The recent nationwide rioting evokes memories of same that took place in the late 1960s. In those days, the economy was in great shape, so one could truthfully say it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; today the latter is the winner by a knockout.
In the late 60s, however, there was pushback against vandals, looters and arsonists. They were not lauded as liberators, even in left-leaning media. One man who personified that pushback actually became an unlikely media celebrity.
S.I. Hayakawa (not to be confused with actor Sessue Hayakawa, best known for playing the commandant of the prison camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai) was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1906. He received degrees in English from the University of Manitoba and McGill University in Canada, and the University of Wisconsin. In 1955 his academic career took him to San Francisco State College, which would be the institution where he achieved his greatest renown, even though he was a highly respected professor and author before he arrived at SFSC (not known as SFSU till 1974).
Hayakwawa was a disciple of Alfred Korzbyski, a Polish nobleman who emigrated to America and achieved fame as the founding father of what he called general semantics. Hayakawa’s book Language in Action, later revised as Language in Thought and Action, helped to bring semantics to the public’s attention in the 1940s. In fact, my unabridged dictionary, published in 1936, does not have a definition for semantics. Not so today as the American Heritage Dictionary offers up “the study or science of meaning in language forms, esp. with regard to its historical change.” In some areas it overlaps with semiotics, a more recent discipline, which focuses on signs and symbols.
In my high school English class we used Language in Thought and Action. When referring to the author outside the classroom, we usually truncated S.I. Hayakawa to SIHI. Little did we know that our very own SIHI would soon go viral, at least as viral as it was possible to go given the primitive media of the times.
What brought Hayakawa to the public’s attention was a student strike at SFSC pertaining to “non-negotiable demands” by the Third World Liberation Front because the curriculum was too Eurocentric and the student body lacked diversity. Sound familiar? Such demands were not widespread in 1968, as most colleges focused on the Vietnam War and traditional civil rights issues. Second wave feminism was on the back burner but not for long.
Whatever the grievance, the groves of academe bore bitter fruit in the late 60s. Demonstrators often took over administration buildings, sometimes camping out in the President’s office, which had great symbolic meaning. At Columbia University some even toted guns. Whether or not they actually knew how to use them was never put to the test. The 1960s also gave birth to SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams as a means of controlling riots.
To the best of my recollection no student (and I use the term loosely, as many “students” were not registered at the schools where they demonstrated) was given the bum’s rush or expelled. Other institutions – with the possible exception of churches – would have called in security guards, the police, or some other pest control firm to roust the interlopers.
The presidents, deans, chancellors, et al of America’s colleges didn’t chime in with the “pigs off campus” chanters, but the high priests of academia couldn’t stomach the thought of the high sheriffs and their myrmidons intruding on their precious community of scholars. So they engaged in what was then known as “meaningful dialogue” with the demonstrators. That’s academicspeak for they talk, we listen. If we respond, it will be with head-nodding, platitudes and encomiums, not criticism. When faced with campus uprisings, secular academic administrators quickly converted to Quakerism.
SFSC was literally an embattled campus when Hayakawa took over as acting president on November 26, 1968 (his predecessor, Dr. Robert Smith, lasted all of five months). Students and police had clashed repeatedly and classes had been cancelled since November 13. To convey just how thoroughly discouraging the situation was, we need only note that John Summerskill, the President before Smith, chose to continue his academic career in Ethiopia after leaving SFSC in June of 1968.
When Hayakawa officially re-opened the campus on December 2, he was faced with a mob of student strikers, whose sloganeering and speechifying was amplified with the help of a sound truck, even though Hayakawa had banned them from campus. Perhaps the strikers figured that the tiny (5’6”), soft-spoken Asian professor would be a pushover. Undaunted, Haykawa boarded the truck and ripped out the loudspeaker’s wires. Don’t know if semanticists have an official position on “action speaks louder than words,” but Hayakawa certainly embodied the phrase.
Thus Hayakawa enforced his own rule. Perhaps he was also passing semantic judgment on their oratory. Then again, maybe it was just his way of saying children should be seen but not heard. Whatever, his deed was captured by TV news cameras and broadcast to the astonishment of viewers nationwide.
It was a simple yet decisive gesture, unlike anything his peers were doing. A college president…as an action hero? Hell, S.I. Hayakawa could teach G.I. Joe a thing or two!
If a latter-day SIHI were to attempt such a deed at SFSU today, it would be a career kamikaze mission. He would be out of a job immediately, channeling Tony Bennett and crooning “I Left My Career in San Francisco.” He would be unemployable in academia, and maybe anywhere else, no matter what laurels had been bestowed on him during his career. He would be doxed and harassed till his life was hell on earth. The stigma of white privilege would not apply to an Asian male but toxic masculinity might be trotted out. In 1968, however, the State of California, though lurching leftward, had not gone off the rails. Manhood was still legal.
