A Little Kinder: An Old Friend Moves On
14 Saturday Sep 2013
Posted by Will Kirkland in Books
George Saunders, the celebrated American fiction writer, gave a commencement speech of the kind we all wish we’d had, to the Syracuse class of 2013.
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness, he said.
[It’s a wonderful talk and will be released, expanded, as a small book, in 2014.]
His regret brought to mind a friend, and sometime teacher of mine who died in April of this year. A much celebrated teacher, Ira Sandperl’s sole published book is titled “A Little Kinder.”
Ira’s name never made it into the pantheon of great American cultural or historical figures though those who knew him felt he belonged. Most famously, he was the elder and mentor who brought Joan Baez into her life-long public advocacy for nonviolence, the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. Ira served the same way for hundreds of others, teaching not from elevated podiums or in great mega-churches but in personal one-on-one or small group sessions. He was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr and often pressed books upon him, of nonviolence, moral teachings, exemplary lives.
Refused as an ambulance driver in WW II because of childhood polio, he left Stanford University mid-war and disappeared into Mexico. On his return to Palo Alto he happened by a window display at Kepler’s books, of Mahatma Gandhi’s Autobiography, subtitled “The Story of My Experiments with the Truth.” Ira begged a copy and as he often said, “Gandhi, that rat, he changed my life.” That life was to live modestly, read read read and talk incessantly about means and ends, nonviolence, Gandhi, Danilo Dolci, Bertrand Russell, the necessity of taking action, of speaking truth to power. He joined the younger generation calling for draft Resistance, not Conscientious Objection, during the Vietnam war. He spent weeks in jail for protests, and braved, with Baez and Civil Rights marchers the fury of Southern mobs.
During four years on the staff of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, which he had founded with Baez, I, like everyone there, had face to face and long night encounters with Ira and his engaging ways. Though he didn’t evoke in me the high wonder that he did in others, he was certainly one of my elders, holding forth, bending our still forming and often too assured ideas into tougher metal. If any of us thought we were well read or could link idea to book to writer to action Ira effortlessly showed us how far we had to go.
It wasn’t just that he read a lot and made his listeners feel they were part of the wide sweep of humane letters, but his recall was quick and powerful. I read many of the same books — and others he wasn’t so interested in– but he could talk about them, remember their antecedents, their main arguments, what others had said about them. He could quote long passages. He could segue from one to another until we got dizzy –forcing we who valued ideas and action to keep up, deepen our grasp, make our understanding deeper and our arguments more forcefully.
He was an insomniac who read, not a James Michener tome at 3 a.m., but pages from Kant or, again, a passage from the Autobiography. He loved T.S Eliot and knew his way around 17th Century British verse. He could quote from Radhakrishnan or Aldous Huxley, threw around titles like “Princess Cassimasima” (Henry James) or “Science and Civilization in China,” [Joseph Needham.] And always at the center was Gandhi and anyone else who had grasped the centrality of means and ends: that we get what we do; that the means are always ends in process.
His vertiginous knowledge, pleasure at the young and willingness to disturb his tranquility on behalf of others brought many to count themselves as having their lives changed by him. [For written and verbal testimony see IraSandperl.org ]
The problem is he couldn’t or wouldn’t write. At least he didn’t write much. So far as I know the only thing that went to press is A Little Kinder, which is actually a long, engagingly annotated reading list, in the form of letters to a young, female, admirer. He dispenses homilies and reading suggestions, “to supplement or subvert,” as he says, whatever she is learning at college. He drops in self effacing stories about himself in jail, and in the South, a short “squalid” history of the US war in Vietnam, and plenty of read this, read that, and above all, read another.
I’ll admit I was not impressed with the book when he handed it around to us one afternoon at the Institute. A Little Kinder!? Are you kidding me? What we wanted was a revolution — not with blood on the streets to be sure, but with deep, fast and lasting changes. The US war in Vietnam had just come to a close, which by the fall of 1973, when the book came out, had claimed several million Vietnamese lives and a closer tallied 55,000 dead Americans. For us, that was just starters. The Civil Rights victories of 1964 [The Civil Rights Act] and ’65 [The Voting Rights Act] had changed the laws, enormous shifts in social behavior had taken place but much of the structure within which race discrimination had festered still existed; corporate mega-production and parallel mega-consumerism were clearly a danger to the planet; Richard Nixon had been elected President for pete’s sake; Watergate was coming to a boil and a violent, US sponsered military coup had over thrown and murdered the president of Chile. Kindness, sure, but what about the fire?
As I’ve gotten older, long since passing Ira’s age in those years, I’ve understood better his, and Saunder’s, plea for more kindness. Perhaps the ego-centrism of youth made a tougher hide off which daily unkindess bounced –they were nothing among the massive cruelties in the world. Perhaps unkindness accumulates over the years so that its slap in later years has an inertia it didn’t when we were young and moving fast. No matter: I now know that kindness matters, and we should cultivate it, opposing its belittlement.
However it is between individuals and people in small groups where kindness grows, or dies. Kindness would have kept the idea of suicide from ever rising in the mind of the young girl who was cyber bullied to despair. Kindness makes good neighbors and lets meetings, corporate or communal, achieve their purpose. Kindess is an attribute of love, too often forgotten even in a loving marriage. Kindness will not prevent a US incursion into Syria, or an Assad-led army from killing 100,000. Kindness is not the ingredient to cure the unfathomable itch in so many to fight a war.
