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The Rural We: Jonathan Lerner

Writer Jonathan Lerner became a full-time activist at the age of 19, joining the staff of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1969, the militant Weatherman faction took over SDS. Lerner was one of its founders, the editor of its newspaper, and a member of the group until its demise in 1976. He’s now a contributing editor to Landscape Architecture Magazine and a writing and communications consultant for design professionals. His articles on architecture, art and design, environment, food and travel have appeared in Metropolis, National Geographic Traveler, The WSJ, Town & Country, Travel+Leisure, The Washington Post and many other publications. He’s the author of the novels “Caught in a Still Place” and “Alex Underground.” A Columbia Land Conservancy supporter and the Chair of the Hudson Conservation Advisory Council, Lerner lives with his husband, Peter Frank, in Hudson. He’ll read from and discuss his new memoir about his time with the SDS and The Weathermen, “Swords in the Hands of Children,” on Sunday, June 11 at 5 p.m. at Hudson Hall.

I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland. My grandparents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and my parents lived the “American dream.” For a while, we lived in Taiwan because my dad was in the State Department, which was rare for Jew at that time. In the early ‘60s, after we had moved back to the States, where people were just coming to consciousness about the “American dream,” civil rights and the Vietnam War. Maybe because of having traveled, I was a kid who was aware of those contradictions. I think that has a lot to do with why I ended up as a radical, although millions of others did the same thing. We grew up in a time of affluence and the promise wasn’t being matched by what we saw on TV – black people being teargassed and firehosed for trying to vote, villages in Vietnam being torched.

I went off to college at Antioch in 1965. I wasn’t particularly political, but Antioch had a long political history, and I was involved in guerilla theater that was meant to encourage people to go off to demonstrations. I dropped out after two years and went to New York City, thinking I’d do theater. Within a couple of months, things were heating up, demonstrations were turning violent. War was making us crazy and the demonstrations weren’t making a difference. I joined the staff of SDS, and that was an odd thing because I’d never even been to a meeting, but I was asked and I was 19 and in New York City, and this was a chance to be a part of something. A couple of years later, out of that the Weathermen emerged.

What I’ll be reading at Hudson Hall is a section about SDS and what it felt like living that every day. The reason I want to read that is because there’s so much newly aroused activism, which is partly why I wrote the book. I want to give people a sense that this has happened before, there are lessons to be drawn, and there are dimensions of the ‘60s that they don’t know about. The book is going to give me a sort of platform. Most people are surprised to discover this about me because I haven’t been much of an activist recently. They say, “Really? You?

I hadn’t been thinking about writing this book, but a publisher I know asked me to write it and to write it fast because people were craving a way to figure out how to act and what to do. At first I thought I’d said everything I had to say, but this is an important piece of history that’s not very well understood. I had a really, really fun time writing it. It’s been so long that I have no axes to grind. Others have written books — some are apologists for us, some are more critical — but I just tell it and it’s not ideological or political. Hopefully, that will make it accessible for people.

I have no idea what to tell people to do, but there are things I want to say about attitudes. Be careful, think about conserving your energy for the long haul, and think critically even though you feel swept up.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 05/30/17 at 04:06 PM • Permalink