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Saturday, June 12, 2010


I fell completely and permanently in love with South Africa. The political atmosphere was intoxicating. In left-wing academic circles, there was serious talk of completely transforming higher education, of instituting formal accreditation for what Black men and women had learned outside of classrooms, on the job, in the streets, in the Townships. Communities like Soweto were effectively governed by unofficial committees chosen from within their confines. Over the years, Black men and women had acquired administrative skills at least as impressive as those that could be learned in the classroom while taking a degree in Public Administration at Wits or Cape Town or Rhodes. Just as the stately mansions of the Old South were built, and sometimes designed, by slaves, so the Black population, which was, after all, five-sixths of the population of South Africa, had built the road I drove in on from the airport, and indeed the airport itself. Men like Enver Motala, who later became a good friend, had labored for years in worker education programs sponsored by the labor unions, and they believed fervently in breaking down the gulf between head work and hand work.

The people I was meeting were alive, engagé, ready to risk jail and worse to achieve the liberation of their nation. In America, one could know someone for years and have only the vaguest notion of his or her politics. In South Africa, people wore their politics on their sleeve. I had read about what it had been like for those deeply involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, the Socialist Party of my grandfather, or the Spanish Civil War, but despite my efforts in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-Viet Nam War protests, I had never known anything like the South Africa of the mid-eighties.

Besides, South Africa is an exquisitely beautiful country. There is something about the soil, the vegetation, the landscapes that feels ancient. With my childhood fascination for archeology and physical anthropology, I could feel that this was where the human race had begun its long journey. One day, I took a hike with some Wits friends on the High Veldt, where I could almost imagine the small bands of hominids hundreds of thousands of years earlier. We even had a braai.

The Braai is a distinctive South African institution. A braai, quite simply, is a barbecue, an outdoor meal cooked over an open fire or a grill. It is an Afrikaner institution, not at all English, and one of the Boer's greatest contributions to world culture. To an Afrikaner, a balanced meal is four different kinds of roasted meat. A typical braii consists of an arrangement of steaks and chops on a grill, circled round by a long string of sausages, and washed down with beer or wine. The braii has spread from the Boers throughout the heterogeneous South African population, so that some years later, when a group of us went from UDW to a resort in the Drakensberg Mountains for an intellectual weekend of sociological debate, the centerpiece of our two-day seminar was a huge braai.

I returned to Watertown from South Africa in time for Patrick's graduation from Belmont High School on June 8, 1986. Patrick had been admitted to Yale, but he wanted to take a year off from school to travel and play chess. My fond memories of my wanderjahr twenty years earlier persuaded me to support his plan, and I offered to help underwrite the year off. Very quickly, Patrick won his third and final IM norm in Biel, Switzerland, becoming an International Master at the age of eighteen. He was now officially part of the international chess firmament. Somewhat later that year, I got an international call from him. "Dad, I am traveling in Italy." "That is very nice," I replied. "Italy is beautiful." "So I have always found it." 'The Italian food is great." "Yes, I have always liked it." "I have fallen in love with a French girl." "That," I said, "is news."

So off he went to Paris to be with Isabel. He played some chess, but mostly he hung out in cafés, drinking coffee and picking up the language the way you do when you are in love. He even got a job for a bit as an au pair, looking after a little American boy. I confess I did not see Patrick as a nanny, but it paid the bills. When he returned, he was ready to tackle college.

The really important twists and turns in my life seem always to occur more or less by accident. Had Swarthmore not been so skittish about a boy who had been in psychotherapy, I might never have gone to Harvard. Had I not driven in from Ft. Devens to visit Adair Moffat in Whitman Hall, I would never have met Cindy. Had Mac Bundy not gone off to Washington to work for Jack Kennedy, I might still be at Harvard. And if I had not been dining with Dick Sens, I might never have managed to get arrested.

Richard Sens is a Boston area psychiatrist who, like me, was a regular at the BU Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science. In '86, Dick was also going through a difficult divorce, and the two of us fell into the habit of having dinner once a week so that we could commiserate and swap horror stories about lawyers. Usually we met at a tapas place on upper Massachusetts Avenue, but on August 11th, we switched to Thai food. Dick brought along a friend who thirty years earlier had been a student in one of my Philosophy 1 sections at Harvard. She was Jean Anderson then, but she had been married for a while to Juan Alonso, who later became a professor of Romance Languages and Literature. Now, Jean Alonso was working at Raytheon, where she was a union organizer. Jean was a member of an organization called Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni and Alumnae Against Apartheid, or HRAAA, that was working to persuade Harvard to divest.

