One Minute You’re Changing Diapers,
The Next Minute You’re Committing Civil Disobedience

By Lydia Sargent

 

For our tenth birthday, Z will begin an ongoing series of articles called "Being Left." Activists will talk personally about what made them political, what keeps them going, and their hopes for the future. As the designated lead off writer, I immediately wanted to satirize my personal story, then felt that would not be in the proper spirit. But the essay format bores me, so the only way I could manage the assignment was by interviewing myself. Recently, I talked with myself over the phone.

 

Where did your views begin? How did you "become" left or radical?

I have no idea.

Uh, is that all you’re going to say? This will be a short interview.

I just wanted to illustrate a personality quirk that may have led to my being radical, i.e., an innate perversity when asked to do something.

Even when the person doing the asking is your own self? Weird. Okay, let me rephrase. Don’t you dare tell us how you "became" left.

Nice try. But I really don’t know how it happened. In the early days of South End Press, whenever new staff joined the collective, we would go around the room and each person would tell about how they became "political"—what influenced them, what keeps them going, and so on. We do the same thing at Z Media Institute. It reminds us that being left is about the total human being, not just their abstract macro political discussions. The only thing we seemed to have in common is that at some point we had all become concerned enough about a particular injustice to become active and thereby to change the course of our lives.

So in your case…?

Well, I was raised to be a conservative Republican, Presbyterian upper class wife. I was located in that culture, and there was a culture, believe me. But the culture was so phony that it didn’t take much to chuck it all and "become left." It really did seem like one minute I was in high school reading Green Mansions and Lorna Doone, the next minute I was devouring all five diaries of Anais Nin, plus the Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, and raging against the patriarchy.

One minute I was in high school learning about U.S. democracy by studying monarchies and colonial empires, dreaming the 1950’s dream of marrying a WASP corporate lawyer and living happily ever after as his well-educated helpmate, his Mrs., the mother of his children. My training even included three years of golf lessons so I could play with my husband and his business partners and compare recipes with the other wives as we trotted around well kept greens. The next minute I was starting a national book publishing collective, publishing books protesting U.S. imperial- ism and exposing our so-called democracy.

One minute I was a "housewife," changing diapers as the mother of three children under three years of age, the next minute I was helping plan a civil disobedience demonstration where 5,000 people blocked the entrances to Boston’s Federal Building to protest the Vietnam War.

So you’re saying you were swept along by circumstances? You were in the wrong place at the right time, or what?

Yeah. Okay, I did make some choices, and there were some indications along the way. But if the 1960s hadn’t happened, I’d be in serious trouble.

What kind of indications?

The usual things: hatred of authority, hatred for injustice, realizing that my father wasn’t God, and that God, as projected by institutionalized religion, was an idiotic concept. Around 1958 some of us went to Madison Square Garden to the Billy Graham Crusade, which was a big deal then. At the end of the evening, Graham asked people to come forward and commit to Christ. This was a big thing. Some of us were really moved and we went forward. We were around 16-years-old. Everyone’s singing and it’s beautiful—it’s a peak experience, for chrissakes. Then they took us downstairs to fill out forms, and the first thing they asked after they got our names and addresses was "how much can you give?" They meant money, of course. Needless to say, we left religion and the Crusade in the dust.

Also, realizing that the people my parents thought were superior (i.e., upper class WASPs) were hypocrites and jerks and, in many cases, liars. Realizing, going to an all girl school, that there was something wrong with seeing girls excel at everything when there were no boys around, then seeing girls turn into "obsequious marshmallows" when boys were around.

Where did your political views begin, then? Was there a defining moment, when you became left?

Well, in college in the early ‘60s, anything was considered left. Actually, it was considered beatnik. Attending a folk concert in your dorm living room or having long unpermed hair were considered revolutionary acts by the powers that be.

So much happened between 1963 and 1969, it affected almost everyone, unless you were in the KKK or something. I actually campaigned for Richard Nixon (whose daughter was in my sister’s class at school) in 1961, because my parents said he would ruin the country by making everyone turn Catholic. In spite of all my indoctrination, even I could tell that something was wrong when JFK was assassinated. Then RFK and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the death’s of three civil rights workers, the escalation of the Vietnam War and subsequent protests, the counter culture, the peace/love cultural revolution, Kent State, Black power, the early women’s movement. These things trickled down to my liberal suburb outside Boston.

So you were open to a change in the status quo?

Looking back, I think there were three moments that moved me from spectator to participant. First, my then father-in-law, who read IF Stone’s Weekly regularly, got into a discussion with me about the Vietnam War. My position at the time (this was 1967-68) was that, sure it was a terrible war, but the U.S. was only trying to help, so we should stay there and help. It took about an hour to convince me that this was a ludicrous and badly informed position. So much for 25 years of mainstream propaganda, taught in the best schools money and prestige could buy. After this discussion, I felt I had to stop that war.

