B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


 

San Francisco in the Sixties

Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967),
the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco magazine (1967-1975)

 

 

San Francisco Magazine

1971

The Quieting of America
Peace Might Break Out
The Real Polarization in America
The Invasion of Laos
Manson, My Lai, and the Devil
Ping Pong Diplomacy
General Breakdown
San Francisco Today
Nixon’s China Ploy
What’s Going on in Britain?
Your Move, Mayor
The Local Election

 

 


 

The Quieting of America


We have just come through a long period of profound disorder and disorderization, dating approximately from the assassination of Jack Kennedy, accompanied by growing economic crisis and breakdown of the environment. For the past six months things have been comparatively calm, even where the geopoliticians have built in trouble: in the two Irelands, the two Vietnams, the two Chinas, the two Palestines, the two Koreas. And African affairs seem to be in some muddle where no crisis can arise.

This may well be the calm before a storm, but when the storm comes it will be of a different kind from those of the past seven years. From Harlem and the rural slums of the deep South to Java or Kurdistan, we have seen the spread of the “revolution of rising expectations.” You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that our society, when it produces abundance, it utterly unable to distribute it equitably. The beautiful people in the metropoles were living in an avalanche of the commodities advertised in Playboy, while in plain sight of $2500-a-month apartments in New York City hundreds of children were suffering from malnutrition and they were dying of starvation outside the gates of the luxury hotels of New Delhi.

Expectations may continue to rise, but it’s not going to do them any good. Just as in 1930-31, economic crisis is spreading across the world, bringing down one national economy after another until now even the Swiss and Germans are running scared. The crisis curves are smoother than a generation ago, but they are the same shape; they are formed by the same coordinates.

Theoretically, all the uproar of the past few years should have produced disciplined, competent organizations which would enter the oncoming period able to meet it efficiently, to expand rapidly, and to propose solutions that would be widely acceptable. The extraordinary thing is that this has not happened on any level. We would expect the revolution for psychedelic candy bars led by silly people like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman to wash out the minute things got tough, but organization has broken down generally, not just on the left. The Democratic Party in California has become totally incoherent, but so has it elsewhere, except where regional bosses and political warlords rule decaying provincial satrapies. But the Republican Party is in very little better shape, which is why the Org Department (as the Bolsheviks used to call it) is taking over from the Agitprop and Nixon’s windbags and mouthpieces are being replaced by professional apparatchiks.

Partly, the quieting of America is due to massive repression. Almost everybody who has been in the headlines and on television as a radical leader is now in jail or out on appeal (on good behavior) or under indictment, or on bail (on good behavior). Partly it is due to the sheer foolish infantilism of the spokesmen and leaders of the left who were created — and this is of the utmost importance — not by the “masses,” for whom they claim to speak, but by the Media, who turned them on, to speak to “the masses,” and reduce them to the status of the characters in Sesame Street.

Partly, the disorganization of the left and of the radical right is due to an overwhelming blanketing operation by the police. As cases come up to trial it is obvious that the Movement of the Sixties was stifled with stool pigeons, provoked with agents provocateurs, and organized by professional disrupters. If the follies, factional fights, splitting, advocacy of acts and policies designed to antagonize the maximum number of people were not paid for by the cops, the taxpayers sure as hell saved a lot of money. If it was Russia, all the notorious leaders of the last 10 years would now be in the dock confessing to being stool pigeons and saboteurs. Such accusations and phony confessions are plausible because it is all the same world. Like spies and counter-spies, these people all think alike.

For the past 10 years social action has been a luxury. In the decades to come it is very likely to be an iron necessity. The time has come to start getting rid of the fools, and what Stalin used to call “diversionists.” Just as such a deeply committed administration cannot afford to go into the next two years with an amusing diversion in the show window like Wally Hickel, so the left can no longer afford its TV stars. Things are grim and getting grimmer. Wally Hickel, Warren Hinckle — anomaly is not enough.

As for the center, what the Panthers call the fascist liberals, they don’t even have any TV stars. It’s a pity we don’t vote for Secretary of State. A triumvirate of Muskie, Lindsay and Gene McCarthy would probably win if — but that’s the if — if in the next two years an organization could be built out of the ruins of the machines of Johnson, the Kennedys, and the old-liners like Daley.

Of course, the other side may throw away their power. Even though the citizens of Kent, Ohio, seem to be in favor of murdering their own children, they are not typical of the majority. The lunatic radical right is simply not big enough, and there are indications that the present administration plans to try to give them everything they want. So in 1972 it may be another bout like Murphy versus Tunney. You can always beat nothing with something.

[January 1971]

 


 

Peace Might Break Out


Of course anything may happen at any minute, but as we move into 1971 it looks like we might have before us a year of comparative calm. A primary source of this soothing influence has been the West German government. Even a moderate Social Democracy ruling in one of the great powers can exert an immense pressure toward sanity and peace — as long as it is independent. The last British Labor government, alas, tied itself to Johnson’s kite and really fell with him. The virulent antagonisms of the central European nations seem to have quieted, at least temporarily, and the West Germans have played a kind of go or Chinese checkers with the East German regime. The East Germans are surrounded, and can do little else but agree to saner and more normal relations with the West. If this happens, the Ulbricht government may well fall, to be replaced by the extremely radical neo-communist technocrats who now operate East Germany behind Ulbricht’s back. This should release a wave of reform in all the Communist parties, possibly even the Russian, not unlike that of the unfortunately too early Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia.

England may well be admitted to the European economic community this year, and when that happens all the other outsiders on the continent will soon have to be admitted too and at last there will come about a united Europe that can free itself from American economic imperialism and the shenanigans of the CIA.

There already exists an international of youth in Europe. Young people wander freely from country to country and more and more come to think of themselves as people of one world. Even the bastions of the Iron Curtain cannot keep them out. There are almost as many hippies coming and going in Tashkent as there are cruising the main stem of Katmandu. There is another international which has not received so much notoriety, that of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers — the Greeks, Italians, Turks, Yugoslavs, Spanish, Portuguese, Mexicans and South Americans, and even Negroes and some whites from the United States — who do the hard work in the booming economies of the northern sphere of nations. They, too, most of whom originally were peasants, members of a class traditionally virulently prejudiced nationalists, are becoming internationalists; they are also getting ideas from the youth international that infiltrate their ranks.

It begins to look as if terror for terror’s sake, revolution for the hell of it, is dying out in America. Most of the leaders are either in jail or out on good behavior and the more irresponsible clowns like Jerry Rubin are thoroughly discredited and are booed by college audiences. This does not mean that revolt in America is disarmed; it is not. It just means that the leaders of the present underground have learned some sense and have also learned to wait.

Domestic explosions in America are going to depend on the state of the American economy and on the degree of irresponsible violence from the Establishment. Of course if the present slide toward sever economic crisis continues and unemployment reaches 12 percent or more, consumer buying is reduced to a minimum, the stock market collapses and industry operates at less than 70 percent of capacity, everything will blow up.

