Across the great divide

I'm a baby boomer, but I'm not burned out. And I wanted to find out how the next generation is keeping the flame alive. My first stop: The University of Virginia.


Cary Tennis
December 20, 2002 1:34AM (UTC)

The reason I was driving a rented Chevy Blazer in a cold and gray November rain up Route 29 from my sister's house in Lynchburg, Va., to Charlottesville to find a 19-year-old antiwar activist named Samuel Hayim Brody in the cafe of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia was that, if you recall, readers of the "Since You Asked" column had responded by the hundreds to the question, posed some months back, "What is it like to be young today?" and they said that yes, being young today is as confusing and difficult as it always has been, but also, they said, By the way, if we may say so, we think your generation totally sucks.

They said that the boomer generation, the vaunted '60s generation that Time magazine in January 1967 had voted Man of the Year, had sold out, had fallen down on the job, had promised and not delivered: We had promised to change the world and turned to the selfish pursuit of money, had preached love and then sown the land with bitter divorce, had pursued sexual pleasure at the expense of emotional commitment, had failed to protect the environment or to prevent war, had not saved for our old age and its inevitable medical expenses, and were fast becoming not only embarrassing but also irrelevant and, finally, invisible, like, as one letter writer put it, the homeless people they step over every day on the way to work.

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Well. It would have been silly to think that the withering contempt we, the generation that didn't trust anyone over 30, had visited upon our parents would not be visited upon us in turn. But the vehemence of the feelings was startling, and the parallels of our time and this, with war approaching, were clear. So journalistic impulses and human curiosity were both irresistibly piqued. Who are these young people who write so passionately, so articulately and in some cases with such poignant intimacy about their lives? I wanted to set off immediately to find them and see what sorts of people they were, to look in their refrigerators and sleep on their couches, to meet their pets and ride in their cars, to grope blindly, intuitively, toward some understanding, to bridge a gulf I had not even known was there.

But first I had to choose whom to visit, whose stories resonated deepest, whose voices hinted at lives that would bloom into emblems of their age. I read the letters over and over, picturing the lives behind them. I relied on instinct and on analysis; I wanted a cross section but I did not want to be doctrinaire. And I wanted to hear not just about love but about politics, religion, philosophy and family.

In the end, the way I picked Brody and the rest of the subjects whose stories will follow in the months to come involved logic, instinct and happenstance in about equal measure. Brody, intriguingly, mentioned in his letter that he had been protesting police brutality in New York at the age of 16. This struck a nerve for me; I was also out on the streets at that age. It sparked memories of an early passion for direct political action and recalled how others throughout history have had their imagination fired by news of far-off struggles they deem just and heroic.

I thought it might be inspiring to see how that ageless spirit was embodied today in a young man of 19. When I was running through the streets of Washington in the May Day action of 1971, trying to halt the workings of our own government because nothing else seemed to get our leaders' attention, I was also about 19. What is it like for a young man today of progressive inclinations to contemplate his possible role in our nation's likely war with Iraq? And what is it like to contemplate the possibility of a draft? Though America has an all-volunteer military, it still has a Selective Service System that requires almost all male U.S. citizens, 18 to 25, to register.

And, it must be said, while I wanted to listen and learn about this generation's politics and passions, I also had some things to say to them, on behalf of me and my graying friends. I wanted to say that we did not simply pack up and leave our struggle for peace and justice like a buzzed-out crowd dragging their blankets across Max Yasgur's farm. I wanted to say that specific things -- complicated, difficult, demanding, painful things -- had happened to each of us to turn us this way and that, that our heroes were shot, that our organizations were infiltrated and exploited and prosecuted, that we were beaten and gassed, that we had to find jobs and houses, that we had art to make and families to raise and you couldn't do that from jail or from Canada or the streets, that each of us suffered confusion and doubt and OK, if some of us did give up on transforming the world, it was never with a cynical shrug as if to say Whatever, nevermind; it was always with a sad and chastened bewilderment that we turned away from the struggle to tend to our own wounded dreams, and we still lie awake trying to figure out what the hell happened. We are still trying to live lives worthy of our promise.

So I drove into Charlottesville that Sunday afternoon and walked across the University of Virginia campus through the rain to the Alderman Library and settled in at a long high counter below high windows through which poured a rich gray light. Students sat at small round cafe tables drinking coffee and studying, with laptops plugged in to the power and network connections along the wall. The cafe, nestled inside the high and formal house of books with its Doric pilasters and arched windows, felt a little incongruous, like a falafel stand inside a cathedral, but it was a welcome spot and one could only wish the coffee had been half as good in 1969.

