Two old friends, one dead, one living. A correspondence on war, climate change and two generations betrayed.

Fred Branfman has published widely, was director of research for California Gov. Jerry Brown from 1979-82, and worked closely with former SMUD chair Ed Smeloff on promoting renewable energy at a national level. He also created the website www.trulyalive.org.
Ralph Brave, a former SN&R news writer and editor who died in 2007 at the age of 54, spent several early decades as a political activist and advocate. He then became a journalist specializing in biotechnology and climate science. He was a best friend of the author of this piece.

Dear Ralph,

I have found myself talking to you frequently since your death almost five years ago, and so writing you this letter now seems just an extension of that.

I’ve been thinking about 1971, when we first met, you an 18-year-old Georgetown University student, me a 29-year-old anti-war activist directing Project Air War to oppose the United States bombing in Indochina. (This was long before your fate brought you to Sacramento as a political activist, legislative staffer and, finally, a writer for SN&R.)

I just turned 70 and have been thinking increasingly about the legacy we baby boomers are leaving our young. I wish you were here to talk about it with me. I feel a tremendous degree of sadness about what we are passing on to future generations—the climate-change catastrophe, lowered living standards and rising need, a failed foreign policy, and to threats to democracy that we never thought possible.

In one sense, I envy young people. The dangers posed by climate change and a declining America give them what none before have known: an extraordinary opportunity to live a life of meaning. Human beings have always sought to live lives that transcend their physical deaths. None before us, however, have had so great an opportunity to live lives of supreme (not partial), authentic (not invented), long-lasting (not temporal) and universal (not limited) meaning.

I believe the drive to lead a meaningful life that transcends death is universal—whether we do so by having children, believing in religion, making a lasting mark in our professions, helping our community or seeking to make history. This drive has often been perverted by the false heroics of nationalism or ideology. But there is no serious downside to a heroic effort today to avert catastrophic climate change. Doing so would not only save hundreds of millions of lives and keep the biosphere livable for all life for all time to come, it could also lay the basis for a new wave of economic prosperity through the clean-energy economic revolution, and preserve the democracy I believe is threatened by inevitable authoritarian responses to economic breakdown.

Any young person who works today to end climate change—either directly with the environmental movement or indirectly by seeking to change the power structure that perpetuates it—can live a life of meaning beyond any previously dreamed of, one that will reverberate as long as human beings walk this Earth.

When we first met, Ralph, you had already been demonstrating against the Vietnam War since you were 15—long hair in a tangle, indifferent to your dress or other material things, a stone-cold Dylan freak, as earnest and excited as a child when you discussed your latest insight from a book you read at the bookstore where you worked, spending more time reading than serving customers. We were also in tune not only about the war but, like Holden Caulfield, by our disgust at “phoniness,” inauthenticity, hypocrisy, whether of government leaders or anyone else.

I admired you tremendously. I had been living in Laos the previous four years and come to love Lao villagers, so it was relatively easy for me to oppose the war. But you worked tirelessly day and night for years against a war you never personally witnessed. You never got your name in the papers, and indeed had an aversion to putting yourself forward. You opposed the war because you cared. It brings tears to my eyes to remember this—not only about you but hundreds of thousands of others who spent so many years demonstrating against a war they never saw, on behalf of a people they never met.

Casualties of war

In many ways I remain a child of the sixties, and the point is to make the world a better place, not to earn dough or be famous or whatever … I know that for me the single biggest influence was the Holocaust. My entire time growing up I obsessed on why hadn’t somebody done something? When Vietnam came along, I was going to do something, particularly since it seemed to be my own country that was playing the part of the oppressor.

—email from Ralph, May 2, 2003

On a deeper level, I suppose we fundamentally bonded over an issue that affected millions of our compatriots: our deep sense of generational betrayal over the Vietnam War. Some of us came to it sooner, others later. But the so-called “generation gap” in those days stemmed from our realization that our elders supported a war in Vietnam that violated everything they had taught us to believe in.

We really had grown up believing that America stood for democracy, freedom, respect for the individual, international law and human decency. And when we saw not only our government but a majority of our elders supporting a war that violated every one of these precepts, as we realized to our horror that they were violating the Nuremberg principles for which we executed Nazi leaders and, above all—as we watched a body count that eventually reached more than 3 million Vietnamese alone, of whom countless hundreds of thousands were innocent civilians—we were not only horrified, we were thrown into a moral and intellectual abyss by the disparity over what our elders preached and practiced in Indochina.

