University of Michigan
Four and a half years ago, eleven faculty members of the University of Michigan issued a call for a one-day moratorium in protest against United States aggression in Vietnam. It was proposed that for one day, just one day, teachers and students stop talking about chemistry, English sonnets, and corporate law, and talk instead about what the United States war machine was doing to people on the other side of the world. As I recall, forty-nine faculty members joined the call. To some of us this seemed too few. Others said it did not matter; that the justice of a cause is not measured by the number of its supporters. It goes without saying that those of us who then had second thoughts about suspending business as usual did not doubt the justice of the cause. They were concerned with whether a demonstration that might fizzle out would not demonstrate the contrary of what it intended, namely that the University stood squarely behind Lyndon B. Johnson, his generals, and his advisers.
Another major concern was that the first reaction to the moratorium would raise — had, in fact already raised — issues which at that time seemed to many to have nothing to do with the war in Vietnam, such as whether suspending for one day discussions about, say, the physiology of digestion in order to talk about starving people constituted a breach of contract by a professor, or a reneging of his responsibility to students. We knew then what now everyone knows, that these issues were of paramount relevance and importance. But we did not want these issues to obscure the one that the moratorium was supposed to bring into focus: the war, deliberately instigated by the United States, the stupidity, the illegality, and the immorality of that war.
So we looked around for an alternative way to drive the point home, and we found one. The accusation against us was that we were intending to do our thing on company time. So we announced that we would teach what we felt had to be taught during the night. And so the Teach-in movement was born. Right over there, a few yards from where we are standing, the world’s first Teach-in was held on the night of March 24-25, 1965.
It made history. Within a month over a hundred campuses in the United States were ignited. Within a year the movement spread to Europe; and those other issues which, for tactical reasons, were at first avoided came to the forefront, namely what is the role of the University in a society that calls itself civilized? What are the responsibilities of professors to students? And so on. From these issues to a re-examination of the meaning of democracy is only a step. This step has now been taken.
The Teach-ins did not stop the war. But they accomplished something even more important. They awakened the people of the so-called Western democracies to the most salient political fact of our age, namely that democracy defined by rhetoric, political rituals and trappings, is a moribund, subverted democracy. Our ancestors used to say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Americans, in their comfort, their pursuit of individual advantages, in their worship of the bitch goddess of success, forgot to pay the instalments, and their liberties were re-possessed.
Living democracy involves three features of the social order. The first everyone knows or, at any rate, can repeat: governments must be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their people. But this definition is not sufficient. A government that claims legitimacy because it has not been turned out by procedures formally available to the people, is not thereby unquestionably democratic. More is required of a democracy. The people must have an opportunity to realize WHAT their genuine needs and aspirations are. They are denied this opportunity if the means of communication are overwhelmingly controlled by elites, by bureaucracies, or by commercial enterprises; and if the institutions of learning are co-opted to serve the interests of dominant groups. Democracy is subverted if people are denied access to sources of enlightenment by whatever method — whether by overt control, as in totalitarian states, or by sheer preponderance of economic power and political inertia as in the United States. The second feature of democracy, then, is an unimpeded access for everyone to the sources of enlightenment, in fact as well as in principle.
The third and most crucial test of democracy is whether, when a government fails to be responsive to people’s needs and aspirations, the people have the will to dismiss that government and to replace it by one that is responsive. The founders of this republic passed that test. This principle will now be put to a test once again.
Richard Nixon pleads for national unity. Well, he has almost got it now. After years of bitter strife, the American people seem to be on the verge of being once more united, now in a protest against a senseless criminal, and beastly war.
Nixon says that he will not be influenced by the protest. The next move is, therefore, the people’s. If Nixon and his generals can get away with it, the alleged American democracy will have failed the crucial test. It will have shown itself as a system where people can say what they will while its military machine does what it will. One is almost tempted to
call it a live-and-let-live arrangement, except that the military machine does not let live. It kills people; and the more it kills, the more it promises to kill, the fatter and stronger and more independent it becomes
If, on the other hand, our society can pass the crucial test of democracy, if the people can prove that they mean business, if they follow through with an ultimatum to what are supposed to be their servants: obey us or get out — then the most important political issue of our age, the issue of people’s sovereignty, will become alive once again, as it was in 1776, 1789, 1848, and 1917. It will become as alive in the United States as it is with people struggling for national liberation.
The war in Vietnam is an event that awakened the people to what should always have been of prime concern to them. It is not enough to stop the war. It is not enough to see to it that there are no more Vietnams. What is at stake is whether those who are responsible for the Vietnams, for the plundering of the planet, for seducing creative thought into the service of death, for erasing the difference between truth and falsehood, for identifying global politics with a poker game — whether people who think this way, and who in their impudent arrogance proclaim this way of thinking to be the height of political wisdom and realism, shall be allowed to continue to rule. What is at stake is whether, centuries after the Divine Right of Kings was exposed as a superstition, absolute power of life and death over every man, woman, and child on this plant will continue to be wielded by a few individuals.
The American people, it seems, have finally learned to say “NO.” We shall now see how well they have learned it.