YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 18, 2009

Storming Pacifica: revising my view of Pacifica history, July 22, 1999

His Master’s Voice

[August 18, 2009. The response to my memoir, My Life at Pacifica, has been so strong that I am posting an essay I wrote while an internal civil war was taking place between factions in the Pacifica "community." Some of my points are reiterated in the memoir, but the material uncovered by Matthew Lasar is so important, that I am posting my thoughts from 1999 here while the storm was raging, though Storming Pacifica is also available on the internet. For a more personal memoir plus links to postwar anti-democratic sociology see http://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/. There are surprises here.]

As I write this, hundreds of Berkeley radicals are in their element: many believing that the Corporate State acting through Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Chief Officer of the Pacifica Foundation National Governing Board, is determined to destroy KPFA and the entire Pacifica Foundation (founded in their community fifty years ago this year), aggrieved Bay Area listeners and their allies throughout our country have mounted demo after demo since Berry shut “their” station down Tuesday, July 13. Among other actions they have picketed the KPFA transmitter lest it carry “scab” programming from KPFK (the Los Angeles Pacifica Station), formed a tent city to maintain an around-the-clock presence outside the radio station, kept the internet buzzing with accounts of the latest management outrages, demanded the immediate reinstatement of fired KPFA manager Nicole Sawaya, demanded repeal of the gag rule that forbids any discussion of the dispute over Pacifica air, demanded the resignation of top management (Berry and Executive Director Lynn Chadwick), demanded to see the financial records of what may be a failing organization secretly planning to sell off at least one of its valuable broadcast licenses (WBAI), and lobbied other media to cover this, the worst crisis in the long, contentious history of Pacifica radio. (Reports are coming in indicating that several protesters have been brutally treated by the police.) Meanwhile local board members from three Pacifica stations have sued the Foundation, complaining it illegally transferred all governance to the National Board, hence removing any input whatsoever from Local Advisory Boards, and, by the complainants’ inference, silencing the voices of the subscribers who pay everyone’s salaries, and who are free (solely) to withdraw their financial support. Most importantly, the protesters want all this activity to culminate in a massive transformation of governance, to grass-roots control of the Pacifica Foundation, and a return to the original Pacifica Mission as formulated by its founder, Lewis K. Hill.

Pacifica Foundation management depicts the opposition as paranoid and opposed to “growth,” “professionalism,” and “cultural diversity.” (Management, no less than the opposition, legitimates its rule by appealing to the original Mission Statement. For instance, in his Report to the Listener, July 20, 1999, the KPFK manager not only mentioned the Mission as [the Bible] of the current regime, but played a multicultural reading of that part of the Articles of Incorporation that mandates the study of the causes of conflict. The current conflict, he constantly emphasized, was the result of “over-the-top” uninformed violent activity by a tiny minority from “Berzerkely”.)

This is all very riveting, and I would be jubilant if I thought that “community control,” institutional transparency, and accountability would strengthen the Foundation, restore its financial viability, and help it to realize the liberal implications of its mission as formulated in the Articles of Incorporation. I am not jubilant; I am rather apprehensive. What the current battle does, however, is give us pause to consider the subtly quietist implication, or perhaps, more accurately, the implementation, of the original Pacifica vision that has, over the long haul, led to the current bizarre polarization–a polarization of people who share many core beliefs about radical politics.

