It took Kazin, then in his early 20s, a week to thumb it from New York to Portland, where he wrote for the now-defunct radical newspapers Willamette Bridge and Portland Scribe.
More than 40 years later, Kazin, 64, is editor of venerable leftist magazine Dissent and a professor of history at Georgetown University. He’s written numerous books, including 2011’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.
On March 21, Kazin will join Steven T. Wax, federal public defender for Oregon (who most recently defended Mohamed Osman Mohamud in his Portland terrorism trial), for “Dissent & Defend,” the first of Oregon Humanities’ Think & Drink lecture series, “How to Love America.”
We talked to Kazin—who recalls Portland in all its hippie glory—about why progressives who are disappointed with President Obama are naive, why online protest is too easy and what potent potables go best with civil disobedience.
WW: Do you agree with those on the left who say President Obama is too centrist?
Kazin: Obama is constrained. The Republican Party has united against him, so there’s not much we can get done. I think in his heart of hearts, he is more liberal than he sometimes sounds. We’re coming out of roughly 30 years of conservative dominance, ideologically, in the country—it’s hard to roll all that back all at once.
It sounds like you’re one of the people on the far left who is still ready to support Obama.
Obama is more sympathetic to left ideas than any president since Lyndon Johnson—at least on domestic issues. There’s a certain frustration from people who voted for Obama in 2008 who thought he was somehow going to radically transform American society. That was naive.
How can the left successfully spread its message when red and blue are starting to be so geographically separate?
Most people are not hard rightists. We have to find a way to speak to them because they are also Americans, and many of them are hurting in this economy, and they’re not sure which way this country should go. We are going to have to understand them. For me, as a historian and as a political activist, empathy is the key element.
You’ve written liberals need to take patriotism back from “put-a-boot-in-your-ass” conservatives. How do can they do that?
There’s a way for the left to look to American history and reclaim our ideals: Freedom, social responsibility, equality of all people, that the government should help you pursue happiness. They’re wonderful ideals. Some patriotism is jingoistic and aggressive and can lead to very bad outcomes and wars, but there’s another side to it. People can feel connected to one another.
What’s your memory of Portland’s activism and underground papers in the 1970s?
I was working for a radical version of the Associated Press in New York called Liberation News Service, and I wanted to work at a local paper. [Willamette Bridge] was exciting. It had connections with the student left, the feminist movement, the emerging gay and environmental movements, but also labor. We had a lot of environmental coverage. It was ahead of its time.
We were very informal. We wouldn’t put our last names on articles. That was too professional or something. People used pseudonyms, names like “Muffin.”
Did you have a pseudonym?
I was just Mike.
In the Internet era, is protest—in the sense of pounding the pavement and chanting slogans—dead?
No, it’s quite lively on the right and left. Whenever there’s an unpopular policy, people are out in the streets again. People today sign online petitions and spend a lot of time commenting on articles and think that’s a form of protest.
Is one really better than the other?
I’m sure it’s my age, but I sometimes think that online protests are too easy. If you’re signing online petitions on change.org and that’s all you do, that’s not much of a commitment, and you are not going to learn much.
You’re taking part in the Think & Drink lecture. What alcohol would you say pairs best with dissent?
It doesn’t matter what you are drinking, you’ve just gotta be drinking together—and talking and gesticulating while you’re doing it.
SEE IT: “Dissent & Defend” is at Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St., on Thursday, March 21. 6:30 pm. Free. Minors admitted with guardian.