Tuesday, January 8, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle
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 communist assault.
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 popular culture.
Charles Solomon has written about comic strips and manga for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and National Public Radio.