Celebrating Berkeley Barb’s 50th Anniversary of Founding

I’ve said it many times already in many forms. I’m happy to say it again: My deepest thanks to the Berkeley Barb reunion committee for inviting me to share in the festivities of the fiftieth anniversary reunion, Wednesday and Thursday August 12-13. (Events took place all week but those were the only two I was able to attend.) The Barb, one of the legendary underground papers of the Vietnam era, hasn’t actually been around since 1980 but it was founded fifty years ago, in 1965, and fifty years of anything is worthy of a celebration.

Reunions always include at least two parts. First is the celebration, seeing friends who you haven’t seen in what seems like forever and who you’re never sure you will ever see again, and also seeing folks who go back to the same time but who you never knew personally and are meeting for the first time. So the event is joyous at the same time as it is bittersweet.

Here are some of the friends who shared memories and laughs with me:

  • Friends I met while organizing against both major parties in Miami Beach in the summer of 1972 (Gabrielle Schang, Leslie Bacon, Babs Yohai, Kathy Streem, Judy Gumbo);
  • A friend who worked with me on Joint Issue in Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, and then made the trek west with a stop at the Barb (Stephen Vernon);
  • A friend from East Lansing who worked on another area underground paper, The Spectacle (Tom Price);
  • Contributors to my Voices from the Underground Series (Trina Robbins, Alta, Laura X, all veterans of the feminist newspaper It Aint Me Babe);
  • Members of the reunion committee (Raquel Scherr, Gar Smith, Diana Stephens, John Jekabson);
  • The legendary medical advice columnist Eugene Schoenfeld, known as Dr. HIPpocrates.
John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

And there were others so apologies to anyone I neglected to list here.

The second part is reflective. When you’re living in the now and you’re looking back fifty years, and if you have an active mind, you can’t help but go deep inside yourself as you listen to others go deep inside themselves. The conference on Thursday encouraged the trip back in time. It began with a keynote from feminist comix pioneer Trina Robbins talking about women in the underground press and how she broke through the all-boys’ club of comix artists; and ended with a keynote from Dr. HIP, giving his fascinating life story including how he came to write his famous sex advice column for the Barb, which was “syndicated” in underground papers all over the country. (I use quotes because none of the papers that reprinted his column, he said, in fact paid him. Although membership in Underground Press Syndicate allowed papers to reprint others’ articles and graphics for free, it is likely that non-UPS members also reprinted his column without paying for it; we were kind of loose with understanding of copyright in those days.)

Between the opening and closing keynotes were two panels and a reading by feminist poet Alta. In the morning panel, moderated by Judy Gumbo, veterans of the Barb representing the entire fifteen-year span of its existence shared their memories by answering two questions apiece that Judy prepared specifically for them. I shared the afternoon panel with journalist/historians Peter Richardson, historian of Ramparts magazine and the Grateful Dead; and Seth Rosenfeld, chronicler of the FBI-Ronald Reagan war against student radicals in the sixties. Diana Stephens, who led the effort to organize the reunion after being inspired during the writing of her master’s thesis on the Barb, moderated this panel.

A report on the reunion appeared in the Contra Costa Times News. You can read it here.

Following is the full text of my talk, which I cut slightly at the panel in consideration of a tight time frame.

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As a veteran and a historian of the sixties, I hear often—and maybe you do, too—the question: “When did the sixties end?” I’d like to reframe that question:

  • Same-sex marriage is now legal in the entire country.
  • Legal marijuana is not far behind.
  • Women are rising up again to fight for equality and to control their own bodies.
  • U.S. residents of Mexican descent, who we knew as Chicanos, are demanding a path to citizenship and the right to study their history and culture in schools and universities.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • A socialist is a viable candidate for president.
  • And the alternative press is vibrant, and more necessary than ever.

So my reframed question is: How have the sixties lasted so long? That shining star that never fades.

When I was compiling and editing histories of individual underground papers in the late eighties-early nineties for the first edition of my Voices from the Underground Series, I was chided by at least one friend, himself a veteran of the underground press, for putting so much effort into such an esoteric topic. Fortunately, I didn’t know what “esoteric” meant, so I was undeterred. Since then, it has become a major part of my life’s work.

