Lessons from Vietnam Era at Printers Row

I’m late in reporting on last weekend’s Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Fest. After four months of strategic preparation and psych-up, it came and went. I returned home to way too many emails and some serious deadlines that I’m just meeting.

My deepest thanks to everyone who showed up on Saturday and/or Sunday to share a brief moment with me recalling the Vietnam era and drawing lessons for the present. I was grateful for the opportunities to share stages Saturday with Bill Ayers and Sunday with NPR’s Alison Cuddy, and also to connect or reconnect—before, at, and after both events—with friends from high school, cousins, members of the National Writers Union-Chicago chapter, veterans of the underground press and the Vietnam era, and others who weren’t even born then but knew something happened then that needs studying now.

Saturday’s show

On Saturday, Bill began by talking about the importance of the Voices from the Underground Series and the significance of our telling our own stories because of the false mythologizing that the right is doing. He used as an example the Catholic Church’s recent attempt to blame their entire pedophilia scandal on the liberal sexual attitudes of the sixties. He also noted that the period known as the sixties was more than just a decade that ended after 1969. Then he introduced me.

I began by noting that the sixties didn’t begin for me until 1970, as a result of Kent State. I talked about the series and how it came to be, told a few stories, we did some give and take, and then we opened the floor to questions.

In response to one question, I agreed that today’s bloggers are the political successors to the veterans of the underground press. Unfortunately, I said, many have no idea we even existed. That’s one of the changes I hope will come about through my books, and that was one reason why I invited Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, one of the most important progressive blog sites today, to write the foreword to volume 1. His contribution was masterful. However, at this time, I said, I don’t believe blogs have eliminated the need for newspapers. As the questioner brought up, you can’t hand out blogs. Handouts, whether flyers or newspapers or buttons, I agreed, are a powerful organizing tool.

I broadened the definition of what the underground press is seen to be. “The traditional story line says that Art Kunkin used the new technology of offset printing to start the Los Angeles Free Press in 1964 and from that paper emerged the hundreds of papers that we know of as the underground press. It’s a good story and a big part of it is true but for me the definition is too narrow.” I noted that the gay press began in 1947 when a lesbian office worker started a mimeographed 12-page paper called Vice Versa so she could meet other lesbians (a fact I only recently learned from having read Rodger Streitmatter’s landmark Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America). She took the name of Lisa Ben, a rearrangement of the word “lesbian.” During the fifties, other gay and lesbian papers included ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder. African Americans had several important radical papers that were founded before 1964 including Paul Robeson’s Freedom; Freedomways; The Liberator, The Student Voice, put out by Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and Triple Jeopardy, by the Third World Women’s Alliance. A paper given credit for being a starting point for the women’s liberation movement, called “a kind of memo,” was written in 1965 by Casey Hayden and Mary King to express concerns within the fertile organizing atmosphere of SNCC.

Then, for the sake of those who came of age after the Vietnam era ended or just forgot, I pointed out some of the memorable titles that Chicago hosted: Seed, Rising Up Angry, Muhammad Speaks, Lavender Women, Black Maria, CWLU News, Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Spokeswoman, Killer Dyke, and Feminist Voice. I’m sure there were others but those were the ones I called out.

If you were associated with any of those papers or know anyone who was, please write to me. I’m involved in an exciting digital project now, which I didn’t talk about in Chicago, that is attracting the attention of underground press veterans all over the country. I would love for these papers to be part of it if I can talk to the rights holders and get permission. [Muhammad Speaks, CWLU News (and papers associated with it: Womankind, Blazing Star, and Secret Storm), and Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement already are.]

Overall, it was a positive audience, they laughed at the right places, and at the end, I’m grateful to say, they bought books.

Sunday’s show

My co-panelists on Sunday were Matthew Ehrlich, author of Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest, a study of radio journalism in post-World War II America as we moved into Cold War mode; and Matt [his preference] Carlson, author of On the Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism, a study of anonymous sources especially around the time of the Iraq War. Alison did an impressive job of tying together these three marginally related books, using as the common theme journalism in war time.

Leading up to the panel, we had discussed the idea of her letting us each introduce our own books and then opening it up for free-flowing discussion. It sounded good in theory but the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that it would be a disaster to have three egocentric authors nosing for opportunities to plug our respective books. Fortunately, Alison prevented that potential scenario from reaching fruition by asking us her own pre-planned questions one at a time.

She began by allowing us to each give a 3-minute overview of what in the current moment drove us to do our particular projects. In my case, the roots of the Voices from the Underground Series go back to the late 1980s so I told how it came to be, how it was received, how it went out of print, and how it came back in an expanded, updated, four-volume format. (Yes, I pushed the 3-minute time limit.) Then she moved us into broader topics including the relationship between journalism and war, the possible roles journalists can play during war, the various pressures they face in covering conflict, and the way technology shapes the coverage they are able to do.

I noted that contributors to underground papers weren’t necessarily trained journalists; they were community and antiwar organizers, activists, and thinkers who rabble roused first and then wrote about it, or organized events and encouraged the community to attend, or built countercultural institutions and used the pages of the underground press to give them strength. I got a good laugh when I noted that writing for the underground press itself was not a good career move. Matt C. got a follow-up laugh on his next question when he noted that writing for the mainstream press today isn’t necessarily a good career move either.

Today, with the rise and proliferation of new mediums for accessing and distributing information, including e-newspapers and blogs and even Twitter, we’re watching the decline of certain forms of journalism, especially print newspapers. In addition, I said, investigative journalism is more dangerous because the number of staff journalists on papers is being reduced so journalists doing real investigative reporting do not have the protection of large newspapers. They work with no health insurance because they are freelancers so if they get sick or injured they have to cover expenses on their freelance income. And, being freelancers, they have no assurance that what they write will even be picked up, or if it is picked up they will be given a living wage. Certainly if they are captured they have no assurance that a news institution will use its strength to free the reporter.

I reminded listeners that Bradley Manning was being tortured in prison for exposing ugly truths about our government. “Instead of being treated like a hero for uncovering lies he’s being convicted without a trial, even by Harvard law school grad President Barack Obama, who could have used the truth Manning exposed to indict the Bush-Cheney administration but instead has chosen to embrace it.”

Overall, I thought our answers complemented each other well. We fooled the audience into thinking we knew what we were talking about. Here’s hoping the C-SPAN audience was as receptive.

 Please let me know if you are looking for a speaker on the Vietnam era.

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2 Responses

  1. Regarding the historic role of U.S. law schools like Harvard Law School in U.S.,, the video of the public domain “Law School” folk song from the 1980s that was recently posted at following protestfolk channel link, might help explain why few U.S. law school deans or law school professors are likely to come to the legal defense of Bradley Manning:

  2. How appropriate. I just finished reading Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “Jailhouse Lawyers.” An amazing book, though sad that it is necessary.

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