Theater of the Absurd?

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Theater of the Absurd?

by Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 5, November 1971, p. 6 – 8

Edwin Land is a Harvard Hero. No, not because of his prowess on the football field or even on the debate team, for that matter, but because Ed Land has achieved what so many Nobel prize winners have only hoped to achieve. Land has made himself a fortune by turning science into cash. He is the scientific entrepeneur par excellence, and on top of it he symbolizes to many the great humanitarian concerns of corporate liberalism.

And in a similar fashion, Harvard’s Nobel Prize winners are Edwin Land’s Heroes. They have been recognized by the Club for their superior scientific accomplishments and have achieved the scientific eminence that even money can’t buy (at least not always). Thus we find that mutual respect and admiration and envy have drawn Land and the Harvard Physics Department into a very close relationship: on the one hand, a respected member of the Physics Department Visiting Committee (the corporate overseers of the department’s activities) is making generous contributions to Harvard University, and on the other hand, members of the department are acknowledging Land’s gifts by inviting him to speak at the American Physical Society Meeting and at departmental colloquia.

This love affair formed the backdrop to the thrilling psyco-drama of last spring performed at the departments experimental theater. The performance was characterized by spontaneity and zest rarely seen in the resident company’s acting. Undoubtedly inspired by guest star Edwin Land, the cast rose to heights of excess unusual even for theater of the absurd. But while, on one level, this performance was an unquestionable tour de farce, on a deeper level it had rather serious political implications.

The central event around which the plot revolved was the cancellation, at the last moment, of the Physics colloquium at which Edwin Land was scheduled to speak. The cancellation caught two groups by surprise. The one was composed of several hundred physicists and physics students, who, massed upstairs in the library, were anxiously awaiting the little bell which would signal the opening of the lecture hall below. The other group, about 50 in number, meeting downstairs, was composed predominantly of Harvard students, but included scientists from other local institutions, as well as a few Physics Department informants. While those upstairs sipped tea and munched on crumpets, those downstairs were frantically trying to decide upon a strategy for raising the political issues occasioned by Land’s appearance. They had agreed only that these issues would be raised before the end of the scheduled lecture. The pressing question was just how to do that. Suddenly the whole show was called off. Why the cancellation? The chairman of the Physics Department, stated that the group meeting downstairs would have created an unsuitable climate for the lecture. That statement should be put in its proper context. Land is not generally regarded as a physicist, yet he had been invited by his friends to speak at the Physics Colloquium about a theory (Retinex theory of Color Vision) over ten years old and only marginally related to the professional interests of the faculty. The invitation was tendered actually as public recognition of his rather great contributions to science—$12 million for the construction of the Harvard Undergraduate Science Center (HUSC). The intended actions of those meeting downstairs, however, threatened to turn this public accolade into a highly embarrasing situation for Land. Precedent had already been set when Land demonstrated his inability to deal with such issues at the American Physical Society Meeting a month earlier (see Science for the People, Vol. III. no. 2, May 1971).

Five faculty members were involved in the decision to cancel the colloquium. These included the department chairman, the colloquium chairman, and two members of the HUSC Committee. Furthermore, two other members of the HUSC Committee, one of them being none other than the Dean of the College himself, called for an immediate investigation of the cancellation by Harvard’s Commission of Inquiry (Whitewash Commission). More on that later. What is important here is simply an understanding of the political motivation for Land’s scheduled appearance, his monetary value to Harvard, and, as a consequence, the overreaction of those in charge.

So much for the elite. What were the concerns of those who, crowded into the small room downstairs, were engaged in an intense debate over tactics and strategy? They realized that it was impossible to distinguish between Land’s role as President, Chairman of the Board, and Director of Research of Polaroid Corporation, on the one hand, and his role as pure scientist, on the other. His ability to perform expensive research has been inextricably linked to his utilization of cheap Black labor abroad, his economic discrimination against Black employees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his firing and intimidation of those scientists in his laboratories who oppose his policies. In addition, his research on color vision has been closely tied to the technology of color photography, a technology used in the ID-2 Instant Identification system which his company has developed to aid in the control and manipulation of people. Thus it was not only appropriate but also necessary for the group to raise the questions of Polaroid’s foreign and domestic policies and to confront Land with these issues on the occasion of his virtuoso performance at Harvard. This was expecially so since he had consistently refused to publically discuss these issues. In addition, the group felt that the presence of Mr. Polaroid in the Physics Department was the appropriate time to advocate that scientists join the Polaroid Boycott by refusing to use the company’s products in their laboratories.