The next thing that happened was that I read Anais Nin’s five diaries. This was a revolutionary feminist act in 1968. Some of the local moms used to get together, partly because our kids hung out together. Through this grapevine we started talking about feminism and that’s where I heard about the diaries and one book lead to another… After that I knew I had to do something about my own identity. I felt I had been subsumed in roles created by others, and they were killing me psychologically.

My liberal suburb had a peace group and they were getting signatures on a Congressional amendment to stop the war. So I decided to work with them. I collected signatures, then I went to my first march/demonstration on Boston Common. There were over 200,000 people there. Then I marched in Washington with 250,000. Then Brookline PAX began fielding candidates for the state legislature who were against the war and who, if elected, would actively oppose it. One of these candidates was a woman and I decided to work for her campaign. She lost, but later she told me that an anti-war group called the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) was looking for staff volunteers, and would I like to do it. After eight years isolated in the house, in the suburbs, with three children, I was going berserk.

So I (after consulting/informing my husband, can you believe it), became part of the staff of the Boston PCPJ. They were organizing for the Mayday demonstrations in Washington and a rally in Boston, followed by a rock concert, followed by a sleep over in local churches, and a civil disobedience early the next morning at the Federal Building. This was all part of the slogan "If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government."

When you walked into that PCPJ office, what were your hopes for your own involvement and for what PCPJ could accomplish?

I wanted to stop that war. I thought it was possible to do that. Beyond that, I don’t know. Later, I wanted an identity. Basically my identity had ended with high school where I was very active and gung ho: writing class plays, acting int hem, playing on all the sports teams. In college I was president of the modern dance club and a theater major, but unless you had a particular field of study related to a future career, you were marking time until you found a husband. So, I basically died when I graduated high school. My political work became a way to recreate myself.

When I first started working in that PCPJ office, I realized that the 25 years of propaganda had worked after all. I was clueless. Either you accepted the mainstream version of things or you became passively cynical and disaffected. But you didn’t go out and do something about it much less develop a critique of it or struggle to change it.

While I was clueless, everyone else in the group represented some organization or other and seemed to have been radical from birth, with their critiques down pat. So I spent most of my early years in the movement trying to get someone to explain who was who and what was what. There seemed to be crucial differences between pacifists and anarchists and socialists, between the demand "Out Now," and the demand "End the War," and lots of other stuff I couldn’t figure out. The only person who tried to explain things to me was the youth representative from the Communist Party USA, although I didn’t know he was in the CP at the time.

Really? What happened there?

Well, it was like the Billy Graham experience. I was there to stop a war being waged for reasons of State, not to be recruited into some party or other, and if that’s why they were there—forget it.

So how did your views develop? And have they changed over the years?

At first my views developed by listening to discussions in anti-war meetings and trying to ferret out what sounded sensible and what seemed off the wall or motivated by self interest or some party line. And you couldn’t help but notice gender and race politics in the office and in meetings.

I suppose if I hadn’t been so glad to be out of the house, it would have been daunting. I was working with leaders of organizations, the Chicago Seven, Weatherpeople, etc. But I thought I was in heaven. I was instantly empowered, compared to mainstream life. Over the course of 25 years, I learned a lot of skills, including how to think critically.

So what happened. The war ended eventually. What did you do?

U.S. involvement in Vietnam never really ended. The policies that put us there continue. But around 1974 it became impossible to do anti-war work any more. I worked briefly with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Indochina Peace Campaign, which was designed to keep people informed about what was going on after the signing of the peace accords. But it was depressing. People wanted to close that chapter and get on with their lives. Also, I had gotten divorced and I needed to earn some money.

So did you have a plan then? What were you going to be doing through the year 2000?

I wasn’t going back to my pre-movement existence. I didn’t really have a plan. I had begun to develop a more concrete politics, seeing the Vietnam War not as some isolated incident but as part of an imperial policy. I definitely wanted to learn more, but I wasn’t about to read nine million volumes of Marx and Co.

I do remember reading a lot, mainly books from Monthly Review and Feminist Press. And Ramparts Magazine . Some of us formed a political education group to study politics and work on developing a coherent new left politics. Someone jokingly called it "the Grapple Group," because we were grappling with large issues, but it didn’t last. It felt too much like school, I guess.

Somewhere in this process, though, I read Abraham Maslow’s essay "Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences." I felt this weight lifting after I read that book. See, one problem we rarely deal with as radicals is the whole question of human nature. I had learned, mostly through parents and church, the duality of human nature: people are part good and part evil. To some, the main function of "civilized" society is to control the evil side. History, then, is the never ending struggle of good over evil. Which made being left even more difficult than it already was. Any argument with someone would end with them saying: "Well, human nature is flawed; there will always be wars and killing, and your vision of a better society is impossible and utopian because there will always be people who are greedy, murdering, bigoted monsters." The Maslow essay suggested to me that this might not be true; that people might actually be basically good and well motivated. I went from being cynical about the possibilities to being extremely hopeful about human nature.