Those of us who are old enough remember the great hunger marches and agricultural and waterfront strikes of the early Thirties. Huge masses of people were thrown into social conflict. If this happens again they will not be led by stodgy, petty-bourgeois Communist bureaucrats but by people who will make Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver look like little Quakeresses.

This is the keystone. All over the world the events of the coming year will depend on the state of the American economy. If things get bad enough, even Germany, Japan and Russia will not be able to withstand the economic maelstrom of American collapse, and the dreams and promises of an independent and prosperous Europe will be gone.

Roosevelt did not solve the economic crisis that began in 1929 by social reform; he solved it just as did Germany, England and France — by preparation for war and finally by war itself. Nobody knows this better than the Chinese, and the realization that they may soon be on a very dangerous spot accounts for their recent gestures of, if not friendship, at least nonbelligerence toward other nations, even Russia. If they can protect themselves, make friends and influence people and create a series of buffers over against America, the solution of war will not be an option open to the United States. Peace might break out all over.

[February 1971]

 


 

The Real Polarization in America


A while ago I was asked to be the speaker, as distinguished from the preacher, after the services dedicating the new clerestory windows at Grace Cathedral. These are dedicated to the secular achievements of man and portray a vivid assortment of people for a church. Amongst them Henry Ford and John L. Davis.

It was a kind of mass demonstration of the Establishment. Everybody who is anybody was there: the Roman archbishop and his suffragans, the leading rabbis, the Methodist bishop and the leading Protestant ministers, of course all the Episcopal hierarchy, the mayor, the highbrow pin-up who is the chairlady of the Board of Supervisors, a whole row of people in academic hoods — including the retired silent-screen actor who rules San Francisco State College.

It is unlikely that any of my colleagues — Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg or the Berrigan brothers — would be invited to speak to a similar bash at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. There’s no question but what San Francisco is highly civilized.

What does it mean to live in a city, to be part of a community where the mayor quotes Matthew Arnold or Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Nothing less like the civic establishments in the rest of the United States could be imagined. The contrast with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew was total. Almost everybody there would have been at a loss to know how to make the President of the country or the mayor of Los Angeles feel at ease if they came to dinner. Does it mean anything? Does an administration that pushes Arthur Schlesinger in the swimming pool rule the country better than one that shares the grape juice and cottage cheese and ketchup with Billy Graham? On the record there doesn’t seem to be very much difference, but it’s less frightening to be ruled by the civilized than by the militantly mindless. Or is it? Was the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis less frightening than the invasions of Cambodia and Laos? Waiters were nicer to you in French restaurants during the Kennedy era.

The Manhattanization of San Francisco, the undisputed rule of organized crime, the smoldering racial welfare, the destruction of the fabric of the City, the uncontrollable congestion and pollution — are any of these problems nearer solution because in the City Hall the politicians come and go talking of Michelangelo, or even Van Gogh, Rimbaud, and Artaud? Jimmy Rolfe kept Capone out of San Francisco and there was nothing under his silk hat but a little warm air. Things were easier then, of course, nobody would have understood Herb Caen’s daily wisecracks, or if they had they probably would have locked him up and forbidden the paper in the mails. Do the well-bred, the genteel, the sophisticated have any more control of society than the old boys in the back room divvying up the payoff from the whorehouses?

Certainly this is one of the great polarizations dominating American life — the cultivated versus the vulgar. It looks like the coming civil war will be fought between the hips and the squares. The principal issue in last Fall’s election was the four-letter word and the Greek Colonel ran against Charlie Manson. Maybe the mindless are just more scary masters. Maybe our fright is unjustified. Nero was one of the leading intellectuals of his time.

There is a polarization in contemporary society, all over the world but especially in America, which most of those people gathered to celebrate those windows in the cathedral didn’t seem to know anything about although most are supposedly in the business of knowing just such things. It was a celebration of the achievements of secular man, the accomplishments of a materialist and predatory civilization, though all over the world the young and many not so young have come to reject secular man and his material accomplishments.

In the country all around San Francisco are communes where the standard of living is below that of the Miwok Indians before the coming of the white man. A few days after I gave that speech we were visited by the leader of a commune — on 300-odd acres of undeveloped land with no proper shelter, no real sanitation facilities and the most primitive water supply — which at the height of the hitchhiking influx during the summer often numbers 150 people. Life is more primitive there than in the shantytown favelas of Rio de Janeiro, yet most of these people are upper middle class, college educated, some of them with respectable accomplishments in the world they’ve left. They have retreated from what they consider the rotten corpse of a civilization to a life which denies every value of that civilization it possibly can. The same thing happened in ancient times when the first monks fled to the Egyptian desert.

But it’s not just hippies in communes today, as it wasn’t just lice-covered monks living in caves in the desert in those days. People who live outwardly the most conformist and respectable lives find this civilization at its best offers them no meaning, no satisfaction in their lives. For them life has no spiritual significance in the White House, chez Mr. and Mrs. Nixon, but it has none in the ivied halls of learning or the jeweled fanes of the cathedral either.

Is Humpty Dumpty ever going to be put back together again? I doubt it. Everybody knows the prescription — A Great Spiritual Awakening. Who’s left to blow the bugle or ring the bell? Maybe we are already awake and that’s all there is. Certainly the world is not going to be saved by putting Henry Ford in cathedral windows and bowing before the material achievements of secular man.

[March 1971]

 


 

The Invasion of Laos


By the time this column sees print the adventure in Laos may well have come to an end — and a nasty one at that. There’s no question, as of this moment, that the invading South Vietnamese army and the supporting American troops at the boarder are stuck on a very sticky wicket. It is quite possible that both groups will be completely encircled, cut off, and threatened with destruction — which can be averted in only one way.

Meanwhile the Chinese are making statements all too reminiscent of the ones they made on the eve of the crossing of the Yalu in the Korean War — but there’s a difference. This time they reiterate over and over that Nixon plans to use tactical nuclear weapons. (Tactical nuclear weapons are little bitty things, the size of conventional bombs and shells, that atomize battalions or towns rather than populations.) Nixon is certainly on record as advocating the use of such weapons, or even full-scale nuclear bombing, to “prevent defeat,” ever since Dienbienphu. Whenever catastrophe forced some melodramatic situation, Roosevelt used to say, “We planned it that way.” Is this what is happening in Laos? Obviously the Chinese think so.

The present Administration may be militantly mindless, but that’s an ideological thing, not the same as hopelessly stupid. You have to be pretty stupid to believe that the raw and recalcitrant South Vietnamese army, backed up by the morale-less American forces, could win a heavy-armed ground battle on conventional terms with an equal force of the North Vietnamese army. If 9000 of our boys are caught in a trap and threatened with total extermination or surrender, the moms back in Dubuque at their television sets will consent to bring out the atomizer, at least the little one, “to save lives.” That’s why we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as we’ve been told over and over again. Think of all the lives we saved then. There’s no doubt but what this is what the Chinese suspect — that the invasion of Laos was bait for a nuclear trap.

