From SDS to SSDP (We are Devo)

“Carl Oglesby dies at 76; led Students for a Democratic Society,” was the headline on the obit in the LA Times. The description of SDS seems accurate (although nobody ever called it “the SDS”):

 “The SDS had been founded in 1960 at the University of Michigan, and its early declaration, the Port Huron Statement, helped embody the idealism of the early ’60s. The SDS supported civil rights and opposed the nuclear arms race. It was strongly critical of the U.S. government, and called for greater efforts to fight poverty and big business. By the mid-’60s, when Oglesby joined, the U.S. had committed ground troops to Vietnam and the SDS had expanded nationwide, with a more radical purpose.”

During Carl’s time as president (the 1965-’66 academic year), SDSers helped organize “teach-ins” on U.S. campuses —an innovative tactic that he promoted and participated in to the hilt. A teach-in is basically a set of talks on a political subject, with ample time for questions and discussion.  For a good account of the seminal March ’65 teach-in at UMich, click here.

Carl was eloquent and persuasive. In high school in Ohio he had been a state-champion debater. Todd Gitlin correctly described him to the obit writers as “the great orator of the white new left.” Both the LA Times obit and Margalit Fox’s in the New York Times acknowledge the impact of Carl’s speech at an antiwar rally in Washington in the fall of ’65.  Fox wrote, “He condemned the ‘corporate liberalism’ -American economic interests disguised as anti-Communist benevolence- that, he argued, underpinned the Vietnam War.” Backstage that day Carl had suggested to Judy Collins that she speak and he sing. “She almost went for it,” he said.


1965-66 was when millions of young, white Americans began smoking pot. “For the first time at an SDS meeting people smoked marijuana,” Kirk Sale wrote  about ’65 in his history of the organization. Almost nobody regarded it as medicine or knew that extracts of the herb had been widely used in that way, legally.

Carl Oglesby was the first person I knew who used marijuana consciously for medical effect. He had mild epilepsy, and dreaded the prospect of having a petit-mal episode while giving a speech. When he first smoked marijuana in the mid-’60s, he realized it would fend off seizures, and his confidence soared. When I knew him he also used mj for disinhibition, inspiration, improved mood, etc.  When we talked c. 1990 he told me he had given it up, but I can’t remember why and I don’t know if he started using in later years when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s, and then lung cancer.

Although our expressions of dissent grew louder and stronger, Lyndon Johnson kept ordering more and more GIs to Vietnam and escalated the bombing. A generation that had grown up in the aftermath of World War II -when all the other industrial economies were in ruins and the our role as Americans, supposedly, was to help heal and rebuild the world along just, rational lines- was ashamed to realize that “we” had taken over where the British and French and Dutch left off as imperial powers. We were humiliated by pictures of huts with thatched roofs on fire and peasant women fleeing with babies in their arms. “Who made us the cops of the world?” was a question that more and more Americans were asking.

The heavier U.S. military involvement in Vietnam became, the higher the death toll, the more our shame turned to outrage. In many cases, the outrage turned to desperation and madness. In 1968 a group known as “the Weathermen” took over SDS and expelled Carl and others who dissed their efforts to initiate “armed struggle” in the U.S.

Carl and I were close friends in this period as the ’60s came crashing down and our wives left us and our allies rejected our advice and we tried to find consolation in marijuana and guitars. Carl, whose dad had worked at an Akron tire plant, described his relationship to the “new left” in a song that began

They called him the working-class stranger
And he turned to the people just to have him a little fun
Saying “What will you do my good buddies
When the bosses get through telling you that you’ve won?”

In the winter of 1970-71 he summed up the movement’s achievement in four words: “Cultural victory, political defeat.” I moved back to San Francisco in the fall of ’71 and we drifted apart. We would talk on the phone once in a blue moon, and stayed connected on a level deeper than ideology.

In the’70s Carl did original research exposing the extent to which Nazis had been recruited as U.S. government operatives after World War Two. He wrote two books challenging the official version of the JFK assassination, and contributed to another by Jim Garrison, the ex-DA of New Orleans. He entertainingly (but incorrectly, I thought) espoused a theory about capital being split between Northeastern (“Yankee”) and Southwestern (“Cowboy”) factions. A play he’d written about the Hatfield and McCoys was produced in Boston and had a short run. It was great, but never made it to Broadway.

He cut two records for Vanguard, and I gather they’ve been brought out as one CD, “Sailing to Damascus,” the title of the second record. If you want to hear that clear, intelligent voice, check out this.

In 2008 Scribner’s published Ravens in the Storm, the book about SDS he’d been revising over the years. Last time we talked he said he had crossed paths with Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn, a key figure in the book. Bernardine had told him, quietly and seriously, the words he’d been longing to hear from her: “I’m sorry.”

That was Then, This is Now 

Compare the names “Students for a Democratic Society” and “Students for a Sensible Drug Policy” and you see what became of the movement of the 1960s: it splintered into a thousand single-interest groups and sub-groups, each pursuing its own “issue” rather than fundamental social change.

Carl Oglesby and the early SDS leaders understood and carried the message that the U.S. is controlled by corporate elites and that students have a key role to play turning it into an actual democracy. “Students for a Sensible Drug Policy” implies that America is a functioning democracy and that students can effectively pursue their interests by legislative means.

SSDP has been funded since its inception in 1998 by the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA leader Ethan Nadelmann receives millions of dollars annually from George Soros to allocate as he thinks Mr. Soros would see fit. SSDP’s focus has been opposition to provisions in the Higher Education Act of ’98, which denied Pell Grants and other federally backed loans to students convicted on drug charges. This is a very laudable goal, but it’s also a tactical constraint, as if lobbying legislators was the pinnacle of activism.

The appeal of a small, legislative reform like amending the Higher Education Act is that it seems achievable. But the elites are most likely to grant small, finite reforms when we, the people are making heavier demands —in other words, they throw us reforms as a sop. In early August Dale Gieringer of California NORML observed that the Israeli government led by the rightwinger Netenyahu had authorized a medical-marijuana distribution program, while the U.S. government led by the liberal Obama was cracking down on previously tolerated mmj distribution. Dale didn’t note the context in which Netenyahu  acted: more than a quarter million Israelis, led by students, were camped out in “tent cities” in parks and public squares through the country to protest the cost of living and the extreme disparity of wealth and power. A rough equivalent would be 8 or 10 million young Americans camping out to demand forgiveness of their student loans —a thousand Burning Mans.

Perhaps SSDP should organize teach-ins focused on the unfairness and cruelty of being made to start life with a huge burden of debt. If that would be too “off-topic” for their funders, how about teach-ins on medical marijuana, demanding that Student Health Services approve its use instead of pushing Wellbutrin, et al? The SHS director at each campus could be invited to speak… along with doctors from the Society of Cannabis Clinicians who actually understand the subject.  Just an idea…

‘Bye Carl… Bleeding with whiskey I dream of my old Cherokee. 

Fred Gardner was once a political organizer.  He can be reached at fredgardner@projectcbd.org

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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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