Reading the rhetoric dispensed by the tireless and dedicated protesters, one would think that we are witnessing a revitalized democratic social movement. No one, to my knowledge, has pointed out that the intellectual assumptions that have governed public broadcasting, the counter-culture, much of the New Left, and Left-wing academia alike, especially since the late 1960s, are part of the legacy of the European Far Right. Sadly, the Pacifica dissidents share the same discourse as the managers they deplore. I refer to multiculturalism, a.k.a. cultural relativism as promulgated by the Populist-Progressive movement of conservative reform that reacted to the liberal, proto-socialist nineteenth century. “Cultural diversity” as promulgated by today’s “progressive” Left signifies the völkisch or “communitarian” or primitivist inheritance of J.G. Von Herder and German Romanticism generally, the blood-and-soil ideology that attempted to roll back the Scientific Revolution and its offspring: the Enlightenment, the rise of the secular state, individual civil rights (equality before the law), “careers open to the talents,” and popular sovereignty, creations of radical liberals. These rejected libertarian ideals were associated with “rootless cosmopolitans” as their rooted enemies called them. The rooted cosmopolitans, like fascist ideologues of the 1930s, wrote “history” as the struggle between Good and Evil. Their obsessive interest was in “social cohesion” and “equilibrium.” Money/”bourgeois society”/(later, the Bomb) was the root of all social and environmental disintegration or “disruption”; by contrast, the good King of the High Middle Ages held “the (local) community” and Nature together in the Great Chain of Being. As multiculturalists, the rooted cosmopolitans emphasize “inclusion” and “identity” conceived in the same static terms as medievalists and Renaissance humanists defending hierarchy and order against the incursions of science and other democratizing forces such as mass literacy. Rootless cosmopolitans, it was argued, not only had no identities themselves, they were the creators of mob society as their insidious materialist doctrines separated ordinary people from their families of origin, breaking what Edmund Burke would call narrative continuity with the (idealized, orderly) past.

It was the progressives who established public broadcasting, always understood as “expert”-controlled and top-down in decision-making, but adorned with “community discussion groups” as one political scientist associated with the Committee For Economic Development and the upper-class peace movement, Harold Lasswell, described this innovation in the late 1940s. (See especially his Power and Personality, 1948, and National Security and Individual Freedom, 1950). Indeed, Lew Hill, the revered, even deified, Founder of Pacifica Radio in Berkeley wrote the liberal-sounding Mission Statement to pacify the Ford Foundation (an early underwriter), other (conservative) liberals, and the FCC, according to Matthew Lasar’s recently published Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network (Temple University Press).

In his prospectus of 1947, Hill reassured the FCC that “The whole object of the Foundation’s educational program in the field of public affairs and social problems is to study these matters, and to help the public study them with exactly that freedom from excusiveness and partisanship which the FCC lays down as a condition for the use of radio channels.” According to Lasar, Hill didn’t mean it; indeed he even covered up his radical past when he thought it would help his credibility with liberals (49).

Lew Hill, who came from big nouveau riche oil and insurance money in Tulsa Oklahoma, was a C.O. in World War II. Disturbingly, as Lasar tells us, around 1939-1940, Hill and his close friend Roy Finch (the source of this story) joined A.J. Muste in the belief that “stories about Nazi atrocities [were] anti-German propaganda, similar to false stories circulated during the First World War.” (14). After the war, along with Quaker allies and other C.O.s, Hill envisioned a radio station that would persuade working-class cannon fodder to resist the U.S. military, and most urgently, he intended to inject the principle of non-violence into the multi-ethnic militant Bay Area labor movement (44-45). Lasar complained that Hill “knew that on paper he would have to create a pacifist and a liberal radio station at the same time; he would have to emphasize pacifist ideas and dialogue as the path to peace, but also fairness and individual rights.” (43). Hill was dissatisfied with the tiny numbers of pacifists, as his first prospectus (1946) made clear: Quoting Hill, Lasar writes that war resisters, “especially since 1939–have been made to feel their severe impotence in the surge of public affairs outside their subscription and mailing lists.” Pacifists need to move beyond intellectual appeals or “ivory towerism,” as the prospectus put it, which had done little to alter public opinion. “Average beliefs have their form and interpretation in matters close to home, in the events of the neighborhood and city,” he wrote. “In the average man, on whom war prevention depends, the sense of right action is not a sense of large philosophical orientation, but one of a familiar and satisfying adjustment to the people and institutions in his immediate environment.” The task for pacifists, therefore, was to speak of peace not only through lofty principles but also through constant reference to “familiar things,” indeed to become familiar to the community by serving it as a radio station. “Pacifica Foundation,” Hill wrote in a single-sentence paragraph, “has been organized to begin this job.” (43)

