Saturday, August 14, 2010

Resistance Is Possble: Memories of an Hour with Chandler Davis (Part Two)

In the Q&A, historian Georg Iggers, who is about eighty-nine, compared Davis to E.P. Thompson, another scholar whose displeasure with the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia did not turn him against the Left. Chan was flattered and said that he certainly admired Thompson’s position and was unhappy with the failure of nerve that characterized the likes of François Furet. Another attendee asked Chan about his thoughts on what obstacles existed to combining the pursuit of science and mathematics with a social justice agenda. Bringing up the role that the Black-Scholes equation played in the financial meltdown, Chan observed that, so long as there are institutional rewards, so long as the bosses and the process of professionalization encourage mathematicians’ or scientists’ indifference to social justice, the problem is likely to persist.

Attorney, Heidegger scholar, and bon vivant Vince Gugino—at sixty-one, one of the youngsters in the audience—asked about how Chan’s experience of living under social democracy in Canada affected his perspective. In the course of his answer, Chan expressed pride that Canada had realized that the U.S. was the aggressor in the Iraq War and had not joined the Alliance [sic] of the Willing. In part, such resistance is possible because Canada is a small power. But Chan wished that it had been more vocal about its resistance and stood up to the U.S. more visibly. Chan’s daughter (Hannah, I assume) found herself working in 2003 with the U.N. delegation from Gabon and said to them directly, you realize that Powell’s lying; and they’d said, “Yes, but please—we are a small country.” Again, Chan suggested that small countries ought to take a public stand.

To the more general issue of why there is less resistance to the crimes of the powerful, Chan alluded to his thesis of the Grenada effect: “So easily, without resorting to reason or even to coercion, can the powerful change opinions, just by having the power.” But he added that in most cases in the U.S. and around the world, you don’t have to resort to an ideological explanation: the powerful are using physical force and the threat of physical force to suppress resistance and change attitudes. That’s why you have to admire the heroism of the people of Cuba and Gaza.

The discussion ended, if I recall correctly, with a conversation about why there seemed to be less resistance to the Iraq War than there had during the U.S. war against Vietnam. I suggested that the neoliberal revolution deliberately set out to make sure that Americans, lacking the financial security we’d had in the Sixties and early Seventies, were more apprehensive about making trouble. Chan pointed out that many millions of people around the world had demonstrated against the Iraq War before it even started, protesting on a scale that hadn’t happened until many years into the Vietnam War, if ever. I mentioned that historical amnesia was a big factor: Eric Alterman, when the Iraq War started, blogged that our protest was over and we’d failed, as if there was no point to continuing to resist; and history should have taught him better. Professor Iggers brought up the draft and spoke of his years in the late Sixties and early Seventies working at the Buffalo Peace Action Center and counseling draft-age youths: although it was in a working-class black neighborhood, for the first couple of years he worked there, only middle-class white guys showed up for counseling—that changed in late ’71 or ’72. Dr. Gugino suddenly realized that he’d been one of the working-class white guys whom Iggers had counseled!

People’s energy was flagging, and the audience was shrinking further (not necessarily because of osteoporosis); I adjourned the event. I had the privilege of talking with Iggers for a few minutes: evidently he and his wife had met Chan through Lee Lorch—they’d been in Little Rock when Lee’s wife had dived into the mob to rescue one of the young black women going to Central, as a result of which Lee had been fired and had to seek work in Canada.

The store sold about ten copies of the book—pretty much every household that’d stayed halfway through the event or longer bought a copy.