San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



March 1961

The Peace Corps
More on the Peace Corps
Journalism and Talk Shows
The Black Muslims



The Peace Corps

When William James coined his famous phrase about the moral substitute for war, it seemed to him — who of course had never seen, much less fought in one — that war offered certain social goods, although at much too high a price.

I wonder. We think if we go back far enough, we’ll come to a heroic age when war was glorious. It is certainly not glorious in Homer, which is as near to the Heroic Age as we can get in our culture. Simone Weil once wrote a wonderful essay on The Iliad as a poem on not just the tragedy of an appeal to force, but as a portrayal of the pointless evil and waste and misery which all violence in human affairs brings to birth.

I suspect that the glories of war are an invention of timid nonbelligerents — the poets who stayed behind, welcomed the victors who returned with the spoils, and provided guilty consciences with the necessary defiance and bombast.

The ages and romances? As a matter of fact, the tales of King Arthur and his knights are all about adventurous single combat. There is only one war in the whole legend, and it is far from glorious.

However, granted that war did put a premium on courage, steadfastness, loyalty, group solidarity, love of comrades and all the rest. The next one is not going to give those virtues a chance to manifest themselves. Some technicians far off in bunkers are going to push some buttons, and that will be it.

Yet society certainly does need heroes, examples of noble self-sacrifice and daring in which people can believe. Witness the public response to people like Tom Dooley or Albert Schweitzer or the astronauts we are preparing to shoot into space.

For this reason, one of the brightest spots of the presidential campaign, one of the most imaginative and appealing proposals of the new Administration, was President Kennedy’s endorsement of Congressman Reuss’s idea for a youth Peace Corps. The response has been extraordinary. I have yet to read anyone who is opposed to it. Most commentators, of every shade of opinion, have given it hearty support. No item in the agenda of the New Frontier has attracted greater real, grass roots, public response.

The British have been doing something like this for quite a while, and they have found that it has paid immense dividends in good will around the world and in morale at home. For many years the Friends’ Service Committee, both British and American organizations, have had work camps, assigned individuals to relief work, technical assistance, agricultural aid and education, and dozens of other activities, which have attracted youth from all over Europe and America.

Their projects are bed rock, grass roots, down-to-earth attacks on concrete problems. They show tangible results. They meet the people with whom they work on terms of complete equality and friendliness. They avoid all bureaucracy, red tape, political maneuvering.

When the work camp is gone, it leaves behind it not only visible benefits, but respect, good will, a small but vital area of new international understanding. Nobody has ever accused them of being “agents of imperialism.” And last, the educative and moral effect on the young people who have participated is immense — incalculable.

In this period of wholesale conflict, bitterness and suspicion, it is not very easy for the United States government to convince the underprivileged peoples to whom it proposes to send young engineers, agronomists, nurses or just plain knowledgeable youngsters ready to pitch in and help at whatever is needed, that it is acting with disinterested motives.

Too, governments have to deal with the people in power, and some places that need such aid the most have some very nasty people in power. We cannot afford to train a corps of enthusiastic idealistic young people and then throw them into a cockpit of rascality like the early days of our adventure in Laos.

The Bolsheviks are great ones for “appealing over the heads of the rulers” to the “common people.” Years ago they used to talk a lot about the “United Front from below.”

Perhaps it might be possible to steal a trick from them in this instance. If the American President appealed to the United Nations to set up a subsidiary run by nonpolitical experts from many countries, something like the World Health Organization, and pledged this country to contribute substantial but matched funds, and an indefinite number of recruits, we might witness a worldwide response, behind the backs of the politicians, that would ensure the success of the program.

Certainly if such a program were to get involved in political struggle, domestic or international, it would not only defeat its purpose, but the backlash, the loss of confidence and destruction of morale, both with the young people who had volunteered and the peoples to whom they had been sent, would be, to repeat, immense and incalculable. If it did work, the program would surely be a more vital “moral substitute for war” than even photographs of the other side of the moon.

This is one column I think is quite important. I do wish people would write in — trained people with experience in this field.

[March 5, 1961]



More on the Peace Corps

Since I wrote my last column, President Kennedy has announced a pilot plan for the Peace Corps, and the public has responded with interest, discussion, and mail to Washington beyond any national issue in recent times. The number of people who have written to me is certainly much greater than the number who have written in about all other columns put together over the past year.

