San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



May 1965

Civilized Visitors
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Contemporary Japanese Art
Cowboy Diplomacy
The Alienation of Youth
An Abundance of Events
The Generation Gap
An Outstanding Antigone
The Strategy of Peace




Civilized Visitors

Fairly often the different host or hostess organizations in town that care for visiting potables, many of them on State Department or foundation-sponsored tours of the U.S., send me writers, artists, musicians, academic and other professional and learned people. I’m always pleased to see them, and I have made some fast friends around the world this way.

The best are the Indians, the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Nigerians, the Yugoslavs, the citizens of those countries least involved in the power struggles which are slowly wrecking modern civilization. This doesn’t necessarily mean the neutrals or the Third Force — maybe it just means those countries whose natives are, as it says in the catechism, content with the position in life to which it has pleased God to call them.

National ambitions, especially if unreasonable and unrealistic, make bores out of those who succumb to them. That is why the French have overtaken and surpassed the Americans as the world’s most disliked tourists.

This applies to everybody except the Russians, who are very few of them really educated Marxists, but who all seem to be such utter automata of their own chauvinisms that they seem to be kidding. The nonsense mouthed through the always present interpreter, by a Russian writer or scientist — who usually obviously understands English perfectly but has been told to refuse to speak it — is so absurd it’s hard to believe it’s for real. Of course I have heard Americans abroad talk just the same way, and without any police escorts from their consulate. They have to shoot lots of Russians to get them to do what we manage spontaneously.

I am moved to these remarks by several pleasant hours spent in the company of a young Finnish writer and translator from the American who is seeing the U.S. on a Ford grant. Like most Scandinavians, and like the Dutch since they’ve lost their expensive empire, he was so much more a man of the world than are the nationals of the great, or would-be great, powers.

He seemed to be perfectly at home in the U.S., something few American intellectuals can manage with any grace. He was knowledgeable and up to date on the literatures of the world, something almost no American intellectuals are. And he was full of creative and individual ideas about all sorts of things. (Ideas and knowledge of foreign literatures we leave entirely to specialist professors.)

We went for a hike in Marin County. He knew the Latin generic names of the flora and fauna and I told him the American and he told me the Finnish. He said he didn’t like cocktail parties or cocktails, but he was writing a book about the wines of the world and on this subject too he was most knowledgeable without being a wine-snob. And last, he never once indulged in the only two subjects American writers can talk about, money and the sex habits of their colleagues.

Altogether it was a fruitful encounter for me. What I gained principally was a deepening of my own conviction: that nothing is more important in the disintegrating civilization in which we live than social equanimity. By that I mean disinterestedness, but I certainly don’t mean being above the battle. Firm and reasonable convictions, firmly and reasonably held, are really the only armor in the world of conflict that rages all around us today. The Finns demonstrated that conclusively when they defended their country against the Russian invaders in the opening skirmishes of the most recent war to end war.

One way or t’other I’ve got to get to Scandinavia in the next year. Another man I met in the same way I have come to look on as a very good friend. He is the literary editor of what really is what the Chicago Tribune calls itself — the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” the Stockholm Dagens Nyheter.

I am in thorough sympathy with the little old lady who many years ago toddled into a tourist bureau on Stockton Street and laid down her life savings for a tour of Finland.

“Are you Finnish?” asked the man. “No,” said she. “Why do you want to go to Finland?” said he. “Well, you see it’s this way,” said she, “they’re the only country that has always paid its war debt to the United States, and I feel they should be encouraged.”

The story made the wire services, and needless to say, when she got to Helsinki they showed her the time of her life.

[May 2, 1965]



Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Saturday, May 8 and Saturday, May 15, at the Marine Memorial Theater, the Opera Stage of San Francisco is giving Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

This is one of the world’s greatest operas. It is all too seldom performed — usually it is just sung in concert. I’ve never known why. It’s got everything, ballet, chorales, heartbreaking arias, dramatic recitatives, and offers the designer unlimited exercise of his artistic imagination. It is customary to put down the libretto, but it is considerably less fatuous than many a favorite piece in the annual repertory of the world’s companies.

The music is terrific. Purcell, who died in 1695, was the last of the great English musicians. He was likewise the last to exemplify that characteristic virtue of the English school from the Middle Ages to its own day — ordonnance.

Dunstable, Tye, Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, and the madrigal and lutenist composers all have something in common besides the special British melodic line and subtle open harmony which survives in so much of our own folksongs. They have a kind of fearless delivery, an ability to come straight to the heart of the matter without any fooling around, and to build, promptly and surely, on foundations which have been securely laid, massive structures of overwhelming musical security.

