Monday, January 30, 2006

My brief stint as an SDS member

SDS is back! The Students for a Democratic Society, which began in the early 1960s as a coalition of liberal and radical students, imploded in the last years of the decade. By 1969, SDS had abandoned its goal of participatory democracy and split into two factions: the Revolutionary Youth Movement, or Weatherman, and a faction affiliated with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party.

The revived SDS appears to be pursuing the ideals of the early organization. I for one, am happy to see they're back. As in the late sixties, the United States is pursuing an undeclared and unjust war. And the influence of multinational corporations and wealthy individuals on government, the environment, and human life itself is now truly frightening. I applaud those of the millennial generation who are taking up the good struggle, as well as those older SDS members who are assisting them.

My own brief SDS membership came in the fall and winter of 1966-67, when I was a sophomore at University High School in Iowa City. Alan Soldofsky, a budding poet (now professor of English and Creative Writing at San Jose State), organized the chapter. There weren't many of us--mostly misfits like ourselves. I attended a couple of University of Iowa SDS meetings. The memorable one happened to coincide with the Military Ball. As the ROTC cadets and their dates left the Iowa Memorial Union, we serenaded them with "We Shall Overcome."

In December, 1966, I went with my mother and brother to to visit family friends in Elgin, Illinois. One day during that vacation, I took the Milwaukee Road commuter train into Union Station, Chicago. I knew the SDS headquarters were on West Madison Street. I figured the easiest way to get there was to take the L (There's a rhyme which begins, "In Chicago El is L"), so I walked up to the Lake Street L, and boarded a westbound train. I didn't know about A and B stops, so I ended up at Lake and California, on the big, bad West Side.

I walked down California to Madison and caught an eastbound bus. The neighborhood changed from black to Asian as the bus rolled along. When I got to my block, most of the faces were white, male, and middle-aged. The SDS headquarters were on the western edge of Skid Row.

It was a second-story walk-up office. I didn't meet Carl Oglesby or any other high honchos of the movement. A young woman was there, too busy to talk. I picked up a few leaflets and a copy of the Port Huron Statement and took the bus back to Union Station. Naive 15-year-old kid that I was, I had just gone through what were reputedly some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago without receiving so much as a sidelong glance.

I wore my SDS button through the spring, but the group was beginning to abandon nonviolent resistance. By the fall of 1967, when I left Iowa City for Cedar Falls, SDS wasn't talking much about participatory democracy.

But my hopes are buoyed by the group's revival--especially since these younger members are looking to the SDS of the Port Huron Statement, with its ideal of participatory democracy, as its grounding.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

"That weird shall never daunten me"

Patry Francis, who writes the blog simply wait, was recently tagged with a meme. In genetics (at least as I attempt to understand it), a meme is like a gene, but its traits are passed on socially and culturally. But here in the blogosphere, it’s a sort of cross between a questionnaire and a chain letter. You get a meme, answer the questions, and then send it on to friends/victims. Thanks to the very limited readership of this humble blog, I’ve never been tagged with a meme.
The meme Patry received had just one question: Expose five weird habits. Her answers are fascinating. She correctly interpreted weird to mean odd, unusual, or eccentric. I doubt whether the meme’s author had in mind the word’s traditional meaning.

In the Scottish ballad, “Thomas the Rhymer,” the Queen of Elfland rides up to Thomas while he is lying under a tree. She dares him to kiss her—“If ye dare to kiss my lips, sure of your bodie I will be.” Thomas answers:

Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me.
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips.
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

Here, weird is a noun, and means fate. Fate, with more than a hint of the supernatural. It’s a cognate of the German werden, to become. German uses werden to form the future tense, similar to the way we use will or shall. Back in my university days, when I took German, I asked my professor about the connection between werden and weird. He responded that yes, they were cognates, and that in some parts of southern Germany the future tense was formed with
sollen (cognate of the English shall) because of the pagan, supernatural implications of werden.

As an adjective, before its meaning was diluted, weird was enveloped in the sense of fate and the supernatural. The comic Weird Tales and Jim Morrison’s line, “Weird scenes inside the gold mine,” have held on to the traditional meaning. A few years ago, Kathleen and I were talking about the word, and she quoted from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” an example of something truly weird:

But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Should I be tagged with the meme, unlikely as that is, I could easily come up with five eccentric or unusual habits, such as my propensity for reading the parody before the real thing (I read Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings more than 30 years before I finished Tolkien’s trilogy, for example. I still think of Frito and Spam, not Frodo and Sam.) But in the classic sense of weird, I couldn’t come up with one example. At least I hope not.