At the suggestion of a number of folks I am trying to write about the past few decades actions, reactions, ideas, and notions as I have experienced them, using stories, anecdotes, etc. People call this sort of thing a memoir…but what I am doing is not about me, or even the times, so much as particular occurences and organizing and so on, with an eye toward lasting lessons. I just happened to be there, that’s all.
The book is currently titled Remembering Tormorrow. I admit I like the title so much it is unlikely to change. The rest, however, changes every time I look at any part of i. So, I am posting a draft introduction here, and if anyone has any reaction – from what are you doing, don’t bother; to hey, this will be your masterpiece; and more important, if anyone has any advice, I’d happily hear from you.
In the U.S. and around the world, social structures saddle us. Freedom lacks participation. Information lacks truth. Weather boils us. Water befouls us. Stomachs clench us. Jails crowd us. Bombs burst us. Cynicism deadens us. Complacency constrains us. People don’t soar as they ought to. Life suffers. Too many die too early.
Corpses from indignity, war, repression, and inequality are unwarranted. Over every grassy knoll are false graveyards. Shouldn’t we kick it off? Shouldn’t we show something better?
That sentiment has moved me all my life. Where from? Where to? What new paths?
A memoir recounts selected life experiences. It explicates the narrator. It explicates the times. It draws lessons. t doesn’t conclude anything.
A memoir should read like exciting fiction. A memoir should tell truth. A memoir should be brutally honest even affronting those mentioned, even degrading self. Are these standards sensible? Can I meet them? Do I want to?
Me As Memoirist
My writing a memoir faces numerous obstacles. First, I have an abysmal memory. My past is not eidetic. Even in high school I couldn’t recall whole cloth. I couldn’t historically account. Called upon for sequence and pattern I reconstructed from foundations as if doing mathematical deductions. Cramming facts was torture and never stuck. Names, places, dates, and even sequences transcend my powers. Things implant in the sinews of my mind, I am sure, like for everyone else, but my recall is thwarted by a horribly defective playback mechanism. Even prodded I can recall only fragments.
Some memoirs include decades-old descriptions of people’s outfits, weather, and exact words. Not mine. Some memoir-ists forget that kind of detail, but insert it in their stories anyhow, imagining it as it might have been. Not me.
Second, beyond horrible recall, I don’t introspect. My revealing inner motivations and rationales, much less inner demons, is largely fanciful. I don’t protest introspecting. Neither pride nor privacy censor me. I simply don’t explore internal terrain. If I visited a psychiatrist and managed to remain civil, there would ensure a cacophony of silence. More, I doubt people can understand beyond the most general parameters of their personal motives, so why try? We can understand overarching average pressures. We can understand obvious factors of private choice. We can’t understand deeper intricacies of private variation.
Third, I am intellectually pugnacious but I have no interest in condemning anyone whose path I combatively intersected. Why do that? I scrupulously avoid ad homonym history. No histrionic entertainment here.
But fourth and perhaps most determinative of the nature of this book, I dislike personally focused memoirs. This both emotional and, I think, logical.
Suppose I remember and convey some event in all its intimate personal details. Since I don’t have the wisdom or talent of a great novelist, there is nearly no prospect my time spent on detail will deliver sought results. Idiosyncratic stories can fascinate, but unless brilliantly conveyed they rarely edify. From the primarily pointedly personal, readers might experience quickly fading amusement, quick drying tears, or Cheshire smiles, but what about picking up a few lasting insights? Dostoevsky graphically and intensively described emotional details and conveyed not only the pathos of a specific person but also lasting profundities about life and history. I can’t do that.
So what’s the point of a memoir from someone with a poor memory, who doesn’t introspect, who rejects personal fireworks, and who avoids personal revelation?
When friends urged me to write personal stories about the past few decades, I assumed they sought stories of movements, activism, projects, and social thinking, as experienced from my spot on the wall. Their request was that I try to use personal remembrance to reveal historical patterns, possibilities, and thoughts.
So, that’s what I sought to do. Along the way, however, pressures mounted for greater than my preferred level of personal revelation. It isn’t just the political experiences, thoughts, books, institutions, and movements that matter, friends advised me. It is also the little and diverse factors that propelled me down particular byways. I have to include that too, to help readers understand bigger issues and see larger connections of life lived by real people in real times. Personal context will familiarize and humanize.
Okay, despite still strong reservations, I have tried to fulfill my friends’ instructions. This is the seventeenth book I have authored or co-authored. This book is barely longer than some others. It required less research than most others. But it was harder to organize and write and entailed much more vacillating over whether it would be worth the paper it is printed on.