I think there are several things immediately obvious that are open to question in the President’s plan. Judging only by the enormous response, it is much too small. The plan envisages 500 to 1000 people working by the end of the year. It is apparent that it would be easy to recruit several times that number in San Francisco alone. So small a number is hardly ever a token or a gesture — it looks suspiciously like what is called a sop.

The President’s brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, may have all sorts of qualifications that I am unaware of; still, his appointment as boss of the pilot program bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the other family appointments of the new administration. It seems to me that this is one program where not the faintest suspicion of politics should have been permitted.

The program is, at least as now planned, to be an agency of the State Department. I can’t imagine a worse choice, considering the present attitude towards the State Department in many of the host countries who could use such a program . . . except perhaps the Pentagon or the CIA.

I am not saying that the State Department is evil or even inefficient — that is not the point. What is important is what the man in the rice field or the diamond mine thinks about it. To use the slang of Madison Avenue — what we want is a counter-image to the already existing image of the State Department which is there, like it or not, in the minds of the people of the underdeveloped countries.

The lineaments of the image may have been drawn by Communist and nationalist slander, but drawn they are, and they resemble all too much the picture of the “Ugly American.”

The question is not only public relations. Whatever the merits of the State Department, I doubt if anyone could be found who would claim that they are flexibility, lack of protocol, absence of red tape and so on, those qualities of inspired informality most desirable in a program of this character.

I still believe that the President should take the initiative towards the establishment of an international, purely professional and nonpolitical organization. Teams of young people — from all over the world — working together in a war on disease and ignorance and misery — think of what this could mean. The need is without limit, the resources and people are there in the “have” nations.

Just imagine if one-tenth of the young men now in the American, NATO and Russian armies were working together in Africa and Asia, fighting typhus or drought or illiteracy. Sure, it sounds utopian. But don’t forget, something like this has got to come someday, and not too far in the future, or we are all going to be dead.

One of the best things about the President’s proposals is the idea, announced a couple of days after the first scheme, of using the Peace Corps for a little home-work. There are still depressed areas in the United States. There are still people who, through no fault of their own, are living on standards as low as those of many of the “have-not” countries. True, they are not easy to find — but they are there.

The most important thing, it seems to me, is to set up and control this program in such a way that its moral objectives are kept clear and uncompromised. Somewhat similar activities in the past, the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and the program for conscientious objectors during the last war, witnessed some serious breakdowns in morale precisely because some of their activities were not sacrificial or socially important enough.

* * *

I was going to write some things about the theater, but now there’s no space. Last week I went to The Threepenny Opera at The Movie, Genet’s The Maids at the Actor’s Workshop, and the opening of the San Francisco Ballet, with its new piece, Original Sin, with music by the great jazz musician John Lewis. Curious — all these shows are about evil, its origin or nature or effects. Each is moving and interesting in its way, in fact, each is at the top of its kind.

The movie is one of the great pictures of the classic age of the cinema and its artistic integrity puts most contemporary works to shame. Genet’s play is one of his best, and the girls at the Workshop, talented actresses all, give it their best. The ballet is a real breakthrough into enticing future possibilities, as well as being so obviously something the dancers are happy and excited to be doing. However, all of these pieces are pretty skimpy, each in a different way, as answers to the problem of evil. Now don’t say it’s a columnist’s gimmick, but it is precisely in the area in which this Peace Corps might operate that the sources of evil lie.

Human evil comes from failure of communication, and from the willful substitution of petty immediate for greater ultimate goods. Hell, said Max Scheler, is the inability to believe that you are loved.

[March 12, 1961]



Journalism and Talk Shows

Best of all the mail about the Peace Corps is a letter from a friend enclosing literature of an organization called Volunteers for International Development. This is a privately sponsored program established specifically to cooperate with the United Nations technical assistance program and to take steps toward the goal of a United Nations-related voluntary service.

Amongst its sponsor are the anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Quaker leader Henry J. Cadbury, the author Lewis Mumford; on the Board of Trustees is Howard Thurman, remembered with love in San Francisco for his leadership of the interracial Fellowship Church.

