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UCSB’s Most Dangerous Professor

Dick Flacks Looks Back

Dick Flacks is situated comfortably in his living room, the
legendary ground zero of Santa Barbara’s progressive politics.
Dressed in a loose, beach-bum T-shirt with broad horizontal
stripes, blue jeans, and fleece-lined slippers, Flacks leans back
into his couch. It’s a ridiculously beautiful Sunday afternoon, and
Flacks is preparing for his retirement party, an exaltation of his
career as activist and academic — a two-day event billed as Flacks
Fest. But at the moment, Flacks seems a little miffed. Somehow, he
was not included in the recently published book listing the 101
“most dangerous” college professors in the United States, written
by David Horowitz, the one-time left-wing radical turned right-wing
firebrand. “I was upset,” Flacks says, an ironic twinkle escaping
the prism of his Coke-bottle glasses. “I wasn’t in there. I don’t
know why not.”

Flacks is teasing. But he has a point.

When Flacks was appointed to a tenure-track professorship in
UCSB’s sociology department in 1969, he’d already achieved
notoriety at the University of Chicago as a radical anti-war
activist. Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, quipped
that hiring Flacks was like hiring a pyromaniac to work in a
firecracker factory. It was a nice line, and for Flacks, perhaps
the ultimate backhanded compliment. But other reactions were less
charming. Robert Lagomarsino, then Santa Barbara’s Republican state
senator, went so far as to call for a House Un-American Activities
Committee investigation. To keep any more of Flacks’s ilk from
getting tenure, the University of California’s Board of Regents
voted to take control of the appointment process. The Santa
Barbara News-Press
’s editorial pages quivered about the
potential violence Flacks might unleash. And all that was before he
even moved to town.

Flacks didn’t turn out to be the bomb-thrower his detractors
predicted. As his UCSB friend and colleague, Harvey Molotch, once
dryly noted, “Dick was never at all athletic.” Instead, Flacks
spent the next 37 years on campus advocating a pragmatic brand of
radical politics coupled with nonviolent civil disobedience. As a
result, Flacks was allowed to operate with a relatively free hand,
helping to radicalize generations of students. Both through his
classes on social movements and his work with student groups,
Flacks inspired young people to go into the world and “make
history.”

As a “think global, act local” kind of guy, Flacks directed many
of his students’ idealism toward the Santa Barbara community, where
he secured them positions in many of the political and
counter-cultural organizations he had helped to found. In most of
Santa Barbara’s defining political debates — including growth,
water, housing, homelessness, the living wage, immigrants’ rights,
environment protection, and alternative transportation — activists
nurtured by Flacks have played crucial roles. Harley Augustino of
PUEBLO, the grassroots organization that helped bring 20,000
marchers to the streets of Santa Barbara in support of immigrants’
rights last week, started his career with the Isla Vista Tenants
Union and then with the Living Wage Coalition thanks to a helping
hand from Flacks. Geoff Green, the current director of the Fund for
Santa Barbara, which finances progressive groups countywide;
political organizer Ed Maschke, who kept Goleta developers tied up
in knots for more than 20 years; and Rob Rosenthal, whose work with
Santa Barbara’s homeless helped them emerge as a political force in
the 1980s, all were mentored by Dick Flacks. Though most of his
protégés have been men — known as the Flacks Boys — he has mentored
a number of influential women including Roseanne DeMoro, the head
of California Nurses Association, who last year chased Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger up one side of California and down the other
in aggressive, successful opposition to four ballot initiatives he
was backing.

The work of these men and women prove something that Dick Flacks
believes with all his might: Small groups of individuals can make
history.

From Red Diapers to String Quartets The older
of two children, Flacks was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938.
His parents David and Mildred Flacks — both school teachers — were
born to Russian Jewish immigrants. Both were active union members
and organizers; both belonged to the Communist Party. But when the
Cold War began in the 1950s, the Soviet Union ceased being
America’s ally and became instead its mortal enemy. Flacks’s
parents were targeted by anti-communist investigators and fired
from their jobs.

Under Khrushchev’s leadership, information about the horrors of
Stalin’s blood-thirsty regime became more generally known. Then, in
1956, the Soviets invaded Hungary. Flacks — a scholarly young
teenager — began to find the blindly pro-U.S.S.R. position of the
U.S. Communist Party, and his own father, repellent. At the same
time, the rest of the American left had become virulently
anti-communist. Radical red-diaper babies like Dick Flacks were
having a hard time finding a place to call home. Then, in 1957,
Flacks met Mickey Hartman, the daughter of Yiddish-speaking,
Russian-born immigrants. One year later, the two married, beginning
a 48-year partnership that produced both a family and a political
juggernaut.

Together, the two students stumbled onto an aging American
revolutionary named A.J. Muste, whose political vision fused
Christian social justice, American populism, and nonviolent civil
disobedience. For them, it was as if the sky opened up.
“Revolutionary nonviolence? No one was putting those two words in
the same sentence back then, let alone giving it serious thought,”
said Flacks. “Muste became a complete role model for me.” So much
so, Flacks gave his second son the middle name “Ajay.” Stifled by
the political claustrophobia of Brooklyn, the young couple set out
for the University of Michigan, where Flacks attended graduate
school. “We didn’t want to be part of New York,” Flacks said. “We
wanted to be part of America in the much broader sense.”

