Friday, 6 February 2009

NSA's David Ifshin -- a so-called radical who weighs his words - 3

It is overly obvious that classroom boredom, for a bright student, is what first leads to a kind of good-humored alienation with The System that produces the boredom. The process of sometimes deadly serious politicalization that often ensues is not quite so plain.

With David Ifshin, the latter began with the travels. Later, when he entered Syracuse in 1966, it was a case of falling in with evil companions--a Sigma Nu fraternity house full of equally bright English majors who loved to talk all night ("incredible discussions of Vietnam!") about race and every other undergraduate subject a young man from Wheaton High had ever been concerned about.

When he first arrived at Syracuse, full of middle class ideas like curiosity, he had pledged Tau Kappa Epsilon, where they drank beer instead of talking. He was named pledge class president. One night when the temperature "was around minus 20," Ifshin directed the pledges to remove all the doors of the fraternity house. It did not appreciably raise the quality of the TKE's talk but it made him pretty popular over at the Sigma Nu house. He switched fraternities. And he began to move into campus politics with the activist Sigma Nus.

Dave remembers SU student government as "an important diversion and a Mickey Mouse operation." In early 1967, student government President Peter Jeffer, the son of a Great Neck funeral director, took a symbolic sip of Genesee beer on campus, in direct defiance of a university regulation. Chancellor William Pearson Tolley, who retired in 1969, dutifully placed Jeffer on probation.

The first outcroppings of dissent appeared. Students started a financially independent newspaper, book and snack bar cooperatives aimed at reducing university prices, a free university curriculum, protests for later dorm hours, longer Christmas vacations, protests against defense contracts, the Dow Chemical Co.'s recruiting, an Administration building sit-in to demand an end to ROTC. And an unsuspecting sophomore was shocked to find a mouse in his Food Service jello.

In the summer of 1968, Dave went to the Democratic convention in Chicago. He calls it a turning point, a depressing, alienating experience. "I went there to see a political convention and peacefully demonstrate against the war and ended up being attacked by police clubs. I had seen something up close and it was a police riot," he says.

"I was opposing a war then everybody admits now was wrong. It's a racist, imperialist war. It makes being an American almost a disgrace. The only way to have any self-dignity is to be an anti-war activist."

In retrospect, Dave admits that wasn't the exact language he would have used at the time. He was fresh from the sterility of his freshman year and he went to the Chicago convention expecting action. "Everyone was aware that things were going to happen. I felt a need to be there. I was very confused at that point and relatively upset by the series of events. The Walker Commission defined it for society as a 'police riot.' And I just made the connection."

"I remember visiting a bank . There were red lines on a map extending to 'free world' countries where the bank had investments. 'Free world' meant freedom for the U.S. to invest. I related it to the time I saw Cubans on television tearing down the Esso oil signs. They were rebelling against U.S. capitalism. The big threat in Chile now is that they're going to nationalize the Bank of America. The U.S. resists the right of a country to own its own natural resources."

Returning to Syracuse, Dave grew a beard and turned to reading Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, Hegel, Marx and the early John Dos Passos. He is still an indefatigable reader and his library comprises more than 400 books--"for his birthdays all he wanted was books," says his mother.

The following spring, John Corbally, a 44-year-old vice president for academic affairs at Ohio State University, was elected chancellor of Syracuse and began what was to be the most turbulent year of that university's first century for two primary reasons. David Ifshin's student government presidency and football coach Ben Schwartzwalder's rift with black team members.

Dave revitalized student politics at Syracuse. He swept the campus on an independent slate having the endorsement of neither campus newspapers nor campus political parties. In denim cut-offs and sandals, he stopped at every dorm floor, attacking student apathy.

A week after he was elected, Ifshin staged a boycott which finally won the student dorms autonomy. Said the apostate Sigma Nu: "If we could turn the dorms into communities, there would be no need for fraternities."

No comments: