Chicago ‘70 AAAS Actions: Review and Critique

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Chicago ‘70 AAAS Actions: Review and Critique

by The Boston Travellers

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 1, February 1971, p. 8 – 11

Our major purpose was both critical and assertive – critical of the technical and scientific obfuscation of the essentially political nature of the use, content, financial support and motivation of science in America and assertive of the need of a positive program of “people’s science.” (see “People’s Science, page 14) We tried to sharpen our own critique and to raise critical awareness among our fellow scientific workers and we tried to elaborate the concept of people’s science as a means for scientific workers to become part of liberation struggles and by organizing at the work place contribute to the revolutionary change which is the precondition for science that can truly serve the people. There were other secondary objectives; improving working relationships among ourselves, gathering new friends throughout the country, widening distribution of the magazine, etc. By a few examples we want to give an impression of the extent to which the major objectives were achieved.

Sharpening the critique and raising consciousness requires a situation which breaks down the silent compliance with the power structure that dominates the thinking of so many of our fellow scientists. The system depends on prohibiting dialogue on the most fundamental issues. Therefore, a setting had to be created in which scientific workers who have not adopted the competitive, aggressive “leadership” roles set up as the pattern for “success” are encouraged to express themselves. Their shared experience must be reinforced as the basis for an understanding of their role, the role of science and of the science establishment. This cannot happen in the usual structure of scientific meetings. So we had to change the structure.

If groups are to struggle against nonparticipatory, undemocratic structure, it is necessary that they don’t replicate such structure in their own organizing. Hence, we were very sensitive to the need for exemplary behavior on our own part. In this we succeeded well. Rather than providing structure we provided the means for persons and groups to generate critical activities of all types in a participatory and democratic way. Chicago SESPA, with major support from University of Chicago New University Conference (NUC) People’s Science Collective provided a logistic framework — an activity center, meeting rooms, projector, typewriter, mimeograph machine, signup lists, literature tables and breakdown of the AAAS program. Individuals could sell Science for the People magazine (1,200 sold), buttons or tend literature tables. Groups could put out leaflets, organize actions, guerilla theater, run workshops, show films. Workshops on radical ecology, unemployment, teaching science and people’s science were organized by groups of persons from all over the country who had never met before. Coordinating meetings were scheduled every night, each was attended by 250-300 people. Responsibility was shared in a conscious effort to involve and encourage everyone in decision-making. Everyday there was a different group of persons to represent the coalition to the press. The press’ usual practice of inventing leaders was thus largely thwarted. Many people found the comradeliness and little services (free accommodations, messages, rider/driver matching, etc.) a refreshing contrast to the usual AAAS atmosphere. In this atmosphere great creativity and imagination was stimulated. We all learned.

AAAS meetings consist primarily of panels of 5 or so speakers delivering prepared talks of from 20 to 40 minutes on subjects that usually are stated in such a way as to establish premises that are not subjected to criticism. Passive audiences of 50-300 scientific workers and academics sit through the talks intimidated by the “expertise” of the speakers. Given the opportunity to raise questions after the speakers, they are, of course, unable to question premises or in any meaningful way participate — an insidious spectator sport that sends them back to the work place or school primed full of the latest version of what the problems are, what science is about, and the whole mind-rotting bag of ideology that is needed to keep scientific workers, teachers and their students integrated into the system.

We will describe two panels at which we took action and thus illustrate the wide variety of techniques with which we experimented. At one of these, at which Edward Teller “the father of the H-bomb” appeared, we don’t believe we were as successful as at the other, a panel on violence. The final event, the indictment of Glenn Seaborg has been widely publicized, but nowhere described fully. Since it is a good example of an action that combined elements of guerilla theater, confrontation, open discussion and a good analytical base, we will describe that also.

“Is there a Generation Gap in Science” is an example of how to frame a problem in such a way as to obscure the real issues. Margaret Mead chaired this panel of Albert Szent Gyorgi, Edward Teller, Richard Novick, and Fred Commoner with commentators Nancy Hicks and Stuart Newman. There was a gap alright — a gap between the attitudes of everyone on the panel and most of the audience on the one side and Teller and his clique on the other.

As Teller began to speak two persons appeared on the platform with placards keyed to Teller’s absurdities. They judicially selected from among the placards to display quotes and descriptions that fit Teller’s improvisations. Teller stopped speaking; the placards distracted him. Someone yelled from the audience that the 10 bodyguards in the room distracted us all. Mead acknowledged the bodyguards with some inane comment, “a lot of Americans have guns too.” Teller gave in and continued his talk while the placards continued to be displayed and the displayers pantomimed accusatory gestures at critical moments.

Szent Gyorgi, several years Teller’s senior, had .Preceded him taking a critical and moralistic stand that acknowledged the widespread misuse of science. Novick, Commoner, Hicks and Newman followed; they were also critical. (Novick’s and Newman’s talks are excerpted in “Majority View” in this issue.) The press quoted Teller extensively and virtually ignored the fact of the panel’s overwhelming disagreement with Teller.

In addition to the placards and the accusatory pantomime, there were two other actions. Novick followed his talk by presenting the second annual Dr. Strangelove Award to Teller in the name of SESPA (see next page). The presence of the bodyguards was ridiculed by a man with BODYGUARD printed across his T-shirt standing in mock guard behind Novick after the presentation. Both actions were in good fun and served the function of ridicule. But there was negligible audience participation and little analytic content to our actions. The moralistic tone of the Strangelove award helps us not at all to understand Teller as a product of society, as an exaggerated example of what so many of us and our colleagues are in part or might be. It provides no basis for scientists to immunize themselves against the appeal of Teller’s attractive personality or his obvious capability as a physicist or his intelligence.

