Marc Raskin: Mentor to me and to the World

Marc Raskin died this past weekend.  He was one of the great progressive universalist-Jewish thinker-activists of the 20th & early 21st centuries in the United States, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies where I was one of the original Resident Fellows from 1963 till 1977.

 I am deeply saddened by his death.  Since 1959, Marc had been my friend, my teacher, one of my heroes, even when we disagreed. When my wife Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I visited him in October, the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Siege of the Pentagon, he was gaunt of body and gaunt of words and thought. Truly the lion in winter. Even so, losing  him altogether leaves me shaken.

He could not take part in the 50th-anniversary commemoration, and I spoke in his name as well as my own when I spoke about the challenge to the Dept of Justice during that action, when we sat side by side,  with Benjamin Spock & Bill Coffin,  to turn in a thousand draft cards to protest the draft and the Vietnam War. Marc and I were there because we had co-authored the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, in support of draft resistance.

In 1975, the Fabrangen havurah and the Institute for Policy Studies,  at my initiative on both ends and with Marc’s  vigorous support on the IPS end, co-sponsored an observance of the tenth yohrzeit of Martin Buber, with speakers that included Nahum Glatzer, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jim Forest of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other Jewish & Christian notables.

My role at IPS gave me the time and freedom in 1968-69 to write the Freedom Seder and to take a vigorous part in my emerging Jewish life, till I left IPS in 1977. It was Marc’s suggestion to the editors of Ramparts magazine that brought them to publish the Freedom Seder in early 1969, giving it its national audience and constituency. 

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We kept in touch after I moved to Philadelphia, and he was somewhat puzzled but always intrigued by my continuing evolution into a prophetic Judaism. (Though a secular person, he remembered with admiration a progressive Reform rabbi from his youth in Milwaukee, respected the Jewish civil-rights activists of the ‘60s, and was horrified by the devolution of Israel from what seemed to be a progressive state into one dependent on military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.)

In 1999 I wrote a memoir about him as my mentor. When I shared it with him, I added – “ Sheh'hekhianu! -- I am glad we both have lived long enough for me to be able to say this aloud.”


It's now 40 years since the fall of 1959, when I arrived in the office of freshman Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin to work part-time as a legislative assistant (while also doing research for my doctoral dissertation on race riots for the University of Wisconsin). I found there another part-time L. A. -- Marc Raskin.

He had grown up in Milwaukee, studied piano at Juilliard under Rosina Lhevinne, finished a law degree at the University of Chicago.  Drawn toward both politics and the piano, he found his brain even more nimble than his fingers -- and came to live in Washington and make creative political change. In the early days, he and his wife Barbara Raskin occasionally sought refuge from the cockroaches in their apartment by sleeping on the couch in a Chicago congressman's office.

At Congressman Kastenmeier's request, Marc and I worked together on uncovering the bio-war preparations of the US military at Fort Detrick -- anthrax, bubonic/ pneumonic plague, psittacosis -- and when we had enough information to show that the Chemical Corps was lying about its "non-lethal" arsenal,  I prepared and sent out a press release with the facts.

But I made a mistake in arithmetic, and the press release counted up more civilian illnesses resulting from this germ-war research than was actually the case.

I discovered the error before the press did, and went -- horrified at the damage it might do the Congressman and the work, and terrified at having blundered in my first important task  -- to tell Marc what I had done. What should I do?

"Three things," he said.  "Tell Bob, right now.  Put out a correction before the press can nail us. And remember -- today's newspaper is used to wrap fish tomorrow."

The content was correct and wise, but the tone of his advice was even wiser: it was loving, rueful but comforting. Corrective, but -- "us."

Marc taught me to be chutzpadik without being arrogant. In the summer of 1960, with the Congressman back home campaigning and little for us to do in Washington, he said one day:

"We have time on our hands. Let's find out what 'deterrence' really means. All these generals talk about it, but they never say how it's supposed to work."

