Intro to Correspondence between Bob Ogden and Patrick Catt

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Dear SftP Friends,

Sometime in 1998 a grad student, Patrick Catt, was planning to do a thesis on the radical activity among scientists and mathematicians during and just after the Vietnam War. Well, his questions took me down memory lane and I got carried away with my answers. I put all the correspondence into one file, more-or-less in chronological order.
Some of these memoirs might be of interest to this conference. The AAA$ 1970 conference in Chicago was my introduction and conversion to SESPA/SfTP, and the description of my political state of mind, re-constructed after almost thirty years, might be of some interest. So here it is. The complete fill of the correspondence is over forty pages; if there’s any interest, tell me where to upload it. I just didn’t want all this stuff to evaporate in cyberspace without ever telling my story. This is probably my only chance.
I hope to attend the Conference in Amherst, but I’m still not sure. If I do, we can talk more about times old and new.

Bob Ogden, Northside Chicago SESPA, 1970-1978

AAA$ CONVENTION 1970
26 May 1998
R. D. Ogden

As usual, I was out of it. I did not go to the AAAS
convention in Chicago 1970 intending to protest or confront anyone.
Although I was radicalized by then, I still naively hoped that I
could find a nice place in a far-away peaceful land where I could
good science for enough money to get my daughters with me La La La…

I went in the AAAS convention in 1968, in St. Louis. I saw Barry
Commoner; I recall no visible political activity. I did not go to the
AAAS convention in Boston, so I knew nothing of SESPA. I was still
dealing with the death of Fred Hampton and what that meant to my ward
Michael; Fred was a role model, if not his idol.

I must admit that although those days impressed me vividly,
a great deal happened to me at that convention, besides the generally
known confrontations. I hardly slept during those days [26-30 December,
I think], and I met and talked with scores of people; I had a dozen
interactions which would influence the direction of my life, and
a score of stimulating, thought-provoking conversations. I am fortunate
that I have at hand the Dec.’70 and Feb. ’71 issues of SftP magazine
to stimulate my memory, but I shall stick pretty much to my personal
reactions and experiences as best I can recall after 29 years.
I have vivid images and memories, but I am not certain about their
order in time. Oh well…

I invited my friend Tom Ward to accompany me to AAAS, just
because it might be interesting. Tom was a “student comrade” of mine ;
we had been through the student strike in May 1970 and the subsequent
party together.
We probably saw the SESPA table right away, and I must have bought
the Dec. 1970 issue of SftP magazine. There was probably a petition
in support of the resolutions SESPA wanted AAA$ to vote on. I found what
they had to say very interesting, it related directly to science and
scientific workers. In their talk of people’s science I saw a glimmer of
a possibility of integrating my radical consciousness and my scientific
work.
But right next to them were the technocrats, who said they were
more radical than Mao Tse-tung, because they wanted to abolish money
altogether!
As I said, it was like a bazaar of the bizarre.
When Teller held a more private session, Tom and I got in. I recall
Teller as very frightening, very much the Dr. Strangelove prototype.
What was most frightening was how obviously intelligent he was, yet
incapable of seeing who he was. At one point Tom got the mike, and said
something like “Sir, after listening to your ingenious rationalizations,
I can only conclude that you are a PIG!” Bodyguards bristled, hands went
towards shoulder holsters. Teller looked apoplectic; my God, what if Tom
brings another stroke on the old man? but it turned out OK…
Tom and I met Nikki Wilson, a delightful woman, who did much to
make me see the necessity of changing our relation to the earth, and not
merely the ownership and control over production. She had been a rather
high civil service worker who saw presidents come and go; now in retirement
she devoted much of her time to her causes and concerns. She very much
wanted to understand the new radicals…

Recall that my intent in going in the first place was to hustle.
I started out wearing a suit. My hair was trimmed; I wore a fashionable
mustache. At one point I went to a SESPA open meeting, probably to discuss
the resolutions. We were discussing various actions of varying degrees
of confrontation. I felt uncomfortable with the direction of some of the
talk, so I in my suit got the floor and said something to the effect
that I didn’t want to go along with any New Left death trip. This provoked
a rumble, and the floor went to a man with a beard like a prophet, with
iron gray in it. This man took the mike and said that he was not now,
and never would, be talking about any “New Left death trip”. So he said
with iron in his voice. This man was Herb Fox, whom I came to respect
immensely. He emanated integrity.
I tried to talk with Barry Commoner. He did not seem to like the
radical activities; he did not support them publicly, except for the
right to present their resolutions. I believe I was disappointed in him
for not supporting the radical resolutions openly, and I feel he sincerely
saw weaknesses in SESPA’s position that I didn’t, and he seemed to think
I was being foolish. But by then what SESPA had to say about science
was beginning to influence me. We did not have a hostile parting, but
we never had much contact after that.