This generational betrayal unleashed tremendous positive energies in the ’60s.

I still remember how you spent most of your time organizing an impressive group of Georgetown students working against the war, Ralph. I remember how you read deeply to develop your own answers to what Vietnam was really all about, worked with the Indochina Mobile Education Project upon graduation, and then became politically active for decades. Among other things, you worked with the Campaign for Economic Democracy to win rent control in Santa Monica, California, served as Assemblyman Tom Hayden’s chief of staff, and helped Ed Smeloff win election to the board at SMUD.

Your work was part of a generation that spawned giant movements for peace, social justice, women’s rights and the environment; liberated sexuality from millennia of hypocrisy and repression; experienced a creative revolution in the arts; saw humanistic psychology and a new spirituality that sought to transcend the divisions perpetrated by traditional religions.

But we both experienced the dark side of the ’60s, too.

We felt betrayed by the elitism, sexism, factionalism and power-seeking that destroyed many of the “New Left” organizations we had believed in. Our anger, initially liberating, came to alienate us from many in the public at large and many of our friends. Only in our 20s, we didn’t know how to create lasting institutions that could replace those we abhorred. The drugs we took both to spur our creativity and kill our pain eventually took too great a toll. As close as you and I were, we did not know how to deal with unconscious resentments, childhood hurts and a generalized anger that periodically cropped up between us over the decades we knew each other.

We were particularly jarred by what occurred in Indochina after the war.

When we learned that the new Indochina leaders were as corrupt as the ones they were replacing, it was shattering—though also liberating. We realized that the real problems of society—war and peace, environmental despoliation, social injustice—did not fundamentally stem from a given economic or political system, whether “capitalism” or “communism.” Their causes clearly went deeper and required understanding the human psyche itself. Feeling betrayed both by American and communist leaders led both of us—and many more of our generation—to move beyond narrow politics into psychological and spiritual inquiry that might explain why all economic and political systems become corrupted.

A generation betrayed

I had an amazing experience this morning. I met with this kid from California after observing him give a short talk on the environment. I was astonished—I was looking at [myself] at age 24, a totally committed political activist, completely idealistic, a totally admirable, pure, caring soul, who knew all the facts, but with only the most limited ability to actually connect with anyone. I drove away caring for this kid so much.

After meeting in 1971 as fellow anti-war activists, former SN&R writer Ralph Brave (left) and fred Branfman became lifelong friends and correspondents. Brave died in 2007 from lung cancer.

Photo courtesy of Fred Branfman

—email from Ralph, October 26, 2005

Of all the ironies we spent our life exploring, laughing or bemoaning, the saddest is one we never dreamed of: that we, members of a baby-boomer generation who felt betrayed by our parents, are today betraying our own young.

It is incontestable that our generation is bequeathing a deteriorating biosphere and an America in decline. The question of climate change is a highly technical, scientific one, of which I believe only climate scientists are entitled to have a credible opinion. And the vast majority of them say that if we do not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, we will destroy human civilization as we know it—even as we now dramatically increase these emissions. And the United States has clearly entered its season of decline as the world’s incontrovertible “super power”; polls show 75 percent of Americans know this all too well.

Although most of the responsibility for this decline clearly rests with America’s economic, political and natural security elites—who, after all, are in charge of these failed policies—it seems to me that in the end, our failure is a generational one. The fact is that those of us (certainly including myself) who care about climate change, economic security, democracy and safeguarding America are not fighting as we must if we are to save human civilization and our society.

You weren’t around for President Barack Obama’s victory, but I often thought back to our conversations then as I watched a young, technocratic, results-oriented president take office and try to grapple with the impossible legacy we had bequeathed him and his generation.

I know this betrayal of our young pained you as much as me. I remember how much time and care you put into nurturing young activists and journalists over the years, the times you would call me to give this one advice or introduce that one to someone who could help them. I often saw the genuine satisfaction you received from helping young people.

Given that, I expect that you would be as moved and touched as am I by the Occupy movement, such groups as Code Pink and the 1,000 people who got arrested opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline. I am sure you would have been present when the UC Davis students were doused with pepper spray. I know you would have been particularly pleased at how the Occupiers and other activist groups today try to avoid many of our generation’s mistakes—the power tripping, factionalism, egomania, publicity seeking—produced by hierarchy and leaders ultimately only responsible to themselves. And we would have been inspired, above all, by the culture of inclusiveness, kindness and openness that it has initially embodied.

