The Professor & the Police
by Leslie A. Fiedler.
Stein and Day. 225 pp. $5.95.
Leslie Fiedler, along with his wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law, and two friends of one of the sons, was busted in Buffalo in April 1967. The police raided his house in search of marijuana, apparently found what they had come to find (left there for the purpose by a police informer, says Fiedler), and arrested all present. The charge against Fiedler and his wife: “maintaining a premise” where the drug had been found.
Fiedler’s version of the arrest and attendant events—which appeared first in an article in the New York Review of Books and is reprinted here as “Exhibit A”—is incomplete, but convincing as far as it goes. He does not, with sufficient reason, tell us whether his children smoke pot, but he attests that he and his wife do not. More to the issue, his account of how he attracted the displeasure of proper Buffaloians (Buffaloes?) by his unhidden sympathies for the exasperating young—he was student adviser to a campus group dedicated to the legalization of marijuana; his harassment by the police and their exploitation of a pathetic young girl to infiltrate his home, a transmitter strapped to her body, and inform against his family; the petty spites of neighbors after the event and the pressures of businessmen—all these ring depressingly true, and they form the starting point of an engagingly discursive book.
Being Busted, Fiedler tells us early, is “despite its autobiographical form, a book not about me, or indeed individuals at all, so much as one about cultural and social change between 1933, when I just missed being arrested, and 1967, when I made it at last. Its true subject is the endless war, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, between the dissenter and the imperfect society.” The dissenter, it turns out, is no closer to perfection than the society. The featured battles in Fiedler’s war are an impromptu Communist rally in depression-time Newark, at which the incipient Trotskyite and youthful trashcan orator runs away from the riot squad; an extended and ambiguously successful campaign by Professor of English Fiedler to bring down the President of the University of Montana, for reasons not made clear beyond the fact that he somehow stood for the “imperfect society”; and, finally, the Buffalo bust. Although the faces in these incidents remain fuzzy, Fiedler conveys a strong sense of place and period—Jewish Newark in the 30’s; exotically American Montana, which got a surprising hold on the young teacher whose literary-political articles of the time marked him as an irredeemable New Yorker, Upper West Side sub-species; and, back East, the State University of New York at Buffalo, in the era of the Clash of the Generations.
Fiedler’s essays and stories over the years have brought him the reputation of placing himself, whether instinctively or by design, where the action is. He seems testy now about being constantly put down as “controversial”—but concedes that he does take satisfaction in being where it’s at. In the 40’s, he wrote for Partisan Review and the New Leader; in the 50’s for COMMENTARY and Encounter; in the 60’s he turned to Playboy and Ramparts. There are obvious criticisms to be made of this apparent craving to be in and to be celebrated as being in, but when accompanied by as substantial an intelligence as Fiedler’s, it has its virtues too, and these win out here. His alertness to the impulses at work on campus can make us more alert; his responsiveness to the fast-running, cultural-political-psychological currents of the young can quicken our responses. That is worth something at a time when, as he observes, “the spokesmen for town and campus confront each other in mutual bafflement, mutual incomprehension; they cannot even abuse one another properly; for what seems to one an insult is for the other an honorific.” Fiedler thinks of himself as a double-agent—and with his head in the over-fifty generation and his heart in the generation of the under-thirties, he can indeed bear important messages back and forth across that famous Gap.
Though Fiedler is nothing if not ambivalent, both about his own generation and that of his students (“Be faithful to your ambivalence,” he advised himself as the students at Buffalo began to do their thing), he lives up to his role as a partisan of Now. Bruno Bettelheim charges him with suffering from a need to be loved by the young—not an unmitigated fault in a teacher. When discussing students, he expatiates appreciatively on the brightest of them, the most interesting, the most idealistic; whereas on this side of the Gap, he finds mainly inhibitions, prejudices, and a prevailing stupidity. Alas, all are in ample supply—but the juxtaposition of the dim-witted middle-aged with the glowing young is misleading. For the offspring of the benighted are not by and large running with the radicals; most of them may be found any Saturday afternoon in season whooping on the home team at State U. And the parents of the students who are stirring up the nation’s campuses are the people who most likely sent contributions to the Fiedler Defense Fund. Fiedler recognizes this, of course; he is amusingly aware of the anomaly of a literary man having to depend for support on readers of the Saturday Review. If at moments he tends to describe the enemy in the style of the Old Leftist trying to purchase entry into the New Left, it isn’t because he doesn’t know better; it’s because he has been shaken by his experience—as, indeed, it must shake us all.
It’s devilishly difficult to write of one’s victimization by the uncomprehending law without coming on as something of a martyr, and there are passages where Fiedler’s proclivity for dramatic summation causes him to succumb: “Once deciphered, ‘maintaining a premise’ turns out to mean creating a context, a milieu, an intellectual atmosphere in which the habits of the young are understood rather than condemned out of hand; their foibles responded to with sympathy and love rather than distrust and fear; the freedom necessary to their further growth sponsored and protected rather than restricted and crushed by an appeal to force and the intervention of the police.” This kind of compliment is better left to third parties—yet Fiedler usually recovers quickly and identifies his bouts of paranoia and self-congratulation for what they are. Nor is he able to stay angry for long before he is overtaken by some humorous slant to his predicament, and a humorous angry man is a most gratifying figure in this time of the Literature of Pure Rage.
Where the violation of his privacy by the Buffalo police is concerned, Fiedler’s case is likely to do better with his readers than it has so far done with the courts. Yet a good number of his partisans on the civil-liberties issue are likely to balk at his advocacy of the legalization of marijuana. Fiedler would probably reply that that is their hang-up, and one must concede that if it were possible to think of marijuana without thinking also of other, more fearsome drugs, of rock music and mass Happenings, of promiscuous sex and pornography and long hair—if that were possible, then our legislators might be able to deal sensibly with the problem, as they have begun to deal with such problems as birth control, abortion, divorce. Which is to say, they would surely reduce the penalties that now attend the enjoyment of pot and then, given some time to accustom themselves to the idea, might even wipe the books clean of the matter.
Now, I cannot pretend that the prospect of having boys and girls in their teens and twenties blowing their minds with readily available drugs makes my mind any easier. Still, from what I have read about marijuana, I have not been able to bolster my in-built misgivings with reasons sufficient to require a ban. And if the reasons for the existing restrictions are dubious, their effects, as exemplified by the Fiedler case and scores of less advertised cases, are pernicious. Since the smoking of pot is a personal matter, not a public nuisance, the periodic busts necessarily constitute an attack on privacy. They call for the basest kind of police activity—informing, spying, faking evidence. (To plant marijuana on a fire escape is an offense; to plant it on a suspect seems to be accepted police practice. This drug seems to turn non -users on.) The nighttime raids on persons who comprise anything but a “criminal element” seem to serve as a release for the more vindictive impulses of the police against the children of privilege. And all to what social purpose?
Enforcement of the marijuana laws is proving impossible—but the attempt to make examples by raids on campuses and other places where the young gather can only harden their mistrust of elders who are able to indulge their tastes for cancer-causing cigarettes and accident-causing alcohol without statutory hindrance. The physical and social effects of marijuana are uncertain, but the effects of the penalties for its possession and use are clear—and they have little to commend them. That is the simplest message of this intelligent and very human book.