Pacifica’s founders turned out to be postmodernists avant la lettre. As Lasar goes on to explain, materialist and historicist methods of analysis were rejected as deterministic (i.e., opposed to the concept of free will), hence were rejected by the “skeptical” Lew Hill, an admirer of Christian Existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. Lasar’s discussion of the original Pacifica Charter says it all. “The most important of the five purposes committed Pacifica to…the principle of pacifist dialogue: the idea that peace emerged not out of polemics but out of the process of diverse groups of people communicating with each other…To Pacifica’s founders, a lasting “understanding” between nations, races, or individuals did not mean that the parties involved had arrived at an objective truth but simply that through the exchange of language they had come to know each other better–as “humans,” rather than through some other ideological category, such as race, nationality, or class. “We really believed in the power of the word as the source of identity in human beings,” Richard Moore later explained. This knowledge, the first Pacificans hoped, would lead to the peaceful resolution of conflict…Richard Moore remembered a skeptic asking Hill what he would do if a Nazi broke into this house and pointed a gun at him. “I’d try and talk,” Hill replied. (44) [end Lasar quote]

They were all Heart. So much for the anti-intellectual foundations of Pacifica: “race, nationality, or class” were not facts in the real world (or factoids as in the case of race, though race and ethnicity are taken to be biological facts, with dire social consequences), but “ideological” constructions. Here is radical subjectivism at its most blatant. At its very inception, then, rigorous institutional analysis and the accurate (objective) description of institutional structures, discourses and practices were implicitly rejected as the devil’s work. The core values of liberalism: fairness and individual rights, values that had often led to reform and structural transformation where indicated, must be the cause of the wars and social violence (especially labor militancy?) that these particular pacifists deplored. Pacifica would talk to simple people about simple homely things. Moral reformer William Wordsworth, reacting to the tumultuous response to the French Revolution and the social movements it energized, couldn’t have said it better (see The Excursion as a guide to the etiquette of victimization, urging English intellectuals to instill the virtues and consolations of Faith, Hope, and Charity as the centerpiece of a popular education aimed at the rural peasantry and the uprooted industrial class alike). For the new Pacificans, music, poetry, and drama, Lasar notes, would serve pacifist ends, appealing to the diverse folk cultures of local labor (46).

Fast forward to the late 1990s, as other localists (“cultural nationalists” or as I would prefer to call them, organic conservatives) battle each other for control of the Foundation, asserting group facts, group rights, racial quotas, programming that must reflect changing demographics. The nationalists are deeply conservative in their (selective) ancestor-worship, while some of the anarchist, “anti-imperialist” protesters seem content with such backwardness and fragmentation as identity politics inevitably produce. Not surprisingly, “the peasant problem” (as some Marxists call it) is everywhere as individual programmers continue to fight over turf, claiming to represent “the community” that “looks like them.” And “the community” has no truck with dissenting individuals, freethinking artists experimenting with new forms, or empirical analysis of social problems; rather its advocates resort to the ritual repetition of slogans defining the enemy as monolithic and hegemonic, whether that enemy to simplicity and spiritual values be the bogus Enlightenment, the idea of Progress, markets, high culture, Amerika, white males, patriarchy, Wall Street, commercialism, consumerism, science and technology, positivism, etc.

Logically, with such overwhelming forces (the Devil is everywhere, remember) arrayed against the spiritually-attuned grass-roots, what must be the emotional and social consequences? Led by Lasar’s research into Pacifica’s early history, I now have a better view of the crisis, and why there has been so much desperation, impotent rage, alienation, depression, cultural despair, and acquiescence to corruption. Well-meaning radicals fatally continue to reject the “bourgeois,” hence tainted, critical tools that would have brought coherence and quality to Pacifica’s mandated (if vaguely stated) exploration of the causes of war and all forms of social violence. The current critics of Pacifica management should consider where the Foundation has been before it offers alternative forms of governance and programming to a muddled, ineffectual, and declining organization. There was no Golden Age; what we have now is a golden opportunity to rethink every aspect of public radio, but especially Pacifica. Shall it be bound to the illusory Good King, reaction, narrow racial/ethnic politics, and cultural backwardness or shall it be wide-open, experimental, and a safe environment for those who believe that an excellent universal education, grounded in the observable facts of the real world, is indispensable to a more peaceful future?