While working on that first edition, my most gratifying discovery was that my contributors were still politically active. This was no small feat. We were fifteen years after the war’s end. The country had veered dramatically to the right. We were living in Reagan’s America. A major percentage of our peers were becoming Yuppified. They were hiding from their own kids what they did to help us accomplish all that we did because they were paranoid of losing their jobs, even though the period had produced the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country.

Now we’re 25 years beyond that time. I know all of you are still politically active. And the country is starting to swing around to our side. I know it still looks bad, but the arc is curving in our direction. We were persistent. We were patient. And we were right all along.

And I discovered something else: Our friend Jerry Rubin said it best: “We are everywhere.” Underground papers were everywhere. They were in urban, suburban, rural, ghetto, barrio, tribal, and other communities in every state of the Union and in countries around the world. They represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, Chicano, senior citizen, high school, campus, community, anarchist, socialist, psychedelic, counterculture, new age, prisoners’ rights, rank and file, Southern consciousness, and other alternative voices of the day. They were found in every branch of the military—over 900 GI underground papers published by or directed to members of the military. Support the troops? You’re damn right we supported the troops. No one supported the troops like we did. Underground papers were everywhere. Each one spoke to its own unique audience. But they were united against the war.

So here we are celebrating Berkeley Barb, one of the greats, one of the legends, one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of countercultural underground newspapers. My hat’s off to all of you who played a role in that history. You really are a remarkable family of heroes and legends and friends. I’m honored to be sharing this historic moment with you.

And congratulations to all of you who came of age in the eighties and nineties and have carried on our struggles, which we carried on from generations before us. You’re the new leadership.

We still have goals to achieve, fantasies to live, as Abbie [Hoffman] would have said, but the torch has been passed to the next generation. Our mission now is to share our experiences and lessons with current and future leaders.

Here’s the first thing, people of my generation, you’re going to find: Too many young folks have no idea what happened back when. A journalist wrote to me recently. He said: “It is interesting how little the underground press plays into our popular conception of the 60s and 70s, given how vibrant the scene seemed to be.”

We can debate the reasons but he’s right. Young, progressive bloggers, our political heirs, for the most part, have no idea of their journalistic roots.

So I’m issuing you all a challenge. We’re in the middle of a celebration and I’m issuing a challenge. Here’s my challenge: Record your stories. Now. Produce a movie. Publish a book. Post a blog entry. Write a letter to your kids. Get it down—because if you don’t, someone else will do it for you and it won’t be the way you remember it or the way you want others to remember it. Teach your children and your children’s children.

I’m grateful to the reunion committee for inviting me here to share my latest effort to preserve the greatest writings of our generation, including the Barb, and make them accessible to current and future generations of activists, artists, and historians. When we’re done, we will have digitized over 1,000 titles, representing over three-quarters of a million pages of exact, keyword-searchable, digital reproductions of underground, alternative, and literary newspapers and magazines from the fifties through the eighties covering all of the genres I mentioned earlier. We even have four papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement. With more funding, we could do more. So all of you wealthy heirs here today, let’s talk.

We heard Trina Robbins, in her keynote, talk about women in the underground press. The digital collection includes nearly 120 feminist and lesbian papers including the Bay Area’s own It Aint Me Babe, the first nationwide feminist underground newspaper in the United States, and one fortunate enough to have had many of Trina’s covers and inside cartoons. Sometime after January 2017, the collection will go into open access, which means the entire collection will be accessible to anyone through a simple keyword search.

While it is still in development, only patrons of supporting libraries can get into it, but one of them is Berkeley. In fact, the entire UC system is a supporter so anyone with access to any of the UC libraries can view the complete evolving collection. We have about 400,000 pages uploaded so far.

And if your library isn’t on board, here are two thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Please introduce me to your acquisitions librarian.
  2. We have put aside a select list of twenty-two titles that are open access from the beginning so you can get a feel for the site and endorse it glowingly to your acquisitions librarian. One of them, in honor of this wonderful celebration, is Berkeley Barb.

We’re working with a growing team of sourcing libraries and individuals, including some of you here today, who are sending us original copies of papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return to them. In this way, we are able to create complete runs of titles where the individual sourcing libraries had gaps in theirs. When we’re done, we will have, as far as we can tell, the only complete collection of the Barb anywhere and it will be fully keyword-searchable. Thanks to all of you who have shared your original issues.