It’s an all-or-nothing situation. If the Ho Chi Minh trail is permanently cut the North cannot continue the war in the South or in Cambodia. Any force that sits across it must be destroyed, totally eliminated. Ground occupation is a very different thing than air harassment. On the other hand, an all-out attack designed to destroy the invaders runs the almost certain risk of nuclear retaliation. Does anybody believe that nuclear warfare, once started, will be limited to atomic hand grenades and pistols out of science fiction? If tactical nuclear weapons are used in Laos the chances of Hanoi being in existence a week later are poor indeed.

The European press, even of the Left, does not take so apocalyptic view. They look on the Laos invasion as a large-scale search-and-destroy mission. On again, off again, gone again Finnegan. But that’s what Cambodia was. Since the Ho Chi Minh trail is not a narrow track through the jungle but a broad band of highly protected communication, no raiding technique is going to disrupt it for long, just as massive bombing now seems to bother the movement of troops and supplies hardly at all. Only solid ground occupation will work.

If this is what it is all about, what’s the point of it? Is Nixon leaving Southeast Asia like a bandit in an old-time Western, backing out of a saloon with both guns blazing? Are sharp, violent punches supposed to be throwing the enemy off base and keeping him rattled so that American troops may withdraw in safety? But this isn’t what happens. The North Vietnam army is one of the largest in proportion to the population in the history of warfare, and its armament now comes close to matching the Americans. The Russians and Chinese are just as anxious as we are to try out their latest weapons systems. Each aggressive move on the part of the American forces has been met with equal retaliation. On the other hand, whenever American activity has died down, the North Vietnamese have reciprocated. Obviously, if the American Administration actually planned to withdraw all of its forces from South Vietnam, it would be able to set a date and arrange a truce in Paris within a week of negotiation.

At best, we can only hope for a solution like that in Korea, if this Administration has its way, but the North has stated 10,000 times that they will not accept a Korean solution.

A most ominous factor in the whole situation, since the beginning of the year, is the increasing censorship, the unavailability of news, and the subtle and not so subtle sabotage of the work of the news agencies in the field. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a joke, the old army game of bureaucratic paranoia. The total news blackout of the Laotian invasion blacked out only the American public. Everybody else in the world knew about it, from canal bargemen in north China to café sitters in Paris, and so, of course, from foreign sources, did the American press. They call it security measures. From whom is the security of the invading armies being protected? In the First War, Lenin promulgated the slogan, “The Main Enemy Is at Home!” Has Nixon been reading Lenin? Increasingly, the Administration is treating the American public as an enemy in the Vietnam War.

How long can this sort of stuff go on? The recent Newsweek exposé of the total collapse of morale in the American army reveals a situation in which warfare cannot be carried on by conventional methods. The entire conduct of the war since the Cambodian invasion shows that the Administration has lost its morale too — that it is convinced that it no longer has the American people behind it. Certainly a government which believes that, to use the ancient Chinese phrase, The Mandate of Heaven has passed from it, has lost its morale and can rule only by violent means. Maybe it was only a false rumor, but The Wall Street Journal was willing to believe that the Administration had asked the Rand Corporation to study the feasibility of suspending the Presidential election in 1972. The Chinese obviously believe that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is imminent and are preparing countermeasures to be put into action instantly. These beliefs are two of a kind. Sane, cautious men are willing to believe them, true or false.

[April 1971]

 


 

Manson, My Lai, and the Devil


For weeks, the Manson and Calley trials ran side by side, sharing the headlines. Yet scarcely anyone — editorial writers, columnists, or the public — saw fit to draw the parallel. Read a blow-by-blow description of what happened in Bel Air. Remove the personal details and move it to My Lai. What’s the difference? Purely quantitative geography, skin color, economics and, of course, the number of victims.

But the country did not explode with self-righteous indignation over the sentence of the Manson defendants. Perhaps a majority of Americans are quite willing to assume moral responsibility for My Lai or Kent State, or the extermination of the Black Panthers, but one thing follows from another. Is the local Kiwanis Club willing to assume responsibility for the Manson massacres, too?

I think we have touched on the source of something about the Manson case that puzzles well-educated, enlightened liberals (the Panthers call them “liberal fascists”) and that is the deliberate, self-conscious Diabolism — the witchcraft. Manson was certainly a warlock out of horror comics, and his girls called themselves witches. I wonder how many straight people are aware of the tremendous eruption of witchcraft in contemporary society. If they are, are they aware that it is almost as common in Russia as in America or England?

Are they aware that this, in the most literal sense, is a systematic rejection of the values of modern civilization — not as amongst the flower children for other, non-Western values, but for the opposite of the contemporary value system? It’s one thing to meditate on Krishna, The Great Lover, or Shiva, Lord of the Dance, or Tara, the Bride of Buddha. It’s another to invoke devils. Carl Jung made the I Ching respectable, and T.S. Eliot, the Tarot pack, and the Buddhists and early Taoists are self-evidently more civilized than we are. But the educated “straight” person simply does not believe that his daughter is jumping around in a circle drawn with chicken blood, stark naked, invoking Asmodeus or Beelzebub. He doesn’t believe in God, much less the Devil. How can she believe in the hierarchy of the infernal regions, and not only that, but believe that those powers can be materialized with the aid of miscellaneous rubbish bought in a head shop and forced to do her bidding?

For years people have asked me, “What do you mean by the term you are so fond of, the Social Lie?” Here we see the consequences worked out in a simple deductive process. If this, then that; if that, then that; and so on to Asmodeus. If the establishment is founded on lies; if the statements of the President are true only by accident; if the hypocrisy of the churches is practically absolute; if education is fraudulent and designed only to produce bureaucrats; and so on, then the philosophy on which the social system is founded is false, and the scientific world view, which is a consequence of that philosophy, is a system of mutually supporting falsehoods. Therefore, Newton is false, and Einstein, Darwin, and even Euclid. Therefore, the counter-tradition, which has always been that denying the values of the dominant society, is true. It does no good to tell the alienated that astrology is demonstrably false and impossible. The demonstration proceeds from certain presuppositions that he rejects. It does no good to say that a belief in the Powers of Darkness is absurd. Certainly the twentieth century has provided better evidence for their existence than for the Powers of Light.

Is there a personal Devil? What does that mean? There are obviously people in the world whose motives are positively evil. Contrary to Socrates, when presented with full opportunity for rational choice, they do not choose the good, they choose the bad. The assumption is that a civilization exists to keep them powerless. Whether it does or not, as civilization decays and its values become inoperable, their power increases by the sheer accumulation of evil acts. At the time of the Moscow Trials, I pointed out that the Russians were not on Mars: they were human beings, on this planet, and a wholesale moral catastrophe would metastasize throughout the species and could not be isolated behind the barbed wire of a totalitarian state. So much more true was this of the German extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Communists and others. My Lai cannot be kept away in the jungle. Charles Manson is a product of American society, and the girls are even typical of an immense and ever growing class, as he himself noted. The old liberal notion that crime is a sickness is based on the Socratic Fallacy that man, given the chance, will choose the good. Any policeman can tell you that most criminals are in it for the fun.

