Long Distance Running: An Interview of Prof. Douglas Allen

by Andy Piascik

Editorial Note:

Andy Piascik came to the University of Maine in 1976, majoring in sociology. He says he remembered that when Professor Doug Allen spoke at his freshman orientation, he was “so impressed by his presentation that I changed my schedule and signed up for one of his classes.” Andy began working with the Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC) where he worked closely with Doug organizing events and publishing the MPAC newsletter. Their friendship and collaboration have continued throughout the years, with the pair sharing their works, values, and perspectives. Andy has written a novel entitled ‘In Motion’as well as hundreds of articles over the past forty-plus years.

Some of his works can be found here. This interview was originally published in Counter Punchand Z Magazinein July 2015 and has been updated for 2018.

Piascik: Anyone who has done organizing on a college campus knows the difficulty of sustaining such work. Faculty come and go, students enroll and graduate, and even the most vibrant campaigns come to an abrupt end. In the best of circumstances, organizations, particularly activist ones, seldom last more than a few years.

When Doug Allen arrived at the University of Maine in 1974, he helped found the Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC) even though he had just recently been fired for his activist work by Southern Illinois University. Remarkably, 44 years later, MPAC is still going strong, continuing, among other things, to publish its newsletter, sponsor events, tackle campus issues, and participate in broader campaigns.

Over those 44 years, Allen, Professor of Philosophy, has been the one MPAC constant. His work well illustrates how someone can devote their life — long distance running — to building a better world. He’s also a long-distance runner, literally, who at 77 still runs five days a week.
Piascik: When did you first become an activist?

Allen: It was during the three years from 1964 to 1967 I spent getting my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. Nashville was still shaped by the inspirational courage of the earlier Freedom Riders and though I had witnessed a great deal of poverty, exploitation, oppression, and injustice during the previous year I had spent in India, I was unprepared for the reality of legalized segregation. I participated in marches, demonstrations, and other actions as part of the Civil Rights Movement and I also started an anti-racist political and literary magazine, which we named Prometheus, and for which half of the editors and participants were young African Americans.

Piascik: What impact did a year in India have on you?

Allen: I went to India one week after graduating from Yale, where I had focused on existentialism, nihilism, and the absurd in human existence. India was mainly a radical alternative to the materialism, consumerism, egotism, alienation, and meaninglessness of the dominant U.S values of the 1950s and early 1960s. The intense experiences in India were very formative in focusing on openness to experiences of “the other” and becoming aware of our dominant ego-driven desires and attachments that often imprison us personally and weaken our political, economic, and cultural movements. Interestingly, I had to rethink some of my basic India experiences. Once in Nashville, amidst so much legalized racism, violence, and injustice, I began to realize that my focus on selflessness was, ironically, a kind of selfless selfishness, with too much focus on one’s separate development. Over the years, I’ve embraced the importance of non-egoistic selfless service, while realizing that the self is part of a dynamic relational process in which one must focus on the well-being of others as integral to one’s own development and meaningful existence.

Piascik: How did you get involved in the anti-war movement?

Allen: I was against the Vietnam/Indochina War while I was in India and at Vanderbilt, but the key development occurred during my first full-time faculty position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1967 to 1972. The Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs at SIU, funded through a US Agency for International Development grant in 1969, was in many ways a continuation of the infamous Michigan State University CIA project, exposed by Ramparts magazine and others.

     If SIU had been Columbia or Harvard, the Vietnam Center would have received more national exposure. That is one reason isolated Carbondale was chosen. Hidden from view, SIU had received two big US contracts to do work in Vietnam during the 1960s intended to restructure Saigon’s educational and security programs. The ambitious Vietnam Center funding in 1969 was part of Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, with the same imperialist objectives, but just changing the color of the corpses so fewer US soldiers died. The purpose of the funding for the Vietnam Center was to assist the war effort and especially, assuming that the US would win the war, for postwar reconstruction. Wesley Fishel and other key individuals from the Michigan State project joined the SIU program. As outlined in the AID grant and other documents, SIU would perform services for Washington, the military, and others involved in US imperialist policies and would then be rewarded with massive postwar funds to restructure Vietnam’s educational, legal, economic, agricultural, technological, police and security systems.

Piascik: What was the response of the SIU peace community

Allen: It became one of the most intense and one of the most successful anti-war struggles at any university in the United States. This “Off AID,” anti-war, anti-Vietnam Center movement functioned on a range of levels: doing research, uncovering documents and working with insider whistleblowers, and then publicizing the findings through talks, teach-ins, articles, and books; working with the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars to organize a very effective international scholarly boycott of the Vietnam Center; organizing a dramatic “Vietnamese invasion of Carbondale” with courageous antiwar Vietnamese, including current UMaine Prof. Ngo Vinh Long, coming from throughout the US; organizing major conferences at which Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, and other antiwar scholars and activists came in solidarity; and organizing ongoing protest activism through rallies, marches, sit-ins, and other actions.