In addition, they are singularly devoid of neurosis, unlike many comparable musicians, for instance Gesualdo or Monteverdi. For these reasons they have been, all my life, my favorite composers.

If there is anything wrong with Dido and Aeneas it is a surfeit of riches. Purcell seems to have known that he would never again write a complete opera and he gave it everything he had. The outpouring of uninterrupted musical grandeur is overwhelming, and the piece ends with one of the most stunning arias ever written. Yet there is nothing melodramatic about it. Purcell knew the secret of deriving great music from profound emotion, he did not, the other way around, use music to provoke the sentiments.

This production should be really something. They’ve given it some of the finest talents in the Bay Area. Soprano is Nancy Cronberg, baritone is Warner North. Director is Evelyn Olivier. Stage director is Kermit Sheets. Choreographer is Mark Wilde. As far as I can make out, the music will be played as originally scored, not in any of the later conventionalized versions. I’m all agog. See you there.

[May 5, 1965]



Contemporary Japanese Art

The Japanese have landed and taken over — at least in the San Francisco and the de Young Museums. Due to changes in scheduling over which we, locally, had no control, two large exhibitions of pretty much the same painters have shown up at once. In addition, at the de Young there is a handsome collection of American work influenced by the Japanese.

The painters are all contemporary, but some are more contemporary than others, and those are in the slightly larger show at the San Francisco Museum. Those at the de Young are the acknowledged masters, with an average age of around 40.

I am all for this kind of big spread. The triple museum show “Man” was a splendid idea. I wish the San Francisco Annual was segregated into its warring cliques and pressure groups and distributed over all three museums. As it is, the Annuals are in fact group shows of a self-perpetuating little power structure. We could do all sorts of things, of inestimable educative value to the public, if we just had a joint exhibition policy.

Anyway — this great display of Japanese modernism is an overwhelming experience. What overwhelms you? Competence. You know how “they” are, as the saying goes. Ingenious devils. And they make paintings just like they make cameras.

The canvases are properly stretched. If the paint is dribbled, the dribbles flow just right. If the painter uses some outlandish substance in his paint, he makes sure it’s going to stick. If it’s made out of junk, he hunts around and finds better junk than seems to turn up in our junk piles. As for bravura painting of abstract expressionism, the Japanese have been doing that for centuries.

Even when the stuff is decadent, it is utterly decadent and more efficiently so than most Western decadence. The Japanese seem to be able to come apart at the seams with a finesse we cannot manage.

Compare the writers Osamu Dasai and Jack Kerouac. Dasai meant business. He was so alienated that his words were like mysterious messages the radio telescopes pick up from the darkness between the universes. Nobody ever called him a “Rover Boy in Minetta Alley,” or, as they’ve said of William Burroughs, “Tom Swift and His New Hypodermic.” Before he died, he wrote superlatively well the diagnosis of a suicidal soul.

Another thing about these paintings. They are most fashionable, bound to increase in value and, by 1965 standards, ridiculously cheap. The S.F. Museum show started with a collectors’ night, people came from all over the country, and the following night of the proper opening the labels were littered with little red “sold” dots.

How many represented San Francisco purchases? I know, but I’d be ashamed to tell you.

Which brings me to a farewell to George Culler. This is his last month at the Museum. He goes East to a better job, with more freedom, more chance for creative imagination. I wish him well. He did a lot to democratize the support of the Museum. He had a lot to contend with. If he enjoyed the job, as he always seemed to do, he is possessed of an angelic disposition. I wouldn’t take it at ten times his salary — whatever that might have been.

He certainly was an enjoyable man to know. Bon voyage, George, into a rosy future.

Wednesday evening we went to the avant-garde music at the Tape Music Center. It was a block away from our flat. Bohemia is moving to the lower level of the Haight-Ashbury district. Wherever I go, it follows me around. We’ve lived here over 10 years — before that we lived on Potrero Hill, where we paid $15 a month for a place that now rents for $250.

Back to the music. It was pretty good. As music, not just as show biz, which most stuff influenced by John Cage really is. Mort Subotnick and Ramon Sendar are now mature and competent young composers. Pauline Oliveros, whom I’ve always thought of as unduly solemn, decided to go in for some very funny show biz — a most effective change of pace, as the fellow said.

