Kenneth Rexroth

Five Pieces from the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Press, Police, Mafia

The Chronicle gives a front-page headline to a story by their science editor, “STRONG DEFENSE OF DDT,” four columns wide, ten lines deep at the bottom of the page with a runover on the back page of over a column. On the back page is a news story one-quarter of a column long playing down the manifesto of 150 scientists who issued the gravest possible warning against the insecticide. The statements in the first story were characterized by evasions, misrepresentations, political abuse, distortion of evidence and misrepresentation of fact. The second story used the mildest paragraph in the manifesto of the 150.

Why this contrast? It is very simple. The Chronicle, the Examiner and the boss of the Chronicle are all in the business of “factories in the fields.” The Hearsts probably make more money off agriculture and mining than they have made in the whole history of their newspaper enterprises.

Why no stories on the demonstrated relationship between DDT and cancer of the liver? The answer is that no paper is better at twisting the arms of its reporters than the Chronicle. It is a perfect representation of the kind of journalism described a half century ago in Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check. The difference is that Paul Smith and after him Scott Newhall invented a special lubricant of fake journalism, pseudo-hippiedom and Pacific Heights Squirt Set gossip to make the brass check slide in earlier into the defenseless butt of San Francisco’s middle class, so rotten with provincial sophistication.

If you base the entire editorial policy on a “city column” [Herb Caen] (subsidized by a chain of haberdashers that pays several times over for the page) whose greatest accomplishment is getting a few cents of wire strung through a tunnel so motorists won’t miss the play-by-play from Candlestick, you have — well, what do you have? Giggles over the grapefruit. Of course there is always that pseudo-hippy on Ed. 2 [probably Ralph Ginsberg] for those who think the underground press uses too many dirty words.

What the Bay Area needs so badly is a committed, crusading liberal paper at least comparable to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Louisville Courier, or the York (Pa.) Gazette.

San Francisco is in a very bad way indeed. Chicago has been a city of the dead since 1925-27 when it was taken over by the Organization. San Francisco is now at that point.

Why were Broadway and the Haight-Ashbury handed over to The Organization in the last two mayoralty campaigns? First, for a fast buck on bare boobs and smack. Second, to deliberately destroy property values so that North Beach and the Haight-Ashbury, the city’s two most charming neighborhoods, can be turned, once prices have hit rock bottom, into expensive high-rise slums, whether condominiums or housing projects (which are indistinguishable in fact), both guaranteed by federal money.

Remember the guy on Long Island who parlayed a $1000 bank account into a “cooperative” and condominium empire, entirely with federal money? Like lots of the boys from the Mezzogiorno he’d acquired a record in his rash youth, but of arrests, never convictions.

Who now runs the Visitors and Convention Bureau in San Francisco? Who did he work for before? Where does the money for this outfit come from? It comes from the Hotel Tax, which was set up for cultural activities. Its disposition is eventually at the disposal of a toilet-paper magnate and a couple of bankers who consider themselves the most cultured Power Elite in the country.

Do you know that you cannot get a loan at the mortgage rate from a “reputable” bank to buy a place to live in in the Haight-Ashbury, but only on the lot to demolish and rebuild. The guys who are responsible for this are the leading patrons of the symphony, the museums and our Square Repertory Theater.

Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York — one by one the cities fall before the Police Counter Revolution. In San Francisco we have the most politically ambitious copper of them all, so dizzy with conceit that he is convinced he has already won his counterrevolution.

San Francisco once had the best entertainment district in the country, the only one where you were sure you’d get value received and never get clipped, much less rolled. Now it’s worse than the French Quarter and Calumet City ever were.

Once you could walk the streets of the city at any hour of the night anywhere in perfect safety. Once the city had the least black-white racial tension possibly in the world. Once the whores of San Francisco, black or white, were the friendliest, and the card rooms were places of quiet recreation, and the gay bars were the safest places in town. There were almost no working pimps and there was no organized vice whatsoever.