Cancer and beyond

Feel like I’m doing some of my best writing ever right now. … Life, now, for me, literally is too short for even minor bullshit. If I’m not living from my truth, and especially in my writing, I experience myself literally throwing away my time—and my entire organismic system revolts against it.

—email from Ralph, July 2006

The most interesting period of your life, from my point of view, occurred as you slowly branched out from full-time political activism to explore psychology and spirituality and become a professional writer.

I believe this transition began when you got cancer in your early 30s. I vividly remember two video interviews I did with you at that time. The first occurred a few days after you learned you had cancer. You were disheveled, frantic, whacked-out. The second occurred a few years later, after bouts of chemotherapy, when you learned that the cancer had gone into remission. You were wearing a sport jacket and tie, were composed and focused, and talked movingly about how dealing with your illness had led you to appreciate life in ways you never had before. I asked you if the choice was living as you had been, or having cancer and gaining the new life you had; whether you could possibly say, “I’m glad I got cancer.” I will never forget your long pause in response, your clearly thinking it through, and then answering, solidly and simply, “Yes, I am.”

In later years, you began therapy and started both long-lasting meditation and Heidegger study groups in Sacramento. Your reading and the issues you thought about changed. During this period, you worked for SN&R and wrote many memorable cover stories on subjects including climate change, biotechnology and university investments. Another milestone occurred when you left Sacramento to return to Baltimore for several years to look after your mother because, as you wrote me, “I couldn’t live with myself leaving my parents without support.”

What most impressed me was that after your mother died, you plunged into “grief work” as seriously as you had everything else in your life. It taught me the immense importance of daring to feel one’s grief fully and work with it.

It was also after your mother died that you started to seriously work on the fascinating implications of the new bioscience, spurred in part by your study of Nazi doctors during the Holocaust. Through you, I came to appreciate the importance of this new field and all the questions it raised. If humans could design their babies, should they? What did it mean that bioscience would likely give people enormous information about their potential future diseases without offering them any cures? I was particularly impressed by the exhibit you and your partner Kathi put together on the substantial eugenics movement in California in the early 20th century, a forerunner to the Nazi eugenics program.

As your friend, however, what struck me most about this phase of your life was how you developed as a person, particularly after your grief work. You were noticeably more relaxed, less stressed, more alive.

If I knew then what I know now

I’m pretty fried from putting a cover story to bed on global warming. Really got into it and really came away just heart-broken and frightened. And, just like in the anti-war days, so impressed with and encouraged by the determination and spirit of some of those who have taken on the global warming issue full time as combatants.

—email from Ralph, July 10, 2006

It’s been funny turning 70.

When I first met you, Ralph, my pain over the murder of innocent people in Indochina, combined with the maelstrom of our anti-war work, made every week feel like a lifetime. And the years after the war—so full of people, events, experiences—also felt rich and full. But now, as I look back, it feels like those 40 years passed in an instant. I find this “looking back” perspective quite useful, a way not only to sort out my past life a bit but to gain perspective about the future. I will confess that I hope the stripes on my back could be useful to young people today. I understand if they don’t feel they have much positive to learn from us given our failures. But they certainly have much to learn from our mistakes.

Here are some thoughts that arise as I look back on our lives:

Balance the political with the personal: Given the atrocities that were going on in Indochina in our name, we really had no choice but to work 24-seven against the war. But we then took this style and mindset into domestic politics, continuing working 60 to 80 hour weeks, abusing our bodies, focusing on work more than our relationships, failing to have kids, and so forth.

I wouldn’t change my life during the anti-war years but, in hindsight, I would have sought a far better balance between my political and personal life thereafter. Any young person interested in political work today, for example, likely faces a lifetime of political struggle. Just trying to prevent climate change, or dealing with its consequences if we don’t, will go on indefinitely. Best to dig in for the long run—get a livelihood, build a decent personal life, be regularly engaged in political struggle for some hours or days a week—rather than plunging in full-time in a way that leads to burnout or dropout.

During his tenure on the editorial staff at SN&R, Ralph Brave wrote cover stories on the topics of climate change, renewable energy, biotechnology, and financial or ethical misconduct by public institutions.

And just as political activists need to develop their personal sides, of course, so too do the “nonpolitical” need to also make a similar regular commitment if civilization is to be saved.

