Review: History of SDS takes in sex, drugs and radical activism
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Students for a Democratic Society
A Graphic History
Written (mostly) by Harvey Pekar; art (mostly) by Gary Dumm; edited
by Paul Buhle
HILL & WANG; 214 PAGES; $22
Although its name is seldom evoked today, except in crossword puzzles
(" 'student activists' in three letters"), Students for a Democratic
Society, or SDS, was considered one of the most radical left-wing
organizations of the late '60s and early '70s. Teens who wanted to be
taken for members of the counterculture dropped the name; mainstream
opponents of the Vietnam War worried that its violent tactics would
alienate voters; the mainstream media used those actions to attract
audiences; conservatives saw the organization as the vanguard of a
Although Harvey Pekar calls SDS "the largest and most powerful New
Left organization in the 1960s," this ambitious "graphic history"
suggests that the group's reputation exceeded its reality. SDS
remained too small, too disorganized and too prone to internal
squabbles to become either the savior or the menace it was sometimes
perceived to be.
Pekar traces the group's origins to the League for Industrial
Democracy, which Upton Sinclair, Jack London and others founded in
1905. SDS was organized in 1960 by Al Haber, who became its first
president. The son of a labor arbitrator, Haber established the
liberal but anti-communist philosophy of SDS - and its Midwestern
roots. As the authors note, much of this story was played out in the
American heartland rather than the political and cultural centers of
New York, Washington and California.
The initial philosophy of SDS was embodied in the Port Huron
Statement of 1962. Principally written by University of Michigan
student Tom Hayden, the document called for "a democracy of
individual participation governed by two central aims: that the
individual share in those social decisions determining the quality
and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage
independence in men and provide the media for their common
participation. ..." Hayden and folk singer-activist Phil Ochs emerge
as the two genuinely admirable figures in the SDS story. Pekar, Gary
Dumm and Paul Buhle present many of the other leaders and foes of SDS
as weak and/or corrupt.
For the individual stories that accompany the introductory text, the
authors placed a notice on the Web in 2005-06, requesting personal
histories and photographs. Because the writers were self-selected,
many of the stories tend to be smug and sometimes unintentionally
funny. Many people joined SDS to fulfill serious political
aspirations, usually beginning with opposition to the war, only to
see those high-minded aspirations founder in drugs, confusion,
disillusionment and personal disagreements. As Pekar notes, the early
efforts of students to work in impoverished neighborhoods proved
largely unsuccessful and provided "a valuable lesson [...] humbling
certain members and disabusing them of some romantic notions they had
about the poor."
In "Iowa SDS Story," David Roheim and Pekar write about officials at
the University of Iowa in 1968 debating whether SDS qualified as a
campus organization. In an almost audibly whiny tone they add, "We
HSP ("Hawkeye Student Party") members were hurt. The academic satraps
still made no mention of our rally the previous week. We were
ignored, not a great experience for active anarchists. We planned to
do better as soon as we could."
Dumm's straightforward illustrations match the earnest tone of the
narrative, but his limits as a draftsman soon become evident. His
stiffly posed figures lack a convincing sense of weight. The drawings
contributed through the Web search are amateurish at best.
Although almost 50 years have passed since most of these actions took
place, it may be too early to write a definitive history of SDS.
Several of the writers assert that the activism they began continues.
But the policies and rhetoric of the Bush-Cheney administration, the
growing gap between rich and poor, immigration and other divisive
issues suggest otherwise.
Rachel Carson, suffragettes, members of the Mattachine Society and
many social historians would certainly dispute the assertion that, "A
significant chunk of SDSers joined and in some cases actually
organized the women's liberation movement, the gay and lesbian
movements, the environmental movement, and so on. These causes, still
far from won almost a half-century later, had been essentially
invisible before the era of SDS."
The most striking feature of "Students for a Democratic Society" may
well be its format: It suggests a growing acceptance in the United
States that history can be explored seriously through words and
pictures. Americans have long dismissed comics as simple-minded
amusements: In 1924, critic Gilbert Seldes wrote, "Of all the lively
arts the Comic Strip is the most despised, and with the exception of
the movies it is the most popular." That Americans are beginning to
accept the idea that comics can be a legitimate vehicle for a
discussion of socio-political history represents a radical shift in
Charles Solomon has written about comic strips and manga for the Los
Angeles Times, the New York Times and National Public Radio.
Why We're Still In Vietnam
Harvey Pekar's New Book Chronicles The Rise And Fall Of Sds
January 9th, 2008
By James Renner
If we ever had a chance to stop the military-industrial complex that
shapes our destructive-but-profitable foreign policy, it was in the
'60s, and the people who could have done it were members of a radical
organization known as Students for a Democratic Society.
A new book written (mostly) by Harvey Pekar and illustrated (mostly)
by Gary Dumm, provides an exhaustive history of SDS, from its meager
beginnings as a Michigan unionizing group to the height of its
influence as a powerful organizing force of opposition against the
war in Vietnam to its anti-climatic end in 1969, when it dissolved
into many different meaningless factions. It's a tragedy about
well-intentioned activists who eventually fell prey to the same vices
(greed and power) that they fought so hard to eradicate from their
national government. And Pekar is the perfect writer to tackle it.
