Remembering the First Vietnam Antiwar Teach-in

Ann Arbor-area friends, please join Vietnam-era and current antiwar activists and academics at the University of Michigan campus this coming Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26, for a Teach-In for Peace to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s first antiwar teach-in, which was held at UM in 1965. It will be a time to look back to the events and lessons of the Vietnam era and an opportunity to discuss ways to apply those lessons to the current atmosphere.

The three days of panel discussions will be followed by “Teach-In +50: End the War Against the Planet” at Angell Hall on Friday and Saturday.

I’ll be speaking on Wednesday from 3:00-5:30 p.m. at the School of Social Work Commons on a panel with John Marciano, Jack Rothman, Bert Garskof, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers.

I hope to see you there.

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.

Chicago Friends and Friends-to-Be: Please Join Me at Printers Row Lit Fest

Words matter, who says them, their context, their connotations.  That’s why veterans of the Vietnam era now have to write their memoirs to reclaim the story line that the right wing has twisted. But that also was a lesson we learned during the Vietnam era. And so that’s why we had to create our own media to end the war.

That media was called the underground press.

The underground press was the antiwar press, the non-corporate press, the dissident press. Underground papers were everywhere. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them. They were published and read in high schools, in college communities, in big cities and small, in expatriate communities of Canada, and overseas.

There were over 400 papers published by or directed to members of the military, all branches, at bases in the U.S. and around the world. When the right wing said “Support the troops” even as they sent soldiers overseas to die needlessly and then spit on them by cutting the education benefits of those who survived, these were the troops I most supported.

Underground papers were unanimous in their opposition to the war but they spoke to their own unique audiences. Papers in my four-volume Voices from the Underground Series represent the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian-American, military, prisoners’ rights, psychedelic, rank-and-file, Southern consciousness, new age, and other voices of the what was known as the counterculture.

When an earlier version of Voices from the Underground first found print in 1993, the stories were met with rave reviews from those in the media who understood that the U.S. had been the bad guy in Vietnam. But the country overall was not ready to accept any U.S. image other than that created by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

Today, after a string of invasions of one form or another that include Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Chile, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, our image is sadly but deservedly tarnished and patroits are looking again for lessons from Vietnam.

So, soon after a review copy of volume 1 arrived at the Chicago Tribune in late January, I received an invitation from the organizer of the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Fest to speak at this year’s event. I’m deeply honored and excited about the opportunity to share stories, re-unite with old friends, meet veterans and students of the period, and answer questions.

If you’re from Chicago or anywhere nearby, I hope you can make it. I’ll be appearing twice:

Saturday, 6/4/2011, 10 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.

Program:  Ken Wachsberger in conversation with Bill Ayers 

Location:  Hotel Blake


Sunday, 6/5/2011, 1 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.

Program:  Panel Discussion: Matthew Carlson, Matthew Ehrlich, and Ken Wachsberger moderated by Alison Cuddy, to be broadcast on C-SPAN

Location:  University Center/Lake Room

If you missed the period, this will be a major adventure for you, and a good time.

After my talk Saturday and before my talk Sunday, I’ll be hanging out with my friends from the Chicago chapter of the National Writers Union at Table 247, located on Dearborn Street between Harrison and Polk Streets.

I look forward to seeing you there. If you can’t make it but are interested in purchasing the book, you can order it through my website.

Feminist Author Susan Brownmiller to Write Foreword to Volume 3

I am delighted to announce that Susan Brownmiller has agreed to write a foreword to volume 3 of the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series.

Susan is one of the pioneer leaders of the second wave of the feminist movement that burst forth in the sixties and seventies and is still changing the world. Her first book, the groundbreaking Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, redefined rape forever as a feminist issue. She has been a supporter of the Voices from the Underground Series since it first came out in its earlier iteration in 1993.

Not long after the first edition went out of print, long before it had reached its sales potential (a story for another time), I received a phone call from Susan. She was at the time in the process of writing her history of the feminist movement, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, and she needed a copy of Voices for her research. She said, “Hi, Ken, this is Susan Brownmiller.” I thought to myself, “Susan Brownmiller!” Honestly I can’t remember if I expressed my surprise out loud. Okay, I admit it, I felt like a groupie because she was an important figure in a movement that I at times followed and at other times led (I’m talking about the general antiwar/countercultural movement, not the feminist movement) but at all times respected highly and loved being a part of. Sadly I wasn’t able to help her—my personal supply of books to sell was already gone. Fortunately Marilyn Webb, whose story of the founding of off our backs, the first major feminist paper to emerge on the east coast, appears in the just-released first volume of the four-volume series, was able to help Susan. Marilyn’s story is footnoted several times in Susan’s book.

I never forgot that incident, so while I was working on this new edition I contacted Susan and asked her for a testimonial quote. Generously, she came through. Her quote appears on the back cover of volume 1, along with quotes from Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, and Chris Atton, professor of media and culture at Scotland’s Edinburgh Napier University. Here’s what Susan wrote:

What a boon to historians! Ken Wachsberger’s Voices from the Underground is crucial to an understanding of the literary and political history of the 1960s counterculture movement. This valuable resource must stay in print, if only for academics who wish to study the amazing phenomenon of the alternative newspapers, put together by amateurs, that sprang up across the country in those fervent years. Wachsberger’s material, largely in the form of “how we did it” memoirs, is rich in personal histories and anecdotal details that are collected nowhere else.