Study and explore psychology: I am pleased that, though late in life, both of us engaged in years of psychological self-exploration—in my case, focused on understanding how my childhood defenses against emotional pain, particularly about death, still affect me. But as I look back on my life now, I wish had studied psychology far earlier. It not only would have led to far deeper personal friendships and romantic relationships, it would have produced far greater satisfaction and effectiveness in my political work.

Although I do not regret my political years—because I can at least live with myself for trying my best to oppose injustice—they were not happy years. There was infighting, competition and self-interest disguised as altruism that politics inevitably involves. During the last decade, I have found a group of friends who manage to work together and treat each other decently by devoting serious time to open and honest discussion of their psychological issues with each other, overlaid by an ethic of kindness. I would certainly advise any young person contemplating political work to do therapy aimed at understanding and working with unconscious painful feelings and to bring its insights into political organizing.

Move beyond ideology: I feel that just as you wanted to put science first in dealing with scientific issues, we need to focus on our common humanity, and then look at politics from that perspective. When I look at things from a human point of view, for example, I personally respect tea-party activists, however much I disagree with their analysis or fear they are manipulated by fossil-fuel magnates, unscrupulous politicians or Fox News. At least they care enough about society to work politically to change it. I only wish all those who agreed with me worked as hard.

It seems to me important for all camps to stop demonizing one another, and not only because I don’t see how America can hold together otherwise. I believe that doing so will make possible necessary post-ideological coalitions in coming years—whether tea partiers and liberals opposing the executive branch’s power grab to spy on, imprison or murder any American citizen they wish, or working together to oppose future bank bailouts and support local, community-owned banks.

Considering the new and unprecedented challenges to saving civilization and America over the coming decades, rational adults need to leave much of their ideologies at the door and start a new and sensible conversation about the practical measures needed to avoid climate change, maintain decent living standards for the many, preserve American democracy and help those in need.

Beloved on the earth

Can a left, or any political force, ever genuinely, lastingly succeed in transforming a nation without being fundamentally based on honesty, optimism, humility, truthfulness—really, when you get down to it—on love? I increasingly don’t believe so.

—email from Ralph, August 5, 2006

The most significant political event of my life, one still engraved in my memory 47 years later, was a 15-minute conversation I had in the fall of 1964 with a neighbor who was on his way to deliver an anti-war talk to a church group in western Massachusetts several hours away. I said I believed the United States and North Vietnam were equally guilty in wanting to conquer South Vietnam. My neighbor listened respectfully to my comments and then, in an equally respectful and kind way, explained he believed the 1954 Geneva Accords stipulated that Vietnam would be united by elections two years later, and that it was the United States which had violated them by installing the Diem regime. He then warmly shook my hand and, with a gentle smile, drove off in his old car.

What struck me most was not what he said but how he said it, not his “stand” but who he was. He was clearly a sincere, kind, honorable person who was driving six to eight hours round-trip to speak about an issue he felt deeply about. And who he was made me want to look into the issue more deeply myself. I thus think you’re really right, Ralph, when you write that the key to a politics that can succeed is communicating its “values and their embodiment in the people propounding that program.”

It seems to me the key to whether or not we avert climate change, or see America reverse its present path or at least decline gracefully, is for all those who think as we do to embody the values we espouse.

I remember well the early ’60s, when many in an idealistic young generation did indeed live many of its values—risking their lives to fight for civil rights in the South, opposing an unjust war, going into northern ghettoes to try and work with local residents to improve their lives. And I also remember what followed as frustration with a government that kept murdering Indochinese despite the peaceful marches and earnest pleas—saw idealism turn to anger, love to bitterness, a desire for community to factionalism.

My greatest hope these days is that a younger generation will at least learn from our mistakes, and be able to sustain their present attitudes of tolerance, inclusion and decency in the difficult years to come.

You were one of those who somehow managed to maintain your youthful idealism and pain over injustice over the years. I love and respect you for that, and you will continue to inspire me the rest of my days.

Your final illness happened suddenly and without warning. From a hospital bed in Sacramento, surrounded by a handful of people who loved you, you only had time and ability to dictate a brief final note to your friends. You said: “I wish I had more grand final words about ‘peace’ and ‘love’ and such that would forever impart my life’s learning to everyone and to all whom I cared about. I think Raymond Carver’s final poem ‘Late Fragment’ does a pretty good job.” You ended with the poem:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

You were, Ralph. You were.