     There was a price to pay. In May 1970, about 400 of the anti-war protesters were arrested, and another 100 were arrested one night in May 1972. In May 1970, we lived under an armed occupation, with about 1,000 National Guard and several hundred state police as occupiers, with huge military vehicles and people with guns surrounding classrooms and other campus facilities. And yet militant antiwar and anti-Vietnam Center protests continued every day until the authorities lost control, and SIU was permanently shut down one month before the end of the semester. With guns fired, beatings, and mass chaos, we could have easily had an incident like at Kent State or Jackson State.

Piascik: You also paid a personal price.

Allen: I was alerted by the Assistant to the President at SIU that my classes were being infiltrated with fake students who were informers and that I should tape-record every class. Subsequently I was fired twice on blatantly political grounds, and I was then blacklisted. I was very fortunate that I always received widespread support and solidarity from the overwhelming majority of students and faculty, all of the professional associations, the American Association of University Professors, which investigated and placed SIU on its National Censure List with major consequences, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a successful suit in Federal Court on my behalf.

     When I communicate with former students, faculty, and antiwar comrades from those years, they often assume that this was a terrible time for me and others, since there was so much local repression and suffering. (Of course, some of us were fully aware every day that the real suffering and death was being inflicted on the Vietnamese.) I often give the opposite response: I look back fondly to a time when every day seemed so intense with so much at stake, in which you had a deep sense of community and solidarity, and in which you could act on your antiwar, peace, and justice values and make a difference. And, most importantly in terms of the anti-war anti-Vietnam Center struggle, the Center, for all of its money and power relations, was totally unsuccessful and never achieved any of its objectives.

Piascik: What campus activism existed at the University of Maine when you arrived there in 1974?

Allen: It was a transitional period from the activism of the 1960s. On the one hand, I was surprised that there was not an anti-war or peace group. There had been antiwar activism, and Stephen King was part of the student group, but all of that had ended. I recall that we had many meetings in the fall of 1974 to see if we could form a group, which became the Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC), which recently celebrated its 44th anniversary. We finally decided that one issue on which we could unite was the need to end the Vietnam/Indochina War. On the other hand, there was a remarkable feminist group on campus, with women who had come out of the 60s and with all of the strengths and internal contradictions and struggles of Second Wave 1970s feminism. In addition, starting in the mid-1970s, we had an amazing group of international students, led by graduate student activists from India, who had already been engaged in activist struggles focusing on impoverished and exploited peasants in rural India. These Indians included several of the most talented and influential graduates of UMaine ever, and I have maintained a meaningful relationship with some over the decades.

Piascik: What are some of MPAC’s noteworthy accomplishments?

Allen: In general terms, MPAC’s most noteworthy accomplishment has been to sustain a major educational and activist presence at the University of Maine for 44 years. For example, we published volume 43, no. 2 of the Maine Peace Action Committee Newsletter in April 2018. To keep an activist publication of good quality going for 43 years is an accomplishment.

     In terms of specific issues and struggles, MPAC’s most noteworthy accomplishment was in the anti-apartheid movement. Year after year, MPAC’s South Africa subcommittee did research, raised consciousness, arranged films, speakers and plays, and engaged in demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. As a result, the University of Maine (including the UMaine System) became one of the first ten universities in the U.S. to divest all of its holdings in apartheid South Africa, amounting to one-third of the university system’s principal portfolio. Other noteworthy accomplishments included anti-nuclear struggles, exposing the CIA presence on campus and bringing about changes in recruiting policies, Central America solidarity, years of effective organizing around the Iraq war and various other conflicts, including exposing UMaine’s secret plans to become an integral part of the post-2003 U.S. and corporate restructuring of Iraq, leadership on the student debt struggles, and solidarity with others working on racism, sexism, homophobia, Native American issues, and environmental destruction. Often MPAC was able to bring a larger, structural, systemic perspective, raising issues of militarism and imperialism, to student debt, environmental, and other more specific, single-issue concerns.

Piascik:It is remarkable that the group has lasted 44 years. To what do you attribute it?

Allen: Typically, campus organizations become active and then, when the student leaders graduate, become inactive and usually go out of existence. With MPAC, there was an effective process of mentoring that allowed for transition, continuity, and the continual emergence of new leadership. Typically, an undergraduate student will join the group with little analysis and a lack of self-confidence, especially since the issues of militarism and imperialism seem so daunting. Gradually, by observing and participating with more experienced members, attending films and discussions and demonstrations, students gain confidence and acquire skills, thus becoming more active members.

     I’ve been one of those mentors, always an active contributor challenging the student members to take seriously and to resist injustice and inequality, exploitation and oppression, violence and militarism; challenging them to work for a university, community, and world of much greater freedom, peace, and justice. I’m much more comfortable when dedicated students and other members take the initiative so I can support and work with them.

