By Paul Von Blum / Original to ScheerPost
On May 13, 2022, I gave the keynote presentation at the Conference on Dissent at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic. This Conference attracted speakers from multiple nations as well as students and faculty from Charles and other universities in the Czech Republic. Speakers presented their observations about specific social movements in various countries throughout the world. My talk was broader, offering a perspective about a lifetime of political dissent and its implications for my students and others. This essay is adapted from my talk.
The topic of dissent is crucial today. Here, in Prague, we can look at the fate of the courageous anti-war dissenters in Russia, who face horrific consequences for standing up for their principles. The same can be said for the dissenters in Belarus, who face equally tragic consequences for opposing dictatorial oppression there. And now and very soon from now, in the United States, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolishes or severely restricts abortion rights, dissenters will rise up in protest.
Most of the speakers at this supremely valuable Dissent Conference at Charles University have spoken on their specific examples of dissent against individual features of oppression that they and their colleagues have faced. These are hugely important and affect hundreds or even thousands of lives. My focus, however, is different. Dissent has been the essence of my life, both personally and professionally, as a teacher and scholar. I’ve dissented throughout my country and elsewhere, including in the former Czechoslovakia, in Prague in 1969, against the brutal Soviet invasion. I’ve had some bruises, some jail experiences, and some other consequences along the way.
I want to talk about dissent as a personal legacy, and how it has defined my life and how it has influenced some of the 40,000 or more students I have had since I began teaching more than 50 years ago. When you get to my age, you begin, as you must, to think of legacy. It’s not morbid, it’s reality. I’m almost as old as Joe Biden. I’m essentially of the same generation as the other former presidents except Barack Obama: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, even the deplorable Donald Trump. All, except perhaps the extreme narcissist Trump, presumably reflect on their legacy for future generations.
What follows is not exclusively autobiographical. It has a theoretical foundation. It emerges largely from the work of Herbert Marcuse, whom I knew slightly in the late 1960s at Berkeley and whose One-Dimensional Man, An Essay on Liberation, and Eros and Civilization I taught regularly. He emerges from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. My focus here is his notion of “The Great Refusal.” Many articles and books have been written on this powerful and provocative concept.
In short, it’s “the protest against that which is. It’s a revolt against the existing society and an attempt to create a new one.” For my limited purpose today, that will suffice. I approach it on numerous levels: politically, socially, and personally.
This commitment to change and dissent comes from my family. My father was the only survivor of the Holocaust. His entire immediate family was murdered in Auschwitz in nearby Poland and his grandmother in Theresienstadt, also very nearby. When he came to America, he soon understood that the same racism that killed his family was directed against Black people. As a young adult, following service in World War Two, he became a union and civil rights activist.
As a teenager, my parents were part of a small, organized group that helped integrate Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. They assisted the first Black family to move in that previously all-white suburb just north of Philadelphia. We encountered enormous mob violence, including from the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve written about it extensively elsewhere; it was traumatic, but we and the courageous Black family, the Myers, survived. It was a formative experience in my life, setting me on a dissenting political journey that has never ceased.
We moved from Pennsylvania to conservative San Diego, California in 1959, partially because my parents were victims of late McCarthyism and the anti-communist fervor of that era. In high school, I began reading Upton Sinclair and other socialist literature. And I became active in opposing the death penalty. A teacher informed me that my plan to leave campus to protest the execution of Caryl Chessman would result in receiving a “U” (for unsatisfactory in my “citizenship” grade in his class. I left campus, joined the unsuccessful protest, got the bad grade, and managed to survive anyway. Again, my life of dissent and civil disobedience continued.
As a university student, I continued my civil rights crusades. Not surprisingly, it brought me to the American South, where I joined the young activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. I participated in some early non-violent anti-segregation sit-in protests in restaurants in Atlanta and then branched out to sites in Alabama and Louisiana. I was fortunate to meet some civil rights icons like John Lewis, James Forman, and Julian Bond, and I attended the famous March on Washington on August 28, 1963. I heard many inspiring speakers, including Dr. Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech that day. I also heard many wonderful musical performers like Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and many others. Most important, I got involved in many efforts throughout the South and throughout California and Arizona and I faced ugly racist mobs and menacing police officers. Sometimes I landed briefly in jail and sometimes I got some minor injuries. All of this I detail in my memoir A Life at The Margins.
When I was 20 years old––imagine, 20––a well meaning political science professor called me in for what he thought would be a valuable talk about my future. I had indicted my desire to pursue a Ph.D. in political science and teach at the university level. He told me that he admired my activism. Then he said that I had reached a crossroads and that it was time for a major decision: a life of scholarship and of the mind or a life of activism and politics. I thanked him and left, feeling that his choice was absurd, or as I really felt, total bullshit. I feel the same today. I have lived in both worlds and have, I think, successfully blended them together. I have taught at the university level for 54 years and I have never abandoned my dissenting ways.