In Michigan, Flacks sought out other young activists whose
politics emerged more from Midwestern prairie populism than from
Marx. One such activist was Tom Hayden, who would become Flacks’s
lifelong friend and political partner. Inspired by the
death-defying courage of Southern civil rights workers, who also
followed a nonviolent approach to social change, the Flackses
joined Hayden in reorganizing Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS), then an obscure group loosely affiliated with the United
Auto Workers Union. In 1962, Flacks, Hayden, and about 60 SDS
activists gathered in Port Huron, Michigan, to pen what would
become the rhetorical anthem for the New Left. An almost hormonal
celebration of the democratic impulse, the statement began, “We are
people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed
now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we
inherit.” It blasted both major superpowers — the U.S.A. and the
U.S.S.R. — and supported democratic principles that they believed
could coexist within socialistic and communistic structures.
Acknowledging the raw audacity of their vision, the authors wrote,
“If we appear to seek the unattainable … let it be known we do so
to avoid the unimaginable.”

While in Michigan, Dick and Mickey Flacks began developing a
lifestyle that not only kept them sane, it kept them human. They
discovered college football, attending all of Michigan’s home
games. Mickey remembered once having to yank Dick from an
interminable SDS meeting to get to the stadium on time. No one
could believe where they were going. Football before global
liberation? “They thought we’d lost our freaking minds,” Mickey
said. “But we’ve always made it a priority to take time for
ourselves. We like going to the movies, eating out in restaurants.
We have balance in our lives. That’s our secret.”

As a fledgling academic, Flacks was very much the hot young
thing. In 1964, he secured a tenure-track position with the
University of Chicago, then among the world’s most prestigious
institutes of higher learning, not its current incarnation as a
hotbed of neo-con political thought. Flacks resigned from SDS when
he took the appointment, but he didn’t stop his political
activities. That did not sit well with the school’s administration.
Nor did his support of the 121 students who were expelled for
sitting-in against the Vietnam War.

At that time Flacks was researching what would become his first
published work, Liberated Generation. In tracking the
family history of young college activists, he determined their
protests were not examples of adolescent rebellion — as noted
scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim were insisting — but extensions
of the values they learned at home. The book — and its notion that
young people could operate as an independent force in American
society — put Flacks on the map. Soon publications like
Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune sought his
opinions on the political activism of the exploding youth culture.
At the University of Chicago, however, most faculty couples led
social lives that were decidedly old world. Their dinner parties
with string quartets and black servants were too bizarre for the
Flackses. As Mickey described it, “It was the last bastion of
19th-century male-dominated, super-intellectual elitist nonsense.
It wasn’t our scene.”

But by then, UCSB’s sociology department — which was beginning
to enjoy a distinctive, quirky reputation — had been courting
Flacks. When the University of Chicago did not grant him early
tenure, he started looking westward. The last straw came when
Flacks was brutally attacked in his campus office by a man posing
as a newspaper reporter. The attack — which police believe was
administered with something like a crow bar — left his skull
cratered in two spots and his right hand nearly severed at the
wrist. Flacks’s assailant was never found.

Flacks hoped a sunny campus by the Pacific would offer the quiet
he needed. How wrong could one man be? He arrived with his family
just months after the historic Santa Barbara oil spill and just
months before the burning of the Bank of America in Isla Vista.

Campus Guru Meets the Thursday Club Flacks’s
1969 appointment stirred significant concern that his assailant
might strike again. Even relatively conservative faculty members
like Otis Graham volunteered to guard the Flackses’ new home. On
the other hand, a new neighbor volunteered to spy on the family for
the sheriff and the FBI. “But mostly, people were really, really
nice,” said Mickey. For Flacks himself, the times were exciting,
bizarre, and nerve-wracking. “Between 1969 and 1979, there was not
a single normal moment on campus where you could go about your
routine,” he said. “Most of the classes were held in I.V., not in
the classrooms; there were bomb threats constantly; fire alarms
going off; huge dogs named Trotsky walking down the hallways; and
every shade of hippie-dom you could imagine.”

Flacks was too old — and too straight-laced — for the hedonistic
celebration of flesh and pharmaceuticals then accompanying the
anti-war movement on college campuses. He managed to establish
himself as a bona fide campus guru nonetheless. “The deal was if
you took politics seriously and you took social change seriously
and you did not ask Dick to smoke dope with you, then he would take
you seriously,” explained sociologist Harvey Molotch. “That was a
deal many people were willing to make.” Those who did found that
Flacks could be both seriously intimidating and a friendly adviser.
They also found he was passionately curious about what students
think and ferociously dedicated to their right to express
themselves.

Contrary to urban folklore, Flacks was not involved in the
burning of the I.V. Bank of America. In fact, his friends made a
point of shooing him away from any protest that looked potentially
unruly because handcuffs could seriously damage his still injured
wrist. For his part, Flacks does not consider the bank burning a
positive political act; it happened, he said, in the spasm of the
moment and in response to escalating police violence. “I don’t
think anybody planned to burn the bank down,” he said.