SESPA’s positions spoke to me on many levels. It presented a reasonably
coherent analysis of science and society; at that time, what I probably
read was the short Address to the Academie des Sciences by Jean-Marc
Levy-Leblond. I read the document People’s Science, written by the NUC
science collective; it fired my imagination and opened my eyes.
Their analysis also explained why the dream job I was hustling
for was all but impossible in this society. Their analysis revealed
the never-discussed class structure within the scientific community,
and told the painful truth that in fact most of us scientists at the AAA$
convention were the have-nots, the losers, from second and third rate
institutions. In sum, it explained what we were _doing_; it named the
demon, and thereby decreased its dominion over us. It was liberating.
SESPA brought talk. Not just the talk that the organizers generated
at the presentations and confrontations, but the way “ordinary people”
spoke up and were listened to. I found it especially important how the
activities did their job in giving people something to talk about. And they
did talk and formulate their ideas and express themselves. SESPA had
found a small social movement, what I call the Science for the People
movement, as opposed to the organization/magazine/Boston collective.
SESPA provided an organizational voice for this movement at that critical
time.

And finally, the SESPA organizers brought moral witness. They exposed
much of what was rotten about the scientific establishment yet maintaining
a love for science and a desire to see it “serve the People” more.
Later on, SftP would come to play this aspect down in favor of a “correct
analysis”, but IMHO the high moral ground has always been one on the
only weapons in the arsenal of protest movements against oppression, and
it is always a loss when it is abandoned. But at that time, SESPA had it…
I saw lots of this in Bretta Fischer. Her leadership abilities
were awesome. She was good at getting folks to talk.

I have a memory of a session where SESPA confronted some AAA$
participants engaged in especially reprehensible work for the Beast.
One of them, named Cowles [?], was especially attacked by SESPA organizers.
Cowles, a handsome man with a neatly trimmed beard, evaded them,
deflected their attacks, and baited them. Somebody made some sort of
sign pointing him out as a liar- or something like that- and he took this
as a pretext to get up and leave. It is important that the buffoonery
did not interrupt the exchange nor prevent Cowles from talking; rather,
the questions were getting a little close to home…
I left this session at about the same time. I went upstairs to the
Men’s room and then I was coming down the stairs. By this time I wore my
long funky Chicago-style overcoat over my suit. Below me at the foot
of the stairs Cowles was having his own little press conference. He was
telling maybe six reporters how he had agreed to meet with the SESPA people
in the interests of dialogue and to exchange ideas, but they weren’t
interested in listening to what he had to say. He tried to reason with them
but they made it impossible for him to speak, so he reluctantly had to
walk out. He was oily, good at playing the abused party.
I found myself saying from midway on the stairs, in a loud voice,
“That’s not true, Dr. Cowles.” The reporters turned to me, coming up
the stairs as I was starting down again. “That’s not true and you know it.
You manipulated the session. When it wasn’t going your way, you left.”
I remember the press being hostile to me, jamming mikes in my face, asking
me to identify myself. As I recall it, I gave my name but not who I worked
for, imitating Herb Fox, I guess. I don’t think this encounter made the
news anywhere, but for me it was an important step. I had come out publicly
against the scientific establishment represented by Cowles, and I was
identified by the establishment press as some sort of representative of
the radical science movement, if not SESPA.

What next? The famous symposium on “Crime, Violence and Social Control”,
where Frank Rosenthal got poked with a knitting needle by Mrs. Garrett Hardin,
brought national and local attention to the AAA$ activities. By the
30th, people from all over Chicago were coming to speak up at symposia.
It certainly was one of the most lively AAAS conventions of all time 😉

By the time that Glenn Seaborg got indicted for “Science Against the
People”, I had changed my reason for being at the convention. By the time
that Herb read the indictment, I knew that I supported him and SESPA,
and that the task before me was to join with them to work towards a
science for the people. I had found a way of possibly integrating my
political and vocational life. I let go, somewhat sadly, of my escapist
dreams. I stopped wearing a suit.
I had misgivings. I wasn’t sure about the tactical details
of this confrontation; I didn’t know the principal actors; I would
rather be talking to interesting people or trying to get to know
some of the fascinating women better. But I guess I felt I had to support
them, if only because they were right. Business as usual couldn’t go on.
I was accountable to my children. I thought about the Germans in WWII,
and how their children asked them later, “Why didn’t you oppose Hitler?
He was _obviously_ evil.” Of course AAA$ 1970 was a very different thing,
but if then was not the time to stand up in the context of my career,
when exactly would that “right time” be? So after the indictment and
Seaborg ducked out the side door, I went around talking to people,
trying to explain why SESPA thought this was necessary. I was sympathetic
with the dismay some people has at SESPA’s rudeness. I put on a
SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE button.
On the last day the principal organizers, Chicago SESPA based
at the University of Chicago, read a statement which addressed our
situation and the persecution of the Panthers in particular. I believe
Richard Levins read the statement. I thought, I can relate to these
brothers and sisters. I think Larry Lambert and I exchanged numbers.

Although I was later involved with several other movements,
SftP was the focus of my political activity for the next ten years.
But how that went is another story…

3 thoughts on “Intro to Correspondence between Bob Ogden and Patrick Catt

  1. Chandler Davis

    You & I worked together on some occasions, but I was sailing under the flag of “Mathematicians Action Group” as well as that of SftP. Trying to recall those days for Patrick Catt’s research, I concluded that MAG had lasted until 1978. Why do you think these movements quieted down and some of them expired? The need is acute as ever. We’ll have opportunity to mull this over at the conference.

    1. Bob Ogden

      Greetings, Chandler! I look forward to talking with you about these matters. I was in Mexico 1978-1980, and I seem to have missed the critical time when the Left’s influence diminished so that Reagan was elected.

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