Doug Ireland, R.I.P.

At the SDS National Convention, June 1965, Elk Rapids, Michigan: Doug Ireland is at the center, in dark glasses, vest, and tie. ©Bill XCiX Philiips (from Facebook)

At the SDS National Convention, June 1965, Elk Rapids, Michigan: Doug Ireland is at the center, in dark glasses, vest, and tie. © Bill Xcix Philiips (from Facebook)

Doug Ireland was found dead today in his New York apartment, at 67. A short obituary can be found at Gay City News, with more certainly to come.

It is no secret that I thought little of Doug’s recent international reporting, and no secret that, after a period of friendship, he turned on me nastily seven years ago as a result. I would prefer to remember him, though, by his remarkable history as an activist. He joined Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in 1962, when he was 15 and a Boston-area high-school student — in all probability, its youngest member. He got arrested for the first time, I think, a year later when he was 16, helping to lead an protest against a speech by Madame Nhu (sister-in-law to South Vietnam’s dictator) at the Washington Press Club. (An SDS policy piece that Doug co-authored with Steve Max, predicting an emerging New Left coalition, can be found here. He was 18 when he wrote it.) From the intellectual-revolutionary environs of the SDS, he turned to electoral politics, as the assembled energies of the rebellious young fought their way toward power. He was at the center of some of the epic political combats that defined the 1960s and 1970s — from Allard Lowenstein‘s runs for Congress to Bella Abzug‘s campaign for the US Senate in 1976, a kind of last gasp of the New Left, which Doug managed and which she lost by the narrowest of margins.

Sometimes success is measured in different ways than we could imagine at the outset. The SDS didn’t overthrow the Establishment or end the Vietnam War, much less curtail US imperial power; but it did transform the political horizons of a whole generation of American youth, indeed the whole concept of a “generation” in American life. Its echoes were heard in the voices of ’68ers from Rio to Prague, and they resonated under the chants of 1989 and of the Arab Spring. Bella Abzug never became a US Senator, but feminism in the US today would be unthinkable without her. So would the lives of thousands of women inside politics and out.

I feel much the same way about Doug, who was integral to those battles. He helped transform American life in the struggles in which he probably felt he failed. I wish, in his last years, he hadn’t wasted time on ignorant stuff about Iran or Russia, and had spent the days writing his own story. I knew him somewhat well (at least in many long phone conversations) for a while in 2001-2004 when he was going through hard times, losing his berth at The Nation and looking desperately for a new one; I felt he praised himself jealously and defensively for the wrong things, looked for heroes in all the wrong places, and ignored the true heroism in his own history. He loved telling stories but never seemed to believe they added up to the narrative of a life well lived. Sometimes the victories worth remembering are as much in oneself as in the outer world.

We’ll never have the autobiography, which would have been far more valuable than the things he wrote for Gay City News. But the biography is now lived and completed, set in stone. I hope somebody will write it down.

Like many street-fighting activists, Doug was essentially an autodidact. He loved quoting foreign languages, sometimes accurately. I don’t know whether he liked these lines — too religious, too resigned, maybe; but he might have enjoyed being compared to Brunetto Latini, that old friend whom Dante meets, to his initial pity, among the sodomites in Hell. (If Doug is there now, he is already trying to form an action committee.)

Poi si rivolse e parve di coloro
che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
per la campagna; e parve di costoro
quelli che vince, non colui che perde.

And he turned away; to me he seemed like one
who races for the green cloth on the field
beyond Verona. And he seemed more
like the winner, than like the ones who lose.