Best is the nervous audience,  which never, but never knows when to laugh. Much modern music is the art of provoking absolutely unsuppressible titters from solemn avant-garde squares. Pauline succeeded handsomely.

[May 9, 1965]



Cowboy Diplomacy

Now that Law West of the Pecos has become the guideline of our foreign policy and everybody in the Cabinet and the White House technocrat staff is limbering up the old six shooter, we’d ought to see some action pronto around the world. We’re off on a couple rearin, buckin little dogies, just a sun fishin and a twistin all over the lot, while the waddies [cowboys] of the old Washington corral set on the rails and whoop it up.

We used to call it gentlin, but some professor thunk up a new word, now we call it escalatin, and it’s a rippin, roarin, rootin, tootin sport.

Now that we’re up and mounted and a foot in either saddle and feelin around for more, where are we all goin to escalate to? Why to the American Way of Life, ain’t you heard?

The American Way of Life is pretty easy to find. You can locate it in the New England town meeting, at a picnic of the Lions Club of Waterloo, Iowa, at a PTA meeting in Berkeley, Calif., at a convention of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, at a grass roots conference of liberal Democrats in Fargo, North Dakota, or at any United Fund Drive in any of our towns of homes and churches — like Selma, Ala.

You know where it is, you have to know where it is, because it’s a well known fact you’re prepared to die for it — any place on earth, just as fast as old rootin tootin can fly you there.

It’s a great thing, The American Way of Life, simple man to man democracy, share and share alike, just folks and neighbors together. We’ve already brought it to Taiwan, Ankara, Madrid, Lisbon, Bangkok, Teheran, Port au Prince, Seoul, Manila — they’re great little old towns now. You couldn’t tell them from Ashtabula or Oconomowoc.

I mean, all the folks there in those places are real folks, good neighbors, and honest as the day is long. They all get together and decide things friendly like, just like the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, one man’s say is just as good as another’s. And honest, they’re honest as the day is long. You take Teheran or Port au Prince, why you could find a gold watch and leave it hanging on a post for weeks until the rightful owner came along and claimed it — just like in Old Monterey.

I mean we’ve taught those people that honesty is the best policy, it’s just plain good business. An honest day’s work for an honest dollar, rapid turnover, high wages, high living standards to create consumer demand, and low profits but lots of them — just like Ford or DuPont.

That’s the way it is now in Haiti, under our benevolent guidance, and in the Philippines. That explains why our Marines are always welcomed so enthusiastically when they land. After all, the Dominicans are right alongside of Haiti, and they know all about it.

[May 12, 1965]

The style of this piece is a parody of President Lyndon Johnson (from Texas), who, in addition to continuing to “escalate” the American forces in Vietnam, had just sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic in order to overthrow a popularly elected left-liberal government. President Bush II’s even more fervently ignorant cowboy diplomacy has made this piece less dated than it might have seemed a few years ago.



The Alienation of Youth

I do wish people would give me $75,000 each to write little reports telling them what is wrong with the University of California, the San Francisco Master Plan, North Beach, San Francisco Culture, and such like.

I always look around me, speak my piece, and go on about my business, and then after many great flaps, some committee of experts is hired at an upwardly mobile fee, and along comes a study which says just what I said in the first place.

I’ll tell you a secret. This is what the future is going to be — people making studies of people making studies of people making studies. The new youth culture that has taken over after the death of the Cools, the Angries and the Beats is simply a worldwide society of young people who have decided to live in the accomplished fact of an automated and affluent society in which the Puritan ethos of “work and pray, live on hay” has become silly and irrelevant — a society where war and poverty and onerous labor have become mummies from the past, kept alive by artificial means.

Their elders had already figured this out, but they were more hypocritical about it. They set up a little conspiracy; a key club to which admittance was only by Phi Beta Kappa key — the society of experts of the obvious. These boys have been, for a generation, the funnels and squirt guns through which the taxpayers’ money and the wealth of the great foundations has been injected into the gears of a Keynesian economy.

I am prompted to this by the Byrne report on the ailments of the university. I have been saying all this for years, strictly for free, and so have thousands of other people. What is wrong with the university system is that it is administratively obsolete. What is wrong with the university society is that it is inhumane — it is not a community but an enforced association, like a prison, the Army, a madhouse, a hospital, or any one of a hundred other groups of people who are gathered together regardless of consent, with a minimum of consent, or with consent only to a lesser evil.