In those days, the anti-apartheid struggle in America was fought along two fronts -- disinvestment and divestment. Disinvestment meant persuading corporations to pull their capital investments out of South Africa. Since South Africa had far and away the most advanced economy in Southern Africa, it badly needed capital investment, and disinvestment, if carried out on a large enough scale, could bring the economy to a standstill. Divestment was really a symbolic act at best. It meant getting institutions like universities to sell their holdings in companies that continued to do business in South Africa. Every share of stock sold on an exchange is bought by someone, of course, so divestment had no concrete economic effect on the companies. It made no difference to them who owned their shares. But big American corporations are very sensitive about their public image, and they did not like having large institutional shareholders put them on a no-buy list. A number of universities had already divested, including UMass [whose portfolio, needless to say, was tiny], and it would have been a big deal for Harvard, the richest and most prestigious university in the world, to divest. So far, they had steadfastly refused.

HRAAA [or Hurrah, as they rather exuberantly called themselves] had two arrows in their quiver. Their major effort was to try to elect write-in candidates to the Harvard Board of Overseers, chosen annually by all of Harvard's graduates. They had actually succeeded in electing Gay Seidman, daughter of a well-known anti-apartheid activist. But in addition, HRAAA from time to time tried its hand at some direct action. Nineteen Eighty-six was the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Harvard College, and President Derek Bok had organized a big celebration. Even Prince Charles was coming. One of the premier events was to be a black tie and evening gown dinner at Memorial Hall for Harvard's biggest donors. The event was scheduled for Thursday, September 4th. When Jean heard that I had just returned from South Africa, she asked whether I would like to join the protest. "Is there a chance that we will be arrested?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. "O.K., then I'm in," I said. I had always been rather embarrassed that I had not been arrested during the Sixties. Although neither Patrick nor Tobias would ever say so, I suspected they looked down on me a little because of my lack of a record. I thought this might be a chance to redeem myself in their eyes.

Thursdays were one of my teaching days, with a 10 a.m. class in Intro Phil and a late afternoon Kant seminar, but the 4th was the first meeting of the seminar, and I figured I could cut it short. That day, I raced home from class to meet my co-conspirators at a house near Harvard Square. Along the way, I stopped at a pay phone and called Susie to tell her that I was about to get arrested. "All right," she said. We all drifted casually toward Mem Hall by twos and threes. When we got there, maybe half an hour before the dinner was scheduled to start, we joined up, locked arms, sat down on the pavement, and blocked both entrances. Pretty soon, rich Harvard alums dressed to the nines started to arrive. We tightened our blockade and chanted slogans. Since it was a dinner, our premier chant was "If you wanna digest, you gotta divest." Now, to be honest, I don't much like protests and demonstrations. I always feel like a fool, shouting slogans at people five feet from my face. Most of our group were young, although there were a few old hands, grizzled veterans of a hundred causes. Some of the dinner guests looked as though they might be my classmates, and when they saw me sitting on the cold pavement [my rear end was getting frozen], I could tell that they were thinking, "What on earth are you doing sitting there like a teenager?" We stood our ground, or more accurately sat our ground, and Bok was so totally taken by surprise that he never called the police. In the end, he donated the top of the line food to a homeless shelter [say what you will, Harvard has class], and fed his guests pizza in Fogg Art Museum.

So I didn't get arrested. But I got another chance. A donors' dinner was arranged at the Fogg Art Museum for November 21st, and we decided to have a go at interrupting their meal. We showed up on Quincy Street, across the street from Harvard Yard, and divided into two groups. One group walked up the steps to the front door of the Museum and jammed themselves into the entryway, blocking access. I went with the other group, marching up and down the sidewalk in front of the Museum, holding placards. This time Bok was ready for us, and as soon as we appeared, the police were all over us. In no time at all, we had been arrested, and paddy wagons parked down Quincy pulled up to take us to the Central Square police station for booking. Some of the people in our group had been part of the 1969 Harvard student uprising, and some of the cops had been there to arrest them that time too. They greeted one another as old friends and gossiped about the good old days on the way to the station. We were all fingerprinted, booked, and released on our own recognizance.

Now, I realize that in the grand sweep of American protest movements and direct action, this is pretty small potatoes, but these are my Memoirs, and this is the only time in seventy-six years that I managed to get arrested, so you are going to have to let me go on about it for a while. The story has a pretty good punch line, so wait for it. The group in the doorway were charged with trespass, since it was technically Harvard property. Those of us on the sidewalk were charged with disorderly conduct, "loitering on the common without legitimate purpose." The specific claim was that our picketing was forcing passersby to step into the street, thereby putting them in danger from traffic.

This was not exactly the most serious piece of court business before the Commonwealth that Fall and Winter. The arraignment did not take place until February 3, 1987, two and a half months after our arrest. At the arraignment, Judge Arthur Sherman offered us a deal -- cop a plea, pay a small fine, and everyone would forget about it. If we tried to do anything pushy like offering a "necessity defense," he would hit us with contempt charges. A Necessity Defense, for those of you not familiar with the ins and outs of protest politics, is a plea that the act committed, though technically against the law, was necessary in order to prevent a greater harm. The idea is that if you rush into a burning house to save a child, and then get charged with breaking and entering, you can say that although technically you were breaking and entering, it was the only way to save the baby. Protesters sometimes get a sympathetic judge who lets them put on witnesses to testify that the harm being prevented -- apartheid, the Viet Nam War, Jim Crow -- justifies the trespassing or disorderly conduct. Judge Sherman was having none of it.

Seven of us turned down the deal and decided to go to trial. Besides myself, there were Chris Tilly, then an MIT grad student and now Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, Dorothee Benz, then the Executive Director of HRAAA and now Director of Communications for the CUNY Professional Staff Congress, or union, Margaret Schirmer, a life-long activist for peace and justice who died earlier this year at the age of eighty-nine, Abigail Schirmer [her daughter, I think], Joel Reisman and Jeffrey Weinberger.

Even though we were acting pro se [i.e., being our own lawyers], we were coached by some sympathetic leftie attorneys, and following their lead, we filed a motion calling upon Sherman to recuse himself. Somewhat to our surprise, on May 3rd, Sherman said ok. "Although I find no impropriety on my part," he wrote in his own hand on the document I had submitted for the other six who had decided to go to trial, "I can reasonably understand the defendants' apprehension of impropriety. Allowed." The trial was set for May 27th, roughly six months after the protest.

All Spring, we met at my Watertown apartment to plan strategy and prepare for the trial. This being Massachusetts, our opponents were not exactly bad guys. The DA was Scott Harshbarger, who had started his career as a civil rights lawyer, and later on, after narrowly losing the Governorship as the Democratic candidate, headed up Common Cause for three years. Like everyone else in the affair on all sides, he was a Harvard grad. The Assistant DA to whom the case had been handed was young Peter Bellotti, son of Francis X. Bellotti, former Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of the Commonwealth. [In Massachusetts, there are only about seven family names. It is sort of like Korea, where half the population is named Kim.]

We had pretty grandiose plans for our necessity defense, at one point thinking of calling Harry Bellefonte and Jesse Jackson as witnesses, but in the end, our star witness was Mel King, long time Black Boston political activist who had spent nine years as a State Rep. The original group had numbered sixteen, so on a lark, I had a bunch of T-shirts made up that read "Free the Fogg Sixteen." When we got to trial, we found that the new judge assigned to the case was a woman whose son was at that very moment a Harvard undergraduate. Oh well. It was Boston, after all. Sitting prominently in the front row were two men wearing the most expensive suits I had ever seen. Harvard had sent the B-team from its legal staff to observe the proceedings.

At this point, I need to get something off my chest that has rankled for twenty-five years. Technically, I was not guilty. Here is why. The charge against me and the other picketers was that by blocking the sidewalk we were endangering pedestrians. But because Bok had been waiting for us, the police had actually blocked off both ends of Quincy Street before our protest started. So there was no traffic that could endanger pedestrians forced to step into the street. Since I am naturally combative, I brought this up during one of our planning sessions, but the group decided not to go with that defense. The problem was that if some of us got off, the solidarity of the group would be destroyed. I recognized the political wisdom of this point of view, and agreed not to offer my defense, but I really hated having to sit there and let the police claim something that just was not true.

We tried out our necessity defense line on the judge, and during the voir dire, we presented our witnesses, each of whom said what he or she would testify if allowed to appear. After each potential witness, she denied our request. My favorite moment in the trial came after Mel King had given a brief summary of his proposed testimony. The judge said, in a sad voice, "Mr. King, I would be happy to hear you speak on the subject of justice in any venue in the world except this court." Pretty clearly, we were going down.