I became aware of the Barb before Kent State, which is when I became radicalized. I remember the day. I was visiting my brother in Manhattan Beach. I was listening to Johnny Rivers sing “Going Back to Big Sur” and I realized that Big Sur was only about 400 miles north on Highway 1. So the next morning I filled my laundry bag with two days worth of clothing and camping gear, slung it over my left shoulder, and rode my right thumb up Highway 1. I know it was 1969 because that was my first of what would turn out to be a decade of hitchhiking adventures and it was the year, I learned later, that Jack Kerouac died. So naturally, I drew a karmic connection between the two of us, two generations of hitchhikers. Three short rides brought me out of the Los Angeles area, and then I got picked up by four long-haired hippies, two male and two female, in—cliché alert—a VW microbus with multi-colored swirls and shooting stars on the sides. There was so much smoke coming out of the car I was high before I sat down. Some time before I passed out with a big grin on my face, they introduced me to the latest copy of the Barb. I’m pretty sure that was why I had a grin.

For a kid from the eastside suburbs of Cleveland who wasn’t ready yet for the politics, the Barb was outrageous with its cartoons, graphics, and layout that told me there was something different out there that I couldn’t ignore. Later, when I came of age at Michigan State and realized that The Paper, East Lansing’s underground newspaper, was one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, I discovered that the Barb had been another. Berkeley was the epicenter of the counterculture. The Barb was the voice of Berkeley.

The sixties was an amazing era, one of the most dynamic, colorful, significant—and divisive—eras in our young country’s history. I’ve never been one to apologize for the period’s supposed excesses and I’ll bet none of you have either. Were we excessive? Of course we were. We changed the world, for the better, and it’s still changing, for the better, because of what we did—and what we continue to do.

Congratulations to the Berkeley Barb for being such a major player in this historic era that never fades.

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The Underground Press: Exactly What the Founding Fathers Intended

For those who asked, below is the text of the keynote talk I gave on Friday March 27 at the “Digital Scholarship and Radicalism Studies” symposium at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. The symposium coincided with the launch of MSU’s Studies in Radicalism Online (SIRO), a new thematic node of the Advanced Research Consortium, in partnership with Michigan State University Libraries and the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

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In the late sixties and early seventies, I was a hitchhiker. I hitchhiked not only around town but to all ends of the country. Everywhere I went, I met folks who either were on their local underground newspapers or read one on a regular basis.

I met ex-cons working on Penal Digest International, a prisoners’ rights paper in Iowa City. I hitchhiked to a women’s liberation march in DC with five women from Lansing who all read Her-self, a women’s paper out of Ann Arbor. In 1972, I hitchhiked to Madison and stayed with a staffer for their paper, Takeover, who I met through their local crash pad file, and I helped the local Yippies organize a Smoke-In. Later, after they bailed me out of jail following a street demonstration, I drove down to Miami with them to organize against the Democrats and Republicans, who both held their nominating conventions there that summer. While there I contributed a piece to the Daily Planet and worked with the Underground Press Syndicate. Everywhere I went, I met gays and lesbians who tried to convert me to their agenda, which was basically “Live and let live.” They had their favorite papers that emerged after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, including Gay Liberator in Detroit, Gay Sunshine in San Francisco, and Fag Rag in Boston.

In my foreword to the first edition of Voices from the Underground I wrote:

The period was a vision as much as a reality. It was a time of experimentation. We made mistakes and learned from them. In the beginning, men attacked sexism while women typed their articles. In the end, women founded the feminist and lesbian press and men learned that it was okay to cry. For all its faults, the sixties was a magical period. A time warp opened up and those who stepped inside glimpsed the new paradigm that brought together the best visions of the visionaries and showed us, on a small scale, how to make them work. On the pages of the underground press, writers tried to reduce the vision to the written word and apply the strategies to a larger scale. Those who were touched remain touched.

It was a fleeting vision for sure. We were offered the fruits of so many liberation movements to harvest that it’s no mystery why there was a return to the land. But not everybody embraced the changes. The period divided and traumatized our country like no period since the civil war.

