Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chapter 5: In Furnald Hall, 1966 (i)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (22)

September 1966 finally came and I was glad to get back to Manhattan to live again in a dormitory on Columbia’s campus. Over the summer I had changed from an aspiring playwright to an aspiring folksinger-songwriter and I brought my cheap guitar to Room 521 of Furnald Hall, where I now lived.

My roommate, Tom, was a government major who was planning to be a journalist. He was so into journalism that he decorated the walls of our room with the mastheads of different newspapers from all across the United States.

Tom was also an extremely religious Christian of the Lutheran sect. He felt his intellectual views and his personal actions had to genuinely conform to a Christian value system and to the teachings of Jesus. During our sophomore year at Furnald Hall we continued to debate philosophical and political issues frequently, in a way that we both enjoyed. Sometimes we would be joined in our discussions by other students on the 5th floor, because Tom liked to keep the dorm room open in the evening. The open door encouraged people to stop by and chat in-between studying or after dinner.

Our tiny dorm room had a bunk bed, two desks and two fluorescent lamps, as well as a sink and mirror. The dorm room’s window faced onto the South Lawn of Columbia’s campus.

Tom rarely cut classes like I did. He usually wore glasses and often spent time in the room writing letters to his many correspondents around the world. He had spent previous summers at some international camp in New England and had met people from all around the world there. During the school year, one of Tom’s friends from camp, a Yale student, visited New York with his knapsack and camped out on the dorm room floor.

Tom’s father worked in a factory. But Tom was not anti-capitalist in the 1960s. To afford Columbia, Tom had to work during the school year at some work-study journalism job with the University. His other main extra-curricular activity, aside from Sunday church attendance and Lutheran student group attendance, was to sing in the Columbia Glee Club. Although Tom liked to sing, he wasn’t into either folk music or rock music in college. He listened on the radio to either an all-news station or a classical music station only.

There were often times when I was able to practice my guitar and write songs in the dorm room without anyone else being present because Tom was attending class, working, singing, worshipping or doing something else. Likewise, because I was involved in much activity outside the dorm room, Tom would also have sole use of the dorm room often.

Tom was easy to room with because he was good-natured and knew how to share the space in a just fashion. We spent long hours discussing all kinds of issues. He expressed a New Right conservative position, generally, and I usually defended the New Left position. So discussion with Tom gave me good practice in articulating and clarifying my radical politics in ideological debate. Tom didn’t convince me of the correctness of his views and I didn’t convince him of the correctness of mine. But he was a good intellectual companion and, personally, very kind.

In early September, I bumped into Stein in front of Ferris Booth Hall. He was trying to recruit freshmen as student volunteers for the P.A.C.T. program. The previously clean-shaven Stein had grown a long, black beard over the summer and now dressed much more proletarian and radical than he had dressed the previous spring.

“How will SNCC’s call for white activists not to organize in the Black community affect P.A.C.T.?” I immediately asked Stein.

“We’ve been discussing the implications of the SNCC call for Black Power on P.A.C.T. And we’re going to hire a full-time organizer from the community to manage a P.A.C.T. office with Juan,” Stein answered. We then talked for awhile about how to prevent P.A.C.T. from being an outdated white missionary program.

The only class that I found relevant to my life and my concerns in Fall 1966 was the “Reflections On Politics Since 1914 I” class that Professor Kesselman taught. Kesselman was a friendly guy with a mustache, who was in his late 20s or early 30s. He had studied in France and written a book on French electoral politics.

Politically, Kesselman was a social democrat. But he wasn’t the kind of social democrat who worried more about Communist Party manipulation and “Stalinists” than about stopping the current crimes of the corporate capitalist Establishment. In the 1960s, there were many social democrats who seemed more interested in re-fighting the sectarian squabbles of the 1930s than in uniting people in a new movement for radical social change in the United States.

Culturally, Kesselman was a white middle-class academic, who wore a suit and tie, and who was neither bohemian nor interested in the U.S. Movement. He lived in a fancy high-rise apartment, just off Riverside Drive, with his young wife.

Kesselman’s reading list didn’t include the writings of any women political thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg or Alexandra Kollontai. This was an indication of the male chauvinist intellectual bias of Columbia’s faculty in the 1960s, before the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s began to make an impact on institutional university life.

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