You could run one whorehouse, or one card room or one call service or booking agency, but never two. When Capone tried to take over the sugar moon business in San Francisco, the two agents he sent to terrorize Gus Oliva were found dead at the foot of Point Reyes cliff. One had a button from a police uniform clutched in his fist.

While they tear down the finest old homes in San Francisco which they first turned into smack and speed crash pads, Hunters Point (which has been illegally allowed to stand since four years after the war when, like all other temporary housing, it was supposed to be torn down) festers away, out of sight and easily cordoned off — like the Warsaw ghetto.

The terror directed against youth will increase in fury during the next six months. Why? Because it is out of the concerned people in the universities that resistance to extinction for profit, which is what the post-capitalist system has become, will emerge into the wider society. It certainly will not come from the industrial working class, fat on Vietnamese blood and drugged by the boob tube.

The violence of counterrevolution has crept up on us in an age of unremittent violence and we forget that if Hitler had poison-gassed the University of Heidelberg as late as 1938, his government would have fallen. What has the city’s liberal daily to offer in this lethal web of crises, emergencies and conspiracies? Merla Zellerbach. The other bylines, in case nobody told you, are just Merla in drag, except McCabe, a good man fallen amongst teeny boppers.
[July 10, 1969]

The Ecology of Education

Overnight, it has become apparent than man has destroyed his environment to the point where the earth strikes back. Overnight, ecology has become more fashionable amongst both young and old than hobble skirts and hula hoops ever were.

Even the mindless administration of Calvin Coolidge Jr. has been prodded by its mechanical brains on loan from J. Walter Thompson into a brainless cognizance: not of the threat of a poisoned environment to the human race, but of the threat of concerned effete mobs to its own cheap political image.

Kept scientists from White House kennels go to conferences on the environmental disaster, get up and say to the objective and informed scientists there gathered: “You boys can’t expect us to take back to our president all this calamity howling! You’ve got to accentuate the upbeat. The sane sensible silent solid majority of good Americans knows that growth equals prosperity and they’re not going to buy anything else. This administration and any other administration that could take its place is committed to growth everywhere. That’s what keeps us ahead and makes us the greatest, happiest, best-educated, most prosperous society the world has every seen. I don’t think you boys have been doing your homework. I’m just not going to tell the president all this communistic nonsense. It would just make him mad and pretty soon you fellows would find you weren’t going to get any more government money for conferences like this.”

We think of ecological breakdown in global, or at least large-scale, terms. True, Thor Heyerdahl found the dead center of the Atlantic Ocean accumulating filth like Lake Erie, so that techniques for desalinating the drinking water could remove the salt but could not make the water potable. This scares people, but it’s far away, like famines in China and India.

Breakdown occurs in nature in microenvironments. Life associations under a California valley oak fail when misuse of water destroys the water table and the oaks die out. First mutual aid goes; a struggle of each against all ensues, with a proliferation of malignant types; finally, death.

Similarly in education: Students at Berkeley, SF State, UCSB, UCLA are rightly concerned, even terrified, about the destruction of redwoods, pollution of San Francisco Bay and the Santa Barbara Channel, the slurbization of agriculture and omnipresence of smog. But first and foremost, they should look at themselves, at their own microecology.

Education is an interpersonal relationship strictly limited in size. When it grows beyond that it destroys both environment and people. At the critical point, tipover occurs and mutual aid gives way; a struggle of each against all ensues, with a proliferation of malignant types; finally death. We have reached the point where the inmates of the educational system revolt against the destructive structure, try to break out and establish creative human relationships. Already we are approaching the point where the conflict will take another form, turn in upon itself.

As long as the struggle is directed against manifest evils of the structure symbolized by the Establishment, it remains creative. When conflict becomes internecine, when the victims divert their energies from victimization and turn on each other, breakdown is imminent.

We are on the brink.