So we called the Pentagon and arranged to interview the "leading experts" of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Office of the Secretary of Defense about "deterrence." They all had names straight from a morality play: "Ward," "Spear," and so on.  They all had different versions of "deterrence."  And we soon realized that each was right -- about the others. The Air Force showed the Navy's version was crazy; the Navy showed the Air Force version was crazy; and they all proved that OSD, which tried to mix all the versions together in order to please every branch of the military, was craziest of all.

So we wrote what began as a report to our own Congressman, became a report to all the Congress that stirred the Air Force to pay RAND millions to refute it, and then became a book.  We wrote together in a rhythm: We talked about each chapter in depth, then I drafted a version,  we talked again and Marc marked revisions in the margin, I revised the text, and so on till we were both satisfied.

Why do I call this  "chutzpadik"? I had thought I was not "allowed" to write such a book before I finished my Ph. D.  Before I had spent years studying military strategy.  Before I had gained "credentials" and a "reputation."

Indeed, what Marc was showing me (and himself) was that precisely because we were outsiders, uncredentialled, we could see the Emperor's nakedness. It was chutzpah WITHOUT power, without the arrogance born of power, that could reveal the truth.

Along the way, I realized that as we wrote, Marc was teaching something profound, without ever quite saying it. He was pushing me, us, to go deeper into the issues, philosophically deeper:

Why were the different theories, coming from such practical men of war, so impractical and crazy?

Why did the Air Force line switch so flagrantly from "Target cities to deter all nuclear war; nobody can win one," to  "Targeting cities is immoral; target the enemy's missile sites and strike first to prevail." And why did the Navy's line switch in exactly the other direction?

Why did these generals keep talking about "games"?

Why did they use sexual language like "wargasm" and "protecting the CONUS [Continental US]?"

Indeed, the language and the plans we heard from real generals with real missiles at their fingertips were, four years later, made into a "satirical" film  --  Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."   Satire? Hardly.

Always, Marc kept pushing for the "why" beneath the "what." He taught me that good politics was rooted in serious philosophy.

In the process, I became far more deeply focused and even -- I wryly realized -- more intelligent than I had been as a  slightly maverick but mostly unexceptional grad student.

During the next several years, Marcus drew together intellectuals like Paul Goodman, Jim Warburg, Leo Szilard, and David Riesman with a batch of Members of Congress -- each group astonished to be paid attention by the other -- to create the Liberal Project, and so to define a non-Cold War  version of what might be called "participatory liberalism."

It opened up much of the intellectual space that made possible liberal opposition to the Vietnam war and liberal empathy with the emerging New Left.

Then for two years, Marc worked inside the Kennedy Administration, on the staff of the National Security Council, resisting every step of the way  as McGeorge Bundy dragged it down the road to hell -- the Vietnam War.  When Bundy tried to force Marc to scuttle the book on deterrence that he and I  had written together as the price of keeping his job, Marc finally agreed to take his own name off the book (The Limits of Defense, Doubleday 1962) but adamantly refused to halt its publication. Bundy backed down.

Marc kept his own integrity and independence by making sure he had a peer group outside the government, whom he trusted to tell him honestly if they thought he was being coopted by the government's assumptions and priorities.

As a result, there were odd scenes: After the Executive Office Building started demanding credentials checks of all visitors -- which began only after Gen. Maxwell Taylor did that in the corridors he controlled, and others imitated him lest they appear less "important," less "secret" ---   I once bumped into  Paul Goodman -- anarchist, poet, novelist, social critic -- entering to visit Marc, as I was leaving.

Goodman was detained at the elevator, to produce some ID. "ID? I know who I am, I don't carry my name in my pocket!" he said. In despair, the desk officer called Marc's office. Marc said -- "Oh God! -- Yeah, that sounds exactly like Goodman. Send him up already." When the desk officer said Goodman could pass, he objected:   "But how do you know I am who I say I am?" he said, hitching up the rope he used for a belt.

