Kenneth Rexroth

Five More Columns from San Francisco Magazine

San Francisco’s Rose-Colored Glasses

San Francisco is widely supposed to be the most enlightened and cultured city for its size in North America. May be, but this doesn’t mean much. Hippies may greet the King of Norway crying “Welcome to the Free City,” the rich intelligentsia on Russian Hill and Pacific Heights may fancy themselves as anti-Establishmentarians, old families may talk of their devoted Chinese houseboys of bygone days, and address their black cooks as “Mrs.,” but it is all a rosy self-delusion. San Francisco is the land of social and political La Vie En Rose — life through rose-colored glasses.

Not only is it the most Establishment-ridden city outside of Charleston and Savannah (usually not accepted as part of the civilized world), it is a veritable system of Chinese boxes of Establishments, telescoping reserve echelons of Power Elites. The Founding Fathers of San Francisco’s Sixty Families may have been bankers, traders and speculators who grew rich off the miners and whores of the Gold Rush, but they were aggressive, inventive, and knew they weren’t very civilized and wanted to do something about it, to civilize themselves and their community as well.

The Junior Set, or Squirt Set, the descendents of the Robber Barons, are simply smug. Their grandparents may have staged rather provincial salons, with specially invited chamber music concerts and Gertrude Atherton and George Sterling in attendance, but at least the players were the Flonzaley, and later, the Budapest String Quartet, and Gertrude and George were the best the City had to offer amongst writers. Even neatly dressed painters might be permitted entrance amongst the sables and minks; Maynard Dixon might be seen rolling cigarettes or Ralph Stackpole waving his hands. And believe me, Ralph Stackpole was inordinately civilized for a member of the Bohemian Club. He and the City’s other civilized man, Leo Eloesser, are both still alive, going on ninety, one in Mexico, one in the Auvergne. No one has since occupied the position they once did.

Dear Dr. Eloesser, who used to operate at four a.m. with your family of dachshunds sitting outside the operating room, patiently waiting, all in a row in the hospital corridor, who wore windsor ties and played the fiddle in the bath: Why can’t people like you grace San Francisco once again?

The next generation? Well, they are pretty well defined by Maestro Krips at one end and the disaster called Spring Opera at the other. Their self-appointed leader had to be restrained from calling the police to arrest the City’s only internationally known writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when he tried to present a petition to the fraudulent culture committee the little leader had financed. He had never heard of Ferlinghetti, incidentally, and was horrified when Jack Shelley asked me to introduce him. All he knew about me, for that matter, was that I was the kept radical, or Judas Goat, for the Hearst paper.

One thing, for sure, these people don’t buy pictures. Once again let me remind you that the Bay Area’s leading painter, with dealers in London, Düsseldorf, New York, even Los Angeles, does not consider it worthwhile to have a San Francisco dealer. What happened? Their parents bought Keith and the painters of the Old West, and their older siblings bought Diego Rivera — in fact, some of the ladies slept with him. Why did San Francisco literature end with George Sterling, music with Ernst Bacon, and painting — God knows when? Smugness, and a kind of cheap, alcoholic, Hemingway in Harry’s Bar sophistication.

Somebody once said of Hemingway that you know his characters must be frightfully brainy because they carefully avoid ever saying anything intelligent. The Junior Establishment talk that way naturally. They would think the conversations in The Sun Also Rises were real highbrow, if they ever read the book, Yet, in a world of ideologies, they have their ideologues. Herb Caen substitutes for Marx, Howard Gossage for Freud, and the teeny Jetters, their children, show their revolt by reading Art Hoppe religiously.

This is the secret. It is difficult to think of anything more obdurate than a public mind shaped by a flashy pseudo-liberalism every morning over grapefruit, one egg and dry toast. Culture may not be all that important. Ferlinghetti may well be most happy that he is more famous in Prague or Sydney than in the city he lives in. Diebenkorn is surely not starving because he can’t sell pictures. But basic social relationships are important.

Black, brown and yellow kids demonstrate at institutes of higher learning and demand the right to further education. If the state and city colleges of California can’t take every graduate from Mission and Poly Highs who wants to continue on to college, then they should be closed, the administrators fired, and reopened only when they can fulfill their responsibilities to the community. That’s what they were set up for in the first place. Right now it is as hard to get into S.F. State as Harvard and is filled up with rich brats from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the entire country — very, very hippie.

The owner-occupied homes of my neighborhood are caught between the blight of the Haight-Ashbury and the Negro Removal Project in Western Addition Number Two. In a few months Western Addition Number Three will be slummified by the splash-out of populations displaced from Number Two, and then Justin Herman will move in on us. Why does Hunters Point still stand? It should have, in terms of the war contracts for temporary housing, been torn down twenty years ago and replaced with decent places to live, financed by Federal funds. Its existence is completely illegal, movie-company publicity swimming pool and all.

