from the pages of ../


 

GLORY DAYS

Michael Albert

In the summer following my senior year in high school, in July 1965, as I prepared to go to college, I began being rushed for fraternities. Upper classmen visited my home in New Rochelle, NY, and befriended me. One who happened to live nearby was worldly and mature, knew many things about my future school days, and sincerely helped me consider course and living options. I think he's a doctor now, though I have no idea where.

I arrived for Rush Week, just before the official semester began. I wanted to become a physicist. I was excited and eager. I had no politics.

I would go to a frat house and be shown around, wined and dined, and perhaps invited to stay for the evening. Some fraternities were more party-oriented, some more into athletics, some more academically oriented, some all around. These differences mattered. I was shopping/auditioning for a place to live. They were assessing freshmen, deciding who to invite to become members, while also trying to ensure that anyone invited would choose to join.

I became a brother at Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of a few predominately Jewish fraternities. At MIT, AEPi emphasized academic success and campus politics. Rush week was followed by five months of pledging. Pledges tried to make new friends, get acclimated. Brothers had a good time lording over us, while also trying to make new friends, and get us acclimated.

MIT, evein in the mid 1960s, allowed no serious dangerous hazing. Pledging involved "pantsing," having to light cigarettes for upper classmen, having to learn everyone's name and hometown and other frat data and do a few push-ups whenever we forgot some required fact, and other sundry silliness. Additionally, on Friday nights the pledge class would clean the place, top to bottom, with a rigor that would have been deemed unseemly even at Paris Island.

These cleaning sessions would go from just after dinner to as late as 2, 3, or even 4 AM. Partly, this was a very thorough cleaning, waxing, polishing, and sometimes restoring of broken or worn items to keep a crowded but large pair of five story brownstones clean and comfortable. Partly, it was having to do the same thing repeatedly for no obvious reason. In any event, the policy meant we had no Friday night of our own and were often too exhausted to fully enjoy Saturday as well. Since personal time was slim at MIT, this was more of a sacrifice than it might now seem.

In February, there was a melodramatic ceremony with candles and pomp at which we pledges became brothers. Right after the ceremony and celebration, our upper class friends told us about Rush Week--how it had really been organized, what had really happened, and why.

It seems that the fraternities had had lists of all the incoming freshmen, all carefully researched, much as NBA basketball teams research prospective players before a draft. When a Freshman would arrive at AEPi, he would either get the Bum's Rush--a quick look through the bottom floor of the house and a pushy escort out the back door into the alley--or, the Prospect's Rush, for which he'd be taken upstairs, introduced around, offered information, snacks, etc., and enticed to stay for dinner, and, if really sought, overnight and throughout the week. This was all tacky enough, you might think, but the real news was that the telephones in the frat house were tapped and a number of the rooms bugged. The brothers used the information they gleaned from secretly listening to our conversations to subsequently offer us exactly what we said we sought.

For example, when I stayed over and mentioned to a freshman friend I was rooming with that I liked what I saw but wished there was a bit more emphasis on physics, or wouldn't it be nice if some folks were more into playing tennis or participating in campus politics, next morning, bright and early, I'd nonchalantly be subtly tracked into a bull session on physics or invited to a trip to the tennis courts, or given a tour of the campus student committee rooms. And, of course, the same would hold if I mentioned other likes or dislikes, for example, to my parents, or to my "girlfriend," then at Simmons College, on the phone.

Now I knew even when I was first told this news, though not too consciously I'm sure, that had I discovered these policies during Rush Week I would have gone berserk. Knowing that AEPi was tapping my calls would have driven me to frenzy. And no doubt the same was true for many other new brothers. But five months later, after giving up Friday nights, after making new friends, and after generally acclimating to a new and very comfortable place to live, none of us felt any anger. And, for that matter, no one in the fraternity's past had ever felt anger after finding out about these policies. The excuse we were given, by people we now respected and liked, seemed convincing. The upper classmen told us they knew better than we where we belonged. They had researched us. They had taken long hours to assess our tastes and personalities to decide where we best fit. In Rush Week we had only a ridiculously short time to make our decisions and, because everyone was trying to entice us, no honest information on which to base our choices. The brothers had to make a decision for us, and then, for those they wanted to rush, use whatever wiles they could muster to get us to join their house and not some other that was also trying to entice us by any means they could muster. And we with all our training and knowledge and confidence, accepted this, as did freshman in other houses revealing similar practices.