In fact, what is odd about Ira’s title, and indeed the entire book, is that kindness was not what he was about. He was kind of course, friendly, jovial. But what he taught was satyagraha, Gandhi’s ‘truth force,’ Gandhi’s means to expel the British after 100 years of occupation, Gandhi’s upsetting of the social order by calling for the unstigmatizing of the untouchables. This is why we listened to him. He had hundreds of examples of standing up to violence, with your guts in a knot and a determination not to hate those who were doing you harm. Maybe Ira would argue with me, but kindness is not what comes to me when I consider this.
What is really missing in the books he might have written are two important things. The first would be a much more detailed and inspiring memoir of his own ‘non cooperation with evil,’ as Gandhi called it. “A Little Kinder” has a few recollections, but they are frustratingly fleeting: MLK, Jr and Andy Young visiting him in jail in 1968 after he had tried with others to block buses filled with draftees going to war; his memory of walking with one of the little girls terrorized by white violence in Granada, Mississippi in September, 1966. His description of himself awkwardly trying to shield her from bottles and sticks lights up the book. He might have shared many more of those with us: how does a tweedy, book besotted man find courage to brave a mob? What makes a comfortable person disrupt his tranquil reading room to walk a picket line? We need those lessons, repeated often.
A second gift would have been a sustained argument, with examples, reason and possibilities, for the vital importance of nonviolence — embedded in our upbringing, and participated in as adults in a world fraught with troubles. Although, he mentions Bertrand Russel, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others, his argument for satyagraha, which so impressed those around him, is barely mentioned. He tells us he spoke to 3,000 high school students one day, and mentions only in passing what he said:
This is what he taught, but not what he wrote. How wonderful it would be to have a concerted, worked out Sandperlian argument for such nonviolence — not simply the importance of war resistance but the deeper importance of recognizing and taking on struggles that matter and doing it in a way that does not reproduce the conditions which created the issues in the first place. I don’t know if any of his many students recorded him, or if there is material to make a worked out, adequate, feeling-ful presentation of his ideas. It would be a gift to many if it were possible.
[For a wonderful claimant to being such a book see “The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by Jonathan Schell, Metropolitan Books, 2003]
There is one odd error in his book. He writes about Edward VIII, the son of Victoria and Albert , as possessing, like Gandhi, ‘irrepressible gaity,” The problem is that Edward VIII was not their son; Edward VII was. And neither, as far as I know, met Gandhi – if that was the point of the comparison.
Gandhi did meet a British King, on Nov 6, 1931 but it was King George V, the grandson of Victoria and Albert, and successor as king to his father, Edward VII. George V was succeeded by the mentioned Edward VIII, who infamously abdicated the throne to marry twice divorced American, Wallis Simpson, in 1936 after a reign of not quite 11 months.
Edward VII 22 January 1901 – 6 May 1910
George V May 6 1910 – 20 January 1936
Edward VIII 20 January 1936 – 11 December 1936
George VI 11 December 1936 – 6 February 1952 (The famous stuttering king)
As to Ira’s characterization of Edward’s irrepressible gaiety I have no knowledge, though it seems unlikely in either VII or VIII. Edward VII, who was “Queen Victoria’s eldest son” [Ira’s quote], was dead before Ira was born [ March 11, 1923]. That he had some 55 mistresses may have made him a candidate for the [old fashioned] meaning of gay, though that would have been an odd, book-learned judgment to make. Edward VIII who, given the scandal of his love and abdication is a possible candidate for the term. Everyone over the age of 7 likely knew about him and Ira was 13. Prior to his affair with Simpson he was also a known womanizer, known to disdain court protocol, and he did follow his muse. However, and Ira would have known this well, he also had a close affinity to fascism. After his abdication, still as British Royalty, he met with Hitler in October 1937, three years after the Night of the Long Knives, 18 months after Hitler’s announcement of German rearmament, 7 months after the armed re-occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland. So, I don’t know what Ira meant, or what prompted his musings. And Ira is gone now so he can’t tell us.]
And a confession here. However much a friend and mentor Ira was to many much younger than himself, I found then, and find today on re-reading, that his barely concealed sexual attraction to a woman younger than half his age, to be disconcerting. Then, to be perfectly honest, perhaps it was a form of jealousy — he was reaping in fields more properly belonging to me. Today, having lived through the 50 year old’s delusion and hope of being re-born in the love of a near child, I wonder even more. Companionship of shared experience is far different than that of knowledge poured–knowledge received; pace claims to ‘learning as much from you as you from me.’ Perhaps, as with Socrates and Derrida, teaching was inevitably suffused with eros, even if, and often, attenuated through culture and custom.
Reading the letters to his young “M” made me wonder if Ira’s “A Little Kinder” might have been not just as a generalized behavioral recommendation but from the subterranean corridors of longing, an older man’s plea as the young lover, inevitably, leaves. Even as he was gracious and understanding, writing back in answer to her letters of new loves (2) and new sorrows, the parting was clearly cruel. Be a little kinder would be an understandable prayer.
Because of what “A Little Kinder” doesn’t have, the book will mostly be of interest to those who knew Ira, or have admired him or those he had an influence on. Two of his most important students were Randy Kehler, a draft resister who spent twenty-two months in federal prison, and Dan Ellsberg, whose final turn to action came because of Randy, and who announced himself to Ira at a public meeting as ‘a student of yours.” Perusing his reading list at the end of the book, which is reproduced here, will bring rewards; reading some of them, especially those having to do with means and ends, Gandhi and nonviolent struggle will bring many more. I’ve enjoyed recently, picking up Huxley’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which Ira particularly pressed on his young mentoree, and beginning, again, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism . (The new movie about her, by the way, is worth seeing. Ira would have gone, and loved it.)
It’s a good thing to think about such a friend, whether on a picket line or while taking up ideas so many have labored at to make the world, even if too slowly, a place a little kinder.