By the time the period came to an end, roughly the time the war ended, activists of the antiwar movement had turned inward and embraced the Me Decade. Meanwhile, the country swung dramatically to the right. Vietnam was pretty much written out of history. Few high school or college courses studied it honestly.

By the time I published the first edition of Voices from the Underground in 1993, we were living in Reagan’s America. The country had shifted so dramatically to the right, veterans of the antiwar movement, who were now having children and looking for career jobs, were scared to talk about their experiences, even with their kids, even though they had proudly been part of the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country. Those who wrote their stories with me displayed courage.

Today the underground press is becoming better known, though it has not nearly reached the level of recognition that accurate history requires. Scholars like John McMillian (Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America) and James Lewes (Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War) are writing dissertations on it and publishing them. James, in fact, is the world expert on the GI underground press as well as a major supporter of the underground press digital project I spoke about in the last session. Young librarians like Suzanne Parenti Sink (from Florida Atlantic University) and Laurie Charnigo (from Jacksonville State University) are compiling major collections for their libraries and speaking about the underground press at conferences.

So what was the underground press?

The underground press was the independent, noncorporate, antiwar alternative to the corporate press of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras. The traditional history of the underground press focuses on the Los Angeles Free Press, which was founded in 1964, as being the first underground paper of what was known as the counterculture. It might have been.

But in my vision and based on my work, I’ve expanded the term to include the papers of the liberation movements, whose roots often go back earlier. Major gay and lesbian papers came out of the fifties: ONE, Mattachine Review, The Ladder. The first lesbian paper of our era, Vice Versa, goes back even further, to 1947. Important black papers also pre-dated the Free Press. The Student Voice, the paper of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), began publishing in 1960. Freedomways, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, began the next year. Paul Robeson founded his paper, Freedom, during the Korean War.

All of these papers already are or will be, by the way, in Reveal Digital’s digital collection.

But these papers were sporadic. After the Free Press, and thanks to the advanced technology of offset printing, underground papers in tabloid format focusing on the antiwar movement and the emerging counterculture and its related liberation movements flourished. They were found everywhere you looked: on campus and off, in urban, suburban, rural, ghetto, barrio, and other communities in every state of the Union and in countries around the world. They represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, black, Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian American, prisoners’ rights, military, New Age, socialist, anarchist, psychedelic, high school, senior citizen, rank and file, Southern consciousness, and other alternative voices of the day. They were found in every branch of the military—over 900 GI underground papers—and their stories are represented in Voices from the Underground. They spoke to their own unique audiences. But they were united against the war.

Many of them were members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of underground papers. Among the first five members was East Lansing’s own The Paper, whose story is told by founder Michael Kindman in volume 2 of my four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, which is the updated and expanded second edition of my earlier book. Original copies of The Paper can be read downstairs in MSU’s special collections library.

The underground press was such a major, all-encompassing part of my life in the early seventies that I still find it hard to believe that not everyone knows about its role in ending the war. But today when I talk about it with young folks who are the age now that we were then, who I call our intergenerational peers, I get blank stares.

It’s no surprise. Students since the war ended still are seldom taught the truth about the Vietnam War. History classes too often still gloss over it while ignoring the role of the antiwar movement in bringing it to an end. Journalism classes still traditionally ignore or downplay the place of the underground press in the history of journalism. And now our own Pentagon is preparing to launch a ten-year retrospective celebration of the Vietnam War, ostensibly to honor the vets but in reality another effort to whitewash our true history and glorify the military and continued militarism.

Today, political blogs have taken up the tradition that we carried on in the fifties through the eighties but most young bloggers themselves have no idea of their political roots. One of the best sites, in my opinion, is Daily Kos. “Kos” is Markos Moulitsas, who founded it. So I wrote to Markos and asked him to write a foreword to volume 1 as a way to link our generations. I sent him a few sample chapters. He wrote back to me and said, “Ken, I’d love to but—I have to admit—I don’t know anything about the underground press.” I said, “I know that, Markos. I read your last book. You don’t even mention it.”

But I wasn’t criticizing Markos. He’s a college graduate, even has a law degree. But he never learned about the underground press. I told him that’s why I wrote to him. I said I wanted him to write from the perspective of someone who had just discovered his own political predecessor. He agreed and he wrote a remarkable piece.

