Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Activist Legacies in Hoosierland – Lives of the New Left III

Hoosierland USA – who would have guessed that placid Indiana University (IU) would become a hothouse in the ‘60s for the politics of the left as well as the right. Not only were dozens of New Left activists nurtured there, but also several nationally known conservative student leaders. Several extremist IU alums even went on to join one of the most violent groups of those times, the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA.

On the right – the New Right of conservative politics – three fellow students, who would subsequently assume major leadership roles in the nationwide conservative movement, actively contested the IU New Left on the Vietnam War. One became President of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and  later served in the Nixon White House, another founded a magazine that became immensely influential in conservative circles in Washington and across the country, while the third alum assumed leadership of the national pro-Vietnam War movement.*

For the New Left activists, most of them anyway, who returned to IU for a gala reunion in August 2013 as well as for two of the campus conservative leaders, family politics had been a significant determinant of their activism as students and beyond. In contrast, the genesis of the IU SLA members’ – William Harris, Emily Harris, and Angela DeAngelis Atwood – subsequent infamous behavior is less well understood.

Perhaps most surprising was the case of Angela DeAngelis, who subsequently took the nom de guerre ‘General Gelina’ in the SLA and helped kidnap Patricia Hearst. Angela had arrived at Indiana University from a New Jersey high school where she’d been a popular young woman, cheerleading captain, and the star of many school musicals. True, at IU she fell under the influence of Gary Atwood, a student left activist whom she later married, but otherwise hers was a fairly typical college experience – joining a sorority, performing in university theater, majoring in education.
Angela DeAngelis, Indiana University ‘70
The New Left returnees included several ‘red diaper babies’** and a number from politically active liberal families; another was the son of British Laborites, members of the Labor Party. One of the conservative leaders came from a Republican activist family, while the other – who had served two tours in Vietnam – was from a family whose members had served in previous wars. The offspring of all these legacies went on to make waves on the placid surface of Indiana University and later in society at large. In contrast, the extremist SLA dramatically crashed and burned, so to speak, during the ‘70s. Only one member remains in prison serving a life sentence, while others who have served time keep a low profile.
The one outlier among the IU New Left was my younger brother Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), who, during his IU years, became a leading member of SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society. Jeff and I came from an apolitical family. Our parents probably voted Democratic, but they never revealed their preferences to us. I recall only one family ‘political’ outing. In the late ‘40s a few years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, my mother took me – Jeff was too young – on a kind of pilgrimage from where we lived down along the Hudson River to visit the late president’s grave in the garden of the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park NY.
The only topics of conversation Jeff and I ever heard at table were about our parents’ business or their busy social life. No politics or political issues were discussed. I later learned why. Their business was in a town marked by partisan politics where power changed hands frequently. The key office was town assessor. The incoming administration would reward its business supporters with lower tax levies, while the assessments for those who opposed them would rise.
So Jeff and I went out into the world as political innocents. To add to our quiescence, we both attended a traditional military prep school where the politics of the day were never mentioned. No doubt it was simply assumed that the mainstream ‘50s consensus of the Eisenhower era prevailed. I left home first, eventually landing in academe where I imbibed the standard liberal politics of the professoriate, while Jeff ended up in Vietnam where disillusionment with the mission politicized him. Later at IU among the New Left, the very group now meeting decades later, he became radicalized.
Jeff Sharlet’s senior yearbook photo, The Albany Academy, 1960
           
Because Jeff died at an early age, I was invited to the reunion in his stead. Hence, I found myself at the gathering’s ‘Town Hall’ – a general meeting – listening with fascination as Jeff’s old friends and comrades spoke of their lives on the left. In their activism at IU, two of those profiled below clearly reflected their families’ political legacies. The other individual, very much in the spirit of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), read a posthumous statement, literally a voice from the grave.
Tom Balanoff’s (IU ’72) father had been a man of the Old Left, the well-known director of the largest district in the steelworkers’ union during the heyday of American heavy industry. No real surprise then that Tom followed in his footsteps, choosing the Old Left over the New Left at IU, and later pursuing a career in the trade union movement.           
Starting modestly, Tom began at the bottom of the career ladder as a lowly union staffer. However, his talent for organization and leadership was soon recognized, and he moved up the hierarchy, eventually becoming a major national and international union leader. In the post-industrial landscape of past decades, Tom’s organizational base became the ‘Service Employees International Union’ (SEIU), made up mainly of janitors and security guards.

