Thursday, 5 February 2009

NSA's David Ifshin -- a so-called radical who weighs his words - 2

Dave Ifshin isn't sure where the politics began. He doesn't like to call the process "radicalization," because off the telephone he knows and weighs the personal talk, the heft and girth of every word. And, anyway, he's "much more moderate" these days then he might have been during the Syracuse University years--way back there in 1967 and '68.

Wherever he is, politically, "it wasn't a steady process" but he thinks it began in the ninth grade at Belt Junior High when he took it upon himself to write an editorial for the school paper attacking a "conservative" Montgomery County school board for various budget cuts. The piece won him an award from the Columbia School of Journalism. But it also tagged him, for the school authorities, with a reputation as a very pleasant, much too bright maverick. It would follow him right through Wheaton High and his career at Syracuse University as hyper-activist student body president.

(Recalls Thomas Krafchik, Wheaton accounting teacher and student adviser: "Dave was always a stable individual, intellectually aware, easy to get along with, the type of kid you could joke with."

(Recalls Syracuse U. Chancellor John Corbally Jr.: "I found David to be a student leader who had considerable charisma and who was willing to work hard on projects in which he was interested. While we did not always see eye to eye, we were able to communicate with one another on a number of occasions when it was important to do so.")

Weeelll, now. At home, the family talk was straight American Immigrant Independent, with a sprinkling maybe of Grandfather Ifshin's old Kiev Socialist fiestiness ("actually, the folks are against big corporations and I guess they're Democrats but there isn't much political talk at home") rising from the kind of economic worldliness that comes from running a family liquor store business at 14th and R streets for years and years. These days Shirley and Harold Ifshin are anti-Vietnam War, David says, but otherwise orthodox politically. Again and again David Ifshin will tell you that "my father is the most profound influence in my life. He's spent his life not selling out."

It was in junior high that the boredom set in with David Ifshin. He read too much too fast. "I could get the semester reading requirements out of the way in the first week and then have to sit around listening to the banal classroom talk for the rest of the year. And it didn't get much better at first at the University."

At Wheaton, Dave ran varsity track and cross-country with the state championship team, belonged to Key Club, W Club, the student government executive committee and the National Honor Society, rewrote the school constitution and read Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead and anything else he could get his hands on.

"I remember Dave as an A-B student who was interested in going beyond class discussion," says history teacher Martin Rabunsky. "He was always of a liberal political persuasion, but polite and considerate. I do not remember him as a radical but the students have been involved more actively in the last two years."

Dave now characterizes Wheaton as "a very oppressive environment, intellectually stagnant, a social experience." He would run from 3:30 to 7, go to sleep early. On weekends he hiked, camped and indulged in a little covert drinking with buddies, "my first act of civil disobedience."

Once in awhile Dave played basketball at Freedom House and attended a few SNCC meetings that didn't hold his interest. "I was never a do-gooder," he now says. "Those organizations are a distraction from the cause of the problem . . . ways to assuage a liberal guilt complex. I never found them doing any good although I was committed to change in an abstract sense."

His first "politicalization" came while traveling with the Key Club to a Kiwanis convention in Dallas right after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was in St. Augustine, Fla., when a hotel manager poured acid into a pool full of blacks. In Pensacola, when a hotel clerk refused to remove a segregation sign. In Philadelphia, Miss., during the search for the murdered civil rights workers Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.

Summers, David sometimes helped out in his father's liquor store.

"My parents worked long hours and never made any money off it," he says. "They had a white business in a black neighborhood. They tried to be fair, they never forced our views. The blacks had a Tom-ish response to me but it was an exposure to the situation."

During the riots after Martin Luther King's assassination, "We were messed up. They stole all the liquor and smashed the registers," says Shirley Ifshin. "Dave was in sympathy with the people and understood why. But he saw innocent people victimized and became strongly opposed to violence."

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