When the first edition of Voices was coming out, Art Levin, who was the general manager of MSU’s State News during the time I wrote for Joint Issue, the Lansing-area underground paper (also found in the special collections library), wrote:

The period of the late sixties and early seventies was a high water mark for American journalism. For the first time in American history, the vision of Justices Holmes and Brandeis blossomed and bore fruit. A multitude of voices, the essence of democracy, resounded through the land providing a compelling alternative against the stifling banality of the establishment press. What this nation had during the Vietnam War was exactly what the founding fathers understood the press to be all about when they wrote the First Amendment.

Since those days, it’s been a personal mission of mine, I admit, to make sure that that history is not forgotten and to educate others on how they can learn more about it to prevent future Vietnams from happening. So I’m grateful for this opportunity to say something about how I do my research on the underground press. There’s no magic source that contains everything you want to know.

I don’t know how many of you know this but MSU Library has—or at least had 25 years ago—one of the great collections of telephone books. I don’t know if anyone even uses them still—I seldom do. But back then they were essential. After I compiled my initial list of papers whose histories I wanted to include in Voices from the Underground, I came right here—I was already living in Ann Arbor but I remembered the incredible job special collections library director Janet Fiore had done collecting underground papers in the seventies. I spent a day looking through those papers and writing down names of staff members, which was not always an easy task—and still won’t be. In those days, we often used pseudonyms, or first names only, or we didn’t sign our names at all—“confronting our egos” was a major issue among some of us.

Then I went up to the phone book collection, found the city, and looked up all the staff names. If I found a match, I would call the person and ask if he or she had been on the paper. If the answer was yes, I would explain my project and ask if that person could write the history. More often than not, I was referred to someone else, and then someone else. I made lots of phone calls—and rang up quite a bill—but I found everyone I wanted to find.

Today you look up that information on the web. Everyone is there, and usually their contact information. Or, if not, you can find them through online researching. Type in the title of a paper, using quotes, and look at every entry. Write down names that come up and then do creative keyword searches on the names. Write down additional names that come up along the way and search them. Write down names of children and spouses because a lot of the folks you want to find are not with us on this plane anymore, including several contributors to Voices from the Underground, but you can find their obituaries. When I was working with them, I told them, “Tell me everything: names, quotes, anecdotes, headtrips, analyses. Because you’re gonna die. And when you die, your story will be told by others, with their interpretations.” They listened to me and gave me the greatest collection of stories I’ve ever had the honor to edit.

Two excellent online sources that I’ve used successfully to connect to underground press veterans are Facebook and LinkedIn though neither usually lists contact information. With Facebook, write a private message to the person you want to meet. You have plenty of room to state your query though be sure to request an email address if you’re planning on having an ongoing conversation. While you’re at it, look at their list of friends to find others who may be on your to-locate list. With LinkedIn, you need to connect to communicate. LinkedIn always provides you with a generic invitation to connect. Revise it to be more specific—though you have to be concise so as not to exceed the character limit.

The Alternative Press Center has been collecting and indexing underground and alternative papers since the sixties. Their papers for the most part may be found at the University of Maryland. But there are special collections libraries all over the country and the world that contain original copies of underground papers beginning with our amazing collection downstairs in this building. I was friends with Peter Berg since before he took over as director from Janet Fiore. I ran the streets and organized with comic book maven Randy Scott—his name, in fact, appears in my history of the Lansing-area underground press that’s found in volume 1 of my series. They and the others members of the special collections team will give you whatever guidance you need.

There have been some excellent books written about the underground press. Abe Peck, himself an underground press historian as well as the former editor of Chicago Seed and a contributor to Voices from the Underground, wrote an overview of some of the best, dividing them interestingly by generations of books based on when they came out. You can find their titles in his article, “The Life and Times of the Underground Press,” which appeared online in Logos in 2013.

A history of the gay press, not mentioned in Abe’s article, is Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America by Rodger Streitmatter.

To find other underground press veterans check out the Facebook page for Underground Press Syndicate – Media History and post a comment.

The political blog Rag Blog is the digital successor to the Austin Rag, one of the first ten members of Underground Press Syndicate. Its editor, Thorne Dreyer, was an Austin Rag editor also. Underground press veterans are regular contributors, including me.