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Sam Brody, thin and sleepy-looking, his long black hair curling down his neck and over his ears, looking as though he still wasn't resigned to shaving every day, wore a white crew-neck T-shirt, a floor-length coat and wire-rimmed glasses. He settled on the stool and put his book bag on the counter. His book bag was festooned with buttons, and his T-shirt was inscribed with lyrics and song titles from the band Primal Scream, written in his own hand with a Magic Marker.

Not only did the writing on his T-shirt recall an earlier generation's style of personalizing its clothing, but the buttons on the book bag also looked familiar to fellow travelers of the '60s who knew each other not only by the length of their hair and the brand of their cigarettes, but also by the buttons and bumper stickers they had picked up at rock festivals and demonstrations as consolation prizes for their bruises from the cops, sore hips from sleeping on the ground, and intestinal disorders from eating chili ladled out by the Diggers.

At first, Brody says, he had only the one button on his book bag, the button calling for peace in Israel and the Mideast. But then people started giving him buttons from other demonstrations, and he added them, including one supporting the struggles of the university workers. That'll happen, the grizzled veteran of peace marches thought to himself. That'll happen.

Two days earlier Brody had explained by telephone that he would probably be in his dorm on Sunday because he was acting as the media coordinator for the campus antiwar movement that was trying to rally opposition to an invasion of Iraq.

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In the cafe, when asked to describe the movement, he says, "Well, it's not really a movement yet," at least not on campus. Though there is not much visible political activity at UVa, he says, he was trying to organize a rally for that Wednesday, the 20th of November.

"We didn't want to call it a rally, and we didn't want to call it a teach-in," he says, "even though it's sort of a combination of those things, because we think people are turned off by those words, and don't want to feel like they're participating in a rehash of something that happened 40 years ago. So," he says, forming quote marks in the air, "we're calling it a 'gathering for peace.'"

Brody grew up in Manhattan's Upper West Side, a "sort of a liberal suburb of the city," as he calls it, populated by "liberal Jewish writers, people who eat bagels and talk about how they hate George Bush in the morning and then they come home and they send money to plant trees in Israel." He attended the academically rigorous Hunter College High School in Manhattan. His dad has a Ph.D. in French. So does his mom. Imagine the arguments they must have had -- before they separated when Brody was quite young. His father was the dean of the foreign language department at Queens College in the 1960s, and though he was sympathetic to the demonstrators' opposition to the Vietnam War, he did not appreciate being trapped on the top floor of his office building by a sit-in. He and the custodial staff had to lower a bucket out the window for food. Perhaps Sam Brody learned an early lesson: Don't alienate sympathizers with ill-advised tactics.

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When I was in high school, we were pretty much on our own as far as our politics went. We didn't have organized discussion groups on the Vietnam War. Brody, however, had a club in high school called the Progressive Forum that met every week at lunchtime. They had a teacher for an advisor, and every week somebody was assigned to research a topic. Imagine demonstrating against police brutality for extra credit in high school! Brody and many other high school students took to the streets of Manhattan to protest the February 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo. Later that year he read reports on the Internet about the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.

"It was just great," he says. "It was awesome. I thought it was amazing that they had gotten this number of people out for this issue that most people don't even know about." While trade policies and debt restructuring lacked a certain visceral, media-friendly immediacy, Brody says, the Seattle demonstrations forced the mainstream media to at least pay attention.

After the initial euphoria came some tactical lessons.

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"The Revolutionary Communist Party is so annoying," says Brody, who attended a lot of conferences and panels organized by the International Action Center. "They were really well organized," he says, "and they sent out fliers to people's houses, and they had Ramsey Clark come and talk and stuff, and we thought that was pretty cool.

"But eventually we figured out that the International Action Center would be against the war in Yugoslavia and not admit that Slobodan Milosevic was bad, and they would be against going to war with Iraq but not admit that Saddam Hussein was bad, and that's because they have this ridiculous idea that anyone who is an enemy of the United States is some kind of anti-imperialist hero, which is completely moronic. So we stopped caring about what those people had to say. But they still show up at all the protests, and they're good organizers."

Political action is, undeniably, of eternal interest, but so is sex, and it didn't look as if Sam Brody was going to spontaneously begin confessing his deepest erotic exploits. So I say, "Tell me about dating on campus." It seemed that he blushed slightly.

"I don't really date that much," he says. "My friends in school, in middle school, we were pretty much the kids who hung around the cafeteria and played magic cards. That's this trading-card game that obsesses kids of around 12 to 15 years old. You buy packs of cards and play a game with them, certain cards are rare, a very sort of Dungeons and Dragons-y sort of thing. So people who do that don't have a lot of interaction with the opposite sex."