The Establishment has met the crisis with sympathetic magic, handing out mimeographed rules from Deans’ offices and true and false questionnaires and tinkering with the mechanics of the structure. Now they breathe a joyful sigh of relief as SDS breaks into battling cliques of Maoists, Trotskyites, Cheists, Weathermen and anarchists.

In the beginning, San Francisco State seemed one of the most creative schools in the country; a little bitty place, a half-altered normal school down on lower Haight Street with an intimacy in its pedagogical relationship unequaled in the West. It moved to a magnificent site and proceeded to obliterate it with chicken coops into which every year new thousands of white leghorns were stuffed and expected to lay golden eggs of knowledge.

This sort of thing is happening everywhere. At Santa Cruz and Irvine, where the original planners thought they had protected the environment, the saturation point has already been reached, yet administrators talk about doubling the enrollment by 1980.

If college administrations don’t knuckle under with plans for an ever-burgeoning GNP of battery-raised pullets, Uncle Sam starts twisting arms with his little grants and subsidies.

Unless we are all killed off in race wars or kill ourselves off with atoms, the major industrial nations will soon send everybody to college. We must limit population growth nationally and globally. The present rate of increase is destroying the environment which permits the species to exist.

But we must also cut down micro-populations in micro-environments, everywhere, and not least in education. In the next ten years, the universities of California and the state colleges should at least quadruple in number and the present college populations should be cut in half.

You certainly can’t get a humane, humanitarian, humanistic education packed into a swarm of 50,000 people. You can’t get a human one. You may not get a decent one even with a student population of four figures. For me, 999 is the limit.
[December 16, 1969]

Kent State

At the end of the Second World War, the British poet-novelist-pathologist-physician Alex Comfort said in a letter to me that The Bomb was only a symptom, the superficial eruption of the deep-seated and pervasive American sickness. And, he said further, paraphrasing Voltaire’s remark about the deity, that if the Americans had not invented it, it would have been necessary for God, if there is a God, to have created it for them.

For years I have said that something has gone terribly wrong: Bolshevik and Nazi terror across Europe, the Moscow Trials, the Spanish War and Second War, the extermination of the Jews, Gypsies and Volga Germans — an unassimilable ethnic group in the Crimea and Caucasus, the firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps where they certainly would have been exterminated if the U.S. had begun to lose the war. What a record. It is hard to convince people that it is unparalleled in history.

Now the human race has started to devour itself, not in wars between nations or between groups cut off from each other by ethnic, class or caste divisions, but within the normal structure of a properly functioning society. When things are going normally, the old and the young, students on one side and their parents and professors on another, should not be engaged in civil war. Each group is part of the hierarchic structure of a smoothly functioning society, overriding economic, social, even racial antagonisms.

Yet what do we see? What we see is madness. All over the world there is rising up a psychotic hatred of the young, of incredible virulence and violence, so deep seated and far reaching, it can be diagnosed only as a symptom of the death of the species.

There is a theory that the great reptiles died out because they had no mechanism for warming their blood as the marshes chilled around them in the period of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes at the end of the Jurassic, their sperm and egg cells became infertile from the cold.

Contemporary evidence, extrapolated backwards from the behavior of the human species, indicates that the dinosaurs did not die because of chilly balls — they ate their eggs.

The inquiring reporter in Kent State, whose story went out over the wires, discovered that the townspeople approved of the massacre by 90 percent. Most thought the guards should have killed more students; none showed any sympathy or understanding with the students whatever, even if they didn’t approve of killing them. These are their own sons and daughters.

In Santa Barbara, I have met no one except intellectuals who did not believe the shooting at Kent was just the medicine California needs. I point out that the four killed at Kent were almost certainly innocent bystanders, none were militants and only one knew any militants; that Kevin Moran at Santa Barbara was a convinced advocate of nonviolence, leading the group trying to cool the scene.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” the response replied, “What of it? They shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They should have been back in their rooms, studying their lessons. If we shoot a few more of them, maybe these dope-crazy, sex-crazy punks and hippies will learn their lesson.”