There already is no better digital collection of underground, alternative, and literary newspapers and magazines from the fifties through the eighties than Independent Voices, the digital collection that I’ve been creating at Reveal Digital, and we’re not finished with it. Check it out now at voices.revealdigital.com and view what we have so far of what will be, by the end of January 2017, approximately one million pages of keyword-searchable exact digital reproductions of these publications. MSU is not only a sourcing library—which means they have actively loaned us original copies of underground papers from their special collections library for us to scan and digitize—but they’re also a supporting library, so they’ve put down the bucks so that you can all use the digital collection for your research and enjoyment even before it goes into open access, which is our ultimate goal.

So far we’ve uploaded about 200,000 pages, mostly from our women’s, GI, literary, and underground press titles. We’re starting to add the minority papers including El Renacimiento and Sol de Aztlan from Lansing. Other Lansing-area papers that are on board: The Paper, Goob Yeak Gergibal, Generation, Bogue Street Bridge, Joint Issue, Lansing Star, People’s Voice, Lansing Beat, and Lesbian Connection. And, facing the deadline of this talk, I speeded up my own rights-acquisition work and am now about to bring on board two other papers that were still missing: The Spectacle and Grapevine Journal.

And network. Attend conferences and other major events that bring together academics and left activists. Two conferences where I will be speaking in upcoming months:

  • And a third major event where I’ll be speaking: The Berkeley Barb, one of the legendary underground papers of the era, also part of the digital collection, is having its 50th anniversary reunion on Wednesday-Thursday August 12-13 in Berkeley.

Everyone you talk to, ask, “Who else do you know who I can contact? Who else worked on your paper? Do you have an email and phone number? What other papers did you work on? Who else worked on them?” Pick one paper and write its history. That will be a major contribution to our understanding of the era.

In the sixties, we discovered philosopher George Santayana, who said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yippie Abbie Hoffman added, “The only way to support a revolution is to make your own.” So we studied the first wave of feminism from the 1800s, the anarchists at the turn of the last century, the union struggles of the thirties, and much more, while we created our present.

We’re still out there. When I compiled the histories for the first edition of Voices from the Underground, what was most gratifying to me was that most of my contributors were still organizing and teaching and keeping their visions alive. Those who are still living still are politically active. But as a generation we’ve peaked. It’s your turn now, those of you who are college age and recently beyond, to carry on the struggle that we carried on from generations before us.

Our two generations, our struggles, are intimately connected. In my generation, we flooded the colleges for at least two reasons: tuition was low and staying in college gave you a 2-S draft deferment. While we were in the college atmosphere, we learned how to think logically and critically, we met with other thinkers, and we organized to end a vicious war. It was the spawning ground for gender, minority, environmental, and other liberation movements. The underground press absorbed our thoughts and preserved them for you to study and critique.

The right has waged a war against education since then—and make no mistake they want you to be either dumb and mindless—apparently truth is liberal—or so in debt you are a slave to your job, which, thanks to them, pays less and provides fewer benefits. So they have actively and enthusiastically waged war on public schools, attacked teachers’ unions, and cut aid for higher education.

The issues that we raised, the struggles we fought, were analyzed and documented in the pages of the underground and alternative press. Some of it was pretty crazy. One night I dropped acid with a fellow staffer and we went to a revival meeting to hear Leighton Ford, the son-in-law of Billy Graham. I took voracious notes—there was speed in the acid. On the way back, I read aloud some of what I wrote and my friend thought it was funny so I published my notes and called the article “I Dropped Acid and Saw God.” Another article I wrote was about a game a couple of my friends made up where they followed police cars and tried to not get busted. I called the article “Got One on the Pig-O-Scope.” I was attacked for being irresponsible. I was.

But we also attacked the government’s atrocities in Vietnam and other countries and connected them to injustices at home as we worked to create a peace community. Your battle, one of them, is to take back the schools and colleges by ensuring the right to a decent, low-cost education that leads to a good job. Join the movement to eliminate student debt. If we can wipe bank debts clean and give billionaires tax breaks, we can wipe student debts clean also.

