It’s difficult to cook without a recipe. Marshall Berman offers a three part one: powerful and provocative ideas, smart and imaginative people, and experimental neighborhoods where these people and ideas can interact. It sounds good, and I think Berman is right about some of the basic ingredients, but I’ve tried it, and somehow my cake still falls flat.
I live in one of those “experimental neighborhoods,” full of young, creative, intelligent people. In fact my neighborhood, Williamsburg, was made famous a few years ago when the Utne Reader dubbed it one of the coolest neighborhoods in America, second only to the Mission District of San Francisco. What’s so cool about it? Political discussions in every café? Nope. A culture of resistance? Not even close. Community spaces and info shops? Not one. Food co-ops, cheap housing? I wish. People of all ages and ethnicities mixing and mingling, talking together about the things they care about most? Only in the minds of the die-hard romantics. How about one of the quickest onslaughts of gentrification you’ll ever find? Within a year, six clothing stores have opened in a two-block radius, not one selling pants for under eighty dollars. Average rents have tripled. The only other neighborhood where local culture has been so quickly prettied up, smoothed over, and sold to the young petite bourgeoisie is, surprise, the Mission District in San Francisco. Cambridge’s Central Square comes in a close third. Gentrification is the coolest thing happening. Smart and disillusioned young hipsters need cheap places to live, no problem there. So the question becomes not just where you live, but more important, how you live once you’re there. People in my neighborhood do sit in cafés having long discussions, and occasionally even mention Freud and Marx, but there is little connection between ideas and action. The ingredient missing in Berman’s recipe is the belief that one’s ideas, one’s beliefs, can have some genuine effect and are worth the risks of action. This belief can come out of necessity—as it did in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Algeria, among many other places. Or it can come out of luxury, as it did in the United States in the sixties, when many people had a base of economic security from which to rebel against the status quo. Often, this belief is most powerful when it comes out of the melding of the two, the privileged and the desperate meeting with a similar vision.
The first time I got arrested for civil disobedience was in July of 1981. I sat down in front of the gate to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, locked arms with some older kids, locked eyes with the cops, and chanted: The whole world is watching. I was ten years old and convinced of two things:
(1) If I didn’t do something drastic, there was going to be a nuclear war before I even got to high school (before I got a chance to write a novel, become president, or even have a first kiss) and
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