The trial itself took almost no time at all, and the six jurors [our offenses were misdemeanors] brought in a verdict of Guilty. Then came the sentencing phase. Peter Bellotti proposed that each of us be required to perform one hundred and ten hours of community service [as though our protest was not itself community service.] When it came my turn to propose an alternative penalty for myself, I bethought myself of The Apology. "Your Honor,." I said, "I have for sixteen years served the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a Professor at the State University. In light of my long public service, I propose that the State give me a pension." The Judge, who despite having a son at Harvard was obviously not up on her Plato, looked at me as though I were crazy, and sentenced each of us to a fine of $72.50, or an equivalent amount of community service.

We decided to appeal, but it turned out that the tape recorder serving as court stenographer was so old that no one could get a reasonable transcript from it, and in the end the case dropped into a black hole and was never heard from again.

Despite the terrible legal jeopardy we all were in, the trial was not actually my primary concern that Fall and Winter. The divorce negotiations had finally been concluded, and Cindy and I were scheduled to be formally divorced on December 31, 1976. As soon as I knew I was going to be a free man, I pressured Susie about marrying me, and she agreed. We decided that we would pool our resources -- the proceeds from her house in Chapel Hill, and my half of the proceeds from the house in Belmont -- and build our dream house in the Amherst area. I found two adjacent building lots on Buffam Road, a rural road in the little town of Pelham on the eastern edge of Amherst. The State Senator for that area, a former Amherst College professor named John Olver, owned land in Pelham, and had put up four lots for sale. Behind the four lots was a huge swath of woods that Olver had been unable to develop because he could not gain access to it from town roads, so for tax purposes he had donated it to the State as conservation land. That meant that although the two lots only totaled a bit more than four acres, they were really the front part of a hundred acres or more that could never be built on. I bought lots three and four. Lot two did not perk, which meant we would be protected on all sides. [For you big city dwellers, when you build in the country far from town water and sewer, you have to put in a well and a septic system. To guarantee that the sewage will not back up, the land must be tested to see whether water percolates down into the ground at an acceptable rate. This is called a "perk test."]

Four years later, Republican Silvio Conte, who had represented the huge First Congressional District for more than thirty years, died in office. When Conte had first been elected, the Massachusetts First was as safely Republican a district as you could find, but the entire area had been moving steadily leftward for two decades, Conte with it, and everyone knew that once he left the scene, the action would be in the Democratic primary. Olver announced for the job, as did Jim Collins, the only member of the State Legislature who had actually attended UMass. Olver was farther to the left, but he had cut down all the deciduous trees on Lots 1-4 before putting them on the market, and I was so mad at him that I voted for Collins. At least in Massachusetts, all politics really are local.

We found a local builder named Don Gross, who headed up a little construction company called Sundance Associates. Don put us on to an Amherst architect, Steve Woolf, who told Susie and me to make up a scrap book of pictures from magazines showing the sort of look and features we wanted in a design. Susie was a real estate agent in Chapel Hill, and had once seen a master bathroom with a circular shower that she loved, so she asked Steve to put that in. I had always wanted a vaulting ceiling, so Steve designed a living room with a twenty-two foot ceiling. For me, there would be a study with built in book shelves. For Susie, an octagonal study off the bedroom with a tray ceiling. We found some lovely tile in Chapel Hill, and had it shipped up. I found some more tile in Watertown and almost broke the springs on my car hauling it out to Pelham.

Well in advance, we set our wedding date for August 25th, as late as possible before the new school year to give Gross time to finish building our house. To no one's surprise except mine [I had never had a house built before], Sundance Associates were nowhere near finished as August approached. So Susie boarded her standard poodle, Jacques, and her cat, Kitty, and came north for the wedding. On Tuesday, August 25, 1987 [which, as it happens, was that year the Islamic New Year], we stood before the County Clerk in the Northampton Town Hall and swore our vows. Thirty-seven years after I wrote home from Harvard to tell my parents that Susie and I planned to be married, "but not right away," we were finally husband and wife.


andrEw said...

Since I've known you two were going to get married since one of your first couple posts, I cannot claim I am surprised, but I wanted to wait until this post to tell you how happy I am that she found her way back into your life.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Andrew. It saved my life! And here we are, twenty-four years later, about to celebrate our twenty-third wedding anniversary!

Unknown said...

In my continued role as Afrikaans speaker, I should point out that it's 'braai' and not 'braii'. But I have to say that your observations about the diet are entirely correct!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Man ist was er isst, as we say. I will go into the post and try to find the incorrectly spelled words. Sigh, it is elementary schol all over again!

Anonymous said...


Pat said...


Unknown said...

Bob, what a trip down memory lane! Thank you. Look for me on Facebook or Hope you are well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dot, How wonderful to hear from you. Those were good times. Thanks for checking in!