Today we’re doing okay on some of the social issues that emerged back then: gay rights, legalized marijuana. Public awareness is starting to turn the corner on the environment and the Middle East. We’re not doing so okay on others: women’s rights, immigrant rights, voting rights. Economically we’ve got our work cut out for us: union rights, student tuition, the wealth gap, campaign finance laws. There are other issues, and they’re all connected. Learn how. Don’t accept simplistic solutions that pit potential allies against each other. And don’t give in to despair.

I don’t think you will, because your generation is one of the most progressive in years. I have great faith in the immediate future.

Study the underground press to learn what the best minds—and, don’t get me wrong, some of the goofiest minds—were thinking. We made lots of mistakes but we made some brilliant analyses, changed the world, and had fun. We quoted the words of anarchist Emma Goldman, who said, “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” Stew Albert, who was one of the legendary founders of the Yippies, said to me one day words that I have never forgotten. He said, “We can’t lose. We’re having too much fun.” It was summer 1972. We were in Miami Beach, where the Democrats and Republicans were holding their presidential conventions. We were at that moment on our way to the Yippie Puke-In.

Study this period. There has never been a more exciting, outrageous, mythological, liberating, artistic, magical period in our country’s history.

Begin by scouring the pages of the underground press.

Challenge everything you learn, including everything I just said.

Then create your own myths.

Love Means Second Chances: The Pro-Choice Novel

Susan Elizabeth Davis has written a self-consciously political novel complete with website and blog that she hopes will become a literary weapon in the pro-choice arsenal. At a time when women are having to defend themselves from humanist instincts straight out of the Dark Ages, her timing couldn’t be better. As a life-long activist for women’s rights, in particular to control their own bodies, she is the right person to write it.

Love Means Second Chances (New York: Bread and Roses Collaborative, 2011) takes place in 1992 with flashbacks to 1972. Christy gets pregnant with Ramon even though she’s on the pill because for a brief period she was on antibiotics for strep and the antibiotics rendered the pill ineffective. Impending motherhood puts a crimp on Christy’s ambition to be an opera singer, not a pipe dream by any means as she is currently a student at Juilliard. Christy tries to keep the news from Carole, her mother, a devout Catholic, because Christy’s game plan includes getting an abortion. To complicate matters, Christy herself is the result of an accidental pregnancy that Carole chose to not terminate over the objections of her impregnator-turned-reluctant-husband Jimmy, whose own dream of becoming a football player, along with Carole’s dream of becoming a nurse, was terminated by the pregnancy that wasn’t.

In addition to alienating her from Jimmy, Carole’s pregnancy led to a split between Carole and her father—her mother already was dead. So Carole became close to her mother-in-law, Mary Louise, a strong advocate of the woman’s right to choose, who supported Carole over her son Jimmy during Carole’s pregnancy and is now supporting Christy over Carole during Christy’s pregnancy even though the first case led to a non-abortion and the second is leaning toward an abortion.

The book revolves around the interactions among the three generations of women and their different responses to Christy’s pregnancy and decision to have an abortion. To Carole especially, it awakens long-suppressed anger that stemmed from her own pregnancy in 1972. Hence the flashbacks.

A side issue but one almost equally perplexing to the avid Catholic Carole is the announcement by her sister Liz, a divorced mother of three teenage boys, that she finally has found true love to Barbara—not, if you are confused, a man with a woman’s name.

The story begins during the Christmas season. In fact, it is Christy’s vomit attack in her parents’ bathroom Christmas morning that finally confirms Carole’s suspicion that Christy is pregnant.

The strength of this novel is less on the action than on the dialogue. Davis becomes every one of the women when they are speaking. She gets inside their heads and their hearts and enables them all to be sympathetic, believable characters. As a life-long feminist activist in abortion rights, there is no doubt where Davis stands on the issue of a woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, she attempts to be fair with all of the women.

But she doesn’t confuse “fairness” with leaving the reader thinking that all positions are equal. Davis wrote Love Means Second Chances in order to be a voice for choice in the abortion debate. With confidence and no modesty, she admits that she wants her book to join the long list of those that have changed social conditions and perceptions, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Invisible Man, and The Women’s Room.