Hayakawa’s bold move was not just an effective way to silence the protestors, it was great public relations. The image of the ballsy little professor standing up to the mob caught the fancy of the public and Hayakawa became a household word in California. “In the age of television, image becomes more important than substance,” he once said. He was about to find out how true that was. Hayakawa was also attracting national attention. Throughout 1968 riots and demonstrations were as integral to TV newscasts as weather and sports. Most viewers didn’t like what they saw. Richard Nixon called such people the Silent Majority and they elected him over Hubert Humphrey a month before Hayakawa’s feat. When these same people saw Hayakawa on the tube, he was literally pulling the plug on the foul-mouthed, dope-smoking, unkempt hordes they detested. Countless middle-aged viewers, many of them veterans of World War II, sat up and took notice. Hayakawa’s boldness might have done more than anything else to dispel any lingering resentments they felt about Pearl Harbor.
After the incident Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was dubbed Samurai Sam. By rights, he should have been Sensei (Teacher) Sam. As a professor of semantics, he would surely have averred that the pen was mightier than the sword, samurai or whatever. After all, he had rushed in where Toshiro Mifune might have feared to tread.
Samurai Sam had backbone but he was not inflexible, as his subsequent appearances on television made clear. He made some concessions to student demands and the campus became relatively peaceful. On July 9, 1969, the California State Colleges Board of Trustees appointed him permanent President. It was their way of saying aregato for restoring order. So Hayakawa remained at SFSC (towards the end of his tenure, it was briefly known as California State University, San Francisco before it was SFSU) till 1973.
Then as now, California was widely known as the land of fruits and nuts, and not just because of local agriculture. Southern California certainly had its share of weirdness, but in those days there was also a countervailing culture of conservatism. Not so in the San Francisco Bay area.
In the years after World War II, San Francisco neighborhoods became famous for hipsters (North Beach), hippies (Haight-Ashbury), and homos (the Castro District). Many of the city’s denizens defied classification; some of the eccentrics were lovable, some not so much. The city had more human oddities than all the Ripley’s Museums combined. Sam Spade and his trench coat were long gone; Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum now roamed the mean streets.
In flyover country, San Francisco was considered an open-air insane asylum. Stand-up comedians affecting brain-damaged druggie speech or lisps and limp wrists (yeah, you could do that back then!) were getting laughs on late-night TV monologues. Nevertheless, the city remained popular with tourists thanks to the climate, the waterfront, the hills, the bridges, the cable cars, and the scenic views.
San Francisco was not the only hotbed of turmoil, however. On the east side of the bay, Oakland had a large and festering ghetto, a very active group of Black Panthers, and a highly visible Hell’s Angel’s chapter founded by the notorious Sonny Barger. (This was the chapter that Hunter Thompson rode with – and got beat up by – when compiling Hell’s Angels; the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, his first published book in 1966.)
Adjacent to Oakland was Berkeley, ground zero for university-related radical movements. As the flagship school of the University of California system, it was far more prominent (and elite) than SFSC. University President Clark Kerr was caught in the crossfire of the famed Free Speech Movement. The protesters thought he was too conservative, the California regents thought he was too liberal. Even the FBI tried to smear him. Unfortunately, he was Clark Kerr, not Clark Kent, so he could not transform himself into Superman before taking on his antagonists. As a result he was scapegoated and fired in 1967, just one year before Hayakawa took over at SFSC.
So this was the scene in the SF Bay area while Hayakawa presided over SFSC. To say he went against the grain would be greatly understating his position. He had lived in San Francisco since 1955 but by 1968 he must have felt like a stranger in a strange land.
When he retired from academia in 1973, he was 67 years old. Surprisingly, he was about to embark on another high-visibility profession. After five years, California voters had not forgotten his one-man stand against the social justice mafia.
In 1976, Senator John Tunney was up for re-election after one term. Tunney was the son of Gene Tunney, a former heavyweight champion boxer. Tunney the younger was something less than a political heavyweight – in fact, some pundits believed he was the basis for the Robert Redford character in The Candidate, a 1972 political comedy about an idealistic but clueless Democratic California Senate hopeful (Robert Redford).
Though Hayakawa had been a lifelong Democrat, at age 70 he was persuaded to enter the Republican primary in 1976. To the surprise of the GOP establishment, he defeated three career politicians. He was rightly perceived as a political outsider. Tunney underestimated him and squandered a large lead in the polls. By the time he realized he was in trouble, it was too late, and Hayakawa defeated him.
Unfortunately, while voters often say they prefer plain speaking over platitudes and political outsiders over insiders, they often have second thoughts. Over time, the plainspokenness wears thin and they return to the comfort food of warmed-over nostrums. Outsiders are at a disadvantage, as getting things done in Congress requires social skills and political savvy, not naiveté. That the elderly Hayakawa was given to dozing off in meetings did not endear him to his colleagues in the Senate.