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Besides, "I'm not so driven by the need to hook up with people that I'll just take whatever opportunity," he says. "I don't care if people hook up, I'm not like a prude or puritan. I don't care about that. But there's a huge problem with sexual assault and date rape and stuff like that. So the culture is supposedly sexually free, but I think it's really just still permeated with power dynamics and it's not healthy.

"The Campus Crusade for Christ puts up signs like 'Does the hook-up scene make you feel empty? Come find out what Jesus says about this.' And then there's the sort of feminist response: 'Women: Don't let people blame you for wearing short skirts. If a guy date-rapes you, don't let yourself get blamed for it and speak up.' And that's very important to do. But it is obviously some problem with the whole culture that people can't quite put their finger on."

I start to say at this point that, unlike the bright and shining logic of political rhetoric, sex will never make any sense. But I get so tired of what experience has taught me, wish I could forget what I know, don't want to sound like a windbag. So I try to shut up and listen.

But what was I to make of his refusal to vote? I thought such a bright, politically committed student, raised by liberal intellectuals, would put a certain amount of faith in voting as at least the ritual linchpin of modern democracy. But Brody did not vote in the New York state election, nor does he think voting is all that important.

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"They teach you in school that voting is the highest exercise of your democratic rights, but I really don't think it is at all," he says. "It wasn't like a bunch of brave politicians came to Washington and said, 'The war is bad!'" during the 1960s, he says, rolling his eyes and waving his hands in mock surprise. "It's the other way around. And it's always going to be the other way around."

On the drive up to Charlottesville I had been thinking about why the mass movement of the 1960s seemed to crumble after the Vietnam War ended. There are a myriad of reasons, many of them personal and as idiosyncratic as the personalities who populated the movement. But one of the reasons we failed to utterly transform the world, one of the reasons there seems to be such a sharp divide between the promise and the delivery, I had been thinking, as I tried to find a good Virginia radio station but settled for modern country, was that we had no enduring institution to carry on our fight.

Not that we believed in enduring institutions or would have necessarily supported one fervently, distrustful as we were, fractious and drug addled and independent and questing as we were ... but still ... we believed in the transcendent power of individuals, the charisma of rock 'n' roll and fiery oratory, the sexy anarchy of people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin that paradoxically compelled a following even though they declared themselves not leaders. So I could not help thinking that if certain people had lived and stayed true to their vision, who knows, with their moral power, their oration, perhaps there could have been a party acceptable to hippies and radicals and young moderates as well, to young and old blacks, to immigrants full of hope and promise and jaded WASPs rooted in Jeffersonian ideals, Judeo-Christian principles, acceptable to Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, appealing to us all but rooted firmly in the secular ideals of the Enlightenment.

So I say to Samuel Brody, "What if Martin Luther King had lived?"

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What if Martin Luther King had lived and we could have all gathered at his feet and said, OK, Martin, what next? Where do we march? Where is the head of the line and where is the end, and how many blankets and how much food do we pack? If in spite of all our bruises and our trauma from the nightsticks and the tear gas he had said, Look, you have to lay down your body in the road again one more time because I have a dream but I also have a nightmare and it is a right-wing dynasty whose scions will dismantle what you have been working for and bring back what you have been fleeing, will discredit your efforts to bring economic justice, will marshal scientists to deny global warming, will marshal economists to justify globalization because they know that you, the best-educated generation in our nation's history, are soft and middle class and because of your respect for learning you are credulous in the face of even mediocre scholarship and you lack that working-class certainty and class consciousness that made the labor movement so powerful, that this right-wing dynasty, which even now is being blueprinted, will be screwing you for the next 30 years if you splinter into factions.

"Yeah, what if he had lived?" Brody muses. "I tend to think that if he had lived, he would have become marginalized eventually, or treated like one of these grand old leaders, whom we respect but ignore what they actually say. Like Nelson Mandela, who's sort of universally revered, but when he criticizes the United States or something, we don't really listen to him."

But, I say to him, somewhat wistfully and somewhat defensively, it was the lack of leaders, the toll that bullets took on our movement, that killed it.

"I think that needing leaders is something that people should challenge," he says. "The global justice movement -- which is a better name, I think, than the anti-globalization movement, because it's really much broader than that -- they really try to have leaderless actions. They have sort of unwritten rules for meetings, like if you're a person that tends not to talk so much, talk more. And if you're a person who tends to talk a lot, restrain yourself.

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"And that's another one of the reasons those kids wear those bandannas over their faces. I mean, partially they don't want to be recognized. But it's partially because anonymity is sort of part of the idea. We don't want any revolutionary leaders."

A decentralized movement independent of any particular leader, Brody believes, might have saved the peace movement in Israel after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in November 1995.