What is wrong with the professors is that most of them are not great artists, which is what a pedagogue has to be, they are simply pusillanimous. They are men who stayed in school because it gave them security, they had only to associate with people who were juridically their intellectual inferiors, and their own self images were never subject to the strains of adult standards.

What is wrong with the students is that they see very little sense and a great deal of horror in the world they are being prepared to take part in.

I ask you, gentlemen, my contemporaries, as you sit with the scrambled eggs on your cap, the stars on your jacket, the three squawk boxes on your mahogany desk in the inner recesses of the bank, the little sign, “The Buck Stops Here” — if you knew, when you were at Harvard, what you would be doing at 50, wouldn’t you have been marching up and down and carrying a placard?

We didn’t change the world, although we thought we would. The people under 30, who are far more adult than we were at their age, will probably fail to change it, too. But at least they know that if they don’t, it’s going to change them — to radioactive dust. They don’t have our option. They can’t say, “It will last my time, or at least till I get it in a bank in Zurich.” It isn’t going to.

The word for seceding youth was “alienated” — they aren’t alienated anymore. It is the establishment which is alienated.

Meanwhile, the best of the student community, here or in Moscow, has adopted the slogan of the civil rights movement, “NOW.” They aren’t much interested in trade unions, or political socialism, or in joining up, as we were. We make a great mistake in thinking that they are.

They are interested in making, as a first step in their participation in the Great Society that is welcoming them, a fundamental moral decision — a decision — a radical, complete cut. And then, with that commitment, they are going to try to live by it, and if enough of them live by it — why that will be “society.” It’s that simple.

Today we are dealing with a subculture, but it is a subculture that is worldwide, unorganized but with its own, spontaneous “international,” and it numbers millions. They believe it when they say, “We shall prevail.” After all, they are convincing their contemporaries. That’s all they have to do. Have you consulted your almanac lately? There are far more people in the world under 30 than there are over it.

Anyone caring to pay me $75,000 can mail it to The Examiner in a plain envelope.

[May 16, 1965]



An Abundance of Events

Sometimes, as all addicted column readers know, these things get written by folks who can find nothing to say. Other times, you sit down, open the paper, and find more than you know what to do with.

Allen Ginsberg goes to Prague to be King of the May and gets expelled from the country and his manuscripts and diary are confiscated. That’ll learn him. They are just as sick as we are and in some ways worse. In addition, they are nastier about it. Despotism and hypocrisy are nobody’s monopoly.

“Power always corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Factor the operator “corrupts.” What are its moral components? They are the age-old and universal vices that power itself calls virtues.

An evening at San Francisco State College. A banquet for Blau and Irving, who were given the President’s Distinguished Service Award. A gold lock on the barn after the horses had left, but certainly a commendable gesture and an honor to the college, President Dodd and Dean McKenna. How nice it would have been if, when they left amidst all the yelp about the Kultur Krisis, the press and other community spokesmen had united to thank them for the years of devoted service they had given San Francisco.

Then to the college’s performance of Dido and Aeneas. What a redemption after the appalling rendition at the Marine Memorial the week before. I just couldn’t let my daughter think that that shambles represented one of the greatest musicians who ever lived. There were some good voices and actors, especially Patricia Diggs and Alva Henderson. Let’s hope they ripen into real pros — as, alas, so few of these wonderfully promising students ever do. Life catches them out. At least they had those brief moments of splendor.

The State Department boycotts the Eastern Teach-in, and now the Berkeley one also. Meanwhile, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for budgeting and former research council chairman of the Rand Corporation has been offered the job of vice president in charge of finance by the University of California.

Which was it now, Dwight Eisenhower or Clark Kerr, who warned of the threat of the “military-industrial complex” to education? You’re right, it was both of them.

I for one can’t understand the truculence with which the masters of our foreign policy view all criticism and reject all chance for discussion. The people are only asking them to demonstrate their case. I am taking part because I believe this is a truly democratic extension of the franchise itself — the right of public information. I’ll be there at 11:45 Friday night.

(Kenneth Rexroth will also talk on Chinese and Japanese Poetry and read from his own translations this afternoon, Wednesday, at 2:30 at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk.)

[May 19, 1965]



The Generation Gap

“Do go on with last week’s bit on the war between the generations.” It has replaced the war between the sexes as one of the most important and characteristic factors in modern life. Yet an awful lot of people don’t know it’s happening, and they’re not just the oldies.

They look puzzled when someone says, in regard to the rumpus at Berkeley or the rumbles at Lowell or the distant reverberations in far northern California where once you couldn’t tell the natives from the side hill dodgers, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” The lack of communication is total.