The Teller clique, evident at the beginning, remained loyal. The largely hostile audience remained hostile. Teller substituted the facade of a warm personality, of a dedicated and concerned citizen, for an honest discussion of his political role and the role of his science. We substituted moralistic rhetoric and ridicule for a critical discussion of how and why our society makes men like Teller tools of a moribund and destructive capitalist system.

The panels on “Crime, Violence and Social Control” were another story. There we succeeded in changing the structure and stimulating participation. The press made much of “disruption” and violence with a knitting needle (see N.Y. Times, Dec. 30) by a person whom, in its characteristic male-chauvinist way, it identifies only by her husband Garrett Hardin, P.P.P. (see “Birth Control in Amerika” in Science for the People, Vol. II, Dec. 1970); but of the real content and positive effect of our actions nothing was reported.

At one of these panels, that on “The Community and Violence” we undertook to restructure the sessions as follows: (1) Each panelist would be given up to 5 minutes to summarize his presentation insofar as mimeographed reprints were available. (2) Anyone (audience or panel) could interrupt the speaker at any time to question a statement or premise. (3) Anyone in the audience could also speak up to 5 minutes only. (4) The primary subject was  to be “institutionalized violence” since that is the most prevalent form of violence in America. To accomplish this it was necessary to prevent the chairman from running the meeting in the usual way. We decided to replace him.

The chairman hung around, apparently feeling some loss of status in our attempt to replace him, but eventually felt compelled by the audience and panel participation to ineffectually punctuate everything that seemed to go on quite well without him. One panelist, a criminal judge, left; the others were cooperative.

At first those who spoke up from the audience were our people, but soon a beautiful thing happened: persons, obviously unaccustomed to speaking up, rose to speak. One man, perhaps in his seventies, spoke of the violence of Chicago housing conditions first explaining how he had never before spoken up. Women spoke of institutionalized violence to them. The panelists were challenged; there was every evidence that having a response was more meaningful to them than the usual sterile reading of a paper. Issues were dealt with as they came up. A black man disagreed with a woman’s statement that tended to identify them by a common bond of similar oppression and violence. The issue was joined. Many spoke. The meeting room filled to capacity. To emphasize the necessary relationship between thought and action if science is to be relevant, a member of the Panther defense committee spoke of needs in Chicago and asked the audience to participate in counteracting the violence of inadequate medical care to poor people and blacks by contributing to a Panther-sponsored health clinic. Money was collected. Films were then shown followed by heated discussion with wide participation. The whole experience made it ever so clear how institutional forms are the instruments of the suppression of critical discussion — a change in structure, some exemplary participation and long-constrained ordinary people full of life experience and the pent-up need to participate, to express themselves and to change the world opened up. Watch out mother country! We’re going to talk to one another, analyze our experience together and that’s downright subversive. For, who knows, we may figure out what’s wrong together and together change it all.

Seaborg’s indictment (see page 12) was described by most of the nation’s newspapers as a “disruption” and an attempt to “prevent Seaborg from speaking”. The truth is that Seaborg chose not to speak rather than hear his indictment. In this he was true to form; according to Time of Jan. 4, p.49 ” … he has become something of a legend in Washington for his ability to duck controversy.” At the AAAS, he ducked out the side door. But the indictment stands. Unlike the Teller Panel, this time we had done our homework. Neither Seaborg’s presence nor personality were relevant.

A most boring panel, a small room, television and film lights all contributed to the sighing, restless atmosphere of boredom as the speakers preceding Seaborg mouthed on. Seaborg’s turn came, he split. Science for the People moved to the front and the indictment was intoned through a bullhorn in semi-legalistic irony holding Seaborg up as the paradigm of ruling-class science coordinator. A group of women read a statement pointing out the duplicity in the council’s failure to pass the resolutions (see Science for the People, Vol.II, Dec.1970, p.27) and the meaninglessness of the token resolution they did pass. Then it happened again. The room was alive. An old and a young woman sitting a few short minutes before in non-communication and bored now spoke animatedly. The newspaper said “bedlam”-yes, bedlam, the kind that occurs in a room full of people engaged in conversation

AAAS 1970 was an important experience for a lot of people. For us, for politically conscious activist scientific workers it was important both for the opportunities it presented and for what we learned. We learned how essential the given structures are to the maintenance of the uncritical thinking in which our brother and sister scientific workers (and ourselves) are imprisoned; we shall never again permit such structures to constrain us. We learned that moralistic ad hominem attacks are self-defeating; we must do our homework and analyze the institutional framework of science and the dynamics of integration and submission of scientists into capitalism. The enemy is the system, the complex interlocking social, economic and political structure that, having evolved, is reproduced, extended and adapted every day by most of us. This is the general schizophrenia: that we are extremely discontent in the very system in which we must participate to survive and to whose functioning we contribute by participating. Such a widespread ambiguity can only be resolved either by permanent self-hatred and cynicism or by a serious commitment to revolution. As revolutionary scientific workers we can empathize with our brothers and sisters standing confused in the wilderness. All of us can and must become aware through collective struggles of the contradictions of a system that breeds competition and hatred and which suppresses solidarity and love. This leads us of necessity to despise the grotesque exaggerations of the ugliest potential of the human spirit on the part of those who consciously identify with the system and who are at the same time its most dehumanized products.

The lines are clearly drawn. The polarization into those who unqualifiedly support this system and those who fight it at all levels progresses as more and more people become conscious of the inherent contradictions of capitalism.

We shall in time, make, by any means necessary, a world in which the noblest potential of the human spirit prevails.  

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