How to Live One’s Values in All The “Little” Choices
A Review of Making History, Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America
Living in interesting times is reputedly a curse, but Mickey and Dick Flacks tell a story of such times that makes them positively charming. The title suggests a voyage of discovery, both of each other and of national experiences and values, but the book itself has less to say about discovery than persistence. It does provide a recipe for blintzes, but its primary purposes seems to be to offer a recipe for how to live a life of political integrity even in a political climate that veers from right to left to right, and now perhaps left again. The authors suggest that their ability to keep an even keel in the changing currents arises from their shared commitment to combining attention to family, home and community with the larger principles of economic justice and racial harmony that they saw expressed in their own “red diaper” upbringing in the secular Jewish Left of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. They articulate that vision in two-part harmony, with Dick and Mickey taking short sections more or less alternately, as the narrative moves mostly chronologically through their direct experiences of political conflicts and movement controversies.
Having lived most of their lives together, the commonalities of perspective in Dick and Mickey’s sections dominate the overall story. Still, the harmonics add depth and color to a historical story full of events, from the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the anti-war mobilizations and political assassinations of 1968, the illusions of revolution fostered in the 1970s, the campus politics of the 1980s (as tax cuts began to destroy higher education), the rise of environmental consciousness in the 1990s, and communitarian consciousness and engagements in the new century. With a long and rich tapestry of events unrolling, the Flacks’ narratives stay tightly focused on their own direct experiences with political claims and personalities. The wider story of the American Left that lived through these moments has been a major part of Dick’s sociological writing, so the narrow lens on personal experience is justifiable here. Still, a reader might be forgiven for imagining that the actions of and reactions to left-wing politics were concentrated only in New York City until Dick and Mickey moved to the Midwest, and then stayed in Ann Arbor and Chicago until the Flacks family moved to Santa Barbara.
Staying so tightly tied to what they experienced directly allows for a great deal of fascinating detail about “big names” (for example, the image of Rennie Davis crying in her kitchen because Mickey had rescued him from a beating in the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and now could not go back into battle is unforgettable). It also supports a tendency to personalize political positions (Vito Marcantonio and Tom Hayden become not merely people, but symbols of belief in working through the system). Who was where, when, and said what to whom is compellingly interesting to those who already know and care a lot about power struggles in certain moments of enduring impact, such as the founding conventions for SDS or the Santa Barbara oil spill. The first-hand descriptions deliberately put a personal color as well as tilt into the narrative of events. I really loved getting the first-hand account of how Dick’s head got bashed in (hint: not by the cops, as many suppose, but by a paramilitary right-winger who came to his office). However, this decision also gives at least as much historical weight to local events like the Isla Vista student “riots” in Santa Barbara as to any of the many conflagrations of major cities, because Dick and Mickey experienced the former and not the latter directly.
So what does this affectionate portrait of a joint personal-political life course offer to readers who are not already acquainted with them or with any of the other renowned activists who make larger or smaller appearances throughout the book? I think offers every bit as much as a recipe as the one for blintzes. Their message is articulated in many places throughout the book Politics demands hard work over the long haul; long-haul activism demands accepting failure as a normal; the reality of failure demands resilience in defeat and persistence in institutionalizing successes. How then can one make a life as an activist possible? They argue explicitly that sustaining activism over the life course, as they have done, comes from their early decisions to combine their politics with a rich and satisfying personal life. The details of how they achieve the politics-family balance they advocate, indicate that neither politics nor family are separate and yet both require time, active cultivation and moral commitment. They show concretely in their parents’ lives and in their own that family life is community life, and that this life is ideally made of neighborhoods, summer camps and schools, music learned and sung together, and meals with friends who talk politics around your kitchen table.
An interesting observation that recurs in both accounts is how their parents combined their paid jobs, their family and their movement labors. Although they were punished for their activism during the anti-communist “red scares,” their parents continued to work for pay and volunteer for the party, so the idea that “working for the movement” was a career in itself was neither plausible nor attractive to Dick or Mickey. They contrast this early “realism” with the impassioned and privileged youth who imagined that the revolution was “around the corner,” combined guilt over their advantages with a willingness to throw their privileges away, and viewed the “people over 30” who did “settle down” with suspicion. The emphasis on a decent salary, a relatively “settled” and adult way, and participating in the movement even when they were young is offered not only as a sign of their class and cultural values, but as a positive recipe for staying politically active as life rolls on. Dick’s retirement from the university, for example, was followed by a sort-of second career as a radio host of a political music show, and his parents’ retirement was marked by their activism in the Grey Panthers.
Since this is a very personal book, I feel justified in adding a personal reflection, based on my direct experience of Dick’s politics. In 1990, some social movement scholars were organizing a conference in Santander, Spain, and invited Dick as a featured speaker. Dick, to his eternal credit, refused to be part of an all-male contingent of “star speakers” and said he wouldn’t come unless women scholars were included. Thanks to this early resistance to the “manel” format, Carol Mueller and I were added to the invitee list, and had the pleasure of long talks in the shade with both Dick and Mickey between sessions. The message of this anecdote echoes that of many in this book, that living one’s values is found in all the “little” choices forging professional, family and movement connections into a coherent and livable whole. Bringing such supposedly small personal bits into the whole picture of activism, like chocolate chips into the cookie dough, changes the flavor of the whole. And, like the blintz recipe, it is one that I can recommend as being as tasty as it seems — and easily shareable.
Myra Marx Ferree is the Alice H. Cook Professor of Sociology and also a member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of a number of books, including of Varieties of Feminism: German Gender Politics In Global Perspective and is co-author, with Lisa Wade, of Gender: Ideas, interactions, Institutions.