Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Madison Reunion: Celebrating The Politics And Culture Of The 60s

During June 14-17 I was in Madison, Wisconsin for a conference and related carryings-on labeled as the title of this post.  It was organized by local jazz musician, Ben Sidran and his wife Judy, close friends of Mayor Paul Soglin, who was first elected to the city council a half century ago and is now in his third round as mayor, his first starting in 1973.  At age 74, I suspect this is his final term as mayor, and he is running for the Dem nomination for governor, hoping to be the "Bernie Sanders of Wisconsin," although with little chance to get the nomination. I think this conference is his last hurrah.  It was initially inspired by the 50th anniversary of the October, 1967 Dow demonstration, which turned violent when the police started clubbing and tear gassing students.  That led to massive student demonstrations.  Soglin first emerged as a political leader in those demonstrations, so this was obviously a time for a retrospective.

It covered a lot of ground, and in contrast to a similar conference back in 1989 when Soglin got back in as mayor for his second round, this one went beyond political and academic matters, with musical performances by people like Boz Scaggs, the Temptations, Tracy Neslon, and of course Sidran.  There were also sessions on things like "Why We Get High" where researchers now studying the use of psilocybin as an anti-depressant drug spoke.  Much of it was about politics though, with a lot of looking back to both the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, especially in Madison.  For old Madison political academic types, there were sessions on three of the famous history professors of rhe day: Harvey Goldberg, George Mosse, and William Appleman Williams.  Among other things I learned that the charismatic and hyper-thin Goldberg once weighed 300 pounds before he got to Wisconsin.  At one point on the Union Terrace I was hanging out with some participants and there was a conversation that really went back several decades where people got into a heated discussion about a bunch of political groups that do not even exist anymore.  I mean, really, how important are all those splits between the various competing Trotskyist groups that used to go at each other so vigorously once upon a time?

The organizers managed to get a lot of prominent outside speakers.  A session on media had Jeff Greenfield and David Maraniss (originally from Madison).  There was a good session on films that had Jim Abrahams who made movies with the Zuckers, although the Oscar winning documentarian Errol Morris failed to show.  There were also some further alternative cultural activities, such as a Human Be-In on Picnic Point that commemorated the one on May 13, 1967 organized by Open Arts.

A curious observation is that this group really looked old to me, and I am no spring chicken.  I saw guys who were not only bald with white hair, but stooped over and doddering, a lot of that.  Yeah, last hurrah for sure.  But for all that this crowd was generally very sharp and and as intense as always, ready to rant on about this and brag about all their multitudinous past political activities.  Only one who seemed a bit off was longtime anti-war leader, Evan Stark, who seemed not on top of it.  Soglin himself seemed in good shape and looking younger than his age, however.  Who knows, maybe he will hang on for another term as mayor.

A major reason I went involved him and a matter I have posted on here previously, a matter of setting the historical record straight.  This had to do with the bombing of Sterling Hall in 1970, about which there was not a session, although it came up in some, especially one about the campus newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, two of whose reporters participate in the bombing: David Fine and the still-missing Leo Burt (still no word on him, but plenty of rumors).  I have previously noted that at the 1989 conference at a banquet, the lead bomber, Karl Armstrong, stood up and issued a full apology to everybody, including the anti-war movement.  Soglin was there and was later quoted as making confusing remarks about what happened there.  So, I had a conversation with him about the matter, and he now agrees with me about it. This was my main reason for attending, and I am satisfied with the outcome.

Barkley Rosser


Peter Dorman said...

Wow -- I wish I had known about this, Barkley, although I wouldn't have been able to attend anyway. (Out of the country.) It does make me wonder what has become of my Madison cohort. Was the event something of a reunion for the far-flung? said...

Most definitely. It was advertised through alumni mag and through personal connections. Yes,people came from far and wide. Wile Evan Stark was there, his long co-leader of protests, Robert Cohen, was not, although both showed for the 1989 event.

On the matter of Leo Burt, the latest speculation coming from the FBI agent who most intensively searched for him, is that he committed suicide out of guilt due to his Catholic altar boy background. I rather doubt that, but it is certainly possible that he has died and that those around him when he did were unaware of his true identity. If that is the case, we may never find out his subsequent history after he disappeared, but maybe we shall still, one way or another.