‘You can’t be an activist without working on inner issues, nor can you work on inner issues without acknowledging there are massive discontinuities in society that need to be addressed,” said David Kubrin from his home in the Mission District.
At 81, the former professor and industrial designer identifies more as an artist than an academic, though his ties to technology’s early days make him the ideal guide for a journey into “Marxism and Witchcraft,” the title of his recently published book on the vortex of political systems and spiritualism.
“What my book tries to show is Western society — through its philosophy, literature and use of language — was dedicated to colonialism and slavery from the conquest on,” he said. “We have unwisely set science apart from the rest of the West’s institutions and cultural expressions, as if it’s not part of the colonial project.”
Kubrin’s book offers an alternative or people’s science, “a history that is not wedded to white supremacy or misogyny,” he said, “wherein nature is not ours for the having and taking.” And women aren’t vilified or burned at the stake for sustaining life.
“Most people are familiar with the wars against the witches, the executions and burnings of thousands of women. Most assume it happened in the dark ages, but it overlapped with the emergence of science and rationalism,” he said.
“Women stepping forward to fight for a clean environment, because they recognized children were getting sick from unclean environments, were seen as blocking modernity,” he said. Persecution was essential to make way for a capitalist economy.
Kubrin subscribes to systems that can heal and revive and wed discovery with ancient wisdom and a dash of everyday magic — both divine and practical.
“Science comes with models, grand schemas of what nature’s about,” he said. “Those grand schemas become part of a vocabulary and belief system.” He pointed to the law of entropy as an example.
“The idea that everything is running down and that we’re going to end up in a universe that we can’t even see the stars is a belief system that’s very limiting, a kind of cosmic pessimism,” he said.
Originally from Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights and a working-class Jewish family, Kubrin studied at California Institute of Technology with world-renowned physicists, including Richard Feynman.
“I was offered a superb education and a wrongheaded view,” he said. A professor and mentor set him on course to pursue more political and philosophical directions: “’What do you think about when you shave?’ he asked, and I said, ‘not physics.’”
Kubrin went to Cornell where he forged new curriculums in the history of science which led to Dartmouth and a Guggenheim fellowship to continue his research on Sir Isaac Newton in England.
“I was surprised and disgusted to discover the idealistic academic world I hoped to become part of was filled with people who were simply careerists,” he said. Denied tenure for his activism with Students for a Democratic Society, he said, “My academic future was questionable,” but he was not alone.
By the mid 1970s, he identified a bifurcation among people of his generation, who following a decade or more of protest against the Vietnam War, had turned to inner growth and spiritual directions in the face of dashed dreams.
“Others doubled down on what they were doing politically in the streets,” he said. “It’s a false dichotomy, both are valid.”
As he and his wife landed in the Bay Area looking for a community to support their first child’s natural birth (they found one), without any prior knowledge or interest in witchcraft, Kubrin’s eyes were opened to its magic when he attended a local anti-nuclear protest on the occasion of the one year anniversary of the disaster at Three Mile Island.
“I found out many of the organizers on that march were Bay Area witches,” he said. “It was the best demonstration I’d ever been to in my life, before or since. A wordless march for the most part, advocated and argued by way of a procession filled with art, posters, banners, dancers and guerrilla theater,” he said. Among those who did speak were survivors of the atomic blasts in Japan and the South Pacific.
Meanwhile, his work as a draftsman and industrial designer took him deep into Silicon Valley where he increasingly found he didn’t like what he saw.
“Electronics production is literally genocidal,” he said referring to the reproductive harm certain chemicals are known to cause the people on production lines, “often those people are women of color. Compared to the workers, my exposure was minimal,” he said, though 23 years ago he survived prostate cancer and remains careful around toxins. He also steers away from smartphones, email and the internet, citing their “harmful effects on students, not least of which are the psychological and physical effects of computer use for short periods, let alone in this prolonged pandemic.”
“I’m not very comfortable online for a whole range of reasons,” he said, chiefly that “it’s dumbing down the culture.” He hopes people will seek out “Marxism and Witchcraft” from their independent booksellers, though ironically he’ll be making a Zoom appearance at 11 a.m. Sept. 27 at the New York Anarchist Book Fair.
“I had a grand plan to do a book tour to the four directions, first up the West Coast, to the East Coast, Midwest and South,” he said. “As it was, I did one reading at Alley Cat and COVID-19 slammed into us.” He’s already survived one close contact with the virus though he did not contract it.
“I’m more mindful and paranoid than I’ve ever been about COVID-19,” he said, hopeful for The City’s post-pandemic future.
“The physical beauty is still here even if it’s bathed in eerie orange light and it’s dead at night,” he said.
“San Francisco has been to a considerable degree built on the foundation of its artistic community, low rent and cultural vibrancy. I’m hoping we can get a lot of that back,” he said.
Among the coordinators of the Mission Arts Performance Project, Kubrin is looking at ways to create safe spaces for socially distant, wordless performance, possibly as soon as December, though if necessary he’ll wait.
“I’m optimistic we won’t lose the Mission due to the incredible resistance that’s worn down the captains of capital,” he said.
“In the Mission, everything is spiritual.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.