A Radical Historian’s 60th Reunion at Hotchkiss

I am a graduate of the Class of 1954 of the Hotchkiss School, Lakeville Connecticut. Reunion planners invited me to speak on a panel to which all of the eight classes (since 1939) holding reunions were invited. Those of us on the panel were asked to talk about our “career paths” and “passions” in a session called, “A Road Less Traveled.” This was held on June 14 in Hotchkiss’s A. Whitney Griswold Science Building. The two other panelists were all Hotchkiss graduates at least forty years younger than myself, an editor from Huffington Post, and a Naval aviator “Strike Warfare Watch Officer” who “executed daily 100 sorties” over Iraq from the US carrier Ronald Reagan. (In what appears to be the familiar revolving door between the military and private industry, he is now Senior Manager of Tactical Air Support, Inc, where he is “Systems Engineering Consultant for US Navy/NAVAIR client” – not mentioned at Hotchkiss.) What follows is the full version of my talk, which had to be cut to a shorter length for delivery. I spoke first.

Ten years ago, Clint Brooks, Hotchkiss Class of 1956, an NSA lifer — former CIA head Porter Goss was in the same Hotchkiss class — was invited to give the keynote address to this this reunion for all classes ending in 4 or 9. (Since this was not a reunion year for Brooks, he must have been specially invited by Hotchkiss to give this keynote.) I was in the audience. It was like something right out of Dr. Strangelove: Brooks had developed the “Clipper Chip” which gives NSA secret back-door access to communications; “It would defeat the purpose if we gave the [public the] knowledge of how the algorithm worked.” Brooks’s NSA coerced manufacturers to build Clipper Chips into privately manufactured phones, computers, etc., letting NSA in through this back door. At Hotchkiss, Brooks’s 55-minute PowerPoint rant in support of Bush’s “war on terrorism” got adoring attention from the Bearcat crowd (as they like to call themselves), which shouted down a mildly critical questioner.

Not a great moment in the history of Hotchkiss reunions. [Just as I am about to send this off for publication, Congress has voted to defund Brooks’s backdoor access program – another great day for Hotchkiss! See this and this and this.]

So now, for something completely different.

They’ve asked us to talk about our passions, career paths, our “road less traveled.” I’m a radical, among the last of the New Left historians, living proof that it’s actually possible to become a life-long radical, even out of and despite Hotchkiss, a place that was founded (1891) on an arms fortune. Hotchkiss now offers a pipeline to the leadership of the CIA and NSA and to what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” There is no doubt that, beyond the curriculum, Hotchkiss teaches values. We were taught its motto: “moniti meliora sequamur” (instructed, we shall pursue higher things). But the values that Hotchkiss teaches do not point graduates away from such criminal professions. Hotchkiss, former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham (H’52), said some years back “is about setting wealth to music.” Now, it seems, it also sets spying and torture to music.

First, a brief chronology: I graduated with H ’53, Yale BA ‘57, Columbia MA ‘58, Yale PhD 1963. Forty-nine years ago today — I married feminist/neuroscientist Naomi Weisstein. I taught at Yale — thrown out for cultural deviance; University of Chicago — fired for radicalism in both scholarship and activism; Northwestern — fired for radicalism; then SUNY and CUNY.

But here I am at Hotchkiss, retired and mellow 😉 , nonetheless still protesting, and writing frequently about student uprisings, the collapse of liberalism into Thatcher-like “centrism,” the politics of the historical profession, the strengths and weaknesses of the left, the culture of the medical profession, and opposing Obama, Cuomo, NSA, the soulless and immoral corporations, the barbarities of US terrorism around the world. Historians will view this period as the very bottom of American history. I’m working to replace all of this with a humane and civilized society.

However … I had a happy time at Hotchkiss, then and now, and I cherish my classmates. Together with Paul Dunn, I have brought them together on a lively internet discussion list named by classmate Henry Pillsbury “Hotchkiss Voices,” where we hash over a wide range of things, from baiting to masturbating, to saltpeter, and perhaps soon, why the former head of the school left so abruptly last year. Also: red cards (medical excuses from athletics), good masters and bad, the situation of townies, Jews, blacks, Catholics, gays, females, the disabled, and the boys who were driven out. I’ve written critically about such things in my paper, originally presented at our Fiftieth reunion and published on HNN ten years ago, “Hotchkiss in the Fifties: Myths and Realities.”

At Yale, I was a member of the John Dewey Society, the local chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which later evolved and schismed into Students for a Democratic Society: I’m one of the few who made the transition from the tepid JDS to the radical SDS. A small group of us undergraduates, including Paul Chevigny, Joel Kovel, Andre Schiffrin and Roy Jackson, clustered together, at odds with Whitney Griswold’s Yale: we were not the “well-rounded men” that he sought: too serious, and with interests beyond the “Gentleman’s C.” (Larry Kramer, later of ACT-UP, was a classmate, though not in JDS). We were Yale’s version of the Beats, reciting Rexroth, cultural rebels who went to tea at the Elizabethan Club dressed as Nelson Algren’s Raincoat the Perfect Lover. When more fully clothed, I began to do early American history, fostered by Edmund Morgan and by a great scholarship job on The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.