Of course it has been ever thus — but not nearly so much. Just as most people really believe they will never die, so most people forget they were ever young and substantially deny they were ever children. They lose the very diction, syntax and inflection necessary to communicate across the age barriers — or nowadays, barricades.

“My, how you’ve grown.” “What grade are you in in school?” “Do you like your teachers?” “I bet you’re like crazy, man, about the Beatles.”

The last from the aged hippies who think they are really with it. It makes your scalp crawl. Yet these are just the lead-ins, the openers. After five minutes, unless enforced, the conversation vanishes in quiet “Yes, Sir,” mechanically repeated, like the young Stan Getz saying, “Yeh! Man!”

Recently I gave a reading and talk in a local high school. The people and I got along fine. One fellow who looked like the young Aquinas, cherubic and innocently worldly wise, wanted to know if W.H. Auden was ever married to or had a love affair with Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika, and if so, why the fact had evaporated from all his biographies. I’m pretty sure he knew the answer, but I explained that it was largely a marriage of convenience between two good friends. It enabled her to get British or American — or possibly both — citizenship in the days of exile, disorder, and early sorrow before the Second War. We briefly discussed the ethics of marriage of convenience, about which the audience had information and opinions.

Then a modest, quietly dressed girl asked if I didn’t think American poetry would be improved by the presence of someone like post-War One revolutionary Dadaist poet and painter, the inventor of rubbish art, Kurt Schwitters. I agreed, flatly. “Why don’t they exist?” she asked. I explained that Americans were fat and sassy and had never experienced the utter heartbreak that went with the betrayal and collapse of civilization in 1914-1918.

“Ah, but we’re in a worse state now than they were then — why doesn’t our crisis result in great literature?” “Because dissent has become a hot commodity — just another aspect of the affluent society.” So it went.

My only problem was to keep my questioners from jockeying me into a position of leader in their struggles with teachers and the educational establishment generally. I certainly believe that the essence of education is struggle with the educators — the most important of whom are the students themselves. I believe students should subject all establishments to the most searching criticism.

But I had no desire to add to the manifest discomfort of the faculty chaperon, a most well intentioned young man. As far as Old Rexroth was concerned, he was himself a representative of youth. This of course his students would find out in five to seven years when some of them would be teaching high school themselves and worrying themselves sleepless about students who belong to the League for Sexual Freedom, read the IWW paper, make junk sculpture and are rumored to smoke pod.

Howsomever, two good friends, who surely think of themselves as “rebels who know how to use the Establishment without it using them,” met me there. They sat through the session, delighted with the euphoric rapport. One was a most likable man, the head of a large, national, or really international, creative and thoroughly up-to-date educational enterprise that spends millions really civilizing America, at least a little.

As we came away in the car he said to my daughter, “What grade are you in in school?” Then, “My, you are certainly mature for your age!” Then, “Aren’t you proud of your father for writing all those beautiful poems?”

Then, after a noncommittal answer, “Do you write poetry yourself?” She said, “Sometimes, when I don’t have time to do a regular paper, but my English teacher doesn’t think it’s poetry.” An answer in the great tradition of Shorty Pederstein. Then, “Are you going to be a poet when you grow up?”

As I watched the misnamed Electra complex rear and then stand on its tousled head, it was all I could do to restrain myself from violently commencing a conversation about the weather. Yet this was an enlightened man and one of the great, and in fact largely realized, hopes of a new pedagogy.

Oh well, Mary liked him very much anyway, so nothing was lost.

[May 23, 1965]



An Outstanding Antigone

If you missed the Greek Theater production of Antigone last week, you missed the best performance of a Greek tragedy to be given at the University in over a generation.

Direction and chorus work were superlative. George Hitchcock as Creon gave one of the best performances he’s ever done, surpassed only by his Gloucester in the Workshop’s great Lear. Ruth Silveira as Antigone was equally good, a pathetic yet noble portrayal of the courage required to defy the political morality of the state with the personal morality of common humanity on which all political morality is based.

The play was certainly a far better teach-in on Vietnam than the United Front Rally which went on at the same time. It is perhaps the most perfect statement of human versus institutional rights.

Director Muzenidis and George Hitchcock made perfectly clear the point usually missed, that Creon is not a tyrant but the embodiment of the “rule of law,” of abstract justice untempered by mercy, and that the state committed to a course of abstract, juridical right rather than the fostering of individual human virtue, is headed for compounded disaster.