It was after the bank burning, however, that Flacks really made
his mark on Santa Barbara. He and Mickey started something called
the Thursday Club, an evolving collection of high-octane activists
who met every Thursday at their home. “We knew we couldn’t continue
with this violence,” Flacks said. “We had to build positive
organizations and we had to have a voice.” The Flackses’ living
room served as a Petri dish where ideas mixed with the seed-money
of wealthy left-leaning patrons such as Stanley Sheinbaum, Kit
Tremaine, Herman Warsh, Maryanne Mott, and Katy Peake. The Thursday
Club produced an alternative community school, medical clinics,
food co-ops, and a host of other community groups that gave
expression to a new value system struggling to define itself.
Though many of the original organizations have disappeared, they
have been replaced by newer versions, with similar progressive
values. The Santa Barbara Independent, for example, is a
direct descendant of the News&Review, the worker
cooperative weekly newspaper for which Flacks served as trustee and
adviser. (One of The Independent’s four owners — Richard
Parker — was an original founder of the
News&Review.)

On the idea that all politics is local, Flacks turned his
attention to elected offices. At the time, Flacks said, the Santa
Barbara City Council was dominated by “Republican board-of-realtor
types and development interests.” Despite the hard work of earlier,
more traditional reformers such as Pearl Chase, the city was in
danger of becoming another overgrown Orange County. Dick and Mickey
Flacks helped start the slow-growth Citizens Coalition, which
succeeded in electing a more environmentally minded council
majority. Flacks jokes how conservative those candidates would be
judged by today’s standards. Of the four, one is now a Republican
city councilmember in New Mexico, one was a nuclear engineer, one
was a Westmont administrator, and one the wife of a prominent
conservative Republican.

When development interests wrested back control in the late
’70s, Flacks and his wife joined with others to start Network and
the Gray Panthers — in which Flacks’s parents, who had moved to
town, were extremely active — to give the progressive community a
consistent political voice at City Hall. After about 15 years these
groups also faded out. But Dick and Mickey did not. In 2000 they
got together with other concerned citizens — some of them
ex-students — to form SBCAN. Its charge is to fuse the goals of the
environmental and the social-justice movements — not an easy task
when two visions of a perfect Santa Barbara are colliding:
affordable housing versus small-town neighborhoods. How is it
possible to have either in a market of million-dollar cottages?
Simple problems don’t seem to interest the Flackses.

His Work, Their Lives, Our Town Dick Flacks’s
academic work reflects the same electrified lightning that has
illuminated his own life. His research and writings all try to
capture that flash, to document it, to analyze the source of its
glow. Even as a student activist, Flacks was studying student
activism. What made the activists tick? Did they stay active later
in life, and if so in what ways? Why? How did activist students
differ from students who weren’t active? Could you identify which
students were most likely to become active? All of this
research — conducted over long intervals, through elaborate
surveys, and in detailed personal histories — focused on measuring
the extent to which ordinary individuals can jumpstart historical
change.

Flacks is now looking forward to a “retirement” that he
acknowledges few people have been able to enjoy. He’ll still teach
a couple of classes a year, keep his campus office, and program his
weekly folk-music radio show, The Culture of Protest,
which is the longest running program in KCSB history. And he and
Mickey will travel. But of course there always will be
politics.

Flacks’s political beliefs have shifted a bit since first moving
to Santa Barbara. He once believed that a ruling elite had usurped
democratic control from a complacent population. Now he is not so
sure. As Molotch explained it, in the present reality of Bush
incompetence, “A ruling elite would be good news.” Where Flacks
once regarded the university as a hatchery for intellectual
worker-bees to maintain the corporate power structure, today, he’s
a passionate defender of the university. In times of budget crisis,
Flacks fights to keep funding whole. He is also working to rewire
the UC’s admissions system so that the children of immigrants,
working parents, and minorities will be able to get a foot in the
door and a seat in the classroom. At his core, Dick Flacks remains
very much the same man he was when he first arrived in Santa
Barbara. Then as now, he believed great social movements were
created by historical forces. Then as now, he believes that even
the smallest group of individuals can make history.

Flacks does acknowledge that times have changed. For the better,
he noted that democratic participation in daily life has expanded
hugely in the past 35 years. But for the worse, he said, the
powers-that-be have become increasingly resistant to change. With
the rise of global economics, national governments are less able to
make economic concessions in the face of democratic demands. Still,
people have to try. “If you took this town in 1969 and looked at
what it was like then, you’d see that it’s changed enormously.
There are Farmers Markets, environmental organizations, community
health clinics — these are all mainstream. The assumed values in
our political debate have changed, too. I’m enough of an anarchist
to think we can’t change the government at large. But can people do
things to make small-scale changes that have meaning? We did. It’s
a point of great pride to Mickey and me, that we have been involved
with this,” he said. “In whatever time you are living, there will
always be spaces for initiative.”

Flacks ought to know. He made the most of his. And that’s what
makes him such a dangerous man.

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