While Hayakawa’s flirtation with politics might have been an ego boost, he should have known that he was out of his element. When presented with an issue, a politician is always pressed to take sides. Neutrality is not acceptable. At the very least, he must say something to the effect that he will have his staff look into it. Hayakawa was not up on all the issues and never pretended to be. Famously, regarding a ballot pertaining to greyhound racing, he said, “I don’t give a good goddamn about greyhounds one way or another. I can’t think of anything that interests me less.” In one fell swoop, he alienated anti-gambling moralists, the SPCA (no PETA in those days), and pari-mutuel lobbyists. Hayakawa was well read, but perhaps he had skipped Dale Carnegie.
When Hayawka was up on the issues, he often took surprising stances. In truth, though conservatives had championed him, he was no ideologue but assessed each issue individually. Even though he was of Japanese ancestry, he came out against reparations for Japanese-Americans (the Canadian-born Hayakawa did not become an American citizen till 1954) who had been interned during World War II. He also spoke out against bilingual schools and ballots (adios, Mexican vote) and even sponsored a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States. He angered many supporters by supporting returning control of the Panama Canal to Panama. During his 1976 campaign, he had joked the United States should not surrender the canal because “we stole it fair and square.”
Perhaps his most telling quote was “Being an educator all my life, I am accustomed to dealing with those who are unenlightened.” Not exactly populist sentiments. Joe Sixpack and his old lady may say they like straight talk…but not in regard to their own shortcomings.
The honeymoon between Hayakawa and the voters was short-lived and by 1982, it was obvious he would not be re-elected (in fact, re-nomination was unlikely) so he dropped out of the race. (The Republicans held onto the seat, however, as former San Diego mayor Pete Wilson defeated Jerry Brown).
If Hayakawa were around today (he said sayonara to this mortal coil in 1992) he would find that semantics is more relevant than ever on campus and in politics. The Vietnam War is over but most of the old issues are still out there in some form or fashion, and since social justice is such an open-ended term, the potential issues are limitless.
Thanks to the new electronic media, the war of words is unceasing and increasingly vicious, and the casualties are mounting. Despite all the communications devices we have, discourse has never been more degraded. A careful parsing of what people say and what they really mean is more necessary than ever. Contemporary semanticists possess the intellectual tools to undertake such analysis, but they are understandably reluctant to do so.
Hayakawa certainly understood what we call the echo chamber. In his heyday, he might have known it as the amen corner. “If you see in any given situation only what everyone else can see,” he noted, “you can be said to be so much a representative of your [sub]culture that you are a victim of it.”
Hayakawa also understood the “Thought-Terminating Cliché.” You may not have heard this term before but you have likely seen it employed. In semantic circles it is the practice of terminating a debate by resorting to a non-responsive cliché. For example, in a discussion about global warming, one may hear a proponent argue that “the science is settled.” The intent is not to defend a position or stimulate debate but to invoke cloture – kind of like the old advertising phrase “Nine out of Ten Doctors agree.”
Catchy slogans, of course, are a must in both politics and advertising. You don’t argue with a slogan, you just repeat it, or hum it, if it’s been set to music. You can’t totally shut it down, and once it’s embedded in your brain you might believe there’s something to it. “Everybody knows…”
We have nothing to lose but our chains
Melts in your mouth, not in your hands
Black lives matter
Winston tastes good like a cigarette should
Silence is violence
Breakfast of champions
Check your privilege
A diamond is forever
No justice, no peace
Just do it
A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle
Where’s the beef?
Semantics also deals with the meanings and connotations of words and how they evolve over time. Language, like society, doesn’t evolve fast enough for some people, so rather than wait for word meanings to change over time, it is necessary to formally redefine them.
Of course, we’ve seen numerous debates about the definition of feminism. “It’s all about equality” is the usual thought-terminating cliché. In truth, that’s more or less what it says in my dictionary published in 1985. The current definition might be well beyond that and tomorrow’s definition may be really off the wall. Concepts like “patriarchy,” “equity” and “systemic oppression” might be called into service to expand the definition.
Of course, you can see where this is going. If you want to control the debate, first control the definitions of words. Get the media to buy into your new definitions, and the battle is almost over before it starts. Semantics 101.
Perhaps Hayakawa would have been more valuable as a political commentator than a politician. Surely some semantic insights into the candidates, the parties, the speeches, and the political commercials would be a blessing today. A latter-day Hayakawa could easily sniff out all the verbal manipulation, but who would grant him a platform? How long would he last on CNN? On YouTube? On Facebook?
In a 1958 interview published in the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.”
The same is true for semanticists. Now when we need them more than ever, they are nowhere to be found.
If only we could resurrect Samurai Sam – make that a legion of Samurai Sams – to pull all the plugs that need pulling.