The giveaway is the word “kids.” When the graduate students at MIT joined en bloc the recent demonstration there, the New York Times referred to them as “children.” Can’t you see them marching up to receive their Ph.D.’s on tricycles and scooters, carrying sand pails and shovels, rubber dolls and teddy bears?

This is the other side of the Oedipus complex, the Laios complex. Up till now I have always thought that Freud’s idea that sometime in the earliest beginnings of man all the sons killed off all the fathers, thereby permanently injuring the brains of the human race, was just the nutty idea of an eccentric headshrinker who’d been treating too many Viennese rich women and freaky counts. I don’t know. Maybe it did happen as a mass derangement of the species back at the beginnings of human history because it’s sure as hell happening in reverse now.

Certainly the war of the old against the young* demonstrates a psychological, or if you will, an aesthetic, breaking point in human ecology. Society breaks down for subjective reasons all over the world, whatever the social system, long before the supplies of food and other necessities have reached a limit.

Misled by the chaos close to home, we might think the breakdown is most severe where the affluence is greatest, but this is not true. We just don’t notice it unless it gets a lot of publicity because it is involved in the geopolitical struggles of the big powers. China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Congo, Nigeria, mountains of dead are piling up around the world.

True, the first 250 thousand dead in the Indonesian counterrevolution can be laid at the door of the CIA, but the Indonesians didn’t have to take CIA arms, money and expertise. In Cambodia the CIA mercenaries turned on the Vietnamese population (most of whom were anti-North Vietnam, which is why they were in Cambodia) and launched a campaign of small-scale genocide — against their allies. In fact the massacre of the Cambodians of Vietnamese race seems the only effective shooting they have done.

This of course demonstrates that the CIA is run by ignorant fools, but we knew that already. What it further demonstrates is that one of the most peaceable peoples on the earth are capable of a murderous insanity not different than that of the Germans, Russians or Americans.

How are the youth of Western Civilization going to counter the ever-increasing self-genocide of their elders? They aren’t. The old have the big difference — as crooks call their guns — “the difference.” Rocks and Molotov cocktails and Weatherman bombs are powerless against even the most minor components of the most outworn weapons systems at the disposal of the old.

As Curtis LeMay said long ago, we could shave eight feet off of the surface of the island of Cuba and just straighten up one page of our inventory. They could exterminate everybody under 30, or everybody under 80 for that matter, in the U.S. and just empty a few bins in one warehouse. Eventually they will if their power is threatened.

Twenty years ago, I said they’d blow up the solar system and create a nova before they’d lower the price of the Buick. People laughed when I sat down at the piano. They don’t laugh anymore.

Speaking of automobiles, years ago I found the slogan painted on a rock amongst peace symbols and political porn — “DODGE VS. OLDS.”

Ways have got to be found to slip through the interstices of the machine of death. The fly has got to learn to stay alive on a flywheel. Kent State should demonstrate conclusively to anyone who has doubted it up until now that his father and mother will cheerfully murder him, that they have the power and he does not.

We live in a society committed to wholesale death. It cannot be defied and its cannot be confronted. It can only be outwitted. Organizational forms, tactics and techniques must be developed right now to stay alive, to keep out of sight, to destroy the machinery of death.

There is no point in talking about going underground. You’re politically underground already, and you’ll soon be literally underground if you don’t wake up. Never forget the troops at Kent State moved in as orderly and as strictly disciplined a formation as though they had been the highly drilled Hessians of Cornwallis.

Only the tactics of the one hero of the revolution I ever had any use for, Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, will prevail against them. And even those will not prevail unless they are totally nonviolent and totally inapprehensible. You’ve got to figure out things you can’t get busted for doing and then figure out how to keep from being busted anyway.

Only intelligence can win. I haven’t seen much around.
[June 11, 1970]

*The text actually says “the war of the young against the old,” but judging from the context this is almost certainly a typo.