His stark prose does not sentimentalize the heroics of SDS members
nor does it criticize them for their failures. As always, Pekar is
succinct and to the point here. His books, after all, are abstract
brushings of situations, writing that lets the reader bring into it
what he will. It's a very hippy, '60s, jazzy style - one that could
frustrate readers searching for meaning in characters' thought
bubbles. "Gee, maybe a revolution is possible," thinks one student,
looking, presumably, at the reader while a demonstration occurs behind him.
The book, titled Students for a Democratic Society, A Graphic History
(Hill and Wang/North Point Press, $22), is just over 200 pages, the
first quarter of which is a strict history of SDS for those
unfamiliar with its legend. The remaining chapters are vignettes told
by former SDS members about their personal experiences within the
group. These stories were gathered by editor Paul Buhle, founder and
publisher of Radical America, and professor at Brown University. Back
in the '60s, Buhle was also an active member of SDS. The stories
Buhle tracked down are the most powerful part of the book and read at
times like really good This American Life episodes.
In "Vignettes from New Orleans," Eric Gordon (who organized the
Tulane University chapter of SDS) tells about how he was hounded by
the FBI after he passed out anti-war leaflets and counseled draftees
about options for avoiding conscription. The FBI eventually
discovered where he was living and interviewed neighbors about his
habits. The only neighbor who offered help was a klansman.
And in "Saving the Archives," by Buhle, we learn how the history of
SDS was rescued by the Wisconsin Historical Society, which sent a van
to gather documents from the national office after SDS finally
folded. When the van is intercepted in front of SDS headquarters by
the police, a quick-thinking driver pretends to be acting on behalf
of the governor and before the police can sort it out, the van is
loaded with boxes and on the road again.
"Kent State," by Wes Modes and Harvey Pekar, links the historic May 4
shootings to the final end of the New Left movement, the moment when
student activists lost the war.
Though Ohio-based Dumm illustrates the majority of the book,
including the entire history section, other artists, including Nick
Thorkelson, Josh Brown, James Cennamo and Summer McClinton, do an
excellent job bringing the later vignettes to life in complementary
styles of their own.
And strangely, for a Pekar book, this one ends with the possibility
of redemption. The final chapter, "SDS Revived," shows how the need
for SDS returned as the "war on terror" began to emulate Vietnam, and
explains to new revolutionaries how to start an SDS chapter of their very own.
Pekar's Students for a Democratic Society' looks at youth and the
power to change the world
Sunday, January 13, 2008
In a refreshing sense, this is a book proudly in the comics
tradition: It speaks to youth.
It also is, in art-comic form, a history of the Students for a
Democratic Society in its first incarnation, 1960-1969, with a few
pages at the end about its contemporary revival two generations later.
The issues that the SDS raised -- and this book raises again --
certainly haven't died. Poverty, racism, the alienation of labor,
police brutality, the violation of personal freedom and an unpopular
war make headlines today.
"Students for a Democratic Society" is a lively work of words,
pictures and passion. It examines the leftist student organization
from various vantage points, blending personal anecdotes,
conventional history and what one might call field reports.
"Written mostly" by Cleveland man-about-the-media Harvey Pekar,
illustrated "mostly" by his long-time associate Gary Dumm, and edited
by Paul Buhle, founding editor of the SDS journal "Radical America,"
the book is engrossing and unexpectedly effective.
This trio follows the chronological story of the SDS, then rounds out
the picture with separate cameos of radical activity in Chicago;
Cleveland; Madison, Wis.; and elsewhere. Pekar has become an acute
pop sociologist, and Dumm's dense, neutral art underlines the
electricity of the times. Among the notable voices are: Wes Modes,
who recounts the fatal shooting of four Kent State University
students on May 4, 1970, in a grainy poignancy that recalls the
Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination; David Roheim, who
gives a text-heavy, brilliant "Iowa SDS Story" that sums up the
intoxicating highs and crashes of the late 1960s; and Bruce
Rubenstein, who writes a thoughtful end piece.
This prismatic and personal approach resonates. A decade dominated by
the Vietnam War and the shift from folk to rock music is caught on
these pages, as John Pietaro's "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" caught the
spirited, tragically short career of Phil Ochs, an Ohio boy who spent
quite a bit of time in Cleveland and made an indelible mark as a
It is comforting, although perhaps naive, to imagine an enlightened
professor of contemporary history including "Students for a
Democratic Society" in his or her syllabus.
The frankness of SDS veterans on their successes and, more
importantly, their failures makes a potential handbook for
contemporary activists wanting to organize without repeating the
mistakes of their predecessors.
"The Weathermen are gone but SDS is back, now as strong as it was in
1966, among students and others in a world that needs it more than
ever," Rubenstein reports.
"However different the nation has become in forty years, creativity
still arguably blossoms best among youth, those who have the least
stake in the existing rules of society," Buhle and Pekar say in the
Creativity also thrives among '60s survivors like Pekar, Dumm and
Buhle, still trying to change the world for the better and still
hoping youth takes up the cause.
Wolff is a critic and writer in South Euclid.
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