As junior faculty, I was a resident fellow of Silliman College, living in palatial quarters, (inherited when Marty Duberman went off to Princeton), headed for the usual career trajectory of 5 or 6 years, and then out into the world. But. They were just furious when I gave my students in the US History Survey supplementary readings from the great WPA Slave Narratives Collection to counter the picture of happy slaves as presented in the required text. And then, in January 1963, together with another deviant faculty member (there were then two of us), as the semester concluded with Lincoln’s assassination, I fired a Ruger starter pistol from the balcony of Yale’s largest lecture hall, and cried out, amidst smoke and flames – well, you fill it in.

The History chair (a bigot who was given to wearing a Yale blue tuxedo at historians’ conventions) deemed this to be conduct unsuitable for a member of the Yale faculty, so I was on my way to that Toddlin’ Town, the City of the Big Shoulders — Chicago, where I was to thrive — and then I was fired again.

I thrived in Chicago for a variety of reasons. I thrived because I married Naomi Weisstein, of Wellesley and Harvard, a multi-talented neuroscientist, comedian – she came this close to running off with Second City — founder of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, and co-founder of the very first of this country’s women’s liberation groups. And, as neuroscientist, she was a major initiator of what has become known as the cognitive revolution. But as with all intellectual innovations, it was a struggle against the ruling paradigm, a struggle worsened by the grotesque male supremacy of the field. We were and are two deviants, two dissidents in the fields to which we have given our passions. This has been a major bond between us.

I thrived at Chicago, where the stereotypical student was known as “Aristotle Schwartz.” What a relief after ten years at Yale. My students sat in on the 50-yard line to try to prevent the return of football, which had earlier been thrown out by Robert Maynard Hutchins. I thrived because I was fully part of the Movement, with arrests and active participation in SDS as faculty, including sitting in in the Administration Building against the pollution of the life of the mind by Chicago’s assembling of male class ranks for the draft, as a kind of Hunger Games kill list. This, and my scholarship, made me notorious in an institution dominated by followers of Leo Strauss and right-wing thinkers like Daniel Boorstin and Milton Friedman.

I thrived in Chicago because I was beginning to do “history from the bottom up,” writing “Jack Tar in the Streets” and “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up.” I was there at the birth of American social history. For this I was awarded Fellowships and Grants by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and even by the U of C itself. But then I was fired, by a chair who ran a military intelligence unit on campus, and nonetheless told me, quote, “your convictions interfered with your scholarship.” So many of my experiences seem out of Dr. Strangelove, or out of Doctorow’s Ragtime.

My standing in the profession was rising, but I was blacklisted. Christopher Lasch arranged to have me fill in for him at Northwestern – a much nicer place than the U of C.

But then I was driven out by an upwardly mobile dean for refusing to name names of student SDSers. (In the style of the times, having thus proved his toughness against the left, he ascended to the institution’s Presidency.)

In 1969 our American Historical Association Radical Caucus drew an unprecedented 2000 people to a two-night AHA business meeting in Washington. We failed to pass a resolution against the war in Vietnam. But we made something of a bourgeois revolution in the governance of the profession, leading to a pacification tour by the new president, who was, appropriately, the author of The Age of the Democratic Revolution. A highlight of the meeting, according to the New York Times coverage, was my presentation of a paper that was later published in book form as On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession. This was, and is, a critical examination of mainstream historians’ supposed political neutrality. As such, it simply could not be published in the US, and was finally brought out by New Hogtown, a small underground press in Toronto. For almost 50 years, it circulated in samizdat. Finally this year, in a kind of academic hommage to Aaron Swartz, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, I put it on the web, free, in toto, where it is enjoying a second life.

All of this further anchored me to the blacklist. In 1980, Naomi and I were in New York City where she was taking her Guggenheim. But the years of grueling struggle against male supremacy, including special horrors in the Psychology Department of SUNY-Buffalo, had taken their toll. She fell ill with a mysterious disease, now known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now she has been completely bedridden for more than thirty years. All of our previous experience as dissidents has sustained us through this nightmare. A nightmare because a haughty, misogynist, and ignorant medical profession has, until recently, known less about the workings of the brain than has this founding neuroscientist. The despicable privateers who run the insurance companies want Naomi dead: she’s an expensive case. I fought them in the pages of the NY Times, took them to court, and amassed the support of Naomi’s world renowned neuroscience colleagues. We have been sustained by our long experience up against what historians will see as an utterly insane system in an utterly insane and dishonest time. Neither god, nor country, nor Yale, nor Hotchkiss prepared us for this, but the Sixties did, teaching us to resist, to say, hell no, we won’t go.

So, I’ve continued to write, protest, and fight, working to get America out of the sinkhole that we’re in, into an almost unimaginable better world. And here I am, at Hotchkiss. These are my passions, my road less traveled. We shall overcome. Just let yourselves imagine.

Acknowledgements: My classmates, especially Paul Dunn and Renny Clark; Megan Denault H ’03 who managed the reunion so well, and to Joanne Landy, for so much, in so many ways.