"If the peace movement in Israel hadn't made such a cult figure of Rabin," he says, "then when he died, it wouldn't have been like they killed the peace movement." Instead, says Brody, Israeli peace activists should have said, "'We've lost our figure in power, and now we will soldier on and continue what he was doing.'" Investing so much moral and political power in one man, says Brody, "that's dangerous." The movement should never have allowed Rabin to become such a central figure, he says, "because all it takes then is a bullet."

Talk of assassination takes me back to the 1960s and my brother's fight with the draft board. I asked Brody if he had registered for the draft.

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"Well, I had to register for the Selective Service or they'll put you in jail," he says. "But, I mean, I forgot. They sent me the original thing to register for the Selective Service when I turned 18, and I sort of forgot about it and went away and did whatever I did over the summer, and when I came to college six months later my mom called and said, 'They sent you another thing that said if you don't send in your registration in the next two weeks you'll have to go to court.' So I sent in the thing. Now I have my Selective Service number."

I tell Brody that, having seen what my brother went through, I decided not to register back in 1971, and when the lottery numbers for my age cohort were drawn, on Feb. 2, 1972, my birthday, 9/11/53, came up with lucky No. 334. Even if the government had continued calling men up after 1972, it is not likely I would have been called.

My brother David was about Brody's age when he got the draft notice in the mail that summer of 1969. There was never any question but that my brother would refuse.

Brody seems to feel the same way. "If there was a draft, I'd probably have to go to jail," he says.

The night before my interview with Brody, at my sister's house in Lynchburg, sitting around her living room in that old house downtown in the Historic District with my younger brother too, the four of us together for the first time in years, reminiscing about the war, I had asked David if he had ever been afraid of having to leave the country, or of going to jail.

"The way I thought about it," David said, wrinkling his brow in the way he's always done ever since I can remember, "was that with the Army or the country asking me to go to Vietnam or something, I would have had the same response if some Klanner had said, 'David, come on out, we're going to kill "niggers."' I would have said the same thing. I'm not killing 'niggers,' I'm not killing Vietnamese, I have no part in this. It was the same feeling.

"I could not do it. I'm not with your program. There isn't a choice. I really was totally naive about prison, prison life, what the possibilities were of going ... I didn't stick peanut butter up my butt to try to get out of it. I just said, No, I'm not going."

When he had first refused induction, "this kindly sergeant pulled me over and took me to a room and discussed how I could rebuild the villages that my brethren soldiers were destroying," he said. "I don't care if I can rebuild a village," he said; "I can't be a part of this." After he refused induction at the Coral Gables induction center, he said, "They took us away in a Galaxy 500. They took us before a federal judge."

Our father was there, he recalled. The judge, David said, asked our father if his son the draft resister was any trouble. "And he said 'No, no trouble.' And so they took me from there to the FBI office and released me on my own recognizance." He hired a lawyer for $250, a price that was considered low even for that time.

Our father had fought World War II, commanding a landing craft tank in the Pacific and had remained in the Naval Reserve. One evening shortly after David had refused induction, there was a knock at the door of our house on Rainbow Drive. My father answered the door. Standing before him was his commanding officer in the Naval Reserve. "The guy didn't say anything, just turned his back and walked away," David said. Presumably, he just wanted to see if it was really true, that this World War II veteran officer's son was a draft resister.

He accepted David's decision and never questioned his courage.

After the interview, Brody and I walked about the Lawn, where the antiwar protest would be held on Wednesday. Along the walkway were identical signs whose wording seemed to embody all the lessons his generation has learned about not alienating the masses. It could have said "Off the pigs" or "Shut down the campus," or even simply "No war with Iraq," but it didn't. Instead it said, with a postmodern wink to the genius of advertising and the Orwellian arts of doublespeak: "Dissent Is Patriotic."

Brody chuckled about the marketing implications. "That's the first wave of fliers," he says, likening it to the Heineken ad campaign that started off with just a star as a teaser, and only later connected the star with the beer. "And then later they come out with the ad and you go, 'Oh, Heinekens!'" says Brody. "No," he adds with a shrug, "I didn't get why that was supposed to work."

The rain was coming down hard now on Thomas Jefferson's university, flooding the walks and drenching Brody and me as we walked from the Lawn to the parking garage. It was time to drive to Washington to interview three young women whose stories would make the political very personal indeed.

I was driving north again in the rented Blazer on Route 29, through the land where my ancestors sculled about the Chesapeake, blasting through the storm, sharing the rain-slick highway with truckers and senators, radicals and professors, pundits and bureaucrats, all driving for the Potomac. It would be the first time I had driven into Washington in more than 30 years, since May 1971 when, sleepless and cramped after driving 18 hours with 11 people in a Volkswagen van, we arrived in the nation's capital intending to shut it down and found the streets lined with soldiers and the air filled with tear gas.


Cary Tennis

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