So when I visited her on my next trip to New York I expected her to tell me how much she loved the book. Instead she said, “You don’t have enough on the feminist press. You need to include It Aint Me Babe.” I tried to explain to her that I already had off our backs and The Furies, the lesbian feminist paper put out by the legendary Furies collective, and that, while the book contained representative writings of the different genres of underground papers, it didn’t pretend to be comprehensive. But she insisted the feminist papers deserved more. She told me to contact Laura X, whose interview with a rape victim in Berkeley had inspired Susan to write Against Our Will.

Laura X is legendary in feminist lore as the premier archivist of the feminist movement. She embraced my invitation and pulled together other key figures from Berkeley’s It Aint Me Babe, the first major feminist underground paper, to tell their story for the first time. The lead author is Bonnie Eisenberg, founder of Babe, but she received critical help from Laura, Trina Robbins, Starr Goode, and Alta. Appendices are by Laura, who writes about her archives, and Trina Robbins, one of the pioneer feminist comix artists, who helped to break through the men’s-only barrier.

The story of It Aint Me Babe appears in volume 3, which will be out next year, so it was only natural for me to invite Susan.

I am truly honored that she accepted my invitation.

And, incidentally, she was right. I needed to include It Aint Me Babe.

Ken Opens the First Box

I opened the first box of books last night after a ceremonial dinner at our favorite Middle East restaurant. We’ve been there so many times, and we’re so consistent at what we order, that as soon as the waitress saw us, she said, “Your order’s on.” A good sign. As usual, their food portions were so generous, we both brought home leftovers.

We settled in for the evening. Emily handed me a kitchen knife and said, “The honor is yours.” Then she sat down on the living room chair by the kitchen and let me take over.

I opened the box with excitement and some misgivings. What if the front cover didn’t look good? What if there was an obvious typographical error on the back cover?

I had lots of questions like that but, honestly, those were secondary. MSU Press has a crack team of editors and I myself had looked at the manuscript files and then the page proofs so many times I knew there would be few errors. (But not “no errors”—after forty years of writing and editing, I’m still looking for that holy grail of books, the one with no human error.)

What I really was thinking was that this was the end of an era for me. So many years had passed between the first edition, which went out of print way too early almost seventeen years ago, and this second edition that I had become used to the emptiness, the sense of incompleteness, the frustration of knowing that what deserved to be out there generating excitement and educating young activists was just taking up space on my hard drive. I know they say that the good thing about hitting your head against a wall is that it feels so good when you stop, but if you’re not careful you can start telling yourself that the hitting part itself feels good. I’ve done it, even though intellectually I know it’s crazy. And then you become afraid to stop.

Okay, therapists will tell you you might also simply have a fear of success. Could be.

What I know is that my every day is filled with head trips that push me forward and pull me back, often at the same time. And that’s on a normal day. This time I shut out all of them and with a firm hand and a serrated blade sliced the packing tape. Styrofoam bubbles, compressed to fit inside the flaps of the box, suddenly burst to their full size and a few fell to the floor. I pushed aside the others and carefully took out a shrink-wrapped packet of four books. I paused for a second. Then I sliced open the cellophane and released one book from the others. That would become Emily’s book.

I just held it. No, I didn’t smell it. That seemed a bit too cliché-ish. But I admired its shine. I admired the red-rimmed, orange ball on the top right-hand corner that said “Voices from the Underground.” All four books in the series will have that same ball, to connect them for marketing purposes, although they will be different color combinations to distinguish one book from the other. And, yes, my name was spelled correctly on the bottom of the page.

I put two of the books on the stairs. Those will be for Carrie and David. The fourth I saved for myself, to carry with me everywhere I go.

Emily went to the kitchen for the wine—white pinot grigio was her choice—while I went downstairs to the TV room and took my favorite spot on the couch. When she came down, I was somewhat mesmerized by the book that I held in my hands so she stood there holding two glasses of wine and waited for me to stand up and take mine. Then we toasted. She toasted to my success. I toasted to her incredible patience and love that enabled her to stick with me during my craziest days. She said, “I know.” I let her have the last word because I knew, too.

Then we admired the book. Emily commented right away that she liked the cover. I myself hadn’t been as impressed with it when I was reviewing the page proofs. It shows a typewriter, the idea, of course, being to show the technology in the sixties as compared to now. I got the point but I had wanted something a little wilder, to show the artistry of the sixties. But I agreed that the cover was attractive, even if it wasn’t my idea.

We leafed through the pages and noted the comparison between this edition and the first. Its 7 x 10, 1-column layout is a lot airier than the original 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format. It will be much easier to read. For this one, I found lots of appealing graphics, including cover images of underground papers that are highlighted and photos of personalities from the time. The first edition was copy heavy, with hardly any images at all. Emily said she liked the typeface, which was clean and modern. She read the contributors’ collective dedication and was not surprised to see her name, David’s, and Carrie’s included. I pointed out my references to them that conclude my editor’s preface.

The back cover includes my bio along with testimonial quotes from Bill Ayers, Professor of Media and Culture from Scotland Chris Atton, Susan Brownmiller, and Tom Hayden. To them, and to the many other academics, activists, and media reviewers who embraced the first edition and now have embraced this edition with their kind words, I am humbly grateful.

The rest of the evening was spent in low-key talking, sharing stories from the past and visions of the future. For both of us, life has been good. It’s nice to have landmark moments to help you reflect on the whole picture.

Today while at Panera addressing envelopes to ship pre-orders, I sold my first post-publication book.