So, in a cathartic scene, Liz asks Carole, “Will you love [Christy] less if she has an abortion?” Carole admits she hadn’t even considered that line of thought but, no, of course, she would not love her less. “The pain in her heart felt like it was being ripped out of her chest. Giving in, Carole sobbed uncontrollably, gasping for air as her worst fears dive-bombed her like demons.”

Davis chooses this moment to place the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion into historical perspective when she speaks through Barbara, who tells Carole

Before 1869, the Church did not consider abortion a mortal sin. In fact, during the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas wrote that abortions could be performed until the time of quickening—when the baby begins to move in the fourth month. So it’s only been since the Church felt its power and influence were waning in the 19th century that it took a stand against abortion.

Going beyond Catholicism, Barbara continues

Abortion is as old as civilization. Women have been giving themselves abortions in every culture on every continent since the beginning of time…. Abortion was the primary means of birth control in this country until it was outlawed in the 19th century. It was only after doctors began to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics and wanted to stop midwives from interfering with their business that it became illegal.

As a kicker she notes that Italy has the highest abortion rate of the European countries. “Those sisters are not afraid to take care of themselves if they don’t want to be pregnant.”

I can see the old men who head the Catholic Church hierarchy attacking the credibility of that entire scene. After all, who is it who is attacking Church doctrine? A lesbian! Whether intended or not, good for Davis for showing no fear here in mixing controversial issues.

But to her credit she never treats the abortion issue lightly. Davis agrees with anti-choicers who would argue that abortion can hurt women emotionally. A powerful scene takes place in Christy’s home when Carole comes over to talk after she has had time to cool off and reflect. As Christy prepares tea in the kitchen, Carole waits in the front room. They both pray to the same religious icon as they psych themselves up to represent different sides of the conversation:

Carole: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me … find the right words … to tell Christy that I love her, even though I don’t like what she’s doing.”

Christy: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, please don’t let Mom overpower me…. Help me stay strong.”

Later, in the clinic after the abortion, Christy waits with other women who have undergone the same experience. There is not a whole lot of laughing. As each woman is discharged, the attendant says, “I don’t want to see you here again” (as opposed to what an anti-choice novel might have the attendant saying: “Shall we make an appointment for your next visit?”).

Six months later, seemingly a long time after the abortion, Christy experiences an emotional breakdown when singing an aria from Madame Butterfly where Cio-Cio San gives up her love child and kills herself.

The message from these scenes is clear. Not every pro-choicer uses abortion as birth control. It is a painful process even for women who choose to undergo it. These women actually experience real feelings of grief, anger, and sadness. No one is evil and no one “wins.” Nevertheless, each woman has to make her own choice, for her own personal reasons, and deal with the resulting consequences, not have it mandated by the church or the state and deal with those resulting consequences, which, anti-choicers choose to ignore, also are painful.

I have to admit I’m happy that Davis confronts the Catholic Church directly. I don’t care what practicing Catholics do relative to their own abortions or non-abortions. I do care that Catholics and other religious anti-choicers think they can tell Jews what to do about ours.

In Arizona, for instance, Governor Jan Brewer recently put her signature on a “life begins at menstruation” bill. The joke by Yippie Abbie Hoffman was that “Jews don’t believe a fetus has life until it gets its graduate degree.” A funny joke perhaps but, in the abortion debate, when life begins is a non-issue for Jews. Menstruation, you say? Fine if that gives you some perverted thrill. But don’t deny women from my religious family the right to control their own bodies, as our religion permits, just because your religion claims that ownership of your women’s bodies should be in the hands of old men who supposedly don’t have sex.

Catholic law as argued by the hierarchy and their followers is absolute on the issue of abortion: “We don’t give a damn what it does to the woman; all power to the fetus.” The position on abortion in Jewish law is nuanced but it ultimately comes down to “The mother’s life comes first.” Catholics call what they want to practice religious freedom but when they force their mythology and their dogma onto us it becomes religious imperialism.

So which is better, fetus-first Catholicism or mother-first Judaism? There obviously is no correct answer to please everyone, which is why the First Amendment right to freedom of religion is so important. But that right doesn’t apply only to Catholics. If Catholic law has a valid place in the debate about health care, so must other religions, and no religion’s dogma should be enshrined in federal or state law to the detriment of any other.

I look forward to reading my first Jewish pro-choice novel. Love Means Second Chances is a model of how that can be done.