Most professional criminals, real yeggs, stickup men, boosters and cannon guys, do not come from broken homes and poverty. But there is no comparison with their denial of the values of the society and the behavior of heads of states and great industries and business enterprises. The existence of karma is obvious; the deeds of men do accumulate. The evil deeds accumulate until they reach the tipover point, and what tips over is the society, which becomes an association of psychopaths. The diagnostic sign of the psychopathic personality is the remark made to the counselor or psychiatrist, “Everybody else does it, why shouldn’t I?” If you have never been a counselor or headshrinker you cannot believe how common this remark is, and amongst the most “deviant” individuals. Finally, the behavior of the sociopath becomes the norm of social order.

A bunch of wild-eyed kids full of drugs burst into a private home and indiscriminately kill perfectly innocent people. Where? Bel Air? My Lai?

Who turns the values of civilized society into their opposites? Who raises the Powers of Darkness?

[May 1971]

 


 

Ping Pong Diplomacy


The rigid, illimitable bureaucracies that rule the world today all share total lack of a sense of humor, and in time this seeps through the society until it becomes obvious in the daily life of the people. Visitors to China and Russia notice it immediately. Everything is taken with deadly seriousness; in China, the more bureaucratic the deadlier. Real humor at the expense of the regime is underground. Public humor, as in the Chinese theater or in the Russian Krokodil, is directed at faults of the regime from the point of view of the regime. It is never permitted to mock the values of the regime itself. Many critics have been concerned for the last 20 years with the decline of American humor, which is usually blamed on television, which they say would burn up Mr. Dooley, Mark Twain or Will Rogers in a couple of years. Perhaps so. Perhaps it is a reflection of the totalitarianization of American life, a voluntary and popular totalitarianization. Only recently, as the Vietnam War has alienated more and more people, has a savage, critical humor grown up. One trouble, of course, is that there isn’t anything very funny about what’s going on. It’s like Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, which isn’t funny now that we know about the gas ovens.

All this apropos of ping pong. The Establishment’s press has greeted the great Ping Pong Contest with the utmost solemnity. Nobody suggests that it’s sublimely ridiculous, the dream of a savage humor worthy of Jonathan Swift. Here are two immense nations with almost a billion persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left, and one false step by a white or yellow Lt. Calley in an airplane and sentient life would disappear from the solar system. Yet they are all going to be saved by ping pong balls. Swift’s Little-Enders and Big-Enders never had it so good.

The demand for table tennis equipment has skyrocketed, in fact space rocketed. Factories are working night and day churning out little wooden paddles and plastic white balls. Chop suey joints are crowded every night. Chinese cookbooks have vanished from the bookstores and library shelves. Soon mah jong will sweep playing cards from all the bridge clubs and Women’s Wear, ignoring the 1911 Chinese Revolution, will advocate a pigtail for the fashionable woman and, within a year, bound feet. Meanwhile, rumor has it that a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum sells for 20 old-time Chinese dollars on the streets of Peking, and Bob Hope has been invited to entertain the Central Committee.

I certainly am for instant and total peace with China on any terms. For 25 years the world has been headed toward a war between colored and white races that is certain to erase the human race. Anything that will stop it is welcome. But what this sudden turnabout shows is the unreality of the causes leading to war in the first place. If the rabid anti-Americanism that has been the principal intellectual sport of the Chinese since 1948 can be shut off like a hot water tap, and the American politician who built his career on advocacy of a war of extermination against China can suddenly extend the hand of friendship to Chou En-lai while handing out mealy-mouthed pseudo-Quakerisms about the brotherhood of man, it is obvious that the issues which divided the two countries have been entirely the product of manipulation of the public mind. So patently manipulated a peace is almost as frightening as the 25-year-long managed drift toward war, and of course it is no real guarantee that war may not come just as suddenly with another turnabout over a game of dominoes.

I had intended to write about communes, and actually there is a connection between the great ping pong game and the commune movement. The more notorious communes are based on drugs. Self-protective associations of people so stoned they would not be able to function otherwise, they function as cooperative mental hospitals that save the taxpayers money. These will pass and they are not important.

What is important is a movement all over the world to escape from the obliterative namelessness of mass man. The structure of the ego reflected the structure of the nuclear family of Western civilization as Freud, in this instance at least, quite correctly pointed out, and personal identity is discovered by a kind of process of triangulation, locating the personal center in relation to the other persons of the family constellation — called growing up. As the nuclear family has broken down, there has resulted a worldwide pandemic of depersonalization, namelessness and alienation, divorce from one’s work, fellows, self, and reality. The world has filled up with atomic individuals manipulated like ping pong balls.

The essential humanity of man is not so easily lost. If one kind of family is gone, people will arise to create a new one. If home no longer means security, a new kind of home will be founded. The entire revolt against the dead, predatory civilization is polarized — on one hand activities which are simply symptoms of breakdown, collapse, degeneration; on the other, scarcely distinguishable by superficial observers, and least of all by the minions of the kept press, activities which are redeeming, re-creating, constructive of a new social order.

As time goes by, a new kind of voluntary family of mutual aid, esteem, affection, creativity will come to characterize the new civilization and gradually form its foundations just as the Confucian family formed the foundation of the old China. Otherwise, we have nothing to look forward to but a world of orphans. There are quite a number of “experiments in group living” in city and country, of people who are clean, orderly, creative and undrugged. I would welcome correspondence for another column on this subject.

[June 1971]

 


 

General Breakdown


From late spring and early summer for several years now there has been a general breaking down of human affairs; international, domestic and interpersonal relations all move blindly toward a new social order through a strange series of bumps and grinds and shiftings. Between Easter and the Fourth of July, as Congress moves toward adjournment and competitors in the fall elections begin to sound off, the columnists and editorial writers take the haruspices in an attempt to foresee the future.

Internationally, we are watching a new phase in the breakdown of the American System. The attempt at a new world order — beginning with the Marshall Plan commitment to defend Greece and Turkey, NATO, an American-style “United Europe,” and of course the ever-growing spread and penetration abroad of American business — has been an adventure that always reminds me of Napoleon’s “European System.” And it has had almost as short a life.

The dollar crisis early this spring freed European finance from economic instabilities resulting from American inflation and wasteful military adventures. The Franco-British conversations about Great Britain’s membership in the Common Market have made it abundantly clear that an all-European Common Market will be anti-American or the French will not permit it to come into existence. Bitter arguments over New Zealand vs. Norman butter or Canadian vs. French sugar beets are a diversion for the French voters. Britain, and with her the other “outsiders,” would be joining a technological community, uniting the computers and transistors of Europe to compete with the vast, unified American technology. What Pompidou is demanding is not just that Britain give up her preferential treatment of the farmers of the Commonwealth, but that British capital be prevented from playing the role of an American Trojan horse. Now the significant thing about this is that it is not West Germany or even Britain in which, proportionately, American capital has penetrated most widely since the Second World War, but precisely France. In other words, what Pompidou is seeking is an independent European base for American capital free of political controls of the state, of the political “American system.”