     This has not always been easy. On several occasions, there were so few, dedicated, student members that it seemed MPAC would become inactive and perhaps cease to exist. But we’ve always managed to turn things around.

Piascik:What is MPAC working on currently (i.e., in 2015 for this interview)?

Allen: We’ve organized a semester of programs for the MPAC Peace and Justice Film Series in which we show films that are followed by facilitated discussion; we completed the Spring 2015 issue of theMPAC Newsletter; and we organize activities and cosponsor events, including for Black History Month, Women’s History Celebration, and the next HOPE Festival (Help Organize Peace Earthwide).

Piascik: Can you talk about engaging in civil disobedience and serving a one-day prison sentence in 2006?

Allen: On September 21, 2006, International Day of Peace, eleven of us were arrested at former Senator Olympia Snowe’s office to dramatize how Snowe and Senator Susan Collins supported the US war in Iraq. As part of a carefully prepared and very effective campaign in the Gandhi-King tradition, our affinity group refused to leave Snowe’s office, were arrested, and later imprisoned for a little over 24 hours.

     One should not overemphasize civil disobedience, one of many forms of resistance to injustice, in which one disobeys the law. I believe in forceful, disciplined, nonviolent resistance, most of which involves noncooperation, withholding one’s labor and resisting complicity, raising consciousness and organizing, boycotts, and demonstrations. However, sometimes when there are no viable alternatives, it’s necessary to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to resist blatant injustice.

     The 24 hours in prison was a little tense but mainly rewarding. The other prisoners found the fact that we had voluntarily gone to jail hilarious and many wanted to share their personal stories. This was usually tragic. So many of them were bright and sensitive human beings, who had been trapped in poverty and other circumstances, many of whom, when asked why they were in jail, just said that they made a stupid mistake. This, for example, often involved dealing drugs to informers or undercover agents. So many dramatic conversations showed a real understanding of injustice, exploitation, oppression, etc., and a tragic sense of daunting obstacles and potentials lost. I could give many illustrations, in which the connections were very moving and meaningful for me and for affirming my commitments.

Piascik:You’re also involved in the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine, a community-based group in nearby Bangor. What kind of work do you do with them?

Allen: I served as the Education Coordinator since its founding in the late 1980s. We have members throughout Eastern Maine and our purpose is to network with and unite individuals and groups working on a wide range of peace and justice issues, and to raise consciousness and bring people together acting for mutual support and greater empowerment. This has led to a deep sense of community in which members can express values and act on what they truly believe in meaningful ways.

     An effective illustration of this is our annual HOPE Festival, held every April around Earth Day, usually attended by 1,000 people, with 70 organizations participating, with local organic food, great music, educational presentations, and a full day of children’s programs, in which there is so much positive energy and gratitude for the good work so many are doing. I had responsibility for our monthly Peace and Justice Center Film Series, which always has lively discussions, for writing articles and doing educational research on peace and justice issues, for organizing our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration event and many other educational programs, and for providing some leadership in our activist work of mobilization, petitions, vigils, and demonstrations. This often involves reaching out to show solidarity with others working on single-issue or more narrowly defined struggles and to try to make the connections, introducing a larger peace and justice framework and showing how we are all in this together with the need for greater unity with a respect for diversity.

Piascik: Last question: You recently turned 77— how much are you running these days?

Allen: I run anywhere from three to seven miles about five days a week and in five to ten races a year.

Allen’s Updated Conclusion for 2018: Much has changed in my life since the interview in 2015, although the earlier responses remain accurate and the basic analysis and lessons for Maine, the United States, India, and the world today seem truer than ever.

In terms of Andy Piascik’s theme of “long distance running,” the radical change involved my severe cancer. I had a wonderful sabbatical in India in 2015-2016, was honored as Distinguished Visiting Professor based at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and as the first Distinguished Visiting Scholar of Gandhian Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and delivered twenty conference keynotes and other major lectures throughout India. Upon my return to Maine, I was shocked by the diagnosis that I had a very aggressive, mutating, “triple hit,” lymphoma cancer. I underwent six months of very severe chemo treatments with long hospitalizations and then several months of daily radiation. In November 2016, I was declared cancer free, and my medical tests have continued to have excellent results, although the severe chemo, while it seems to have killed all of the cancer cells, also kills healthy cells so one must be patient with the gradual recovery.

There is much for which I’m grateful. When I first resumed teaching, I did not have enough strength to press the chalk on the board. Today, because I have so much energy and am so productive, I doubt if any of my students know that I had gone through the ordeal of such severe cancer. At the urging of my wife Ilze and friends, I finally decided to take 3-year phased retirement at 50% workload. This means that I’ll be fully retired in the summer of 2020. In my expectations, this will not be unlike a full-time sabbatical with more time for research, writing, travel, peace and justice service, and personal and family activities.