If you’re of a certain age, you most likely think of David Harris as an anti-war activist in the early ’70s and the one-time husband of singer Joan Baez. You may or may not know that after serving 20 months in federal prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam he also went on to a long and distinguished career as a journalist, writing for Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and other publications.
Now 73 years old and retired in Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco, Harris has just come out with a collection of his best work spanning five decades. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies, and Other Confessions” is a marvelous collection of 18 essays and, dare I say, essential reading.
The book arrived under the Christmas tree, a gift from my wife, and I wasted no time diving into it. It could not have come at a better time considering the events of recent days, capped by yesterday’s shameless display of demagoguery in the nation’s capital.
The book’s cover photo depicts Harris peering into the camera, unsmiling, with a faded American flag draped around his shoulders. The message? The author has seen a lot and lived through a lot in his lifetime, but he remains dedicated to this country and its democratic ideals. Put another way, the weathered red, white and blue cloth is a potent symbol of Harris’ enduring patriotism marked by civil diosobedience.
Contrast that to Wednesday’s political theater in Washington. A horrified nation looked on in real time as ill-informed supporters of a delusional president, still seething over his election loss, stormed the U.S. Capitol with the aim of preventing Congress from certifying, once and for all, that Joe Biden will become our 46th president on January 20th.
They failed, of course. But for hours we were subjected to the spectacle of the lame duck’s most loyal followers waving their “Trump 2020” and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Most disgustingly, the Confederate flag even flew inside the Capitol.
Read more about that in this essay by Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson.
Love him or loathe him for his stand on Vietnam, David Harris stood up against what he believed to be an immoral war and fully accepted the consequences. In his opening piece, ” I Picked Prison,” published in 2017, he recounts the decision he made at age 20 to become one of the more than 250,000 men who violated the draft law that required them to register for military service and face possible deployment to Vietnam.
“About 25,000 of us were indicted for our disobedience, with almost 9,000 convicted and 3,250 jailed,” Harris wrote. “I am proud to have been one of the men who, from behind bars, helped pull our country out of its moral quagmire.”
For his actions, I would call him a patriot but the word, like Old Glory itself, has been hijacked by the right and become widely understood as a synonym for white nationalist, blind loyalist and xenophobe. That’s a shame because Citizen Harris loved his country, but hated the misguided war it waged in Southeast Asia.
He felt strongly enough about his convictions that he dropped out of college one semester shy of graduation and wound up doing nearly two years in a maximm security prison. Six years later, divorced from his first wife, nearly broke and with no journalism training or experience, he embarked on a writing career. All these years later, he’s produced a body of work to be proud of.
The new book samples the arc of his work, drawing from 11 books and four dozen articles. The first three articles are devoted to the Vietnam War, the most searing among them “Ask a Marine,” a profile of Ron Kovic, the former Marine sergeant whose anti-war memoir was turned into the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”
From there the collection expands to include a variety of topics touching on social, political and economic topics, ranging as far afield as South America and the Middle East. As a whole, they reflect deep reporting and top-notch writing. Individually, the articles and essays are engaging, especially so because they are presented from a West Coast point of view.
So many books, especially novels, are set in New York or Washington that it can get tiresome. As a native Californian and fellow Baby Boomer, I appreciated Harris’ perspective and progressive politics. He is a 4th-generation Californian, born in Fresno, and went on to Stanford University, where he was student body president in the Class of 1967.
I’ve always thought of Harris first and foremocst as the famed draft resister, so it was a pleasure to delve into his journalism over the years. I gained a host of new facts and new insights from his work, enhanced by my own interests and experiences.
- “The Bloody End” is about a Stanford classmate who becomes a protege of the former New York congressman, Allard Lowenstein, and drops out of college to become a civil rights activist in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. The young man becomes mentally ill and winds up murdering his former mentor. Little did I know that the killer had grown up here in Oregon and graduated from Clackamas High School.
- “Behind America’s Marijuana High” is the harrowing story of a Colorado drug dealer who smuggles a huge amount of dope out of the mountains overlooking Oaxaca (wah-HA-cah) in southern Mexico. Oaxaca is a poor state that’s home to the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples and a favorite destination of American and other international tourists. The state capital, also named Oaxaca, is a lovely city of about 300,000 with a zocalo (town square) that serves as a gathering place for all ages. In this piece, Harris tags along with the gringo drug dealer and his gun-toting Mexican accomplices as they venture into the mountains in the darkness of night, depending on personal connections, trust, luck and fortunate timing to evade the authorities in highly dangerous circumstances. My gauzy view of Oaxaca was given a jolt, mainly because I could envision all these events occurring in and around places I’d been to as a tourist and a reporter myself: Mitla, Monte Alban, Teotitlan and the zocalo in Oaxaca.
- “The Battle of Coachella Valley” recounts the battle between the United Farm Workers of America and the Teamsters to represent the mostly immigrant workforce laboring in the farms and fields of southern California to put fruits and vegetables on American tables. Both of my parents came from large Mexican American families (nine siblings in each) that worked the crops in the decades that preceded the UFW and its leader, Cesar Chavez. I was in college when the UFW sought to build on the union’s first table grape contract, only to run into the ugly tactics of the rival Teamsters, aligned with the growers. This piece spoke to my heart.
“The UFW spent five years on strike and boycotting to win their original contracts with the table grape industry,” Harris reported. “Before the union’s victory, base wage in grapes was $1.20 an hour, with a ten- to twenty-cent kickback to the labor contractor. The 1970 union agreement started at $2,05 and created the first hiring hall in grape-growing history. It also forced the growers to accept pesticide regulations much stiffer than the State of California’s, plus an employer-financed health plan, banning workers under sixteen, and no firing without just cause. The contract lasted three years.”
There’s much, much more, including an investigation of blood banks run by sleazy for-profit companies on L.A.’s Skid Row; a profile of Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate; a moving essay about California’s majestic redwoods; and an examination of Greater Sao Paulo, the Brazilian megacity of 18 million people (now 22 million) held up as a warning of where we are headed as a planet as more and more people, driven by economic desperation, move into already-crowded cities wracked by pollution, sewage, traffic and corruption.
There’s also a sympathetic look at the plight of the Kurds, some 25 million people living among four nations — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria — as a perscuted minority without a homeland of their own. This piece, along with the one about Sao Paulo, speak to my increased interest in international affairs, owing to a college course I recently audited.
Lastly, not but least, there’s a compelling story set in 1977 about a 2-year-old girl, the daughter of two hippies living amongst a collection of squatters in the hills above Palo Alto in the San Francisco Peninsula. The girl, named Sierra, is clinging to life after a drowning accident and Harris does a masterful job of chronicling her struggle to stay alive at the same time her parents and other neighbors face eviction from their idyllic community just off Page Mill Road in San Mateo County. It’s a life-and-death story about the child, as well as the community she was born into.
A final note: I’m glad this book fell into my lap when it did. Harris’ daughter, Sophie, is a family friend and Emmy-nominated documentary film producer based in Portland. She touted her dad’s newest book as the holidays approached, and both Lori and I took notice.