For the rest of the second semester, life went on at AEPi as elsewhere on campus. AEPi was academically serious, but people knew how to enjoy themselves as well. There was considerable support, lots of competition, and a committment to excel. There was privacy, at least relatively speaking. In short, there were real rewards for living at AEPi, given the exigencies, possibilities, and limits of life at MIT.

But that summer, my contentment came undone. Apparently the psychic investment of pledging and of having become identified as a part of AEPi and having made friends there didn't totally dominate what common sense I still had. One year at college had not yet removed it all. I came back the next Rush Week and quit the fraternity during the pre-planning period. Then, when Rush Week started, I sat on the fender of a car outside AEPi, called over incoming Freshmen as they were about to enter the house, and told them what was going on. I still think of this as my first overtly political act, though at the time I had not a political thought in my head. My public dissent didn't last long, however. There was a wild brawl in the street--some brothers trying to get at me, others trying to hold them off for fear of repercussions for AEPi's campus mandate. The school administration took a hand in the fracas, banning me from returning to the corner and simultaneously opening discussions about what to do about Rush Week in the future. The invasive practices, over a period of weeks, were presumably negotiated away.

Within a few days of the fracas, my father arrived in town. A hotel room was rented and he met me there. A day long meeting ensued. First, junior and senior brothers tried to talk me into staying in the House, though my sophomore classmates never made an appearance, apparently kept away for fear that my unique and previously unknown disease might spread. Then came the house officers, and then, finally, toward evening only some highly successful alumni and the current president were left to make a case.

At last, the day's rhetoric gave way to an honest, if disgusting, sentiment. These "leaders," unlike all the other "brothers" who had tramped through during the day, admitted that I was right in all my accusations. But so what, they said. Why couldn't I see that I was to be the beneficiary of the lying and prying? Like them, I was going to be at the top of the heap, an AEPi success story. "It works for us, the elite," they told my father, "and since Mike's going to be one of us, he shouldn't give it up." At this point, my father changed sides too, not real happy about it, but no longer trying to get me to reconsider my decision. We had seen true elitism face to face. The kind that doesn't even bother to rationalize itself to itself.

Despite having many encounters with authority figures of all types over the years, I can only remember one equally instructive exchange, with a true capitalist named James Killian, then chairman of the board of MIT and of General Motors, among others, if I remember right. This was a supremely competent, supremely confident, totally amoral individual who had no qualms revealing his utter hostility and disdain for anything outside his own power and riches. The contrast, for example, to whining politicians and liberal administrators could not have been more stark.

Anyhow, in the ensuing weeks and months about half my class left AEPi. This was unprecedented, but what is more interesting is that all these folks became part of an emerging left on campus, eventually a significant working core of what we called Rosa Luxemburg SDS. And what distinguished this group--which helped turn the school upside down--from any other random selection of students at MIT was, without doubt, only their reversal of attitude toward AEPi, a rejection of benefits made possible by duplicity and exclusion.

 

NOT LONG THEREAFTER, still at MIT but now out of AEPi, I lived with two friends in an apartment in Somerville Massachusetts. Across the street another friend lived in a smaller place, making four of us on the block. Among other activities, we used to play touch football with the local high school kids. Our block in Somerville was in a relatively depressed working class neighborhood, though the economy as a whole was doing okay.