Back home, it took all the resources the administration could muster to defeat a Congressional attempt to cut the American commitment to NATO — which means not just military defense, but economic. The American taxpayers and major sections of the business community failed to see why they should pay for the defense of economically booming France and West Germany when their own country is in a depression. Of course, one of the reasons for the long European boom is that the major European nations have drastically cut their expenses for militarism and colonialism. The same is true of the Orient. Japan, which once believed the yen followed the sword, has discovered that it is far more profitable to behave like Switzerland — and besides, they can expand peacefully and powerfully into the Asiatic and African economic vacuums created by American military adventurism.

The United States no longer has the edge in the balance of terror, and the Russians seem to be committed to building a second and third and even fourth strike capacity behind vastly expensive and presumably impregnable defenses. This means, of course, an implied ultimatum — negotiate or else. On the other hand, Soviet economic imperialism has not been working, largely because the Russians have learned nothing since the analyses of 19th-century economic imperialism by Marx and Lenin. The best example is Cuba. When Castro took power he said he would banish sugar cane from the island within five years, that it was not just the symbol but the very embodiment of Yankee imperialism. Today Cuba is more of a monoculture than it has ever been, and nuclear physicists, violinists and doctors are dragooned into the sugar harvest corvées to sweeten Russian tea. It may not come about, but there are many cogent political and economic reasons for a Russian-American alliance and the abandonment of the Cold War. Mr. Brezhnev seems to be only intermittently aware of them as he speaks first for one Russian apparat and then for another.

Summer is a-coming in. Are the cities going to burn up again? Riots, naturally, are completely unpredictable, sparked by the most inconsequential occurrences, but my guess is there will not be widespread destructive rioting. There wasn’t much student rioting the past year for the simple reason that the students have been terrorized into submission. Reagan’s bloodbath policy has worked at least for one year. So likewise with the blacks. The police pogrom against the Black Panthers has frightened everybody. The minority is as militant as ever but they know now that they can’t outshoot The Man. True, black unemployment is almost as great as it was during the Thirties, but the black community can stand a lot of unemployment. It’s the engineers and the aerospace experts who have never known any whom unemployment is hurting. Black militants, like the white radicals, are casting about for new methods of struggle. The old ones have been defeated by massive arrests with their attendant astronomical expenses and by a policy of plain killing of a strategic and symbolic tiny minority.

What does it all mean for California? I doubt if Reagan’s “proto Fascist state,” really a revolt of the small and ignorant taxpayer, has run its course, given the fact of Southern California, actually a Southern state in itself. For years the division of the state has been a kind of joke, raked up periodically by politicians and editors. If civilization is going to survive in Northern California it has become a necessity. The cultural, even the financial life of the Bay Area should not be at the mercy of the mindless denizens of the smog-bound, rose-covered slums led by worn-out movie actors. I would like to see a serious movement started to partition the state. As for San Francisco, I’d like to see a revolt against both Manhattanization, the destruction of our priceless environment, and the ever-increasing power of organized crime (which the mayor says doesn’t exist) and which are more closely connected than you might think.

[July 1971]

 


 

San Francisco Today


West Pakistan massacres East Pakistan. The move to make New York City a separate state, considered a joke plank in Norman Mailer’s platform when he ran for mayor, suddenly takes on the character of a mass movement and most of the New York City Democratic Party apparatus comes out for it. The New York Times publishes The [Pentagon] Papers and reveals that the Vietnam War from beginning to end has been the result of deliberate fraud and lies. Nixon seizes his chance to suppress the press. The San Francisco Committee on Crime reports that the police force is antiquated, inefficient, unprofessional and corrupt. Every week another blow is struck at San Francisco as a livable urban environment. All these things, the headlines of the summer, have something in common: the breakdown of responsible government, the failure of an ever more centralized apparatus to respond to the will of the people. We’re not as bad off in San Francisco as they are in East Pakistan or even New York, but we are in a pretty bad way.

The Newsweek story on the Crime Committee report starts off with the sentence, “With its excellent restaurants, relaxed atmosphere and pleasant architecture, San Francisco constitutes a welcome throwback to the days when cities were for people instead of for skyscrapers and automobiles.” What San Francisco are they talking about? This is Herb Caen’s San Francisco, that Baghdad-by-the-Bay of Between-the-Wars, which every day he tries manfully to persuade himself still exists. At peak hours San Francisco has the highest concentration of automobile traffic in the world. Only one point, the Stockhaus in Munich, compares with it. The entire northeast corner of the City is being Manhattanized with architectural monstrosities over which the public seems to have no control whatsoever. From the Transamerica building to the Holiday Inn on Portsmouth Square to the overgrown cigarette lighter of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, these things sprout up everywhere as monstrous as the giant ice cream cones, Santy Clauses, Andy Gumps and hot dogs that characterized Hollywood architecture in the Twenties. Except those were hamburger joints and these are skyscrapers.

Only ten years or so ago I said in a newspaper column that North Beach was the last good entertainment district left in the country in which you got good entertainment, bona fide alcoholic drinks, good food at reasonable prices and all in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. This must sound pretty funny to someone who didn’t know North Beach in those days. Today it is indistinguishable from Forty-Second and Broadway, New Orleans’s French Quarter, or Calumet City. Except that Calumet City, when it was the great sucker trap of all the Organization’s operations in North America, is no more. It went bust. They killed the geese that laid the golden eggs. After getting their fingers burned off, the burnt babies learned to fear the fire. This is beginning to happen here. The worst joints along Broadway are getting a reputation around the country and the suckers are staying away from them.

San Francisco probably still has better food at more reasonable prices than any place in the world. Of the major cities only Barcelona is cheaper, and of course there are not so many good restaurants. Paris as the gourmet’s paradise is a thing of the past. Today when I think of good restaurants I think of one here, one there — Verona, West Berlin, Kyoto. In San Francisco there are still dozens, but they are certainly crowded. It’s hard to keep up the relaxed atmosphere and of course with inflation they become ever more expensive.

The police are a special problem. They are not thugs, most of them, like they are in Dallas or Los Angeles. They are old-fashioned cops. It’s a question of ideology, of what in jargon is called “self image,” what sort of person the policeman envisages himself as being, what he thinks the role of the peace officer is. I’m afraid that at best the San Francisco policeman thinks of himself as the good old-time neighborhood custodian; at the worst — well, San Francisco is the dope capital of the country and the chief of police says there is no organized crime in the City. Who in the hell does he think the lords of the heroin traffic are? Criminal small shopkeepers? San Francisco once had the reputation of being a city of friendly whores who loved their work, just one big Montparnasse. Today whole sections swarm with bedizened baby bandits of all sexes and colors who roll their tricks whenever they get a chance. Who permits this?