Emulating My Muse
As I began writing, I read a couple of books on writing memoirs from which I got the advisories noted above. I also read a number of representative memoirs or autobiographies that I might try to emulate. Among these were Tom Hayden’s memoir Rebel that told about the New Left, Dave Dellinger’s moving autobiography From Yale to Jail, and also Bertrand Russell’s, Simone de Beauvoir’s, and Ghandi’s justly famous autobiographies. I read a few other sundry and less memorable works too, plus, finally, I read the first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoirs. Dylan’s book, despite being a-political, nonetheless greatly affected my plans.
Dylan’s memoir jumps from year to year. It is not stately but highly agitated and even slightly berserk. What gives Dylan’s stories continuity despite chronological chaos is thematic flow. Emotional, intuitive, or musical links connect each spotlighted event to the next. Reading Dylan’s meandering, circling stories, not knowing chronologically where I was didn’t matter. I was thematically situated.
I thought this reflected Dylan’s artistic and literary genius. I figured Dylan first wrote a draft of the whole book in temporal order and then carefully found non linear connections to reorganize his stories oblivious to temporal order. In fact, I figured he probably had the two promised future volumes done as well. However difficult I thought that methodology might be, it seemed consistent with the idea that a memoir should not be about the narrator, the narrator’s life, or even the narrator’s experiences – but should be about a selected subset of the narrator’s experienced perceptions and whatever insights and lessons the reader might usefully draw from them.
I liked Dylan’s book, but my pleasure arose largely from caring about Dylan himself. Dylan’s themes and lessons meant less to me than Dylan’s personal existence and choices. I even wonder how much his themes would mean to anyone who wasn’t a musician and didn’t specifically care a lot about Dylan. In contrast, few Remembering Tomorrow readers will be remotely as entranced by me as I am entranced by Dylan, or even entranced by me at all. Only a handful will read these pages to sate personal curiosity. For you, dear reader, I know there is either more here than Michael Albert, or Remembering Tomorrow won’t be worth your time. Hell, if I was reading it, that would be my interest. By prioritizing the non personal, Dylan’s non linear approach fits my needs even better than it fit Dylan’s.
So, sitting down to write, I favored temporal non linearity and began trying to mimic it even while fearing it would elude me. And then came a pleasant surprise. Writing episodes thematically is, at least for me, easier than writing them sequentially.
I remember event x. Prodded by remembering x, I remember interaction y. That y is separated in time from x doesn’t matter as long as y is thematically related to x. The non linear approach rejects comprehensively dredging up everything. It extricates only to provoke useful response. Dylan’s method not only better highlighted the thematic, it was also easier recall and writing. Thanks Bob. I’m indebted to you again.
What This Isn’t
I would love to read a really effective history of the last fifty years. It is sad that my generation hasn’t generated such histories. Perhaps the task intimidates us. I know it intimidates me. Tom Hayden’s memoir of the sixties relays many sequential facts, though I disagree with his understanding of the period and broader relations. Dave Dellinger’s autobiography also conveys a lot of history, step by step, with a tutored, caring, and wise eye. But neither of these are remotely histories of the epic. Other partial works exist, some quite brilliant, but not an encompassing history.
Remembering Tomorrow will not correct that problem. To get even a patchy history out of Remembering Tomorrow you would have to research many dates that aren’t included and then rip the binding and sequentially reposition the pages in temporal order, filling in all kinds of detail which I only sparsely and intermittently include. Even then you would only have a mishmash of disjoint pieces, and often not the largest or the grandest pieces. A historical record is not here. This book’s non-linear style helps make that evident.
What This Is
Remembering Tomorrow is a book in ten parts. Each includes various stories and episodes. Each tries to convey something worth remembering and hopefully using.
Part One, The Old Folks Home at MIT, has five chapters about my time at a contextually stellar but objectively smarmy college located in Cambridge Massachusetts. It covers fraternity rush through tumultuous expulsion including hypocritical revisitation and tacky yearbook reminiscences not to mention learning science. There is, cognitive dissonance, sniffing glue, designing corridors, burning draft cards from the balcony, creating sanctuaries, finishing school logic, and career planning. Motives intersect and transcend both elections and riots. We meet Hahnel and early Marxism. We meet Hoffman, Living Theatre, dope, and even a little acid. We meet Vice President Humphrey, the Dead who are not so Grateful, and even Ali. Torching libraries is the thing. The Provost propositions me. Chemical production seduces me. Kennedy beckons me. Lucre sickens me. We see the roots of my vision fetish. We meet Dow and Bohmer. We experience multiform channeling. My election surprises. Everywhere there is war. Shalom shines, I am not so bright. Facing repression: in print, and eyeball to gun barrel. Pre-envisioning remembering yesterday. MIT, those were the days.
Part Two, Early Days, has three chapters. We visit home. Brother gambles and I break loose. Wrestling wrangles. Sister navigates prodigal return. Parents beget me. School dazes. Religion manipulates – unsuccessfully. Neclear wrangles. Civil Rights creates history. Personal fighting creates anti-thuggery. Music tears, mends, and even defines my life.