Harvey Swados, who teaches at San Francisco State and is one of the leading writers of the community, says in the September Esquire, under the heading “Why Resign From the Human Race?”:

If you do in truth mean business I am suggesting one small avenue along which you and your friends can move, from the morass in which you are now floundering into a future which is as incalculable to me as it is to you, but which you can help to shape as no other young people could before in human history. All of you, from ambitious graduate students in 19th century French poetry to ambitious graduates of our high schools in the printing trades, automotive trades, aviation trades, have it within your grasp to renew the old image of America as a Nation of pioneers and freely co-operating men, to demonstrate in action the meaning of responsible democratic endeavor, and to learn with your hands and in your souls what it means to live well by living for others.

That is said better than I could say it. The people who have written me asking, “What can I do now?” would be well advised to write for information to Volunteers for International Development, 5 Thayer Ave., Auburn, Mass.

* * *

It is certainly a great pleasure to see how well everybody has received the ballet Original Sin, for which I wrote the outline, or scenario, or libretto, or whatever you want to call the plot of a ballet. When Lew Christensen came to me with a request for a ballet plot on the subject of Adam and Eve, I said, “Now Lew, this is potentially a very corny subject. I have tried to squeeze all the corn out of it, and if you put it back in I will throw tomatoes at you.”

When the last curtain came down amidst what they call the plaudits of the house, my daughter Mary said, “There isn’t any corn in it at all. Less than in your scenario.” I thought it was all wonderful music, decor, choreography, and so did Mary. It’s a rare author who is completely satisfied with his work as it emerges from the processes of show business. But I am, for one.

Ben Jonson’s Volpone, which played the past week at State College, was a worthy companion piece to the Actor’s Workshop’s Alchemist. I wish it could be moved downtown, or at least continued a couple more weeks at State. It is really terribly good and most original in its use of the oldest conventions of the theater. Jules Irving has the makings of a great director of the Elizabethan drama. He has been talking about doing Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, probably the greatest English tragedy outside of Shakespeare. Let’s hope he does. It should be a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

* * *

Over last weekend I flew to Toronto to do a couple of TV shows with Nathan Cohen’s Fighting Words. This is Canada’s oldest TV show, and one of the two or three most civilized panel discussion programs on the continent. I’ve taken part in a lot of such things, but I know of only one program in the States, Eric Goldman’s Open Minds in New York, which compares with it.

There was a total lack of that stainless steel, chrome-plated finish which makes even the best Madison Avenue product so grating on the nerves. Sure would be nice if we could have an urbane, humane program like that hereabouts. I might even watch television myself.

Remember, on a recent trip to Chicago, I spoke about the low level of journalism in that city? Most Americans, I am sure, look on Toronto as a provincial city, isolated and countrified in comparison with a sophisticated place like Chicago, where everybody is twice as wise as Ben Hecht. Maybe, but the contrast between the newspapers of the two towns is so extreme as to be ridiculous.

Chicago is still bumbling along with a big city version of “Mr. and Mrs. John Farmer were visiting their cousins the Rubes last Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Rube surprised them with the dining room decorated with orange streamers and paper peach blossoms. A delicious repast of homemade peach ice cream and orange pop was served.”

The Toronto papers are full of feature material from all over the world, and comprehensive coverage of all the most vital domestic and foreign news, and intelligent analysis of the issues of the day.

It behooves every intelligent American to make every effort to find out what is going on in all the hot spots of the world, and today almost every spot is hot in one way or another. In these years we face the greatest moral decisions that have ever confronted mankind. On you and me depends the actual survival of the human race. And we can’t make such decisions if all we know is what we read in papers full of enticing guff, sensation, gossip and big city yokelry. This is not intended as a slur on “present company,” but as a criticism of a good deal of the Middle Western and, believe it or not, the British press. Once again, you’re lucky if you live in San Francisco, and that’s not a beer commercial.

[March 19, 1961]



The Black Muslims

Some people may wonder why I give so much space to discussion of the problems of the emerging nations of the former colonial empires, and to questions or just plain news involving the American Negro. It’s quite simple. This is the most important news of the day.