Of course many, perhaps the major problems of police work are only symptoms of the general breakdown of the society, of the demoralization of an evil war, of the population explosion, of the sudden concentration in the cities of populations with no preparation for the mutual responsibilities and privileges of urban living. Certainly these problems would not be made any worse by a well-trained, well-educated, professional police force subject to direct community control and living in the communities in which they work. Of course this costs money and all over the world the cities are in a tax crisis, primarily because of the immense proportion of tax money that goes to pay for wars, past, present and to come. There are no serious urban problems in San Francisco which could not be solved if all the money that is taken from the citizens for war was diverted to domestic, peaceful use.

Meantime, an overhaul of the whole antiquated structure of San Francisco’s administration and government would help. Modern city departments and a modern charter would at least ameliorate the problems. Of course the entire Bay Area conurbation should have one authority for all those problems common to the Bay Area. I’ve become convinced that splitting the state is no longer a joke. Southern California is a Southern state and threatens to colonize the north. My friends are saying, “Elect Diane Feinstein mayor. She’ll solve everything.” Does she know how bad everything is? Somebody should ask her.

[August 1971]

 


 

Nixon’s China Ploy


One day one of the boys in the super-colossal advertising agency which has the hot line to the White House — which is the hot line to the White House — was whiling away the summer afternoon with his feet on his desk, when suddenly he got up with a yell. “Sidney! Moe! Come here quick! I’ve got the gimmick of the century!” The rushed over. “What is it? What is it?” “Let’s send Big Tricky to Peking to exchange thoughts with Chairman Mao.” “Colossal!” “Terrific!” “Incredible!” “Formidable!” “Let’s give it some sex appeal,” said Sidney. “We’ll send Kissing Henry as an advance man to Handsome Chou En-lai.” “What will they talk about?” “What do you think? Their favorite sport.”

So began an Historic Epoch, the era of massive cooptation. Only a few weeks later, after everybody had done a lot of hard thinking night and day, Moe came up with a new idea. “I got a great new slogan. Down With The Gill!” “No, no, you can’t do that. Woodrow Wilson tried it and lost. Now too many of them vote.” “No, not jill, g-i-l-l.” “I don’t dig it — what have you got against fish?” “No, no, not gill, gill, the measure, a quarter of a pint. Think of it, think of the headlines! White House Attacks Inch! Abolishes Peck! Advocates Metric System!”

From then on it was all downhill. By Christmas grass was legalized. New Year’s Day Kate Millet was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of Women’s Affairs. The President’s message to Congress appeared first as a Playboy interview. The National Foundation for the Arts subsidized 2000 porny filmmakers and announced a national dirty limerick contest with a pressed Cadillac for first prize. On the eve of the election the White House was turned into an interracial tri-sexual commune with group sex in the Blue Room, broadcast in color via Telestar. LSD had been legalized the previous Christmas. On the Fourth of July a sugar cube a day was made compulsory and Spiro Agnew’s hair reached his shoulders and he burned up all his shoes on the White House lawn. One day, deep in the fifth term, somebody looked out the window. Outside the picket fence on Pennsylvania Avenue an aged man in a tattered bikini, his body completely coated with pancake makeup and his hair dyed bright blue, was tottering along at the head of a little band of four ladies in tennis shoes. They bore a long banner: FLUORIDATION IS CREEPING GENOCIDE. “Who is that?” asked the President. Kissing Henry peered through his binoculars. “It’s that old nut from California, the last of the demonstrators.” “Oh, him,” said the President, “what was his name? “Ronald Reagan,” said Kissing Henry.

Do you think it’s a joke? It’s the oldest ploy in the world. “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” was not invented by the Emperor Constantine. But what happened when Constantine embraced Christianity? He embraced it like a grizzly bear, and once it was embraced it ceased to be the religion of Jesus and became the religion of Constantine.

There are only two alternatives: The dominant culture can take over the forms of the counter-culture, empty them, and fill them with its own content, or it can insist on preserving its own forms — every last one, every jot and tittle. To do this it must embark on the most rigid and absolute totalitarianism because if it gives anywhere the wall is breached, and the fortress society falls. At the present juncture in America this would mean a generation of random guerrilla civil war and then it would be discovered that the content of the counter-culture had imperceptibly seeped in and filled all the forms of the dominant one.

All the pundits have been supposing the results of the President’s new China Policy. Let’s suppose. Let’s suppose the advertising men who run this government and the agitprop commissions in Peking and Moscow (the policy doesn’t make any sense unless it’s three-cornered) all get together and sell the slogan, “Share the World!” Where is freedom now?

At the present we are living in a society ridden by conflict and tension everywhere. Internationally, nationally, interpersonally, everything is at cross-purposes — but of course this imparts a very considerable dynamism to life. Solzhenitsyn, Tito, nor the New Economics or the Neo-Marxists would ever have been permitted to exist were it not for pressures from the outside. So we too on our side of the Iron Curtain have, not just Jerry Rubin, or LeRoi Jones, but Robert Oppenheimer and Eugene McCarthy, not to mention Allen Ginsberg. Of course there is always the possibility that we will all blow up in the next five minutes. If only the threats of war, race hatred, poverty, mass starvation, exhaustion of the environment, could all be done away with and the tensions generated by these evils could pass over into a new, purely creative dynamism. As it is, looking down the years ahead, the greatest threat to the human race, next to extinction, is totalitarianization of all life by mutual consent. We like to ignore the evidence that this is in fact the dominant tendency of our time. Hitler and Stalin year after year were “elected” by almost unanimous plebiscites.

It should be obvious that there is very little difference between the set of values advocated by Hugh Hefner and by Jerry Rubin, and both cannot be easily assimilated by despotism, but they are almost certain to be. The same is true of the program of the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims. Would life be any better for either black or white if they were realized tomorrow? So what kind of program do you advocate, Rexroth? It’s simple. Figure out those positive, creative elements of the relations of man to man and people to people that cannot be digested by the sausage grinder and stick to those and interpret all morals, ethics and politics in those terms. It’s really so simple. Who does it? Who ever did it?

[September 1971]

 


 

What’s Going on in Britain?


The average literate American, if he pays attention at all, knows only about two things going on today in the United Kingdom — the troubles in Northern Ireland and the endless debate, internally and externally, over England’s entry into the Common Market — within the Labor Party between Left and Right, between Labor and the Tories, and between the Government and the present Common Market members. Then of course there is also the failure of Rolls Royce.

By and large the average American is not very clear about the reasons for any of these things, but then neither is the average Englishman.

