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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Deeper into sin

Radicalism | A misguided search for meaning led a young radical to the Communist Party in 1972

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

This year is bringing not only the 20th anniversary of the 1989 fall of Communism in Eastern Europe but articles arguing that Marxism is on the rise again. How can that be? Haven't we learned? Does each generation need to make its own mistakes? Or, when the fool says "There is no God," do sad consequences inevitably follow?

I've written previously in WORLD (Aug. 9 and Oct. 18, 2008) about 1968-1970, weird years in American history and my own life-and readers have asked for more. In 1971 I kept moving to the left. Yale University was and is a semi-Eden for people who like to read, think, and write, yet I was desperate to leave it. Not wanting to come to grips with my own sickness of soul, I pretended that my desperation grew out of sympathy with those oppressed by the economic and cultural power that Yale represented.

Eager to escape the garden, I literally turned my back on Yale's tree of historical knowledge, the Beineke Rare Book Library, home to Jonathan Edwards' manuscripts. For five spring days in 1971, I sat with my back against the library wall, facing Yale's administration building, not eating but feeling extremely virtuous.

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A few other radical students and I were ostentatiously supporting Yale cafeteria workers on strike for higher wages. We didn't know much about those workers and didn't take time to find out-to me they were pawns, not people-but students walking by complimented us on our "sacrifice." It wasn't that hard after the first day, especially because the Yale Film Society set up a screen and showed us movies such as Wild in the Streets where we sat.

What differentiated fasters such as myself from the students who slowly walked by? Negatively, resentment. Positively, a desire to find purpose and meaning in life. Marxism was the faith I encountered at Yale that professed to answer hard questions: Why war and poverty? What is the nature of human personality and moral feelings? How can we be regenerated? They weren't bad questions, but my back was to the good answers Jonathan Edwards offered, and my brain clung to Karl Marx instead.

Added spice during the first half of 1971 was part-time work as New Haven correspondent for the Boston Globe, where I had interned the previous summer. In a malign form of Harold Abrahams publicizing his own efforts in Chariots of Fire, I could propagandize about mine. I wrote about the strike and also about a professor who did military research in Yale's Klein Biology Tower-except I mumbled on the phone while phoning in the story, and the anti-war Globe serendipitously printed the location as the Crime Biology Tower.

No cap and gown for me on graduation day in June: I wore jeans and a sign protesting the honorary doctorate Yale was awarding to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor who also garnered that year's Nobel Peace Prize. Oddly, Brandt was a long-time socialist, and my comrades and I were criticizing him from the left-but for what? Don't remember now, didn't know much then-but my alienation from God, country, and Yale was on display. Then I wrote a story for the Globe praising the graduation protest.

A disciplined revolutionary would have accepted the job the Globe offered me upon graduation, but looking for adventure I headed westward the day after graduation on a 10-speed bicycle, with panniers mounted above the rear tire to carry a sleeping bag, a small tent, and one change of clothes. I bicycled across upstate New York, then across Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, 50 miles per day.

I ate mostly bread and cheese, filling up my water bottle at gas stations. Farm dogs chased but did not catch me; three flat tires and a broken handlebar delayed but did not stop me. South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming, Montana . . . America was beautiful not only for its spacious skies and fruited plains but for its hospitality. Sometimes I slept hidden amid brush beside highways, sometimes in small town parks that allowed camping, and sometimes in the backyards or homes of people who learned the length of my journey.

Did that experience change my heart? Nope. In my mind, flush with anti-American rhetoric, I was touring an empire on the eve of destruction and describing what soon would be ruins. Despite me, God was merciful. After toiling up to the continental divide at Lolo Pass, I spiraled into Idaho down hairpin turns with 200-foot drop-offs, my speedometer hitting 45 mph. One flat tire would have been the end of me, but having worked so hard and come so far, at that moment I didn't care.

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