The War Department and the Federal highway boss announce they are going after Golden Gate Park with their freeway again. The San Francisco subway system turns out to be a greater defrauding of the taxpayers than the subway operation of the Vare machine in Philadelphia a generation ago, and when a journalist on a rebel paper has the effrontery to point this out, the head of BART, a member of the junior brigade of the Sixty Families, has the effrontery to threaten to sue him. I say flatly that BART should be stopped in its tracks and the whole mess subjected to a searching overhaul by an elected citizens’ committee.

San Francisco could have the most beautiful waterfront in the world if the industrial and port facilities are moved elsewhere. Instead, once again, the oh so civilized representatives of the Power Elite propose to destroy the east face of Telegraph Hill. So it goes. Candlestick Park was a bit of criminal folly, so now we are going to dispossess the poor who live South of Market and build another monster just like it. And towering over the black ghetto, what will there be? A vast and vastly expensive cathedral. I am sure the black children on their way to school will interpret it as a symbol of aggiornamento, and of Pope John’s, and his Master’s, love for the poor and outcast.
[June 1968]

Reorganize the Police

The recent uproar about the San Francisco Police Department presented the Mayor with a golden opportunity if he had only had the sense to seize it. It’s perfectly true that Chief Cahill has a great reputation all over the country as an enlightened peace officer — through no fault of his own. He owes it entirely to the wonderful community relations work done by Lieutenant Dante Andreotti. This special service was set up largely due to the urging of the San Francisco Examiner, probably its most progressive idea in recent years. To the chief and most of the top brass it was never considered anything but a PR circus and a lightning rod, but to Lieutenant Andreotti it was the real thing. He struggled to make it that, and then to keep it that, against the most appalling slander and sabotage, all very clandestine, from the old-line hard-boiled bulls of the woods, of whom there are still plenty in San Francisco. Even in Berkeley, where every patrolman is reputed to have a Ph.D., there are plenty of them still, but so much more so in San Francisco, home to the South of Market Boys. Lieutenant Andreotti was let go reputably because he flunked his oral exam for promotion to captain and resigned to take a better job in Washington than Chief Cahill’s here.

I propose that we set rolling a recall Andreotti movement to bring him back to the City and make him chief of police. As to the vacancy on the Police Commission, since the principal problem is the nature of liberty under the law and its relation to public order, why not Ernest Bessig, head of the American Civil Liberties Union? He certainly knows more about the subject as it really is on the beat, in the station houses, behind the bars in the lockups, and in the courts, than anybody else. As for the row over Police Intelligence, the Chinatown detail and all that jive, the whole business is antiquated and should be reorganized by a special commission of the Bay Area’s leading criminologists.

There is certainly no question but what all of our methods of coping not just with crime but with all the problems of interpersonal relations, as they manifest themselves in civic peace or the lack of it, are completely out of date. We have advanced very little beyond London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners, established by Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, when he was what we would call a “municipal judge” two hundred years ago. We now have more money and more people in uniform, but little fundamental change in philosophy or methods. There is no point in going into the metaphysics of cause and effect, but the literal fact is that there is scarcely a riot in a city of the United States in the past ten years which did not break out after a conflict with the forces of order.

Somewhere, somehow, some modern metropolis is going to have to break through into a whole new world of civic management of the relations between citizens. If this doesn’t happen, and the present methods are allowed to continue, the present faults can only be intensified. Eventually, and that eventually is not very far off, city life is going to break down altogether.

There are plenty of leading peace officers who are well aware of the gravity of the problem — and Chief Cahill may well be one of them — but there are very few in leading positions anywhere in the world who realize what a wholesale reorganization is needed, both in philosophy and fact. It is certainly easier to start solving the problem in a more homogeneous society than that of American cities. Stuttgart, for instance, is, amongs other things, an automobile town, like Detroit, with a large number of workers imported from the South — Yugoslavia, Sicily, Greece, Turkey, Spain — yet it is still quite safe to stroll there on a summer night, in the park, with your girl. It is not safe to do so in Central Park in New York City during the daytime, or any time except Sunday afternoon, when the park is full of people — including gangs of juvenile purse-snatchers. Whatever its faults, Germany today — West or East, for that matter — is a far more successful melting pot than the United States.