And there was the time when Marc arranged for Ralph Ellison to take part in a White House discussion on education. Afterwards,  people gathered to unwind and shmooze at Marc's and Barbara's house. "I got this letter from -- from  THE WHITE HOUSE!!" laughed Ellison. I thought THE WHITE HOUSE wanted me -- and it turned out to be a Jewish leprechaun!"

After Kennedy came close to blowing up the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Raskin and Richard Barnet, a disarmament advocate at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency,  decided that internal resistance was no longer useful, that an outside voice needed to be created.

So by 1963, Marcus, working with  Barnet and a group of other young intellectuals that included Gar Alperovitz, Christopher Jencks, Milton Kotler, Donald Michael, and me, founded the Institute for Policy Studies: a center for action and research that would have connections inside the Federal government but would not depend on it for money or legitimacy. As outsiders, we could be chutzpadik without arrogance.

Through the '60s, we worked not only against the Vietnam War and the arms race but for grassroots neighborhood democracy, for new approaches to the media that would make them mass enlighteners instead of mass mind-polluters, for a democratic healthcare system, for the empowerment of Black communities.

Early in 1968, Marc was indicted and tried along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, and others for conspiring to aid and abet resistance to the draft. The case against Marc was by far the flimsiest. Weirdly enough, the specific acts he was charged with were deeds that I had actually done -- in public. (The FBI was as maleficent and as blunderous then as now.)

A week before the indictments came down, an Institute student had asked Marc to write a letter of recommendation for some future post.  After we heard, after the hordes of press had departed our building, the student turned to Marc: "I guess that now you're charged with a crime I shouldn't have you write that letter," he said.

Marc wheeled. His face flashed. "Oh yes you will!" he said. "No bad faith. We stand together.  If  you wanted me a week ago, you want me now."

The student paled. "Yes, of course. You're right," he said.

For defense lawyers, Marc turned first to the Institute’s law firm. The firm had an intenal fight over whether to take the case –-  with the haughty partners opposed and the younger lawyers supportive.  Finally they "compromised”: They suggested that if they took the case, they  could persuade the Department of Justice to separate Marc's case  and then tacitly  let the charges be thrown out. Thus they could both represent Marc and get him off, yet avoid taking the case to trial.

But Marc refused a separate trial, saying: "We stand together."  He chose instead to retain as defense attorney Telford Taylor, who had been a prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, and so could point out the obligation of all Americans to resist their govenrment’s participation in an illegal and immoral war full of war crimes.

At the trial in Boston, the jury  acquitted Marc while convicting all the others. Their convictions were thrown out on appeal.

That existential flash of clarity and courage, over and over repeated, was for me the most powerful teaching I took from Marc. There were some arenas of my life and thought that  he did not nourish, and indeed that he seemed to find it hard to respond to. For him and for the rest of the Institute leadership, it took many years to hear the voices of justice and of creativity in feminism. And he was  puzzled — though intrigued and never hostile —  by my journey into a progressive religious path and Jewish renewal.

For me, that path was one in which, as he had taught, I kept peeling away the layers of fact to explore the deeper truths from which they had grown. And I brought to religious thought and practice the sense of an outsider's chutzpah to question and to see those deeper truths.

Marc wrote some works of broad synthesis -- especially Being and Doing. His work infused the thought of a great number of the independent-minded radicals of the past 40 years.

Yet even beyond the ideas, his most enduring work (in my opinion) was bringing together in the Institute for Policy Studies other extraordinary people — and  people who became extraordinary as he helped them ask themselves the "Why?” — -  nourishing within each of them the spark of progressive creativity and the courage to act when the moment demands it;   creating and sustaining an arena where fine work could be done.

A place to stand together, a place where thought and action could fuse into what Marc called "not cold facts but hot facts.”

The model ought not to apply to the Institute for Policy Studies alone. What would it mean, for example, to bring together such a place that could draw on all the forms of Jewish, or even better, multireligious,  thought and action that are committed to justice, peace, the healing of our wounded planet, and birthing of the Beloved Community?