Nobody could accuse the New York Times of being sensational, or even editorially unbalanced. The issue of Sunday, March 12, gave about 60 percent of the news section to Africa, Southeast Asia and the American Negro. The entire magazine section was devoted to nothing else.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece is a long feature by James Baldwin, in which he says of the riots in the United Nations that he had planned to be there himself but got his date book mixed up. In recent months, in articles in Harper’s and elsewhere, James Baldwin has suddenly emerged as one of the most militant and certainly one of the most articulate spokesmen for his race.

Now I know plenty of well-educated, professional-class Negroes who have always considered James Baldwin pretty hincty — a bit of an Ivy League Booker T. Washington, if not an Uncle Tom. He was not, but his success as a writer and his social success in the white world, his urbanity and polish, made them suspicious.

It is highly significant that he, a well-adjusted, “assimilated” Negro if ever there was one, should criticize Martin Luther King, the leading militant of just a short time ago, for if not compromising, at least running the danger of getting himself trapped in compromise unintentionally.

The people who are speaking up today are not outcasts. They are people like Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, James Baldwin, on whom white America considers it has showered every bounty. It is precisely the people who can stay in any first-class hotel out of the Deep South, who can eat in the best restaurants, who can marry outside their race if they so choose, with a minimum of conflict, who now say, “If it comes to a showdown, I am more on the side of the ‘extremists’ than on the other side. I am more with Elijah Muhammad than I am against him.” Me too.

White Americans simply have no conception of the degree of hostility their centuries-long mistreatment has engendered amongst many American Negroes, and by no means all of them ignorant and “maladjusted.”

Time is not just running out. It has run out. Bear in mind that even Malcolm X, the spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam,” was born in Nebraska, where racism is about as weak as anywhere in the United States.

How silly it is to write off “black chauvinism,” as the Communists used to call it, as the expression of “the maladjusted.” What Negro in the United States is not maladjusted?

The sanest white man, if he suddenly turned black and was subject to the disabilities of the most assimilated American Negro, would certainly have a nervous breakdown in short order.

Nothing shows the strength and intelligence of the Negro race better than the fact that, from Lena Horne to the man who delivers my mail, most everybody does rise above all the terrible disabilities and make a valuable contribution to society — white society.

There are now about a dozen “extremist” groups functioning in New York with programs of African nationalism and/or “black chauvinism.” They make a pretty startling impression, soapboxing on the streets, Saturday and Sunday evenings, but most of them have only a handful of members, a minimum of 25 or 50, a maximum of a couple of hundred.

The group that has captured the public imagination, and that is certainly, right now, recruiting the largest membership, is Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam,” the so-called Black Muslims. Their press talks about “America’s 250,000 Black Muslims,” but sympathetic qualified observers put the actual membership at about 50,000. The movement is spreading rapidly. Lambskin caps and maroon shirts are more common on Fillmore Street every week.

First off, it is important to understand that they are not orthodox Muslims. There is a small mission of Islam in Harlem, with scattered members throughout the country. They repudiate the Nation of Islam in no uncertain terms.

There are without doubt a few undercover Communists in the Nation of Islam, cautiously fishing in troubled waters. The organization itself is strongly anti-Communist. Its propaganda repeats the prevailing opinion amongst American Negroes, that the Communist Party used and then betrayed the American Negro.

Are the Black Muslims a menace? Will they mislead the American Negro into pointless violence and dissipate his militancy in a struggle for unfulfillable demands?

I doubt it. I don’t think there is ever going to be a separate all-black State in the South. Although, to tell the truth, they can have Mississippi for all I care.

The organization has officially repudiated the violence in the UN galleries. They forbid their members to drink, smoke or live “immoral” lives. In fact, like the orthodox Muslims, they are pretty puritanical by the standards of Fort Dodge, let alone Harlem.

I’m pretty anti-puritan, but I know Harlem. Better that the hostility engendered in that hell hole is taken out in maroon shirts, modest dresses, teetotalism, than in high school heroin and switchblade rumbles.

The movement, like a benign disease, is self-limiting. Marcus Garvey’s failure a generation ago demonstrated that the American Negro does not want to become African, much less a Muslim. He wants to become an American. He came here with the Stuyvesants and the Fairfaxes and the Cabots, and he wants just the same status they have.

[March 26, 1961]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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