Once we had a homogeneous society; once it fell apart in the bloodiest war in history up until that time. It is falling apart again and the divisions are at least as serious as those that caused the Civil War. Some are sectional; others are everywhere. The most amateur philosopher of history can recognize the symptoms of far advanced social breakdown — ultimately, in our modern terminology, ecological breakdown. The overwhelming evidence, practically the total evidence, of history is that such processes are irreversible. Once you have block after block of streets crowded with juvenile male prostitutes, once you have continuous rioting by people with no stake in the society, once you have thousands living and dying on public welfare for three generations, you can’t get back.

Arnold Toynbee’s passionate, many-volumed sermon has managed to convince some people that just possibly the processes of history can be reversed. If this is so, it’s time to start trying. Why not begin with a reorganization of police work?
[September 1968]

The Chicago Convention

There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the processes of social decay are either self-limiting or reversible. Once things get worse they never get better. The cure is as bad as the disease. Rigid authoritarian control can freeze a society into immobility but the sickness is just driven inward to work out of sight in the vitals of the social organism. No civilization has ever climbed back up once it has started down the greased toboggan to the everlasting bonfire. Nations have recovered from the follies of bad rulers and the disasters of chance, but this is a different thing.

Where are we? Are we just suffering from the reign of a Lord of Misrule and the effects of an evil war upon the social conscience? Would that were true. It doesn’t look like it. In the first place, disorder and demoralization have become world wide and have intensified and spread steadily since 1914. It’s not just Western Civilization or capitalism that is affected. A totalitarian regime like China’s, as anti-western as it could possibly be, is just as sick as us. As the former colonial peoples are liberated they turn out to be still sicker.

It is true that the Johnson administration has enormously accelerated the processes of decay throughout the world. The CIA satrapies have only to be listed to reveal the spread of violent immoralism and to contrast the social conditions for which the United States government is responsible with those of comparatively unpoisoned states — Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, almost all of Latin America but most especially Guatemala. It is only necessary to contrast this list with Finland and Pakistan to see where the trouble lies and what the source of infection is. In the days when the Marines were ruling Nicaragua and Haiti, the United States was able to export disorder along with the economic contradictions which caused it. Today the Care Packages of hate, violence and total alienation that the State Department has shipped abroad now go around the world and return unopened to explode in Chicago in the very bowels of the “democratic process.”

There was nothing accidental about what happened in Chicago, it was the necessary consequence of deliberate policy. It is true that the TV commentators and the Kennedy and McCarthy brain trusts have all accused President Johnson of deliberately planning and directing a confrontation of maximum violence. They alleged that he insisted on Chicago because Mayor Daley had guaranteed the use of maximum force to suppress dissent not only on the streets but on the floor of the convention; and that he was in constant communication by telephone with the bosses of the convention and the commanders of the various armed forces; and that there are plenty of TV tapes which show the Secret Service actually directing the Chicago Police. I for one have no doubt whatever that what they say is true. As Franklin Roosevelt used to say, “We planned it that way.”

Nothing shows the personal command of Johnson better than the remarkable fact that it was not the Yippies in Lincoln Park nor the anti-war people in Grant Park who bore the brunt of the attack, but the McCarthy supporters themselves, culminating in the incredible beating and gassing of sleeping young people in the McCarthy Headquarters while the President’s flabby running dog flatly refused to put a stop to it. One of the President’s favorite phrases of courtly old Southern rhetoric, applied to gooks, Negras and kids alike, is “Whup ’em till they come sick and then whup ’em for comin’ sick.” McCarthy’s supporters discovered that, viewed from the fastness of a Texas barony, they were, to speak Johnsonese, “yellow dwarfs with knives.”

The old-time American radicals used to say “the ballot is a paper substitute for the bullet, the bayonet and the billy.” Watching their television sets, all the world saw that in the United States this was only too true. Faced with a choice between two deeply detested men, both of whom speak only for the past and only on orders, what recourse has the electorate? I do not think there is the slightest doubt but what a new party, with Rockefeller for President and McCarthy for Vice President, if it had gotten underway during the week after Chicago, could have walked into the White House. What now? The majority of the electorate, both Republican and Democratic, have been effectually prevented from really voting. They can only protest. You can write in the names of either or both Rockefeller and McCarthy, or you can vote a protest vote for the most outrageous candidate you can pick on the ballot — Eldridge Cleaver or the official Communists (whoever they are) or Allen Ginsberg. This is an election the people are bound to lose. The problem is to figure out some way to make the public wrath felt at the polls. One thing for sure: Johnsonian brutality in Los Angeles and Chicago is only a delicate foretaste of what will happen when the anger of a defrauded people seeks expression on the streets in the coming years.
[October 1968]

On the Eve of the Election

Perhaps it is just as well that the American people, unless they are extreme radicals of the Left or the Right, have been disenfranchised. For years it has been a complaint of old-fashioned conservatives that everybody was coming to rely on the federal government for everything. Whatever the federal government will be in the next four years it will not be reliable, anymore than it will represent any majority of the people. Probably the best we can hope for is that the Eastern establishment will swing in behind Richard Nixon and insist on the formation of a conservative government not unlike the British Conservative Party — which of course is pretty Red by American standards. Even so, it is difficult to see how the country can afford a chance of a heartbeat precipitating the lamentable Spiro Agnew into the throne of the Head of State.