Part Three, Learning and Teaching, has five chapters. MIT and Harvard preen educational inadequacy. I become simultaneously an economist and not an economist. Is economics astrology? Odd byways illuminate academia. Cheating disciplines left life broadly. I test well but obey poorly. I teach with Chomsky. I teach at and get fired from U. Mass Boston and re-meet my boss decades later. Slippery slopes connect law, lechery, education, and politics. Teaching at prison educates me how threats work and why racism trumps reason. Walking butterflies convey key life lessons. ZMI is my best teaching and we will win.
Part Four, Personal Dimensions, has six chapters. We visit doctor filth and endure sickening medicine for mother, dad, and me too. Hobby time leads to Sammy Reshevsky who was almost Bobby Fisher. College selection leads to Bill Bradley who was fully Mr. Basketball. Playtime leads to tennis handicaps, intellectual chasms, the sea’s relentlessness, and even me being in the zone defying mathematician’s proofs. Human capacities are tested and revealed. Reading yields writing. Guns intersect publishing. Personal manipulations, chameleon effects, and lawyers and doctors destroying selves and others leads to living a left life. Socializing or not, that becomes the question. Big and little thefts merge. Monumentally dirty refrigerator yields clean up crews and ruminations about being born or dying. My own wage slavery, three times over, fails to hurt, but luckily you don’t have to endure cancer to know it isn’t a walk in the park.
Part Five, Publishing Others, has six chapters. We meet Ollman being Marx, Churchill with his head high, and Friendly Fascism defanged and re-fanged. Oddly, I write with Mr. Toffler. Ed Herman enters for a long stay and Chomsky gets his due. Mass media is revealed. Between Labor and Capital highlights Ehrenreich, antagonizes Aronowitz, propels Albert and Hahnel. The totality of oppression infuses life and informs publishing. Sargent’s Women and Revolution, Churchill’s Marxism and Native Americans, and lots of No Nukes keep the ball rolling. Sixties books reveal Dellinger and Hayden, I learn on Golden Pond. Katsiaficas writes a good one and the press avoids fatness. Finally there is cocky Cockburn, a little Hitchens, and Kovel’s victory.
Part Six, Racial Realities, has only two chapters. I get mugged on Halloween. Self image issues abound. Lydia gets mugged on our steps. MIT blackness instructs. SEP biases persist. Where does whitey belong? Who is singing the same old white boys song? And what the hell is going on in a left that is less diverse than the mainstream?
Part Seven SexPol, tips a nod to Reich, visits some opposite gender relations, explores marriage, muses on children and aging, learns from Bread and Roses, and trips over pornography. And Lydia gets her due.
Part Eight, Ship Building, has eight chapters. Bean town organizes from Old Mole media to rioting and conferencing. The Black Panthers rise, fall, and shine a light. Sects vary little on two sides of one ocean. My experiences in the action faction include SLF macho, Weather forecasts and storms, and planning mayhem. Washington warfare stretches from the Pentagon, through CIA insanities, to Hayden and Davis’s Mayday mayhem, and finally to Poland – which is not Washington – with lessons for home. Social Forums bust Life After Capitalism. Mumbai’s traffic, fear, and calm introduce Asian diversity. Florence art and craft differs from America, and doesn’t. Lula has dinner. Me and Brazil’s election, nyet. Me and the WSF, nyet. Building tomorrow’s movement, not yet. We Stand for what. Plus here find the many sides of Jackson, Nader, and electoral politics.
Part Nine, Institution Building, has three chapters. South End Press is born, foreshadows participatory economics, survives capitalism’s pressures, endures human eagles and mice, and succeeds wildly. We entice money from clothing entrepreneur, Rockefeller daughter, and Hunter the headliner. House sales resuscitate, investment packages preserve, phone fund raising saves, printer profanity and standing down the IRS protect. Z spins off. Outreach gambles pay off. NFL owner pops up: plenty of pain, no gain. Z Papers is prescient and disastrous. ZMI is a winner. LBBS drains life, misses big bucks, morphs into Shareworld, misses even bigger bucks, morphs into ZNet, makes okay bucks. Finally, restauranting and keeping on keeping on.
Part Ten, Mind Trips, has five chapters and a postscript. Marxism morphs to liberating theory with a major in economics. Vision overcomes resistance, generates parecon, debates Horowitz, and advocates participatory society. Strategy addresses vision, megaphone, stickiness, structural readjustment, umbrella, background, emphasis, timeline, sectarianism, and money problems. I rant about ideas and the left, visit Rimini, Italy, conclude on an upbeat, and append a postscript speech.
That’s it. It’s probably too much. It is certainly way more than I had any intention to ever revisit.