As for the civil war in Northern Ireland. Unless he is a Roman Catholic or a militant Protestant, the average Englishman, in fact everybody in Great Britain, wishes the “other island” would go away and get lost. Contrary to American belief, British society is far more secularized than American (Americans are now left as the most churchgoing people in the world) and, like us, they are appalled that religious differences could be held with such virulence and expressed with such violence in the latter years of the 20th century. The differences, of course, are not primarily religious, but economic. In Northern Ireland the Roman Catholics are unquestionably an exploited minority, denied proportionate share of political power, and kept, the majority of them, in the poorest jobs and forced to live in the worst slums; and the North Irish Catholics are well aware that this is not true of the Protestants in the Irish Republic. As Bernadette Devlin never tires of pointing out, it is a civil rights struggles like that raging in America, and in Northern Ireland Roman Catholics are niggers. The unimportance of Catholic faith and morals is conclusively shown by Miss Devlin’s not loss, but increase of popularity amongst her constituents after she announced that she was going to give birth to an illegitimate child. Even the gossip spread by the opposition that the father was an American black, which you hear everywhere now, hasn’t seemed to harm her.

If the British are annoyed, they have only themselves to blame. They began the partitioning of formerly subject nations, which is causing so much trouble today with Ireland, and repeated it with India, and the partitioning of Korea, Vietnam and in fact the Balkanization of Indochina, Palestine between Israel and Jordan — all these originated as notions of the British government in the postwar settlements. Had Ireland been “freed” from north to south, from corner to corner, the Irish would long since have been forced to make peace with one another. As it is, they promise to be able to indulge themselves in their favorite sports of riot and rebellion forever. The plain fact is that Eire, at least since it became completely independent, even of the Commonwealth, has been at peace, though it has a sizable Protestant minority. There are more than 200,000 non-Roman Catholics in the country as against more than three million Roman Catholics. In the North roughly two-thirds of the population are Protestant and one-third Roman Catholic. In the South the principal criticism against the Protestants is their undue prominence in the leadership of the Republic, socially, culturally and politically. Just as the only solution for India — the only way of stopping the appalling massacres that erupt in the subcontinent every few years — is to reunite Pakistan and India, and Kashmir and probably Ceylon, so the only solution of the “Irish Question,” now 900 years old, is to reunite the island. If the North Irish Protestants are really such a superior race, they can exercise their talents and energies to elevate their lesser brethren.

As for the Common Market. Labor’s abiding objection has been that the Common Market was an organization of purely capitalist states. They have borrowed unconsciously from Lenin and Trotsky: “As long as Europe remains capitalist, a United Europe is a Europe united against Socialism.” This, as well as the fact that their countries are tucked in the armpit of Russia, is the objection of the Finns and the Swedes. But it is no longer strictly true. Germany has a Social Democratic government and de Gaulle’s technocratic despotism was hardly laissez-faire capitalism, and both France and Germany are almost as much welfare states as the United Kingdom. Also the Common Market is no longer an economic federation dominated at long distance from America. So the British Labor Party is now split. The passionately expressed desire to “save New Zealand butter” is just demagogy, but it is true that membership in the Common Market will raise some food prices temporarily, but it should also increase production, lower the prices of commodities imported from Europe and in the long run raise wages. Objections from the Right come from the old defenders of the Atlantic Alliance — really, American hegemony — and from those who are still defending the “sterling area” — the financial power of the City of London, the Bank of England and the pound. Nixon has finished all this. The pound was really a second currency, dependent on the dollar, and now it has been cut loose to sink or swim, or attach itself to the mark. As for American capitalism, that has cut itself loose from the United States, and the ever-increasing international growth of the great American corporations takes place independently in England, France, Germany, Italy. Too tight a link to American enterprise can be disastrous. When a major British business is tied to the appropriations of the American Congress, one fiery speech and one vote can bankrupt it. The Rolls bankruptcy and the Starfighter scandals five years ago in Germany show what happens when you play airplanes with little American boys.

One of the undying topics of American conversation is “the evils of socialized medicine” in Great Britain. This is pure propaganda. The British Health Services work cheaply, without serious trouble, and British medicine, as art and science, steadily advances, while America’s becomes ever more commercial, ever more expensive, and ever more dependent upon pills and machinery, while statistically America’s public health standing amongst civilized nations steadily declines.

[October 1971]

 


 

Your Move, Mayor


Election time. Not only that but an off-year, a by-election, when the issues and candidates are mostly local. As a pundit, Mr. Rexroth, what are your recommendations?

I have no recommendations. As is well known, the little group of heavy thinkers that Jack Kennedy gathered around himself had come to the conclusion, by the summer and fall before his death, that the problems facing them nationally and internationally were insoluble. An atmosphere of hopelessness had settled over the personal cabinet of White House advisers. The most paranoid of all the theories of Kennedy’s death is that he knew about “the plot” and permitted it to take place as a form of suicide. The idea is crazy, but the impasse was a fact. It is to Lyndon Johnson’s credit that he cowboyed his way through like the good sheriff through a bar room of outlaws. The only showdown that didn’t yield to two-gun bravado was Vietnam.

Since then things have certainly not got any better. The racial impasse has frozen solid. Black nationalism and separatism and bitter, indiscriminate hostility to all whites, especially to white liberals and radicals, has become endemic in the black community. A few years ago such attitudes were confined to a handful of eccentrics and race racketeers. Today black judges talk like Marcus Garvey or Elijah Mohammed. The black man juridically is completely free, the equal of the white. In fact, as Orwell would say, he’s a little more equal. But the differentials in public health, unemployment, crime still remain and in most instances have increased. There are more blacks in the universities, but they are more bitter than the boys around the pool hall. The pictures from Attica tell the story; the prisons of America are becoming black concentration camps.

Hunters Point should have been torn down after the war — 25 years ago. That was in the contract under which the war housing was built. It is potentially one of the most beautiful urban sites in America. Is the new mayor of San Francisco going to make it that? Busing revealed the devotion of San Francisco’s minorities to the cultural pluralism of the City. But it also revealed the bitter antagonism of all the minorities for each other. It also revealed the incompetence of the educational establishment. Is the new mayor going to remedy these conditions? Are they remediable? Would the remedy be desirable? Would we want a city of slightly olive-skinned people with here and there an old gene popping up in nappy hair or an epicanthic fold and everybody listening to the same television program? Do we want that? How many generations would it take?

San Francisco has become a dangerous city, with one of the highest crime rates in the world. Soon urban life will return to the days before Fielding’s Bow Street Runners, London’s first police. At night, people will travel from door to door in cars and taxis, or they will go armed and all women will perforce be escorted. Last year the news magazines said that organized crime was the richest industry in the United States. “Crime in the streets” is just the slopover of crime at the mahogany tables of board rooms and executive offices, private and public. How are you going to get rid of it in a City whose mayor and chief of police deny that it exists? How are you going to get rid of the traffic in heavy narcotics, when the entire structure of narcotic control and treatment of addiction is a parasitic establishment of thousands of people who live on the addict and who would be out of jobs if heroin and synthetic poisons were actually outlawed, something that would be quite easy to do.