Lessons of History?

Writing about politics and social questions gets to be more and more of a bore. It’s news of the class “DOG BITES MAN!!”

Many years ago, in the heyday of Popular Fronts and United Fronts and Machiavellian Backs, the New Republic ran a questionnaire with statements like “Most men are either fools or rascals.” “Western Civilization is declining.” “There are no honest politicians.” Some 20 of them that you were supposed to mark true or false.

If you marked them true, you were a Fascist. If you marked them false, you were a liberal. Which is worse, the liberals who believed Stalin’s Russia of the Moscow Trials was the freest democracy the world had ever seen, or the 17% interviewed by the Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times survey in Charlotte, North Carolina, who believed that the moon landings were a Hollywood fake?

I wonder if there is such a thing as evidence in politics at all? Thousands of Germans who were given proof that the handless Belgian babies of World War I never existed believe to this day that the films and testimonies of the horrors of the concentration and extermination camps were fakes and lies.

I wonder what an educated member of the American Communist Party really believes about the confessions of the defendants in the Purge Trials? All the world seems to believe Jack Kennedy was a liberal, and a man of peace, even the Russians, even the Chinese at least talk that way, although perhaps they are simply appealing to worldwide sentimentality. Everybody seems to believe it — except Castro. How many loyal Democrats believe Edward Kennedy’s story of his aquatic adventures? How many people believe the Warren Report? How many people believe Garrison?

Meanwhile, a new World Economic Crisis looms on the horizon, provoked by exactly the same policies as brought on 1929. A Third World War draws nigh, for the same general reasons as World War I or II, or for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars, or the Thirty Years War.

Western Civilization dies of the same avoidable or curable diseases that have destroyed all the others. Individual experience is the worst of all teachers, but a nation’s and people’s history is even worse. An appreciable number of the world’s statesmen of the past 2000 years have read Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War. If they were capable of learning anything, most of history since the book was written would never have happened. The same goes for Ibn Khaldoun or Ssu-ma Ch’ien or Gibbon.

San Francisco is going through, step by step, the political and social processes that led to the slow death of Chicago between 1925 and 1935. In fact, the disease is pretty well advanced.

San Francisco, like Chicago, is becoming proud of its crime rates, its drugs, its boy prostitutes, its clip joints, proud of the fact that it is a city in the grip of the Organization.

Herb Caen gets more like Kupcinet every day. I get tired of being a Cassandra and a Jeremiah, but you have no choice if you write about politics. Nobody believed them when they said what was going to happen. Nowadays, nobody believes you when you say what is happening and has happened. Local, national and international political writers and foreign and war correspondents are forced to be mythographers.

If a case-hardened, wise and experienced journalist in one of those categories got up in an auditorium before an educated audience and told them how it really is, the American Civil Liberties Union would holler “Copper!” and have him hauled off the stage by the men in white as a dangerous lunatic, yet it’s the same the whole world over, the same old story.

Maybe I should start writing about culture and general ideas and the wisdom and beauty handed down from the Great Dead. Why should I use my brain to spin out sarcasms about evil fools? Why spend precious words and time in the latter years of life insulting Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell? Their very existence is an insult to me. A gentleman is above insults, even when the insult is an embodied demonstrations that the human race is a failure.

That old paradox-monger Gilbert Keith Chesterton once said that “news” should be published annually in a not too large yearbook, and the daily papers should be taken up with great ideas and beautiful literature of the present and past.

I think he was right. We’d be so much better off if we learned about human folly a year late. The only trouble is, folly today creates, every minute, the most drastic emergencies. It may be better for your peace of mind, but certainly not for your safety, to know after a year that somebody has a pistol pointing at your head and is about to pull the trigger.
[August 31, 1970]

The Election

The war. The election. Inflation. Bankruptcy of the American Treasury. Creeping world economic crisis. Unemployment in the metropoles. Economic collapse and war in the “former” colonies. Moral collapse in the metropoles.