We got along well with our neighborhood friends, and enjoyed our games together. But a few months into our schedule, we began to notice a drift in their play. Quality went down. Attention went down. Soon, our neighbors wouldn't play at all. We'd see them, spaced out, and they'd pay only peripheral attention to us. We noticed by tell-tale signs that our VW van and the corridor in our apartment house was frequently occupied in the evenings. Before long, we knew our friends had taken to sniffing glue.

Glue was for a time a popular escape in many working class communities. It was easily available and cheap. It provided a special kind of high. Where marijaunia heighted the senses, glue turned them off. Glue was also slow suicide. The fumes destroyed brain cells, so sniffing was rapidly debilitating. The glue manufacturers, of course, were quick to notice the increased demand for their product. Being market-wise, they naturally increased the deadly ingredients, thereby attracting more new users.

Anyhow, market motivations aside, we got our neighbors together and tried to talk them out of their new pastime. They told us they liked the glue because it wiped away their problems, at least for a time. We told them sniffing was shortening their lives. They laughed, telling us to look around and wake up. Their lives were already short. Their lives were already brutal. How much of a brain did it take to be a boxboy? Why should they worry about cutting off a dead end future? To their eyes, early death was arguably an additional benefit of sniffing.

These boys were literally killing themselves, and we were powerless to stop it. Finally, we told them sniffing glue would make them impotent and destroy their sex lives. This was a loss they understood. They saw it as real and imminent and they gave up the glue, at least for a while.

@Par Sub = A YEAR or so later, I had been elected what is called Undergraduate Association President at MIT. My campaign, waged against other candidates as well as the prescient MIT administration, included as its programmatic goals: no more war research, a $100,000 indemnity payment to the local Black Panther Party, no more grades or requirements, open admissions, a redistribution of MIT's technical resources to make them available to working class community colleges in the vicinity, and so on.

Having won, I received a visit from the then second in command in the Institute's hierarchy, MIT's provost, Jerome Weisner. He was a good liberal, an ex-science adviser to John Kennedy, a figure of note in political circles, and destined to eventually be President of MIT himself.

First, Weisner tried to wipe away my activist inclinations. He invited me to come to Hyanisport to spend a weekend at the Kennedy compound. We could talk together about politics and future possibilities. I said no thanks, I consider Hyanisport to be enemy territory, something that should have been entirely obvious from all he knew about me. Weisner was incredulous that I would turn down such an opportunity. He spent some time urging that I should become rich, as then I would have much more clout with which to accomplish my goals. When this too fell on literally deaf ears, he gave up recruitment and sincerely reported that while he disagreed with my views, I had every right to hold them, and as long as I didn't do anything to break any serious laws, he personally would guarantee that I wouldn't be hassled by the MIT administration. I thanked him for the sentiment and told him he would expel me within the year and that I would not have burnt anything down or beaten anyone up or otherwise done anything formally meriting such a punishment. He was indignant that I could think such a thing of him, and of MIT, and reiterated his pledge. He remained indignant, even as he later witnessed and no doubt celebrated my trials and expulsion, essentially for being a thorn in the side of authority.

As UAP I had many institutional responsibilities, most of which I ignored, and also some opportunities, most of which I tried to exploit. One opportunity, less important than those having to do with student budgets but not without its own special merit, was to give a speech at the beginning of the semester to an auditorium full of alumni. First the President of the university would speak. Then the UAP. Tradition ruled, and so when the time came I bounded up onto the stage and had my say. By then I was calling MIT "Dachau on the Charles," carefully noting that while "our Jews" were far away in Indochina, they were being incinerated nonetheless. I spoke for about a half hour, giving what was for the setting an entirely outrageous indictment of imperialism, capitalism, and MIT itself, admittedly enjoying the experience of railing at these corporate leaders. There was considerable turmoil, but no violence. When I was done and leaving to get on about the business of organizing students, a number of alumni tried to get my attention. One succeeded, just before I left the auditorium, and asked me to come with him to West Germany to work in his successful chemical plant. I didn't even have to finish at MIT, he said, though I could if I wished. He would make me a Vice President the day I arrived. I'd be his buddy, shortly get a share in the firm, and my future would be boundless.