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8 Comments »

  1. Thanks for your writings. I thought myself a leftist during the 80s and 90s. I listened to and donated money to Pacifica, but drifted away even before I turned to the right after 9-11. The tone of the station had become too contentious and bizarre.

    I didn’t realize that Pacifica was so strange underneath, though I’m not surprised. It’s hard to follow all the currents and cross-currents you document. Still I’m glad you’ve written it down.

    Comment by huxley — June 29, 2010 @ 12:23 am | Reply

  2. [...] in an institution that for many years I felt was my true home. For more on Pacifica history, see http://clarespark.com/2009/08/18/storming-pacifica-revising-my-view-of-pacifica-history-july-22-1999… and part two of this memoir.] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Storming Pacifica: [...]

    Pingback by My Life at Pacifica Radio: a memoir, part one « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 3, 2009 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  3. I’m shaking my head as I’m reading a lot of George L. Mosse right now. It’s like reading about the contending Volkish sects that Professor Mosse wrote about.

    Comment by mauryk2 — November 2, 2009 @ 1:37 am | Reply

    • George Mosse was a great guide to the popular and high culture that fed into the Nazi movement. I read him as you are, with interest and shaking my head as I recognized the patterns he identified here.
      You won’t feel much better if you go back to Goethe and even that man of the people, Schiller.

      Comment by clarespark — November 3, 2009 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  4. Dear Ms. Spark, I was honored that you responded to my comment to Marc Cooper’s posting on MySpace I have enjoyed reading your blog about storming Pacifica. I read it with a sense of “ah, no wonder”. It explains some of the things about KPFK and Pacifica that hav somewhat baffled me. You are right on the money about the opposition to the scientific method, universal literacy and education, applying the scientific method to social relations and problems, and to other important aspects of the Enlightenment. Those opponents always are proclaming Truth, with a capital T, when they don’t want to look at what the facts are. What does it matter if it is the Catholic Church, Stalin, Hitler, or other less virulent manifestations less of oppression. It is a very good and nice idea to make eduction in science, the scientific method, biology and other factual ways of examining the world. I can’t help but feel, however, that the battle is already lost. I work for the LAUSD as a cafeteria worker, and see first hand what passes for education in the USA. Public education is being destroyed by the anti enlightenment forces that Ioath it. This Is currently being done in response to an economic crisis that was manufactured to increse the gap between the rich and poor. With the current state budget, many school districts will be forced to increase the number of charter schools and leave the remaining public schools as a dumping ground for the poorest and most oppressed students. There is somthing very wrong about a school system that produces illiterate high school graduates, and forces many students to drop out. I am dismayed at the oppressive nature of the school that work at and the system it belongs to. The facists are now gearing up for armed insurrection and are using this implicit threat to coerce the government into destroying public institutions. As bad as many of our public instutions are, they are, to my mind, better than the private ones that would replace them. I could write more, but I hope you get my point. If a nazi stormed into my living room and aimed a gun at me, I would try to shoot first. Yours, Frank Boeheim

    Comment by Frank Boeheim — August 19, 2009 @ 2:26 am | Reply

    • You don’t have to be honored, Frank. I will respond to all those who read my work and share my concerns. My first love has always been teaching, and I am as worried about our educational system as you are. It is a disgrace. I worry that the particular history of this country, that is the sectional differences and antagonisms between the rural areas, small towns, and the big cities have led to local funding and much anti-intellectualism, which sometimes takes the form of narrow, sectarian thinking and a suspicion of anything that smacks of “materialism” by which I mean looking after the affairs of this world.
      I hope that this and other blogs reach disappointed Pacifica listeners like yourself. I miss the audience very much, for they did so much for me: correcting my errors, and generally confirming my belief that there were autodidacts out there who wanted a quality education, in an atmosphere of no-holds-barred inquiry, and without hero-worship of any kind.

      Comment by clarespark — August 19, 2009 @ 6:15 am | Reply


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