 
Tom Balanoff, union leader in action
In his remarks at the IU Town Hall, Tom Balanoff filled in the details of his career as a left activist who went on to success in the contemporary labor movement:
I was here in Bloomington from ’68 to ’72, a very exciting time to be here. I’m also a red diaper baby so I came to IU with a very strong sense of politics. My friends, many of whom are here – who were in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – didn’t  really agree with my politics because we were with Joe [Stalin, an allusion to the American Communist Party] instead of Leon [Trotsky, guiding spirit of the SWP]. Quite frankly it seemed appropriate to me at the time, but it doesn’t seem that appropriate anymore.

After leaving Bloomington, I went into the labor movement – actually I first went to grad school. Initially I tried to get into the labor movement – you know like my father, work my way up in the mill – but looking back no steel mill anywhere in Indiana would hire me because of our family name. So I ended up going to grad school [for an MA in Labor and Industrial Relations], and then I went into the labor movement. I’ve been in the labor movement for the last 40 years.

I work in the Service Employees International Union. I worked for a number of industrial unions, and in ’88 I went to the SEIU as a research director. I will say that it’s the one job – and I’ve had a number of positions – but the one job I really wasn’t qualified for, but that was neither here nor there. They actually recruited me – I became Research Director of the Property Service Division.

Maybe you’ve heard about the ‘Justice for Janitors Movement’? … I was the national director of it, and then in ’94 I went back to Chicago for SEIU … I made the transition to an elected position, got elected president of that local.

I’m president of Local 1 in Chicago, it’s a Property Service local, we’re a central region local. … I don’t know if any of you have heard about the Houston janitors struggle, but we organized that. I was the president and negotiated all those contracts – won two successful strikes, our first historic one in 2006, and last summer a five-week strike to maintain janitors’ standards in Houston. … I do a lot of stuff for SEIU – I’m on the national board. I actually do a lot of international labor stuff [too]. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.
As a prominent union leader, Tom is active in national politics as well as the local Chicago scene. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, and most recently he joined the street protest against closing school closings in Chicago.
Unlike Tom Balanoff – at IU Ellen Ostrofsky made the transition from a family of the Old Left to the campus New Left. Her mother and uncle had been young activists for the Old Left, but Ellen and her future husband became New Left activists at IU. Of course, the New Left was initially an offspring of the Old Left, but soon left behind the doctrinaire, hierarchical, and highly disciplined political style of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) as well as the various non-communist old line socialist alternatives.
At the Town Hall Ellen was on the far side of the large room, so below are excerpts from her remarks which came through clearly on the audio:
I came [to the reunion] with my brother Charlie. … I was in high school in ’67. I wasn’t a red diaper baby, but there were people in my family who were in the progressive movement. My mother told me that as a child she sold the ‘Daily Worker’ in New York.  …
The Daily Worker, official paper of the American Communist Party
I remember when I was in high school, my mother was at the Democratic National Convention [in Chicago ‘68], and I remember her saying, “You should be down there marching!” …. I went down there with my dad and I passed out leaflets, and we talked and talked.
And then Charlie went to IU and of course my dad wanted me to come here too. So I came down in ’69 and I just loved it here … some of the best years of my life. When my husband went [out] with me – he was my boyfriend then – we were active and went to all the demonstrations.
It’s funny, I remember one of the antiwar demonstrations in Washington. We were running down – going down the middle of the street and there was my aunt from New York City. She’s standing in the middle of the street saying, “Well we were here looking for Charlie.” And she found me! Some of the best years and we made some great friends. I remember people here, great friends ….
I have to say, I haven’t really been active though I taught art in school in Chicago for years. Teaching school was a real education, a real education. I think I learned more from my kids. As I said, these are some of the happy memories ….
The last speaker of this profile was quite unusual. Not a person of the left, Anna Wiley, IU ’56, had heard that members of the former IU New Left were coming back to Bloomington, and had come to the Town Hall to greet them on behalf of her late husband, some of whom he had taught at IU.
David Wiley had a long and successful career as a theater professor and director of student productions – from Shakespeare to the modern Theater of the Absurd – at several colleges and universities. He was on the faculty of Indiana University during its most tumultuous period, 1966-73. Throughout his academic career, Professor Wiley also distinguished himself as an activist for liberal causes.
At his first posting, a college in Virginia in the ‘50s, he promoted racial integration. In Bloomington in the ‘60s, he assumed leadership roles in the ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, both locally and statewide. At his final teaching position, a southern university in the Bible Belt, Wiley and his wife, Anna, were plantiffs in a lawsuit in federal district court against Bible study in public schools – a courageous stand that cost him his departmental chairmanship in that fundamentalist environment. The chancellor of the university asked him to step down.        
Akin to the inhabitants of fictional Spoon River who declaimed from the town cemetery, David Wiley ‘spoke’ to the New Left that morning in a letter written before his death. Following a speaker who read out a roll call of the IU activists dead and gone, including brother Jeff, Anna Wiley rose from the audience, saying “I’d like to add a few words from the grave”:
My husband, David Wiley, in the years you’re talking about, was a theater professor. He directed Gary Atwood, whom you may remember, and Angela DeAngelis in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. But at the end of his career – he is now gone – he wrote these words about you, and so I thought you might be interested:
          I remember finding before me at Indiana University, 
          women in fighting dress:  jeans bell-bottomed, tie-dyed
          T-shirts, and an embarrassing absence of bras, and the
          men hardly distinguishable from the women.  They were
          students who took no prisoners, who were suspicious of
          the faculty and abhorred the administration, who could
          go on strike and blockade the classroom buildings, who
          made demands, who forced the central administration of
          a great university to set up a secret headquarters in case
          the president's office was occupied.

          Their language was forthright, figurative, and four-
          lettered.  By our latter-day standards, foul-mouthed.
          I had not heard that language since my Army days.  
          Many of them though were intellectually tough and
          relentlessly honest, but some sadly took on a kind of
          inexplicable madness, perhaps under the frustration
          of not being able to change the world in a day or night.
          One of my advisees [Angela DeAngelis Atwood]
          distinguished herself by becoming a member of the
          group [the SLA] that kidnapped Patty Hearst, and
          in a firefight with the police. 
          [Anna: At the time my husband lamented that her
          education had failed her.]
          But these were not just hippie-esque  folk, a passing
          curiosity in American life.  They shocked the old
          traditions of  the academic world and pulled them up
          by the roots.  The present state of relationships between
          students, faculty, and administration my be linked
          directly to the upheavals of their generation.
          They had discovered something that their forebears
          missed:  that students had power.  They demanded and
          got places for students on key administrative committees.
          They made student evaluations of the faculty popular.
         They and their progeny were willing to challenge the
         canons of literature and the arts and the sciences,
         questioning the dominance of Eurocentric studies in 
         colleges and universities in America, demanding new
         courses of study, even new departments.
So we end this segment with David Wiley's eloquent paean to the New Left and its impact on university life and society – echoing themes and counter-themes of the analogue text Spoon River mentioned earlier. Both the poet Masters and the collective voices of the IU Town Hall shared disappointment during their respective eras that America's original democratic ideal had grown tarnished; however, their remedies diverged profoundly.
Masters, fundamentally pessimistic about his America at the turn of the 20th century, looked back wistfully to an Edenic past characterized by a simpler Jeffersonian society, while the gracefully aging IU activists, inspired by Marx, still hopefully aspired to a future marked by the Marxian ideal of a fairer society.
 __________________
*http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2013/07/blueprint-fr-police-state-in-american.html

**The phrase 'red diaper baby' usually signifies a child born of at least one parent associated with the American Communist Party, although more loosely as the offspring of radical parents of the Old Left.  It's difficult to know, however, whether such a self-described person means the term narrowly or broadly.

No comments:

Post a Comment