You May Say I'm a Dreamer

Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom by Charles Halpern, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 290 pages, $24.95

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold, Chelsea Green, 525 pages, $40.00

The 1960s were very much about social change, but they were also a period of deep introspection about how to live one's life. The radical feminist movement made the most explicit connection between the personal and the political. The emergent gay-rights movement was born with the knowledge that the political was brutally personal. More broadly, a continuing legacy of the 1960s in all its dimensions has been a quest to reconcile struggles for social justice with a quest to live decently and unhypocritically--in personal relationships, spiritual odysseys, and material habits that limit the environmental toll on the planet. Today some of the efforts of the '60s seem jejune--naive back-to-the-land communes, anarchist movements for free love, attachments to gurus who turned out to be false messiahs--yet much of this broader legacy was worthy, even noble.

Enough time has elapsed that the children of the '60s are now the graybeards and grandmothers, and some have already passed on. And so we have a rich outpouring of memoir and biography. Inevitably, it is deeply personal as well as political.

Charles Halpern epitomized one dimension of that watershed decade--the use of law to achieve social change. In the early 1960s, as a young graduate of Yale Law School and the son of a judge, Halpern was working as an associate at the Washington power law firm of Arnold and Porter. The firm was founded by eminent New Dealers, but in the postwar era its clients were mostly corporate, though it did more than its share of pro-bono work.

One day in 1966, Halpern received a call from David Bazelon, then chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where Halpern had clerked. Bazelon was a crusader from the bench for the rights of the mentally ill. He had handed down an opinion in a case involving a man named Charles Rouse who had been arrested for a misdemeanor, found insane, and confined for four years at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the appalling "House of Bedlam" immortalized in Elizabeth Bishop's poem. Bazelon opined that even the mentally ill had rights. His appellate ruling would require re-hearings at the district court level, and he wanted Halpern to serve as Rouse's lawyer. Arnold and Porter let their young associate handle the case.

The district court did not accept Halpern's arguments that the "treatments" at St. Elizabeth's were a sham, but on appeal Halpern successfully argued that Rouse had never consented to the insanity plea that resulted in his indefinite confinement. Rouse was released, civil rights would soon be extended to the mentally ill, and Halpern was hooked on the potential of what would soon become known as public-interest law. "No one," he writes in his memoir, "was challenging these mental hospitals and holding up their practices to Constitutional scrutiny." By then Halpern had also spent a summer as a volunteer lawyer doing civil-rights work in Louisiana.

In 1968, Halpern and three other activist lawyers decided to found what they named the Center for Law and Social Policy. With initial small funding commitments from two left-wing foundations that had been courageous backers of the civil-rights movement, the Stern Fund and the New World Foundation, they persuaded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to give the center a larger grant, and CLASP was in business.

It was a golden dawn of public-interest law, with new federally funded legal-services programs providing careers for activists, the early Nader's Raiders pursuing causes through litigation as well as legislation, and the nascent environmental movement turning to the courts. Halpern was one of the era's great pioneers and mentors. In its first two decades, CLASP researched and litigated a broad array of social-change cases, in areas ranging from mental health to civil and economic rights to the environment--all in the spirit of Justice Louis Brandeis, using extensive research to inform and persuade judges. In recent years, CLASP has become a full-service think tank on social issues. Halpern went on to be founding dean of an activist law school, to work as a foundation president, and to bring into being another think tank.

If the story ended there, it would be interesting enough. Along the way, however, Halpern discovered the power of yoga and meditation to help maintain personal equilibrium and humility in an intensely political life. As president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, he promoted other projects on social change and personal awareness and a program on Jewish life that emphasized interdenominational relations, including work at the intersection of Judaism and Buddhism, which Halpern found especially compelling.

In the late 1980s, as Halpern was committing himself more deeply to spiritual practice, his wife, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote, "Susan and I were able to draw on our shared experiences of contemplative practice, and we became closer as we joined in the management of the disease--in its physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions." Susan survived. Halpern commends meditative practice--"the practice of wisdom"--not just as a source of life balance but as nourishment for those pursuing social change: "It can help us deal with the problem of burnout--the exhaustion of idealistic ventures where there is a bottomless well of needs and our efforts always fall short. ... It can give us the courage to take the radical initiatives that are necessary to build a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world." Informed contemplation is also evidently conducive to fine writing, for the book is a lovely read as well as the odyssey of an era.

While Halpern was helping to invent public-interest law, another remarkable activist, Tony Mazzocchi, was pioneering the modern movement for worker health and safety. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Mazzocchi, there would be no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Mazzocchi, who died in 2002, spent most of his career as a leader of what was then called the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). The son of a working-class immigrant family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Mazzocchi lied about his age and went off to war in 1943 as a 16-year-old. He survived the Battle of the Bulge and was with one of the first units into liberated Buchenwald.

After the war, Mazzocchi ended up working at a Helena Rubenstein plant in New York, which was the site of infighting between different union factions. He was soon elected chief shop steward, against more conservative and entrenched leadership. By 1953, he had become a legendary local union president and organizer. After the union merged with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, he became part of the national leadership and in 1965, head of the union's Washington office.

The idea of "blue-green alliances" between unionists and environmentalists is said to be something new, but Mazzocchi grasped their potential four decades ago. His members, after all, worked with the most dangerous substances in the factory economy. Mazzocchi helped New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur to expose the dangers of asbestos and soon became a national leader in the cause to alert the public generally to toxic chemicals and nuclear risks. As his protégé and biographer Les Leopold writes, "Mazzocchi's conceptual breakthrough was that pollution always starts in the workplace, and then moves into the community and the natural environment."

OCAW became the rare union to call major strikes at big companies solely around issues of workplace health. And it was Mazzocchi who encouraged a young lab technician on the bargaining committee at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility in Cimarron, Oklahoma, to pursue her suspicions that X-rays were being doctored to disguise cracks in control rods that leaked plutonium. After David Burnham of The New York Times got on the case, the young nuclear technician, Karen Silkwood, en route to give Burnham a folder of documents, was found dead in a mysterious car accident.

As Leopold makes clear in a meticulously researched book, Mazzocchi was very much a radical. He involved himself with anti-war and civil-rights causes as much as with the labor movement. He often found himself at odds with more conservative union leadership. He hoped to build a labor party. He fell narrowly short of being elected national president of his union, which today has been merged into the United Steelworkers. And while hundreds of organizers cherished Mazzocchi as the most personally generous of mentors, his marital life was something of a mess. Leopold's biography presents Mazzocchi warts and all, and through him a picture of the labor movement during an era of increasing corporate hostility and diminishing government protection of the right to unionize.

Viewed from one perspective, the 40 years since 1968 have represented nothing so much as relentless retrogression. The right has imitated Charlie Halpern's public-interest law movement, with far better funding and increasingly far more sympathetic judges, and has won court confirmation of doctrines that were not even imaginable in 1968. The labor movement represents fewer workers than when Mazzocchi was crusading to organize oil and chemical workers. Yet some victories endure. Worker health and safety are today at a far higher basic standard than when OSHA was enacted, and it is firmly established that mentally ill people have constitutional rights and that the environment cannot be pillaged with impunity.

Some lessons also endure. One is that liberals sometimes need radicals. Another is that the effort to reconcile the struggle for social justice with the struggle for personal integrity is always worth the effort. And a final lesson is that the joy is not always in the victory but in the journey. As Albert Camus writes in the last line of The Myth of Sisyphus, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

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