My path, however, was complicated in 1964. I was arrested for an act of civil rights civil disobedience in San Diego and convicted of three misdemeanor offenses. The reactionary judge decided to place me on probation on condition that I attend law school instead of my intended Ph.D. program. He told me that if I refused, he would impose a lengthy jail sentence. Reluctantly, I accepted. I found legal studies dull and boring, Like Prague’s Franz Kafka, but without his monumental talent, I suffered through the curriculum and finished, passing the Bar Exam and eventually becoming licensed as a lawyer. But during my time as a law student, Berkeley was politically alive and vibrant and I participated vigorously.
The initial struggle was the Free Speech Movement, the most powerful student protest in the 1960s in the United States––one that inspired dozens or more throughout the country and the world. We were protesting the repression of free speech at the University and our collective action prevailed. For me, it encouraged my abilities as a public speaker, enabling me to become more effective as a dissenting member of society. Soon afterwards, the war in Vietnam escalated, and students at Berkeley and elsewhere were at the forefront of opposing this monstrous immoral and illegal war. I took part in every major San Francisco Bay Area protest; it made my law studies seem more tolerable even when it made my grades a little lower than they might have been. The anti-Vietnam War protests occupied much (but not all) of my attention for many years,
And then, in 1968, I was hired in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley, managing to become a university teacher and fulfilling my ambition despite my unorthodox training as a lawyer. I continued my dissenting ways as a young faculty member, advocating strongly for ethnic studies and women’s studies programs and publicly supporting the continuing anti-war protests. Because I finally had some modest financial resources, I also was able to travel to Europe. I had followed the events in Czechoslovakia closely and was excited with Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring. Then came the brutal Soviet invasion in August 1968. I resolved to go there and join the dissenters. I arrived in Prague and participated in street protests and even fighting. I was apprehended, briefly detained, and sent out of the country. I’m glad I participated. Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia entered a long period of repression under Mr. Gustav Husak. Only a few of you here can remember.
At Berkeley, I also began teaching and writing, focusing on cultural criticism and critical art history. In 1972, I joined the newly created Division of Interdisciplinary and General Studies, a 1960s innovative educational unit, widely disliked by conservative campus officials. I continued to publish in dissenting journals and popular outlets, which some academic colleagues saw as “mere journalism,” a pejorative term and sometimes disruptive to my academic career. From time to time, I found myself censored, even once having an entire article withdrawn because a new editor objected to my political stance. I also spoke frequently in community settings, because I was committed to becoming a public, politically engaged intellectual. My topics were typical of the era: women’s rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, opposition to the war, police brutality. and so on. That also caused distress among some conservative colleagues and administrators.
In 1980, I left for UCLA, a sister campus of the University of California system. I have continued my activism and my politically oriented writing in both scholarly and popular publications ever since. I’ve had the opportunity to speak widely in Europe, Southern Africa, and Armenia, all about issues of human rights, anti-imperialist struggles, and closely related themes and topics. I’ve encountered some of the same hostility at UCLA that I found at Berkeley, but I have been successful in prevailing in my struggles largely as a result of my early civil rights organizing experience.
It’s important to mention one of the most important features of my dissenting life––my longtime struggle against misplaced university priorities. As a student during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964, I was moved by the strong view that the University of California, the so-called greatest public university in the nation, was seriously neglecting its undergraduate students in favor of its research priorities, too much of which related to national defense interests. I have maintained this critique throughout my faculty career. I have long believed that major research universities, including my own, have delivered mediocre education to their undergraduate students. They reward faculty on the basis of their research and publication, despite their rhetoric about teaching excellence.
I’ve been public and vocal about this regrettable priority scheme. This has caused some consternation from some colleagues and administrators over the years. They have attacked me and at times sought to derail my career. As I noted, I’ve fought back successfully. I have written extensively on these issues and spoken at length. I see no reason to give up now.
I want all of this to be my legacy to my students in the United States and wherever else I teach, including regularly in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University in Brno. Here is what I believe, with Dr. King: The moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. There are times, of course, when it’s difficult to agree. Now seems to be one of those times when the opposite seems to be true given the sorry state of the world.
I obviously won’t live long enough to see the justice that Martin Luther King envisioned. That long quest seems depressing, especially when tilts toward injustice and increased human suffering. But living a life of dissent, a life of resistance against repression, against tyranny, against all forms of discrimination, is, I think, a very gratifying way to live a life. This is a valuable model for others. It’s not always an easy life and it sometimes involves pain and hardship. I think it’s worth it.
That’s what I hope to leave as my major legacy, far beyond my teaching, my writings, and other tangible and intangible accomplishments. But in saying that, I always remind audiences (and myself), that I’m not dead yet. As a postscript, when I returned from Prague, I taught “Hearts and Minds” in my UCLA class and urged my students to look closely into the lessons of Vietnam, about which they know very little. And just a few days ago, I joined the March for Life to add my body to the protest against the horrific carnage of gun violence, most recently in Buffalo and Uvalde. That too adds to my legacy of dissent. Life goes on.