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Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary

Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary
Francis Scott Key, 2120
Thursday, November 15, 2018 - 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM

Please join the Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies on November 15th for a lunch talk with Jonathan Lerner.

Jonathan Lerner dropped out of Antioch College in 1967 and became a full-time activist on the staff of Students for a Democratic Society, the principal organization of the New Left. He was a founding member of the militant Weatherman faction, which took over SDS in 1969, and editor of its newspaper Fire!. He remained a member of the Weather Underground, while it carried out a campaign of bombings, until its demise in 1976. Later he became a journalist focusing mostly on architectural, urbanist and environmental issues, and is currently a contributing editor to Landscape Architecture Magazine. He is also the author of the novels Caught in a Still Place and Alex Underground. He now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he chairs his small city's Conservation Advisory Council.

In his memoir Swords in the Hands of Children, Jonathan Lerner, a founding member of the radical Weatherman faction (later the Weather Underground Organization) examines how a desire to save the world can morph into a drive to burn it down.

Lerner was 20 in 1968, "a year of such cascading disaster that it felt to many people, including me, that there could be no rescuing the broken promises of American Democracy." Though he has long since moved on, recent political events in the U.S. stirred him to revisit the radical militancy of his youth.

A white, middle-class suburban kid from a liberal family, Lerner began his activism as a teenager inspired by the civil rights movement. He dropped out of college to become a full-time activist with Students for a Democratic Society, partly motivated by his desire to "humanize" the world. He was also a closeted gay man, and he connects his private self-criticism and self-deception with his willingness to become involved in the Weatherman. "The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn't identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults usually don't."

Members romanticized violent resistance and embraced an isolating self-righteousness. They attempted to partner with the Black Panthers, in a "toxic ecosystem of sycophancy, bullying, degraded principle, and madness." Lerner was not directly involved in the infamous bombings, "just because I was never asked." His story of emotional and moral development in this environment is intimate. It is also a broad consideration of how radical ideas, covering for individual psychologies, can seduce well-intentioned people into ideologically driven terrorism.