Word From the Front: Bulletin 1

3 [or really 4] April 2000, sometime after midnight

[NB If you are confused or annoyed about why you’re getting this, explanations/justifications/appropriate channels for protest can be found at the bottom of this bulletin.]

Well, I really shouldn’t say from the front, because actually as I write this, I’m still in my (relatively) well-appointed study, listening to old protest songs to keep the adrenaline flowing and occasionally trying to give a few moments’ attention to the cats. (By the way, someone really ought to do a study on the relationship between adrenaline levels and typos. I’m pretty sure I know what the findings would be, and I apologize for the many which this may contain–last night’s was kind of a doozy, I realize).

As soon as I finish this, though, I’ll be moving into Jessup Hall, home to the University of Iowa administration, now under the occupation (though not, I hasten to add, sole possession, like SDS propping their feet up on the desk of Columbia’s president and smoking cigars) of UI Students Against Sweatshops. Wow.

I’m going to be moving in for a variety of reasons, and I’m not going to be sitting in in the absolute sense, since I like to have my fingers in as many pies as possible, so I’ll be venturing out into the world for classes, teaching, and so on. But I do want to be in there, and I’d like to send out a few words from the unconventional press, namely me.

I promise that these bulletins will be both as accurate and as subjective as possible, which will strike a lot of you as a total contradiction but which seems to me the only way I can proceed. I strive for accuracy in numbers, in quotation, in quantifiable fact. But as for impressions, opinions, connotations–those are all my own–and most of you, I suspect, know where I stand.

So–on to the report:

Jessup Hall today was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Oh, yeah, sure, there was the festive “we’re taking over the building!” part. But there was so much more.

Picture in your mind a class–and I’m sure you’ve all had them–the kind where everyone just kind of sits there, staring into space. No one ever talks, no one seems even to have heard of the reading. It’s not even necessarily because the material or the teacher or the students are bad–there’s just something missing. Whatever that thing was was present in abudance in Jessup today. Classes visited throughout the day, from frosh rhetoric classes to graduate women’s studies seminars. I watched one class. People sat on the hall way floor, amid the sleeping bags and tents and signs and art projects and guitars and media. The SAS members who sat in President (or CEO, as we like to call her) Coleman’s office yesterday described the event, how it was planned and coordinated, the logistics of civil disobedience (having a legal observer and counsel, making sure everyone knows the plan, etc.). And students had the kind of looks on their faces that one longs for. They looked baffled, some of them, but baffled in the way of people who have just realized that there are questions to be asked, and that they’re allowed to ask them. And they did.

Reporters aplenty were there, too. I talked to a guy from KCRG for about half an hour, all about administrative accountability and the purpose and meaning of education–all that stuff I touched on in yesterday’s e-mail–and how I felt that what we’d created here was a university, a society, all to itself–a model of what a university could be. I mean, I’ve always regarded education the way some people regard psychedelic drugs, as a way of expanding your mind, experiencing things which lie beyond you–in short, as truly psychedelic, which (and hey, Timothy Leary did get an education at some point, though you may well (and I do) kind of question what he did with it) literally means “clear mind” or “clear soul.” (“I’m just trying to get my soul free,” etc., etc.)

I was rereading one of my favorite novels, Goodbye Without Leaving, by Laurie Colwin, recently, and there’s a moment when the narrator says that there are few moments in life when you get to be effortlessly yourself. I haven’t been around for that long, but I’d say she’s right. I had a number of moments like that today, though. I was standing there, explaining to this reporter what I think about education and idealism and accountability and my heritage and how it influences me, and suddenly I thought maybe the feminists and Witches had something going with that whole “power-from-within” notion. I’ve always thought that was a particularly hokey phrase–but there’s something about being able to speak and realizing that everything–the things you’ve learned and the things you believe and the things you’ve always wanted to believe and the way you’ve always wanted to be–is converging–it’s pretty damn amazing.

I’ve got to pack up, but I’ll be sending more whenever I have the chance and can hijack a phone line.

Keep on rocking,

as promised. . .

  1. You’re on the New Rambler mailing list. One of the reasons The New Rambler exists, aside from my being bored and frustrated after I got out of college, is that I wanted a place I could say whatever I wanted, beholden to no one–that whole freedom of the press belongs only to she who owns her own thing. I don’t charge a subscription (unless you want hardcopy, in which case I charge a little for printing and shipping costs), and you don’t have to subscribe, and that, for me, gives me the freedom to do whatever I want. (I should mention that I’m writing this paper right now–at least in theory–called “What is an Audience?”, so I’ve been thinking about the question even more than I normally do, which tends to make me paranoid, which is why I’m providing these possibly extraneous explanations. . . .) Now, I know that Sam Johnson said only fools wrote for free, but I don’t agree with him in every single one of his peculiarities; I just stole the name of his periodical.
  2. I thought you might be interested.
  3. I write for your paper and feel I should explain my recent preoccupations.
  4. I’m taking a class from you, and I felt I should tell you about all the wonderful education that I’m getting outside the classroom, if yours is one of the classes I’ve missed recently.

If you hate this and never want to see my name in print again, just tell me (politely is nice, but not essential), and I’ll knock you from the list. If you want to get the regular New Rambler but not this stuff, that is also possible. If you know someone else who might appreciate these, send ’em on, or send me the e-mail address and I’ll add them to the list. If you are an infiltrator–well, hey, welcome aboard. I’ve always suspected that privacy was basically a myth, anyway. If you have anything else you want to complain about, you can send that along, too, and there’s a chance I’ll listen. I think that about covers it.