The alternative is appalling. Humbert Humbert has been forced on the Democratic Party by the Texas billionaires, by the Merchants of Death of the Golden Crescent of war industries created by Johnson from Corpus Christi to Florida, and by the big city machines of the North — where “big city machine” really is only the square mask of the Organization. (In return for an open San Francisco and a free hand in North Beach, the Lords of Las Vegas, North Clark Street, Cicero and similar sanctuaries of pleasure supported the campaign for our last mayor. At the time I prophesied that it was only one step from the topless joints of Broadway to City Hall. Well?) The election of Humbert Humbert would turn the country into one vast conglomeration of Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas.

There is a parasitic crustacean which penetrates the breastplate of a crab and slowly saturates the tissue of its host until it has completely replaced it. The United States is now undergoing this process and it is already well advanced. The Organization was once organized crime. It is now becoming simply one factor of organized society and, if present tendencies continue, may well become the State itself.

Of course, what disgusts the average citizen is the shameless duplicity of the major candidates. We have come to a pretty pass when it is obvious to everybody that the most honest contenders for the Presidency are Mr. Wallace, Mr. Gregory and Mr. Cleaver. Did I say most? I meant only. Excuse me, I forgot America’s only indigenous Marxist party, the three-generations-old Socialist Labor Party. I suppose the emergence of George Wallace is the only historically significant factor in this election. For it should be borne in mind by every person that considers himself well informed that George Wallace stands somewhat to the Left and liberal side of the great bulk of his followers. . . . [One or two lines missing] . . . Germany. He will certainly get far more than eight percent of the vote. The pathetic eight percent polled by the National Democrats in West German state elections has not only thrown all the press and pundits of the world into a profound tizzy, and given the Left running and barking fits, but it is the principal factor in the sudden change in Russian foreign policy and is one of the main reasons for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Pravda says so and I don’t see any reason for not believing it. What will they think in the Kremlin if George Wallace gets fifteen percent of the total vote and carries Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana? At the time that I am writing this column the conservative estimate of experienced analysts is twenty percent of the total, and the more rash ones say thirty. If Wallace gets thirty percent of the vote in 1968, he or someone like him will get the White House in 1972 unless the country undergoes a revolutionary moral change — or a revolution. If you don’t believe me, go back and study the German election returns for the last ten years of the Weimar Republic. Never forget, Germany was an incomparably more liberal and more civilized nation than the United States is today.

The only thing that can be done this fall is to start at bedrock to rebuild a humane politics in America. Fraud, duplicity and demagogy must be challenged directly at the point of contact. A good example is the extraordinary proposal to hand over the three San Francisco forts to the real estate operators. It is perfectly obvious to all those not rotten with greed what should be done with them. Fort Mason should be a public park. The entire area from Lake Merced to the sea should be offered to the university system as a site for a new University of California at San Francisco. This should probably include the Olympic Club grounds eventually, for the Olympic Club has been exposed time and again as a racist organization. Similarly, the Harding Park Municipal Golf Course and the San Francisco Golf Club should be added to the grounds of the now badly crowded San Francisco State College so that the entire shore of Lake Merced would be turned into a recreational and educational complex. Forty Miley should be incorporated into Lincoln Park along with the private property from the Cliff House to Lookout Point. Will this happen? Not unless San Francisco undergoes a revolutionary moral change or a revolution.

A revolt against the predatory interests who are manhattanizing San Francisco would be a good beginning for such a change. Let it never be forgotten that Mayor Alioto was hand-picked by Humbert Humbert and his bosses and his Boss to place His Flabbiness in nomination, and that he is thereby exposed as representing the same interests.
[November 1968]

Nixon’s Election

In his morning after speech, Dick Nixon’s first pledge was to unify the country. This sounds nice, but if he could bring it off peaceably it would be the greatest trick of his career. We are actually faced with the same kind of irreconcilable division that existed at the elections of Lincoln and Wilson. They unified the country all right, or most of it, with the only measure that does unify a nation breaking down in hopeless antagonism — war. It is war that is going to be a major threat for the next four years. Nixon as president certainly cannot be blamed for this. The Eisenhower administration left the country in about as peaceable condition as could have been hoped, in spite of the atom rattling of Brinkman Dulles.