Last year I missed Grace Doty and Thatcher Clarke in the Pacific Ballet’s Opus II. The theme is hackneyed enough — the spider woman who destroys as she mates — but they bring it off in high style, with perfect command of the often unique vocabulary of the choreographer, Tito Barbon. I don’t know anything about this man. His style is similar to the Chilean Ballet, the last stand of the tradition of the great Kurt Joost. Alan Howard himself is, of course, another dancer of “high style” and polish, always a joy to watch. He and Yvonne Chouteau were best in their own pas de deux, in the other numbers I thought Marilyn Knowles most outstanding.

They’ll be performing again May 28 and 29, and they are well worth seeing. Good as the San Francisco Ballet may be, we need to encourage strong local competition in the dance. The more, the better each will be.

Both Antigone and the Pacific Ballet are convincing arguments for a central clearing house and booking agency to be set up by the Bay Area Arts Council as its first task. It is a shame that they should have so brief appearances. Both should be toured throughout northern California, at the very least.

[May 26, 1965]



The Strategy of Peace

This is the speech I prepared for delivery at the Berkeley “teach-in” last weekend, and would have delivered if I had been permitted to do so in the manner and at the time agreed upon:

I am here tonight solely because I believe in peace. I want to make it very clear that this is a personal appearance. I speak for no one but myself, I represent no one, I belong to no organization, political or otherwise, except the Sierra Club, with which I often disagree. This is a first person singular to second person singular talk.

I am opposed to the war in Vietnam because I am opposed to war, and to all violence in the settling of human problems.

I do not oppose the American war in Vietnam with somebody else’s war. I am as opposed to Mao’s recent nuclear explosion as I was to those of the Americans, the Russians, the British or the French.

If the American advisers in Vietnam advise torture, I am opposed to it. If the Vietcong practice terrorization or torture, I am opposed to it.

I believe that there is only one thing that can oppose war, that is the opposite of war, and that is peace. I believe that the opposite of torture is kindness, the opposite of terrorization and hate is love.

I do not believe that war can be combatted by political action, but only by personal action, and then not combatted, but overcome.

Hate cannot be defeated by hate, nor violence by violence. The wars and revolutions of this century should have taught us that. They were all fought for democracy, for socialism, for freedom, and land, bread and peace. Today men are less free, more hungry, and more torn by violent contention, all over most of the earth, than they have been in centuries.

For a while we can delude ourselves that we are witnessing the breakup of an old social order, the decay of feudalism or capitalism and the triumph of socialism or democracy or the brotherhood of man. Eventually we realize that we are witnessing the breakup of human society itself, the foundering of all civilization, with the only possible end of the course on which we are all embarked the extermination of the human race. We cannot reverse this process by taking sides in the jungles of Indochina or Africa — but only by reversing it in fact, by turning away from war and towards peace.

You say, what can we do about it?

Peace is not going to be brought about by bandying geopolitical catbelling on a windy soapbox in Berkeley round about midnight. This is the delusion of participation. You are not participating. You are not in the Kremlin, nor the Forbidden City, nor the White House — you do not have power in this sense. To act as though you have is only to dissipate the power you do have in abundance — the power of individual, personal, moral, direct, act.

The innocent and the unscrupulous say, “Oh, but you must belong to a political organization to be effective morally in this society.” A hundred years of experience should have taught everybody that this is the certain way to lose all moral effectiveness. We have seen a succession of political organizations, all claiming the highest moral aims, realizable very soon, if everybody just joins up. They have brought nothing but impotence and depersonalization to the individual and disaster to society. Experience, alas, is the poorest of all teachers.

You have power. It is your power — yourself as a free moral agent. You can decide. You can act on your decision.

“But how can I be effective if I don’t have a membership book that says I am and an organization that gives me things to do?” You can only be effective by assuming personal responsibility. Perhaps the things you do will seem tame and simple to the people intoxicated with political melodrama. They will be things you do, on your own initiative, for peace in all human relations, for love, for kindness, for the respect of the human dignity of others.

You’ll soon find you have plenty of work, and if you keep at it, you’ll soon find that you are presented with ample opportunity to act decisively. If you, personally and persistently, wage peace — you’ll discover that the showdown is not long in coming — and it will stay there all the rest of your life.

It makes no difference which side wins, if peace does not win.

[May 30, 1965]


“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.

Previous Month   Next Month

Index of the Columns

Rexroth Archive