Columbia then and now

Working for then Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale in the summer of 1969, I went to hear the late Allard Lowenstein speak to a large group of interns. Lowenstein was serving his only term in Congress before he was gerrymandered out of his district.

Lowenstein asked us to go back to our campuses, do our thing in opposition to the Vietnam war, and “eschew violence.” He said the word “eschew” several times, emphasizing its Anglo-Saxon roots. The derivation is more complicated than that, but Lowenstein’s emphasis on it is why I remember what he said. In 1980 Lowenstein was himself murdered in his office by “a deranged acquaintance,” as James Rosen puts it in the preface to William Buckley’s despairing eulogy of Lowenstein in A Torch Kept Lit.

Lowenstein had recruited Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy to run against LBJ for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. Running into Senator McCarthy at lunch a week or two after I had attended Lowenstein’s presentation to the interns, I passed on Lowenstein’s remarks to him. “What do you want me to do,” McCarthy responded, “debate Mark Rudd?” I thought that was a disappointing answer, but it now reminds me of Columbia’s role in our descent into hatred and domestic terrorism. Lowenstein was onto something. McCarthy was above it all.

Rudd had emerged as a leader of Columbia’s SDS chapter as well as a participant in the riots that roiled Columbia in 1968. While Rudd was expelled before he graduated, he soon joined the Weather Underground, where he pursued terrorism with a revolutionary agenda. In his memoir Underground, he wrote: “We were the latest in a long line of revolutionaries from Mao to Fidel to Che to Ho Chi Minh, and the only white people prepared to engage in guerilla warfare in the homeland.” Bryan Burrough tells the larger story in his compelling history Days of Rage.

A friend wrote me yesterday to take up my comments on James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement. He wrote:

You probably know that James Kunen wrote a book published a book in 2012, Diary of a Company Man. I was curious and ordered a copy. Kunen had been working since the early 2000s in Corporate Communications at Time Warner and then as an editor at People. At least he recognized the irony. He was laid off, and the book traces his attempts to “find a life.” As you write in your post, things are bad at Columbia—but the self-pitying and entitlement was there in the late 1960s.

He may be right. Without minimizing the worst of 1968 — that’s why I recall Mark Rudd above — I think it’s worse now. The naked hatred of Jews and of the of United States rules the day at Columbia. It is accompanied by a kind of harassment that recalls the early days of Nazi rule.

Kunen subtitled his Columbia memoir Notes of a College Revolutionary, but as my friend notes, he wasn’t much of a revolutionary. After working as a freelance journalist he went to law school and became a public defender before he took a job in corporate communications.

At one point in The Strawberry Statement he observes that “Columbia” meant “America” and we were coming to understand the deep meaning of the equation. Writing from memory, I don’t think Kunen pursued much of an anti-American theme in the book. Like so many, myself included, I think our motives combined an utterly misguided mix of idealism, patriotism, and cowardice. I never hated the United States for one second.

In 2015 I attended a presentation at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul by Biblical scholar Alan Cooper of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Cooper recounted his days as a studious Columbia undergraduate in the late ’60s. Keeping up a perfect academic record, he somehow found time to join the Columbia a cappella group the Kingsmen in 1967. We came to know the group as Sha Na Na.

After the ferment at Columbia in 1968, the Columbia administration gladly provided the group a large campus venue to perform a show including oldies. The group’s theory was that rock music had become serious and unfun. They thought there might be an opening for fun. One of the members of the group was Rob Leonard. Leonard went on to become a professor of linguistics and make a name for himself in the forensic application of linguistics. Despite their stage personas, the men of Sha Na Na were no dummies.

Leonard’s older brother George thought that the group needed costumes and choreography. They were to do the oldies with a Motown veneer. Their first performance of the oldies at the large Columbia venue in the spring of 1968 was hugely successful. Students asked where they came up with such great material. (Dr. Cooper referred several times to “In the Still of the Night.”)

As a result of a gig at Steve Paul’s The Scene on West 46th Street, Michael Langham signed Sha Na Na to perform at Woodstock. As it turned out, their performance preceded Jimi Hendrix, who closed the festival as the sun rose on Monday morning. You may recall his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the movie.

My impression won’t withstand rigorous scrutiny — it’s just an impression — but I find it difficult to imagine this improbable story emerging from the current scene at Columbia. That was Columbia then. This is Columbia now.

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