By and large the last Republican administration was the best proof of the practicality of anarchism in modern history. Ike gave the country something close to no government at all. Nothing went seriously wrong. True, we had a depression, mild enough by 1929 standards, but really just the deflationary program of the Eastern financial establishment. Ike exercised his executive prerogative only where it mattered. He always squashed Secretary Dulles as that gentleman drew near the brink of his many brinks. Certainly never in his administration was the country as close to war as it was twice over Jack Kennedy’s Cuba.

Ike inherited a different situation than the present one. The second Truman administration was essentially a Labor Party administration characterized by the rabid Russophobia and Red hunting of organized labor. Truman’s policies were indistinguishable from those of Ernie Bevin, the fat-headed old trade-union warhorse who was Britain’s Labor Foreign Minister and who was only restrained from advocating a preventive war while Our Side had the atoms because Nye Bevan threatened to throw the decision into the streets. However, when Ike took office the United States had an unchallengeable superiority all over the world; the country could afford peace. Where the Americans could not dictate they could at least “contain.” Then, too, compared with today, the domestic peace was profound, practically slumberous. Recession or no, America was reaping the first fruits of the new technology, and becoming an affluent society. And don’t forget — the infamous McCarthy Era blossomed in the Truman Administration.

Everything today has changed. The American System of client states and interlocking alliances has broken down. SEATO has ceased to exist. In fact, certain former members might be called more active enemies of the United States within the limits of their weakness than are Russia and China in the security of their strength. Israel, America’s bastion in the Middle East, is beleaguered, and if Nasser is crazy enough, could vanish in atomic smoke in a matter of minutes.

From Portugal to Taiwan the Americans hold power only by frightfully expensive subsidy of dictatorships, most of which would be overthrown on the first morning of a general war. In addition, most of these juntas are made up of foolish criminal types who haven’t got sense enough not to flaunt their thievery, even selling America’s “guns and butter” to their enemies. NATO has been outflanked by de Gaulle and actually consists, in fact, of West Germany and a large number of loquacious white-haired gentlemen in uniforms and morning coats at a large number of mahogany tables scattered here and there.

Yet in the past year, as any West Point senior could tell you, Lyndon Johnson and Brezhnev-Kosygin have moved their respective countries into attack positions. Heavy concentrations of Soviet troops within a short ramble of Munich and the immense American forces nearby are not postures of defense. Neither is the CIA stickup of Greece. The whole weight of the American strategy is shifting from Spain to Greece. Somebody woke up, after almost thirty years, to Churchill’s advice about “the soft underbelly of Europe.” As in so many years before, the Balkan peoples are caught in this nutcracker. Don’t think for a moment they don’t know it. Even diehard Stalinists in the Balkans are running scared.

We had dinner recently with a Bulgarian Apparatchik, a typical representative of the Iron Curtain government most servile to Moscow. It took only a little wining and dining to reveal that he was scared and wished his country could be moved to some nice safe place like Saskatchewan. The only people whose lands are going to be fought over after the cities are gone, and who are thoroughly in favor of the belligerency of their masters, are the East Germans. The West Germans at least talk “good neighbor policy.” Still, for the past two years, the White House and the Kremlin have advanced their pawns into ever more threatening positions. So far the gambits have been declined by both sides.

This is the chessboard that Dick Nixon takes over. Both sides have played a variety of risky, threatening openings and now the pieces are all deadlocked. This is a situation in chess where even the most conservative players are tempted to do something rash. The President of the United States for the next four years is going to have to be a man of intelligence, patience, skill and cool nerve. Brezhnev-Kosygin is, I mean are, bad actors, maybe, but they are not Helen Gahagan Douglas and they can’t be tricked. There’d better be a “new Nixon.” He can’t end his career as he began it or we’ll all end with him.

Alas, it begins to look as though we are in for a government of hooded men, of masks with unknown faces behind them. Nixon’s appointments so far have been of advertising and PR executives. The representatives of the Eastern Establishment, when approached, have refused. Apparently they foresee debacle and don’t want to be caught in it. So we have government by packagers, and the President becomes just another box of Snappies, or Trend, or perhaps Total. I seriously propose that we amend the Constitution, if this is going to be the case, and let the electorate vote directly for the advertising agency of its choice. Let’s have campaigns of J. Walter Thompson against Young and Rubicam, and be honest about it. Locally, we could vote for PR men and account executives — Grover Sales for Mayor. Gee, we could sure do worse.

[January 1969]

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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