U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Steve Kindred (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch)

(Editor’s Note: Jesse Lemisch posted this extraordinary piece on the S-USIH Facebook Page on December 5. He noted, “[t]his touches on some things that have been discussed here, including Hutchins, Strauss, the University of Chicago, Arendt, the Vietnam War, etc. I think it offers an alternate approach to the history of ideas.” A number of us thought that it warranted being posted on the blog. Jesse kindly agreed to let us do so. — Ben Alpers)

Steve Kindred, my friend, brilliant SDSer, organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a leader of the struggle to keep the Stella d’Oro factory in the Bronx open – all this, and a thousand other causes – Steve is, for lack of a better word, “gone,” in a New York hospital, suffering from abdominal cancer, which has spread. Having been close to Steve and having admired him now for 50 years, I am very sad. Other deaths have reminded me of my own mortality. This one focuses me on what we have all lost with Steve gone.

Two clichés come to mind: it violates the laws of nature that students should die before their teachers. This applies: I was Steve’s teacher at the University of Chicago. The other cliche, that teachers often learn from students, also applies. Steve was my student, and contributed to an electric class-room atmosphere which took me from classroom to typewriter to “Jack Tar in the Streets” and “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up.” I had grown up left, but Steve was my instructor in the first larger struggle that I experienced in the ‘sixties.

In the early 1960s, the University of Chicago was trying to remodel itself as less Jewish, more sports-oriented, etc. My students sat in on the 50-yard line, perceptively understanding what big-time football would do to the place. As for the Jews: the typical undergraduate was exemplified in the invented character of “Aristotle Schwartz.” To cure this condition, the U of C instituted a euphemistically named “Small Town Talent Search.” Steve Kindred seemed to fit: the son of a Methodist minister in Iowa. U of C knew nothing of their capacity, under the control of a friendly coalition of Hutchinsonians and Straussians, to make radicals of sons of ministers. With the draft and the Vietnam war, U of C SDS looked for a way to address these issues in ways that fit the undergraduate culture. In this quest, Steve was a central thinker. Chicago had never compiled class ranks; now Selective Service wanted them to do so, and to hand over the lists to the feds as a kind of a death list. U of C SDS showed the many ways in which this was at odds with the U of C’s often repeated shibboleth, ”the life of the mind.” (Chris Hobson gave SDS’s newsletter that name.)As in so much of Steve’s politics, this focus addressed a passionate belief held by the constituency and connected it to the war as well as the life of the university. For several days we occupied the Administration Building: Staughton Lynd and I taught “history from the bottom up”; Naomi Weisstein and Heather Booth taught Women’s Liberation. The entire sit-in debated strategies and directions in long meetings of the hundreds present, brilliantly chaired by Jackie Goldberg (just out of Berkeley and later a state legislator in California). Professors came in to tell us that we reminded them of Nazi storm troopers. (Hannah Arendt had earlier responded to my public question in Mandel Hall that she would not state a position on the war.) I said, in words that turned out to be prophetic, that I would feel myself more honorably treated were I employed by the people in the sit-in rather than the administration whose building we were occupying.

The time came when it looked as if the Chicago police would evict us if we stayed in the building longer. Steve, Chris and the others wanted to stay in. But we were losing our constituency. Left faculty members came before us with the “you’ve made your point, now go home” speech. A beloved dean wept crocodile tears, expressing his love of students. Always seeking to lead their constituency in more radical directions, but also always seeking to stay with them, we came to the difficult decision to leave. Today the building is called Edward H. Levi Hall. It was Levi, later Nixon’s attorney-general, who had told our little faculty group that we could not resist the government’s demands because of what he saw to be the “unlovely” consequences,

I write all this from memory, having run up against a stone wall in seeking to get the U of C library to establish an archive on student protest parallel to the Savio Archive at Berkeley. Really, U of C, and its present corrupted historian dean, want to erase all memory of that time. Students were so badly treated – 57, including Steve, were thrown out in 1967 – that the Alumni Office refers to the classes of ’64-’74 as the “lost classes.” No wonder. The outside world knows the place as the home of rotten economic theories; I know it as a place where the Straussians who ruled Sosh I and Sosh II could apply their retrograde views to the snippets of US history that the remnants of Hutchins presented to them in such compendia as The People Shall Judge. When I was fired, it came about through a coalition of the Straussians, who despised me for having sought to teach history and historical context, and the history department, ruled by the hideous Boorstin, and by William Hardy McNeill who contributed to the political neutrality of the place by running an on-campus military intelligence unit. “Your convictions,” McNeill told me, “interfered with your scholarship.”

