Politics, Principle, and Risk

Politics, Principle, and Risk

For political theorist Philip Green, taking sides has always meant taking action.


Philip Green, a political theorist who taught at Smith College for 34 years and has served on The Nation’s editorial board since 1978, was kicked out of his sixth-grade classroom at the communist-friendly Little Red School House in Greenwich Village for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Finland—the beginning of a lifetime of unabashed political opposition. In Taking Sides: A Memoir in Stories (Levellers Press; Paper $19.95), his unfiltered memoir of life, love, and dissent, the 83-year-old Green recounts his youth as a liberal Jewish intellectual developing his political consciousness while hopping freight trains, thumbing rides in Mexico, wandering the streets of Paris, and arguing with his buddies over beer. A city boy in the golden age of suburbs and a leftist at the height of the McCarthy era, Green was not dazzled by the prosperity of the Eisenhower years.

In his book, Green might as well be sitting on a sofa regaling the reader with tales from his youth. His lively narrative is interrupted by lengthy sections of commentary on the state of American society today; he wistfully recalls friends, love affairs, and Parisian desserts, but maintains a clear eye for the scourges of the 1950s: poverty, segregation, and machismo.

Green came of age at a time when the United States was a bit complacent itself, before the crashing waves of political dissent in the 1960s. He offers glimpses of what was to come: In one, it’s 1953, and he and a college friend have boarded a bus to Maryland after having spent the summer hitchhiking through the American South. As the two young men, both white, relax in their seats in the back of the bus, an elderly black passenger gets their attention. They’re in the wrong seats, she tells them, and the bus won’t budge until they’ve taken the right ones. Startled to find themselves the center of attention, the two friends survey the scene:

[The driver] was not going to move until we did, to the front of the bus where as members of the superior race we truly and rightly belonged…. [W]hen we looked around, hell, the black faces were staring at us, visibly angry…places to go, things to do, and two fuck-stupid white boys are going to stand on principle, or excuse me, sit on principle? Some other time, some other place, some other persons, Montgomery, Alabama, say: I had been to the Highlander Folk School [a social-justice leadership training school in Tennessee] but I was not Rosa Parks; we moved to the front of the bus.

These moments of deer-in-the-headlights revelation are interspersed with episodes of spontaneity and risk-taking: Green arguing in front of his high school that the prom should be canceled in order to support the teachers’ strike; hitchhiking with a shaggy, sunburned man who sold his blood for a living; sticking up for a bullied recruit, and sticking it to the colonel in charge during his army deployment in France in the relatively peaceful years between the Korean War and Vietnam; stuffing a jukebox in Paris with 240 francs so that it would repeatedly play one song for him and his date to dance to all evening long.

Overall, Green’s book is a call to action. His basic political impulse, as he describes it: “Whatever is at stake, I must always be choosing sides [and] coming to a conclusion about who are the victims and who are the victimizers.” But Taking Sides is also a tribute to a life lived passionately and with eyes wide open, unapologetically embracing risk while choosing one’s battles wisely.

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