Here I had just savaged his values, his world, his domain, everything he stood for, and he nonetheless made this offer. To him, I couldn't refuse. My pretense would disappear. My rhetoric would dissipate. He wanted to own my arrogance, or some other horrible quality that he saw and liked, and he was convinced that in the face of his offer, all the rest was smoke. I told him to fuck off, but I never forgot his unlimited confidence.

@Par Sub = WE ALL have our own collection of amusing stories that encapsulate what we see out there. These are a few of mine, all from a formative time in my life. In retrospect, the civil rights movement had pushed me, though peripherally, all during high school. A year and a half into college, the war became my near and far horizen. But in between and along the way, experiencing the contrast between sniffing glue and dispensing lies and witnessing capitalist hypocrisy first hand helped cement my turn away from one life to another. My journey mirrored that of many people of my generation. For widely varying reasons, we didn't just become irate at particular injustices or advocates of particular changes. We threw off one way of being and, against everything, tried to evolve a new alternative. And that choice not only fueled, but also informed our politics and our ultimate rejection not merely of society's most oppressive policies--this issue or that--but of society's defining institutions.

I dredge all this up not to revel in 1960s Glory Days, but to say that I wonder how many of us, myself included, have to one degree or another returned to sniffing glue or sucking up, either protecting past investments or hoping for future returns, instead of seeking a comprehensive alternative. We are doing things that give us short-term rewards which certainly make good sense within the confines of our circumstances. And if we're going to survive at all, I guess there's no choice. We must do that. But we have also, it seems to me, taken our eyes at least somewhat off the prize. Are we settling for a new life regimen, not so different from the old ones that we earlier, I think rightly, rejected?

In the 1960s, however young, naive, and unlearned we were, when for whatever complicated mix of reasons and due to whatever special circumstances, many of us came around to calling ourselves revolutionaries, it really did mean something profound. We not only opposed the war, racism, poverty, and sexism, we dreamed of a different way of living so all people could develop and fulfill themselves in their work and in their lives, with equality, justice, and dignity. Our local fights were part of a bigger picture and the bigger picture, not the local fights, and not our immediate jobs or student status, defined our being.

When we looked around for who to be, whether we examined the dead-end life of the poor, or the hypocritical advantages of the rich, nothing seemed worthy. Resistence was the only path that made sense. No fundamental compromises, no lasting surrenders were permitted. And so we tried to invent a new way to be, and to define and achieve circumstances that would allow it to flourish.

For the life of me, at 45, regarding these basic choices, I can't see how 1992 is different than 1969. Is there some compelling new argument against being a revolutionary that I've missed? Is there some new evidence that private ownership, markets, bourgeois democracy, racism, and patriarchy offer a context people can flourish within? Is there some argument against seeking institutions that foster diversity, solidarity, self management, and equity? Is the degradation of living out of garbage cans or toiling under the authority of others for 40 years as a wage slave less now than 25 years ago? Does having a single issue orientation, a short term time horizen, an exclusively reformist angle on problems, suffice now, where it didn't then? What does the X on the X-hats mean?

We have a new administration in Washington. The reactionaries, for now, are out. Social democrats, liberals, and others sincerely devoted to making life better who look around and nonetheless believe it is possible to do so within our inherited system should get on about the business of working with the Clinton administration, to improve or help implement its agenda.

For the rest of us, however, a different task beckons. We must develop an uncompromising critique of our society--not just this or that isolated aspect--showing the defining roots of its many faults. We must evolve a comprehensive vision of a better future. And we must communicate both analysis and vision as widely as we can. We must also create an alternative way of being, many alternative ways of being, and try them out, molding them as we go, so that they become fulfilling and effective in their own right--attractors that will help people put glue and, when necessary, even security aside. In short, we must help prepare the way for comprehensive systemic change. The nineties need to become our kid's Glory Days, and our's too.