For a time, Naomi and I lived more or less together with Steve, Chris, Jonathan, Ron and the others at 5331 South Dorchester. What a time it was! Later, when we lived in a Buffalo suburb, Steve would appear without notice (this was before cell phones) in block-long trucks that he was driving across the country, signaling his presence with what sounded like a tugboat horn. From an enormous treasury of memories, two stand out. In the spring of 1966, I handed over my car to Steve for distribution of literature and sit-in preparations. It was a Saab, which made a distinctive noise. While these things were going on outside, I presented to a History Department seminar in the Faculty Club the paper that I had presented at the Organization of American Historians and that was on its way to being published as a pioneering positive study of the mob in revolutionary America. Boorstin responded, “Jess, those are nice sea stories, but why do you have to talk about class?” At that moment, outside, Steve drove past in my Saab. Hearing the Saab and Boorstin at the same time, I knew which side I was on.

Steve often quoted his father’s last words: “We were euchered.” Steve made the error of trying to repeat the 1966 sit-in in 1967. Naomi, Heather and others argued against it. But Steve bulled ahead. It turned out to be a catastrophic failure. The Administration of that sewer sent the teachers of Sosh I and II to take down the names of those sitting in. So much for the life of the mind. Deeply and passionately principled, and fully understanding the implications of this, Steve cried out, again and again, “You hacks, you hacks!”In my head I hear his voice and see his face. I think, in the end, Steve and the rest of us were euchered by a medical profession that often deserves contempt and not the deference that they are usually given. Steve spent six weeks in intensive care at a classy New York hospital. Despite the heroic and resourceful efforts of his wife, Ellen Goldensohn, they found no cause for his condition, came up with no diagnosis. When Ellen had him moved to another hospital, they did the same tests and came up with the grim diagnosis in two days. Steve, and the rest of us, were euchered by hacks.

Here is a poem by Dan LaBotz, who worked with Steve in TDU. Written at the beginning of Steve’s last decline, this poem captures so much about Steve. I have only scratched the surface.

Don’t go Steve. Don’t go.
We need to talk.
I need to hear once more about the sds convention
held at your father’s church in Iowa.
I want to hear again how the cops tirelessly
persecuted you in Chicago.
You then just a kid, a step ahead of the law.
I want to hear again about the carhaulers’ strike,
the strike you’re going to write about one day.
I want to hear about the latest book you’re reading
on astronomy or Africa.
I want to have a drink with you,
not your cheap wine, the good wine,
and to eat something that Ellen has brought us,
some things from Zabar’s served
on a bunch of mismatched plates,
with maybe some pickles.
I’ll wait while you take a nap for an hour or two,
knowing how the narcoleptic whatever grabs you
because,
I want you to talk to me once more
about John Brown.
I want to talk to you about where we did right
and where we went wrong in the Teamsters,
that thirty-five year conversation we keep having.
I want to go for a walk with you up Broadway,
as you pick up trash and give handouts to homeless guys
whose names you know, and who count on you for a few bucks,
and as you startle female passerby with your compliments
or for a moment strike fear in the heart of some guy
whom you never met, but who believe feel has crossed you.
I want to go with you and Ben to that restaurant
on Broadway—Is it Nick’s?–
with the the picnic table booths
and the waitress who knows you
and is nice to you anyway
and eat burgers and fries
and listen to you talk to me
while Ben shakes his head in disgust
with a conversation that is not dark enough
to be amusing to him.
We have a lot more to talk about.
You have a book you want me to read.
You have an idea you want to tell me about.
You have some long and apparently interminable
story you want to tell me
about your past and our past
and about what we might do now,
might do with some young people
beginning again to try to turn things upside down,
to make things how they ought to be.
So, Steve, don’t go.
Don’t go Steve. We need to talk.

One Thought on this Post

  1. When I was fired, it came about through a coalition of the Straussians, who despised me for having sought to teach history and historical context, and the history department, ruled by the hideous Boorstin, and by William Hardy McNeill who contributed to the political neutrality of the place by running an on-campus military intelligence unit.

    “The hideous Boorstin.”

    These polemics/autohagiographies when presented as “history”–intellectual or otherwise–have a grim fascination for those not in the club. [IOW, this door swings both ways.]

    It is hoped that “history” will not permit the litigants to serve as their own judges.

    “Your convictions,” McNeill told me, “interfered with your scholarship.”

    BTW–perhaps more interestingly–Strauss and Voegelin torpedoed Popper’s appointment to the University of Chicago.

    If “intellectual history” is to be the history of intellectuals as well as their ideas, this particular dispute has the virtue of being more about ideas than politics, to wit:

    http://bonald.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/voegelin-on-popper-impudent-dilettantish-crap/

    Dear Mr. Strauss,

    The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it.

    You are quite right to say that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and to publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances.

    And this doesn’t even go to their derision over Popper’s Plato scholarship, which they found even more risible and perhaps Popper’s primary disqualification from any decent academy.

    As for Steve Kindred, R.I.P. He seems* like a good fellow, and he is clearly missed. I like rebels, be they revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries or countercounterrevolutionaries. It’s all good.

    __________

    *”In this quest, Steve was a central thinker.”

    I like the present tense for those whose ideas or principles outlive them. For instance, to Leo Strauss, that was the only measure of a man.

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