Interview of Susan Sherman by Bonny Finberg
INTERVIEWED BY BONNY FINBERG BF: Why do you think so many activists become less directly involved in political activism as they get older? Some, like Tom Hayden have entered mainstream politics, others have maintained a revolutionary stance in response to politics and the world at large, but many have retreated from the front lines. Where are they? What are they doing?
SS: I don’t think it’s true many have become less directly involved. Maybe a handful of the more famous activists, and that might not even be true. We just don’t hear about them. I was at a memorial recently for Grace Paley that was held by the War Resister’s League and the Women’s Pentagon Action and it was full of people who were active in the Sixties, many even before, and are still struggling for social justice in many areas from mainstream politics to the anti-war movement to local struggles for fair housing. Much of the really important struggle takes place on a local level and that is just not “sexy” enough for the media to report. Also there has obviously been a concerted effort after the Sixties not to cover progressive politics or activity.
BF: How do you see your own activism manifested in your life now?
SS: In a number of ways. Through my writing, teaching, working with our union—we are affiliated with the UAW—at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College, both part of The New School, and through social justice work both community and nation based at Middle Church, a wonderfully diverse socially progressive community. And of course any demonstration that comes up, although that is harder for me now because of an injury which makes it difficult for me to walk.
BF: What issues are pivotal for you at this time? What about China and Tibet, for example? What do you see as the most important things relentless and passionate young activists should be putting their energy into? Do you see any indications that there is a youth movement? Is it a healthy one? Considering the state of things in the world at present, what do you think is necessary to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism today—How much worse does it have to get? Or is it a case of depleted energies and catastrophe/issue fatigue?
SS: We hardly have to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism given the situation in Iraq and the economic, environmental and social problems surrounding us today. I think that activism is all around us. Yes, it’s important to support Tibet, of course, but we have issues here at home that are vital—hurricane Katrina, survivors of which are still suffering and are scattered all over the US, the devastation in the Midwest, and the ever present issues of HIV/AIDS, sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice. As well as the myriad issues around immigration. Globalism is an overriding concern if these other issues are to be adequately addressed. There are all kinds of indications that a healthy youth movement is alive and well—and a healthy older movement too. The Obama campaign regardless of the nuances was built to a large extent on the need young people feel for greater social equity, for a life that has more meaning than just the number of objects you can acquire. We were lucky in a way in the Fifties and Sixties because products were not so slick and compelling and advertising was not so insidious and widespread. On the other hand while it is still in our hands we can use technology like the internet—just look at the influence of blogs, Youtube, organizations like Move On. I think people should put their energy into whatever issues move, excite, touch them most. I would recommend magazines like Colorlines, which focus on young people of color and the struggles they are engaged in at the present if you want to know what is happening now. BF: What direction does Cuba seem to be headed in from your point of view and how do you assess the “success” of the revolution?
SS: Again another very complex issue that would take a lot more than a simple answer to even begin to do justice to. When I was in Cuba in the Sixties—my last trip was in 1992—the Cubans liked to say that the rebellion succeeded in 1959 but that the revolution was an on-going process. I think we have a tendency here to think of things still in terms of beginning, middle, end instead of accepting the fact that all struggle is a process and a hugely complex one at that and ongoing. For specific information, analysis of the situation in Cuba I highly recommend a book by Margaret Randall, who figures prominently in my memoir, which will be published by Rutgers University Fall 2008 titled To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Margaret lived in Cuba for ten years during the revolution’s formative period and has much more information and analysis about the situation then and now.
BF: Can you talk about Marcuse and Hegel’s ideas on individual choice and self-determination based on reason and rational thought— what kind of forces they were for you and those around you, in trying to build a world based on these principles rather than accepting the forces and facts of life as “the way things are,” etc?
SS: I’m not sure how much Marcuse and Hegel were on people’s minds that were struggling to fight against the many threads of repression and violence in the Sixties, particularly in the United States—which I think is the period you were referring to in this question. The catalyst would be found more in the energy and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement. The recognition that underneath the surface there were layers and layers of injustice that had to be addressed. Young people joined others already engaged in struggle who felt that two cars in every garage was not the motivation that moved them, the future they looked forward to. Marcuse’s book, The One Dimensional Man, was important because it laid out the vacuousness and emptiness of the period. Marx, particularly early Marx and Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his incorporation of Hegel (turned on his head) into his theory of historical determinism were more widely read and discussed, particularly in respect to the resolution of contradiction—the old thesis, antithesis, synthesis, negation of negation! A more pertinent question today I think—not putting down the gentlemen you name—would be the growth of media and advertising and its subliminal appeal to emotional needs that extend from the smallest parts of our lives—the toothpaste we buy—to electing our most important officials. BF: Can you talk about the sources of memory for this book? You mention the destroyed correspondence and pictures necessitated by the need to protect people from government surveillance?
SS: We actually never took many photos in the Sixties because we never knew how they would be used and I did destroy a great deal of my correspondence in the middle Seventies when women from the women’s movement were being targeted by the grand juries. That is a whole other story. Fortunately I kept letters from Margaret Randall who I had an extensive correspondence with during the Sixties. I actually had to go to the NYU library to get my corresponding letters to her—my letters are archived there with in El Corno Emplumado collection. I had some essays and articles, which were published at the time, from which I could get valuable specifics about my trips to England and Cuba. I did some research. But for the most part relying on my memory wasn’t really a problem since the incidents in the book for the most part were highlights of those years I wasn’t likely to forget!
BF: What do you feel was left out of this book that in, retrospect, you wish you’d included? SS: I would have liked to have taken the book to at least 1975 to include the women’s and gay liberation movements, a trip to Chile, the end of the Vietnam War and in 1975 a very important summer session at Sagaris, a feminist institute where I served on the faculty. But I felt that, as it was, there was a lot of information packed into one book. Who knows maybe some day I’ll write America’s Child Part Two! To repeat what I wrote in the last chapter of the book I feel what we call the Sixties really extended from the late Fifties until 1975 and that in actuality that period, even if extended, has to be viewed within a continuum of struggle in the United States. It cannot be compartmentalized. BF: Yes, I completely agree. I think books such as yours can serve as inspiration and hope for each generation of activists that come along to continue the struggle. I hope America’s Child Part Two is on your front burner.