The Activist Angler


“Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” —Situationist slogan, Paris, May 1968

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About the Book

Stephen Duncombe speaks about activism and angling
Stephen Duncombe discusses parallels that he observed between activism and angling when he began fishing during the height of the pandemic. NYU News joined Duncombe at NYC’s Central Park lake where he shares some of the lessons he’s learned. Watch now on YouTube.

Elegantly written and charmingly illustrated, The Activist Angler shows how lessons learned from angling can guide political activism and vice versa. Patience, preparation and precision are needed to catch fish . . . and to build a movement.

Looking for a retreat during the stress of the pandemic, the activist and teacher Steve Duncombe took up fishing, a sport he had abandoned in his youth. After many years away from his rod, he had to re-learn how to fish and approached the practice with what Zen masters call “Beginner’s Mind.” Having no recent experience to fall back on, every fish successfully caught or line hopelessly snarled served as a lesson. Hours spent doing little more than casting and retrieving meant plenty of time to think. One of the things Steve thought a lot about was activism. The art of angling, he discovered, has a lot to teach about the art of activism.

The Activist Angler brings together these lessons in an engaging journey from the street to the beach and back. The format is simple: one reflection on fishing followed by another on what might be learned and applied to activism, with each accompanied by an illustration. Topics range from telling fish stories and the trap of activist nostalgia, to the impossibility of thinking like a fish yet the necessity for an organizer to understand their audience, with detours through reflections on self-care, catch-and-release, and taking responsibility for the human cost of one’s political actions.

180 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-501-7 • E-book 978-1-68219-411-9


About the Author

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Stephen Duncombe is a lifelong activist and co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism. Teaching and writing on the intersection of culture and politics, he has published eight books, most notably Art and Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Make the Impossible Possible (with Steve Lambert), Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy, and the Cultural Resistance Reader.

Read an Excerpt

For everything there is a season. Out on Cape Cod, where I do much of my fishing, the legal season varies from fish to fish and whether you are fishing in freshwater or salt, but practically the fishing season lasts from early Spring to late Fall. My activism has seasons too, albeit on longer cycles. Every ten years or so I step back from day to day community building and troublemaking and take a breather. From my late teens to late twenties I was a campus activist, then ramped down to finish my dissertation and concentrate on my first teaching job. Over the next decade, I worked as a community organizer in the Lower East Side before putting activism on the back burner again to raise a family and write a book about creative forms of activism. As our children got older I took up activism once more, this time as a trainer of artist-activists around the globe. After ten years as co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism, I decided it was time for another break. The Center was in good hands, the world of activism was doing just fine without a middle-aged white man like myself front and center, and the COVID crises had forced me, my family, and the rest of the world into a state of quarantine. So I took up fishing.

young boy fishing


When I was young I loved to go fishing. My mother would drop me off at a local reservoir or brackish estuary in the coastal New England town where I grew up, and for hours I would cast my lures out into the water, waiting for a strike from a slippery eel or toothy snapper blue, but mostly relaxing into the rhythm of casting and retrieving. As a teenager, punk rock, skateboarding and sex seemed far more attractive than being covered with fish scales, so I stopped fishing. When I got older, other things took the place of guitars and skateboards and teenage dalliances, yet I didn’t return to fishing for nearly four decades. The pandemic seemed like the perfect time to pick up rod and reel again. I needed a break from the stress of living during an unmanaged pandemic, I wanted time and space away from people where I didn’t have to worry about wearing a mask or getting too close, and I needed an escape from the burdens of being an activist at what felt like a time of political apocalypse. So I went fishing. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Blissfully isolated on the tip of Cape Cod, I’d fish for large and small mouth bass in the kettle ponds in the early mornings, at midday I’d cast off the harbor jetty as the young striper “schoolies” made the run from estuary to bay as the tides turned, and then fish the ocean beaches for striped bass and bluefish as the sun went down.

After forty years, I had to re-teach myself how to fish and so I approached the practice with what Zen masters call Beginner’s Mind. With no habits or tradition to fall back upon, every fish successfully caught or line hopelessly snarled provided a clear lesson. With hours spent doing little more than casting and retrieving — catching fish being a fraction of the time spent fishing — I had a lot of time to think about these lessons I was learning. One of the things I thought a lot about was activism. Even on my political hiatus I was still consulting on activist projects, and as I gave advice on a global campaign for free COVID vaccines, or an art project aimed at reintegrating formerly incarcerated people back into their communities, or using artistic activism as a way to fight corruption in the Western Balkans and West Africa, I found myself drawing from my fishing experiences. Fishing, I discovered, has a lot to teach about the art of activism and, perhaps even more, about staying active as an activist.

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