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Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I suppose you could say that it all started because my first wife was phobic about flying. Cynthia would not get on a plane, so we never went anywhere much. When our twenty-three year marriage ended, in 1985, I was pretty well ready to go anywhere in the world I was invited, so long as I had to fly to get there. The next year, during one of my very rare sabbatical leaves, an old friend, Debra Nails, came through Boston. Debra had been the Aide to Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky in their long-running Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, at Boston University, and she was now living in Johannesburg, teaching philosophy at Wits while her husband, Berendt Kock, taught physics. Debra asked me whether I would like to come to South Africa to teach Marx to the second year philosophy students. No one, it seemed, had ever taught Marx at Wits. I jumped at the chance, and on May 28th, at 6:55 p.m., I took off on Pan Am for Africa.

After a brief stopover in Kenya to see the wild animals at Amboseli and Treetops, I flew into Jan Smuts Airport [as it was then called] for a five week stay. [Travel tip: When going on safari, make sure it is the dry season, so that the animals will gather at the waterholes for easy viewing. I got to Amboseli, in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, after torrential rains, and the animals were scattered all over the enormous plain. On that occasion, I saw very little, but on later trips to Kreuger National Park and in Botswana, I had fabulous adventures. More of that some other time.]

I instantly fell in love with South Africa. During my five weeks, I traveled around the country -- to Durban, on the Indian Ocean, to the Homelands of Gazenkulu, Lebowa, and Bophutatswana, to the township of Soweto, and to the Afrikaaner capital of Pretoria. The country was the most politically alive place I had ever been, and I felt more at home with my new friends and comrades there than with my colleagues in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts. There are more stories to tell of those early days, but that will have to wait for a future post, for this is the story of the founding of USSAS.

Back in Boston, where I had been living since Cynthia had been appointed to a professorship in Literature at MIT, I fell into the habit of dining one evening a week with Richard Sens, a psychiatrist who was also going through the break-up of a lengthy marriage. For the most part, we commiserated with one another about the painful process, but one evening, Dick brought along a woman who was, he said, a former student of mine. Sure enough, it was Jean Alonzo, who as Freshman Jean Anderson had been a student in one of my discussion sections of Philosophy 1 in 1956. Jean was now a union organizer at Raytheon, and a member of an anti-apartheid organization called Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid, or HRAAA [pronounced Hurrah]. The goal of HRAAA was to pressure Harvard to divest itself of its investments in companies doing business with South Africa, and its principal tactic was to run write-in candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers, a body of alums who play a quasi-admnistrative role at Harvard. However, Harvard's 350th anniversary was coming up [Harvard was founded as Harvard College in 1636], and HRAAA was planning a sit-in at a very toney formal dinner for big donors, with Prince Charles, no less, in attendance, to be held at Memorial Hall. Jean asked whether I would like to come along.

I asked whether there was any chance we would be arrested, and when she said yes, I agreed to join them. I had always been rather embarrassed by my failure to get arrested during the Viet Nam War era, and I thought it would make me look better in my sons' eyes if I did get arrested this time out. Off we went on the appointed day, to seat ourselves, arms locked, in front of the door to the Memorial Hall dinner, chanting, as I recall, "If you want to digest, you've got to divest." [I don't actually much like demonstrations, and as many of the guests were my classmates, I felt, I must confess, like a bit of an ass. But I chanted along with the youngsters.] The sit-in was such a total surprise to Harvard that President Bok, who was hosting the dinner, neglected to call the police.

It ended ok, however, Some time later, we held another protest at Fogg Art Museum. This time, Harvard was prepared, and a bunch of us were hauled off in paddy wagons to the Central Square Police Station, where we were booked on charges of trespass or disorderly conduct, and released on our own recognizance. I have always thought that the police, who were not too fond of Harvard, for reasons of class privilege, went easy on us.

After a quite unsatisfactory trial, during which the judge, whose son was a student at Harvard, refused to allow us to offer a "necessity defense," we were found guilt, and sentenced to some community service or a fine of $72.50 a piece. We undertook to appeal, but the tape recording of the trial was so bad that the court stenographer could not produce a usable transcript, and the whole matter died. There was one rather light moment. As we were defending ourselves ["pro se" as the law has it], we were called on during the sentencing phase to propose a suitable punishment for ourselves. Remembering Socrates' great speech at his trial, memorialized in Plato's dialogue, THE APOLOGY, I said to the judge that inasmuch as I had been serving the people of the Commonwealth for many years as a Professor of Philosophy, I thought an appropriate punishment would be for the state to give me a pension. Her grasp of classical philosophy was obviously inferior to her mastery of the law, and she hit me with the $72.50 fine.

In the next two years, I remained active in HRAAA, and we did actually elect several people to the Board of Overseers, including Gay Seidman, daughter of a famous anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, and Peter Wood, a distinguished historian of South Carolinian slavery. In 1988, when HRAAA fell deeply into debt, and the paid Executive Secretary, Dorothee Benz, left to pursue her education, I volunteered to serve as unpaid Executive Director, in an effort to salvage the organization. In the next two years, I raised enough money to put us in the black, and succeeded in getting Archbishop Desmond Tutu elected to the Board. Harvard did not divest, of course. Instead, it changed the rules for electing overseers so that nothing like that would happen again. By the way, the year that I resigned from the Executive Directorship, HRAAA recruited a young Black Harvard Law Student named Barack Obama to run on the weite-in ticket, but I was gone by then, and never met him.

In the Spring of 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandeela was released, I had my one and only meeting with Tutu, who had come to Cambridge for a Board meeting. He thanked me for my efforts, and spoke very movingly about the need for re-investment in South Africa, now that libration was at hand. I realized that the HRAAA effort was now moot, and that I needed to find some other way to work with my South African comrades. At that moment, quite by chance, the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Durban-Westville, Mala Singh, wrote to me with an urgent appeal. Her graduate students had no money to pursue their studies. Was there anything I could do to help? Very quickly, I sent an appeal to some hundreds of philosophers at American colleges and univerities, and managed to raise enough money to enable Mala's students to continue their studies. It occurred to me that this might be the shape of my new effort. I had learned how to raise money by mail, using my computer. Perhaps I could start a charitable organization to offer scholarship aid to poor Black students going to historically Black universities in South Africa. The idea would be to support them there, not bring them to the United States [which would have been prohibitively expensive.] If I worked out of my home and paid myself nothing, I could send virtually everything I raised to the students.

It was clear to me that I needed someone in South Africa to select the students and look after them, someone who would also do this pro bono. On my next trip, I decided to travel around the country, looking for an academic who would be willing to take on this essential, but rather burdensome, task.

Tomorrow: USSAS is Born

1 comment:

ajrosa said...

Wonderfully funny, informative, and important!! I loved the story behind your arrest and court hearing. Can't believe the judge didn't get it.