A New Rambler Call to Action

Dear Friends,

As some of you know, in recent weeks I have become actively involved in the University of Iowa’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, a nationwide organization which is calling for colleges and universities to adopt strict codes of conduct for the factories which make clothing which bears their label, and which is demanding that these institutions drop out of the group known as the “Fair Labor Association” (FLA), which purports to be a sweatshop monitoring group but which has yet to do anything (and, since it is made up mostly of the corporations which profit from sweatshop labor, is unlikely to do much more) and join instead the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a group which advocates third-party monitoring and full disclosure and the rights of workers to things (like, oh, say, clean working conditions, a living wage, workdays that extend to 14 and 16 hours, bathrooms and the opportunity to use them, and other such trifles which most Americans take forgranted–though the “living wage” part of that might be up for debate–but that’s for another time).

The administrations of a few schools, after months of debate and student activism, and 54 studenst being arrested at the University of Wisconson, have begun to comply with the recommendations of Students Against Sweatshops. Currently, however, 6 students at Purdue are on their 8th day of a hunger strike, to no avail, and 15 students here at the University of Iowa have taken over the administration building, planning to sit in for as long as it takes.

You may well feel that these actions are extreme, that we are youthful and uncompromising and that we have much to learn about negotiating and common sense and the way the world works. You may be right; I don’t know. But I do know that these actions have come only after months–nearly 10 months here–of meetings and forums and discussions with the administration, after letter-writing and reasoning and being nice. These actions have come, at the University of Iowa, after the UI’s own Human Rights Commission Charter Committee on Human Rights, appointed by President Mary Sue Coleman to look into the matter, recommended exactly what SAS advocates, and Coleman (who holds the power over these decisions) decided not to comply.

I think we’ve been patient long enough.

Now I could give you all sorts of further details on the FLA and the WRC and why one is flawed and one is right, and why we can’t belong to both at the same time, and exactly the sorts of things that go on in sweatshops around the world and what corporations do to deny it, but I think that’s information that you already know, or which you can gain elsewhere. (If you want to hear more, do ask, or visit the UISAS website, http://www.uiowa.edu/~uisas).

I want to explain why it is that I have returned to activism, and to this particular issue, after some years of silence.

Recently I reviewed a collection of essays called Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture, edited by Chelsea Cain. In her introduction, Cain states that “There is just no way that you can escape being influenced by a childhood designed specifically to influence you.” My parents (as some of you know all too well) were certainly not hippies, but the sentiment rings true to me nonetheless.

I was raised to believe that education was just about the most important thing in the world. I was raised to believe that you read books and studied and talked to people not to get better SAT scores or get into college so you could get a better job so you could make more money. You read and studied and talked because this was how you formed yourself–by encountering what Socrates or John Milton or Thomas Jefferson or Henry David Thoreau (a lot of dead white men, I know, but worthwile ones) said, you could converse with some of the greatest minds history has known and thus shape your values not only from your own experience but also through the greater experience of a whole world history.

(I know; I sound hopelessly dated and idealistic. But I think this stuff’s important, so bear with me.)

I believed that universities, being the centers of such learning, were to the public conscience what Pericles says Athens is to Greece: a model and an education for the world. The university to me was not an ivory tower which barred others from entering but rather a beacon on a hill which beckoned them to come.

I have found, recently, that quite the reverse is true. The University of Iowa is not being run to be an education to the world (unless, of course, it wishes to educate the world to value profit over and above human life). It is being run as a corporation, a “knowledge factory,” as the said of Berkeley in the 1960s. As Mario Savio told members of the Berkely Free Speech Movement in 1964, and as I quoted to members of the sit in today,

if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr (or Beering, at Purdue, or Coleman, here at the UI) in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process put upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University; be they government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

In her first book, the memoir Dharma Girl, Chelsea Cain talks about how her mother, who had been raised in a conservative military family, ended up in the counterculture. “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.”

My identity has long been tied to being a student, to being a scholar, to reading and writing and thinking and conversing and through all of these things trying to figure out the best way to live in the world. But if to be a student, to be a member of a university, means to study Charles Dickens and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and yet ignore the very same abuses when they serve to produce the clothes on our backs, if it means to live in a supposedly democratic society but be subject to the decisions of a university administration which is not elected but appointed, and who serve the interests of profit above those of human rights–well, I’m not sure I can be a student anymore. I know that I cannot keep silent.

Mario Savio’s speech continues:

There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

I have reached that time. I ask you all to consider if you have, as well, and, if you wish, to call/fax/e-mail Presidents Beering and Coleman in the next days to let them know what you think. If you’re in Iowa City, stop by Jessup Hall tomorrow; teach-ins will be going on all day in conjunction with the sit-in. Additionally, there is a march as part of the National Student-Labor Day of Action, in memory of the 32nd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s death (as you may know, he was working with the labor movent in Memphis when he was shot). The march starts at 4 pm at Upper City Park and ends up at the IMU where, at 6:30, there will be a Student-Labor Forum to discuss sweatshops, the UI’s stance on them, and whatever else comes up.

President Mary Sue Coleman, University of Iowa
fax: (319) 335-0807
phone: (319) 335-3549
e-mail: marysue-coleman@uiowa.edu

President Steven Beering, Purdue
phone: (765)-494-9708
e-mail: room206@purdue.edu

You can also call Diane Nicks tomorrow (April 4th) at the University of Wisconson and ask her to drop all charges against the 54 students arrested there, who face heavy fines.

With thanks and in solidarity,
Laura E. Crossett