Douglas Dowd, 1919-2017

The death of Doug Dowd at 97 marks a milestone loss in the formidable group of scholar-activists who found themselves in Ithaca, New York, ostensibly far from centers of political power, as the 1960’s anti-war and civil rights movements shook the nation to its core. Including Dan Berrigan of Cornell United Religious Work, James Turner of the pioneering Africana Studies center, and George Kahin of the stellar Southeast Asia Program, among many other faculty who lent their authority and expertise to the tumultuous scene via teach-ins or direct action, they served as role models for a generation of young students who had been raised to pursue little else besides their own golden careers. Dowd possessed memorable patience for the political tenderfoots who intuited that something was very wrong in Washington and across the Deep South, but arrived at college laden with high school propaganda and no sophistication in history or economics to piece together a coherent picture of the Gargantua Behemoth that was Cold War America. To become “radicalized” in those days was to grow both angry and informed. For many kids from the hidebound suburban intellectual wastelands, like me, listening to Dowd’s economics lectures (co-taught with Alfred Kahn, who went on to de-regulate the airlines for Jimmy Carter–quite an improbable duo) and then hearing him describe his experiences in Fayette County created a life-changing meld of thought and action. It sounds so obvious, in retrospect. But it was not an easy existential leap at the time. Nor is it for today’s youth. (What social psychologists nowadays call “identity-protective cognition” still keeps a lot of privileged students from challenging the status quo.) Without Dowd and the others, it would have been far harder, maybe even impossible.

“Pleasurable–and often valid–though it may be to blame Reagan for our ills, it must be said that the emergence of new tendencies strengthening the political Right is not to be explained principally in terms of the presidential personalities involved. Rather, such personalities and such politics became acceptable, even enthusiastically so, to a population that time and circumstance had been tutoring in greed and fear, and that thus learned to be ever more careless and mindless of its own social needs, and heartless concerning the needs of others.”–Blues for America, 1997








Dowd speaking in Willard Straight Hall, 1964

(Cornell Daily Sun)

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