The two most beautiful city sites in the world are San Francisco and Hong Kong and they are beginning to look exactly alike, nothing but high-rises, each one of which is not only an eyesore but further increases congestion and blight. There is one difference. In San Francisco, giant corporations are permitted to put up trick skyscrapers which are nothing in the world but an especially hideous form of outdoor advertising. Is a new mayor going to tear these down? Are the banks and others who control credit going to control the “development” they finance? There’d ought to be a law. Will there be? On this subject — Chinatown badly needs a community center. What did it get? Who permitted it? The Japanese center at least is not a fake; it is in no sense a community center, but a rather gaudy, completely commercial market. The community life still goes on in the old wooden buildings across the street, and there too are the shops and restaurants the Japanese community patronizes, as well as the social halls, movie theaters, YMCA, churches and so forth, still where they were 40 years ago.

Has the rapid transit system been planned to service the sources of the heaviest congestion in the Bay Area? It will increase rather than relieve congestion. What’s it for? Don’t you know? For fifty years the construction of subways in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston was a highly profitable politicians’ bone in every election in those cities. Finally, sort of imitation subways were built. The trick was not to kill the political issue, not just to keep it alive, but to heat it up. A number of rapid transit overall plans, each of them pretty sensible, have been drawn up in the past at considerable expense to the taxpayers. None has been acted upon, and there will be more plans at more expense for the rest of the century. Will new mayors in the Bay Area get together and put into effect a coordinated system of rapid transit, freeways, ferries? Will the new mayor ban all automobile traffic from downtown San Francisco?

The outlines for a sane organization of urban life, a revolutionary ecology of the modern city, which would be relevant to our technology have been known since the beginning of modern city planning at the end of the 18th century. Go to the library and ask for a book. I recommend voting for the man or woman who promises to put all this into effect immediately. Who’s that?

[November 1971]

 


 

The Local Election


News has been breaking out everywhere all fall, except in San Francisco. We had an election? In a sense, but nothing happened. It was said of an ancient Chinese emperor that he governed so well that the historians had nothing to write about. The history of his reign was a blank. The story of San Francisco politics for the last three years has been much the same with a slight difference, like that between the North and the South Pole — all the difference in the world. San Francisco has been called the last stand of la vie méditerranée, laissez faire, dolce far niente. In the days when the forces operating in society were relatively harmless or in balance, that made it the best place in the world to live. Today the bloodstream of the body politic swarms with lethal viruses, germs, and bugs. The law of rational therapy, “let well enough alone,” no longer works. What was once a lovely carelessness is now a deadly inertia.

What was wrong with the mayoralty campaign was that it was fought out with generalities. To get at the heart of the matter the candidates would have had to have made specific but unprovable allegations. It is not enough to be a beautiful lady of sweetness and light nor is it enough to shout “throw the rascals out.” If they are rascals you have to prove it. This is the job of a militant press, uncommitted to any political cabal, but deeply committed to its civic responsibilities. There is no such press in San Francisco, except one little paper that is supposed to be a weekly but whose editor is lucky if he can scrape together enough money to come out once a month. [Probably a reference to the San Francisco Bay Guardian]

It’s not that the monopoly press in San Francisco is corrupt; it’s that they are squares. They believe their own editorials. I will never forget when I was doing a newspaper column and The Organization began to take over Broadway. My columns precipitated an editorial conference and I discovered that my colleagues did not even believe in the existence of The Organization or that churchmen, police and most of the North Beach community were being manipulated by what it would be charitable to call a “bloc of outside investors in the entertainment industry.” Since those days the same group of “outside investors” has become interested in a wide variety of more or less legitimate enterprise, not least high-rise real estate, and not least the wholesaling of forbidden pharmaceuticals.

Talk to the old inhabitants, the North Italians of North Beach, the old-time Left and trade-union functionaries who concentrated in the Haight-Ashbury. They all believe that what they call “the Mafia” deliberately destroyed their neighborhoods with what they call “vice” and when real estate values were sufficiently depreciated, bought up blocks of property for high-rise development. If this is true, it would certainly be relatively easy to prove. One smart old-style reporter, one budding Lincoln Steffens, could do it. The editors and publishers of the monopoly press dismiss it as paranoia, as they dismiss flagrant symptoms of corruption in the police. When will a major wholesaler of hard drugs be arrested in San Francisco? When will prostitution, male and female, be at least regulated? The least the police could do is to stop the majority of whores from rolling their tricks whenever they get a chance. The least they could do is help the Health Department cut down the appalling venereal disease rate. The surface indications are that the difference between the New York and San Francisco Police Departments is only one of degree, once you probe down into the body. Is the press doing any probing in San Francisco?

With the exception of Richard Hongisto, the list of elected candidates stands strictly for business as usual. Perhaps he’ll infuse a little life into the office of Sheriff, but the office of Sheriff does not carry with it any actual power whatever. The steady deterioration of what official jabberwocky calls “correctional facilities” is only party due to corruption, and negligence of the officials. It is mostly due to penury and cruel indifference by the taxpayers.

The vote on the propositions was also a vote for business as usual. Most significant was the No vote for bonds to earthquake-proof the schools. Parents interviewed in Kent, Ohio, said they should have used machine guns at Kent State. In San Francisco they prefer to handle the population problem with an Act of God. “Sock the snotty nosed little brats with earthquakes” is the motto of the W.C. Fields Memorial School System. As for the high-rise proposition, it was a fake, designed by its built-in impracticality to silence those who oppose the Manhattanization of the City.

What is the overall significance of the election? Do the results represent the will of the dirty capitalists who sat around a mahogany table in silk hats, smoking fat cigars? Do they represent a corrupt political machine of crooked politicians? Do they represent the hidden maneuverings of The Organization? Maybe a little bit of each, but that’s what in biology they call convergence, as emus look like ostriches. The mayor put his finger on it when he thanked his constituents. The deciding factor in San Francisco politics has always been the old-line labor unions. They were behind the notorious Abe Rueff machine. They were behind the corrupt machine exposed by the Atherton investigation. They were behind Jack Shelley, responsible for the operta a oriente — he opened the door to the invasion from Vegas — to the boys who were getting kicked out of Vegas. They were the first people Alioto thanked on election night. And don’t forget, “old line” means today the Longshoremen and Teamsters, just as much as it does the Building Trades.

There’s only one city with a very similar political setup. It even looks a little like San Francisco, crossed with Bloomsbury. Its motto has always been “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It too has an old aristocracy; it too has a large community of intellectuals. That’s Boston. It dutifully reelects Honest Teddy Kennedy as San Francisco reelects Honest Joe Alioto. Once it reelected Honest Jim Curley.

[December 1971]

 


“San Francisco in the Sixties” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


[Previous Articles] [Next Articles]

[Index of the Columns and Articles]

[Rexroth Archive]

 

   


HOME   INDEX   SEARCH


Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org