Eventually I went back to school to get a masters in education so I could teach sports in the Boston school system and make some kind of a living. I also went to an audition for a part in a local theater group. I got the part and ended up becoming president of that group within the next year. We started doing political news theater based on The Living Newspaper of the 1930s. Around that time, we also started South End Press (1976-77) and later Z Magazine (1988). My political work since then has been through media (most Z readers are familiar with that history—see Octobe<W0>r) and through writing and theater..

How would you evaluate your political involvement over the years? Would you do anything differently?

I don’t think so. Sometimes I wish for things. I wish I’d gotten involved sooner. I wish I’d been more aware. I wish I hadn’t been raised to be a decorative, well-educated, dependent marshmallow. That kind of thing. I do think that when the Vietnam War was winding down, we should have found a way to build a mass new Left institution of some kind. Even if it was just a school where we taught radical politics. We should have kept moving forward. The things we were criticizing about our country, culture, and institutions didn’t end with the signing of the Peace Accords.

But there were lots of people who stayed active.

True. People who were very committed then seem to have stayed with it. But there was no attempt to keep us together in a movement with a common goal.

Also, I wish we had kept more lasting records of what went on and what had been accomplished: the newspapers started, the poster art, the discussions and debates. There were no movement archivists. There have been individual autobiographies and some limited histories of this year or that, but we should have kept records and published histories.

This is true of South End Press and Z as well. There is no detailed record of how we started a media institution around the principles of workplace democracy. I have some of the early material, a history could be written, but I doubt if it ever will. When we were about to start South End Press we found a book about the Left Book Clubs in England. It was inspiring to read because they did a lot of the things we were planning to do, yet we never considered that our story should be written and passed down as well.

Personally, I constantly feel that I didn’t do enough. Which is strange, since for years, at South End Press and at Z , we worked from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. At the same time, I was writing and acting in plays in Boston.

I always feel I could have done more. We had plans for lots more projects: cultural caravans, collective distribution centers, radical reading rooms, newspapers, etc. At some point, around the late 1980s, things kind of closed in. Political work became office work. In the early days of South End, we did things like leafleting movie theaters about our books. We went to book fairs in England, Germany, and Nicaragua. We visited Solidarity in Poland. We visited publishers in Cuba. We met with similar publishing projects in the UK. Now...

Why do you keep doing it? What keeps you going?

The work, for one thing. I actually enjoy creating media. The comments from readers, for another. People put the most wonderful comments on their subscription order forms. Because I feel I’m doing something important. Because it feels good to "be left." Because I’m hopeful about change.

What do you think are the most important needs of contemporary activism, to be more effective and powerful?

I think of my earlier involvement and a few things stand out. First, that initial discussion of Vietnam. No one told me I was stupid. No one yelled at me. It was a discussion of the facts. And the facts resonated with my experience in a way that made me say, "Yeah, this seems to be a more accurate description of our country than the one I learned in school." Also I had no vested interest in holding on to my point of view. We need to keep doing that kind of thing. I don’t mean arguing with those in power. I mean organizing those who are just like us, who basically want to do the right thing.

Once my consciousness had changed there were things I could do. There were campaigns, actions, research groups. There were places I could go to help and learn skills and grow. We need to have more places like that and ways for people to find them.

The events that had the most effect on me, living in the mainstream, were the ones that were clearly about injustice and that demonstrated to me, inspite of the spin mainstream media put on them, courage and integrity. So I was struck most by the actions of the civil rights movement; the 1967 demonstration circling the Pentagon. The pouring of blood on the draft files. The throwing of money at the Stock Exchange. These were clear, effective, and courageous confrontations with power. We need these kinds of protests.

Also, when I first joined the movement, I felt an overwhelming sense of community. Not the kind of social gathering I had grown up with where people of the same class and culture are obligated to have cocktail parties and smile and act friendly in the midst of a highly competitive world. The movement community was united around confronting the misuse of power, of fighting for justice. That’s something we need to have back again.

Find ways to stay human, not become some political automaton. You can hate our institutions and our culture, and still enjoy movies, TV, sports, shopping, and taking a vacation.

What are the primary lessons you hope new generations of activists will take from your generation’s efforts?

Find something to do and keep doing it and keep a history of it. Don’t shut up about it and don’t give up. No matter what. If I can go from being a debutante at the Junior League Ball in 1959, who campaigns for Nixon in 1960 to keep JFK from "making everyone in the country become a communist and a catholic," to being an organizer of one of the largest sit-ins at a Federal Building, to co-editing Z Magazine and satirizing my right wing patriarchal past, clearly huge changes are always possible.