By Michael Hirsch
I got the news the modern way that DSA comrade Doug Ireland passed: from the flurry of anguished emails late at night on October 26. Another good one gone, and WAY too soon.
I was 18 when I first met Doug in 1963. He was younger than me and already a moving force in the early Students for a Democratic Society. With Steve Max and Jim Williams, he formed the Political Education Project, an SDS work group that saw political action as doable by the New Left and a necessary adjunct to its ongoing campus, community and civil rights organizing Reading a poorly formulated criticism of electoral politics — a piece whose author or provenance I can’t remember but do recall liking and saying so, he shook his head in that wry way you know someone is in for a psychic bruising. “I’ve heard of vulgar Marxism, but this piece is just vulgar,” he said. Looking back, I suspect he was right.
Moving on that commitment to electoral activity, he would soon serve as campaign manager for Bella Abzug in her first — and immediately successful — run for Congress from New York’s upper-west side in 1968. Her victory was iconic, given that she was a virulent critic of the Vietnam War, then insanely escalating under a Democratic president, and her victory validated our critique of the U.S. misadventure.
In a tussle with the candidate over discrete campaign tactics, he told Abzug — as reported at the time in the Village Voice — that she’d better shape up or get dismissed by voters “as just another pretty face.” That was something she decidedly was not, and Bella howled with delight. She also heard him. It was pure Doug. He knew humor was a political instrumentality, too.
In later years, Doug worked as a journalist and was a spirited and endlessly clever writer for the Village Voice. Sojourning in Paris, he introduced American readers to the delectable French putdown of self-important intellectuals, usually but not exclusively leaders of microsects. He called them “les grandes têtes pensées” (the big thinking heads), but he was no less dismissive of the right-sloping and frequently anti-intellectual if not pinheaded leaderships of the French Socialist and Communist parties, too.
Back in the USA, he was active as a writer for New York’s Gay City News, identifying himself less as “gay” than as a “queer activist” and being, as Tom Harrison calls him in his sparkling obit on the New Politics blog, “a relentless scourge of the LGBT establishment.”
Radical, funny and endlessly wise, he is already missed.
Michael Hirsch is a New York City-based labor and political writer and an editor of Democratic Left.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.