when Stokely Carmichael—later Kwame Toure—famously said the proper position for women in the movement was prone). I remember the first feminist tract that impressed me: it was a first-person essay called “Why I Want A Wife,” published in the inaugural issue of Ms. The author, Judy Syfers, described why she wanted someone to anticipate and fulfill her physical, social, and sexual needs (which was the accepted job description for “wife” at that time). After I read it, I went home and told my first husband he would have to iron his own shirts from then on.
Given this atmosphere, it was unusual for women to work as draft counselors. Years ago a friend of mine, filmmaker Ralph Arlyck, surprised me with archival news film of me counseling young men in Draft Help’s storefront office in San Francisco’s Mission District. When the footage was shot for a local public TV news program, we were excited about reaching draft-age men through the broadcast; but in the event we were embarrassed, because the fact of my gender overwhelmed the real story. The footage was edited for broadcast by intercutting it with images of Gibson girls in middy blouses and sailor hats and silly slogans about kissing the boys in blue. If you’d asked me then whether women would be taken seriously in such roles, I would have been doubtful. But if you’d told me women like Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher would rise so high as to outdo men in rationalizing oppressive policies and unleashing blood-in-the-teeth militarism, I would have said you were nuts.
Here are some of the things we were naively certain would happen in our lifetimes: psychedelic drugs would be legalized; humanity would realize that war was pointless and give it up; everyone would see that we are all brothers and sisters under the skin, and all forms of discrimination would end. Ooops! Here are some of the things we never imagined: something called the World Wide Web would connect activists around the globe, so that they could organize things like demonstrations or protest campaigns without traveling a single mile; instead of laboring long with typewriters and mimeograph machines to turn out our flyers and newsletters, a few keystrokes and clicks would soon do the trick; and in 2005, reactionaries far to the right of Barry Goldwater would control the White House and the Congress, pushing hard to undo almost every social advance we’d pursued.
I like to collect quotations about the future as an antidote to predicting it. Here are few of my favorites:
“I have seen the future; and it works.” Muckraking author Lincoln Steffens on the Soviet Union, circa 1919
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four (published in 1949)
“Deer will be grazing in Times Square in forty years.” Timothy Leary, 1967.
Being an optimist—or taking any other fixed stance—interferes with knowing that we can never accurately predict what is to come. Indeed, being a convinced pessimist is as little useful or justified as being a Pollyanna, because (say it with me now): “We just can’t know!” If we can’t predict the future, then it follows we can’t know what influences and ingredients will shape it. We have nothing to lose by living as if our own actions could make a difference. And that’s the theme of my birthday festival this year.