The old-time Communists use to be great ones for what they called “linking up” immediate issues, world issues and the Socialist Revolution. “The Scottsboro Boys will never be truly free until the unemployed get unemployed insurance, the migratory workers have a strong union with high wages and the Negroes of American have a soviet republic in the Black Belt, like the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan in the Soviet Union!”

There is no question but that the grave issues confronting mankind at this moment are all linked up, but first to take them severally: the remarkable thing about this election is that there is only one man running who has any principles at all — Wallace. His principles are evil, but principles they are. McGovern? He is telling his followers what he thinks they want to hear in hopes that he can mobilize a bloc of sufficient weight to exert leverage in the convention.

McCarthy tried that. The Democratic Party is run by its local machines. Its machines are its respectable face. The boys on the other side of the coin are called gangsters. Daley’s Chicago is faster in the grip of The Organization than it was in the days of Al Capone. Chicago’s gangster police, acting on the orders of Daley, Humphrey, and Johnson, joyfully beat to death McCarthy’s opposition.

If he tries to use it, McGovern’s leverage will have to be exerted from hospital beds. It is absurd and horrifying, like a play by Ghelderode, that the hero of Chippitakeaduck and Miss Logorrhea, the Closet Queen, should be the principal contenders in fact. Americans, like Russians, are so locked in their own country that they are completely unaware of the nausea and fear with which all other people view their politics.

Tricky Dick said, “The Vietnam War will not be an issue in the 1972 election.” It isn’t. No Democrat is going to stop it. The U.S. cannot get out of the war on its terms. If the North Vietnamese accepted American terms and the Vietcong entered a coalitation government, the Communists would control all of the Indochinese peninsula within a year. The experience of the People’s Democracies has proven that.

But they won’t. Why? As long as the Americans do not dare drop their atoms on Hanoi, the U.S. is kept militarily impotent and prevented from acting effectively in any other theater, and is being destroyed economically, socially and morally. The bulldog has the giant by his Achilles’ heel. Maybe somebody has figured out that the destruction of the entire Indochinese peninsula would be a small price to pay for the destruction of the heart and brain of capitalism.

Never forget, if it had not been for American interference in Europe, 1918-1922 and 1945-1950, most of us would have been born in a Socialist world. Herbert Hoover summed up 50 years of coming history in Budapest after the First War: “It’s a neck-and-neck race between communism and American aid.” Had the U.S. not entered the First War, there would have been a negotiated peace, and a negotiated peace would have led directly to a Socialist Europe. Small wonder millions of people are so simple-minded as to believe that what’s wrong with the world is the U.S.

But peace is no solution either. Even the present slight let-up in the war economy has thrown the country into a depression. In purely war-economy communities like Seattle, that depression is already as bad as 1931. Moves that once meant peace now mean preparation for war.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all agreed that a “united capitalist Europe is a Europe united against the Soviet Union,” and Joseph Alsop unwittingly, but approvingly, quotes them directly in a recent column. The pressures generated by collapse are so great that the worst reactionaries Marxize unawares. Maybe somebody should sell Wallace the soviet republic in the Black Belt. It’s certainly a solution for busing and LeRoi Jones and Elijah Muhammed would support him.

The truth of the matter is that the general crisis of mankind has deepened to the point that there are no permanent solutions to any problems. It is quite possible that by rejecting the total reform of society in the years from the economic crisis of 1912 to the final suppression of revolution in 1927 mankind lost its last chance.

Two generations have been spent trying to revive a dying man and then to reanimate a corpse with massive electric shock. The corpse is beginning to stop responding. In that corpse we live.

[May 11, 1972]

A comprehensive biography of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) can be found at The Poetry Foundation.

(Editor's Note: The pieces that Kenneth Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner & the San Francisco Bay Guardian can be found as a separate section on Ken Knabb's great website, The Bureau of Public Secrets. My thanks to Ken for permission to reprint this selection.)
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