It was clear to all that the cancellation of the colloquium constituted the direct suppression not only of a particular point of view but also of open discussion and free exchange of ideas. (Though the lecture hall was finally liberated for a teach-in on Polaroid and South Africa.) Such a blatant violation of the concept of free speech required some justification, and that is where the Whitewash Commission, previously mentioned, came in. This commission in the short space of three days issued a report which completely exonerated the Physics Department for its action. In the best Harvard tradition of inquiry, the commission consulted only with members of the Physics Department, never questioning any of those actively involved in the downstairs meeting — including the individual named five times in the Commission’s report as an agitator and instigator. Not surprisingly then, the Commission’s conclusions were based on all sorts of false premises. The report hysterically denounced those who “use the tactics of fear in order to silence their opposition.” (This reference is to the protestors of Polaroid’s policies, not to the faculty.) But the Whitewash Commission was yet to outdo itself. When informed of the factual errors and fabrications which appeared in its report, it issued a supplemental report. The supplement asserted that the original conclusions of the Commission still held, independent of any of the facts of the case.

Still more was to come. The Whitewash Report had merely set the stage for the ultimate farce. One of the Physics Department informants who had attended the downstairs meeting filed charges against the graduate student agitator named in the Commission’s report. These These charges, brought before Harvard’s Committee on Reaction and Repression (CRR), accused the student of criminal conspiracy on the basis of his having “chaired a meeting with the intent of having that meeting decide to disrupt Land’s address.” Furthermore, he was accused of having made “no attempt whatever to rule out of order those suggestions that involved clear attempts to violate the Resolution on Fights and Responsibilities (which guarantees freedom of speech).” The CRR, impressed with the seriousness of the charge, and worried about the safety of the defendant, conducted its hearing behind locked doors and uniformed guards.

The trial was a theatrical masterpiece. The ‘defendent, in keeping with his villainous character, was portrayed by a tall, gaunt, mustachioed graduate student. As for the informant, he was marked by the pallid complexion, flabby physique, and servile demeanor expected of a student who, at the behest of his advisor, would attend a meeting to bring charges against a fellow student. The dramatic triumph came in the heat of the trial, when eyes ablaze, back erect, and head cocked in self-righteous indignation, the informant denounced those thugs who by use of terror had forced the Physics Department to deny him the God-given right to hear Ed Land speak. The faculty ate it up.

But all theatrics aside, the CRR could fmd no evidence whatever to support the charges, and that left the faculty in a real quandry. The charges in this case were ludicrous, but the threat of protestors to raise relevant political issues still remained. The dilemma was cleverly resolved by first acquiting the so-called agitator and then establishing brand new precedent in a six page manifesto. This document asserted l) that it is the sole authority of chairmen, speakers, and sponsors to determine the content of a public meeting, 2) that the intention to create a public confrontation in punishable {by the CRR), and 3) that an organizer or instigator of collective disruptive activities can be held culpable (by the CRR) for violations of the Resolution of Rights and Responsibilities. Thus in a flourish of repressive decrees, the CRR, masquerading as the guardian of free speech, affirmed the absolute right of the faculty to suppress free speech: “Expressions of opinion must be carefully weighed (by the CRR) to see whether they constitute simply valid (?) exercise of the right of free speech.”

Thus the conclusion to this otherwise farcical plot comes with the blatant assertion by the faculty of their power to decide who is free to speak and who is not. They suppress the raising of questions by protestors by cancelling a colloquium and insist on their right to hear only that which they want to hear. All else is lumped together as an interruption, confrontation, or dissruption, and therefore constitutes a violation of their principle of free speech.

According to the CRR, for example, the intention of the students to discuss the political aspects of Land’s scientific work is “totally inconsistent with and unrelated to the nature of the event in question.” How can the discussion of the political aspects of a political event be inconsistent and unrelated to that event? Only by decree. And that decree denies the legitimacy of people reaching their own political understanding. The Harvard elite, these scientists extraordinaire, have insisted that their own politics govern everyone else’s behavior, and they have the power to enforce compliance with that rule. The CRR is simply an instrument of political repression.

Basic to political repression is the insistence upon ideological and intellectual conformity. For example, the Chief Justice of the CRR stated that a central issue in the Committee’s deliberations would be whether it is generally permissable “to interject extraneous material into what purports to be a scientific meeting (emphasis mine).” That is, is it permissible to view Land’s theories and Polaroid’s policies as fused together to form a single reality? Their answer was no.

This suppression of intellectual freedom under the cloak of free speech is, unfortunately, not limited to Harvard. In fact the little melodrama which took place there is being acted out, with slight variations, in universities around the country. But while the script might be altered the results are the same — new repressive measures, students suspended, and faculty fired. These attempts on the part of faculties to enforce ideological conformity are of course incompatible with the stated principles of free speech and academic freedom. But for these insecure academics the only operative principle, the only real basis of their actions, has been the preservation of privilege — their own faculty privilege. Those of us who are opposed to elitism, special privileges for the few, and a society which encourages social and economic stratification must do more than just expose the unprincipled, reactionary character of elitist behavior. We must demonstrate unity of thought and action: our principles must be sound, our actions must be exemplary.


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