February 18, 2003
Paul Krassner, Legendary Satirist, Radical Activist, Publisher/Editor of "The Realist," and a participant in "The Chicago Seven" Trial
If you lived through the 60's you might remember Paul Krassner as a radical activist who co-founded the Youth International Party (Yippies) with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. You might also know him from his days as editor and publisher of the counter cultural newsletter "The Realist" (a role for which People magazine later dubbed him "Father of the underground press;" Krassnerís bio says he immediately demanded a paternity test).
But I had my first encounter with Paul Krassner in the bedroom of a teenage girl in Southern California back in the early '70s.
I was in third grade at the time and the teenage girl was the daughter of my babysitter. I would go into her bedroom under the pretense of watching cartoons on her TV, but in reality I wanted to look at the strange hippy posters she had hanging all over the walls.
Among the trippy psychedelia and iconic pictures of the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper regalia, there was one poster in particular that completely blew my pre-pubescent mind. Over by the television in the corner of the room hung a lewd depiction of various Disney cartoon characters indulging in unbridled acts of sexual debauchery.
It was the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy Poster, the brainchild of Krassner, who published it in "The Realist" back in 1967. The poster was Krassnerís satirical commentary on the death of God, with Walt Disney as the Creator whose death frees his creation to, as Krassner puts it, "finally shed their cumulative inhibitions and participate in a Roman binge, signifying the crumbling of an empire."
That was all lost on me, though. At the time I was more concerned with Tinkerbellís striptease than with any existential questions the poster may have raised.
Even so, I never saw the Magic Kingdom quite the same way again. A childhood illusion had been forever subverted. In ancient Athens, Krassner probably would have shared a hemlock cocktail with Socrates for corrupting youth. In counter cultural America, though, he got off with ingesting hallucinogens.
Over the years since that first encounter with Krassnerís unique worldview, I've learned a lot more about him: He was friends with '60s iconoclast Lenny Bruce and, Krassner alleges, accompanied Groucho Marx on his first LSD trip. A conspiracy theorist, anti-war activist and prankster, Krassner also conducted several interviews with leading cultural and counter cultural figures of his time. John Lennon and Yoko Ono financed the issue of "The Realist" in 1972 that exposed the truth about Watergate long before Woodward and Bernstein became Hollywood commodities.
Like his friend Lenny Bruce, Krassner, now 70, is also a stand-up satirist and has counted among members of his audience FBI agents who attended his shows and wrote reports about them for the guys back at headquarters. His FBI files indicate that after Life magazine published a favorable profile of him, the FBI sent a poison-pen letter to the editor, complaining: "To classify Krassner as a social rebel is far too cute. He's a nut, a raving, unconfined nut."
Comedian George Carlin agrees: "The FBI was right: this man is dangerous -- and funny, and necessary." I'm sure somewhere in the Patriot Act there's language in the fine print laying out what needs to be done about "that Krassner fella."
Paul Krassner also happens to be a very generous man, and he graciously agreed to respond to a number of questions I sent to him via email. What follows are his responses sent to me from his home in Desert Hot Springs, California.
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BUZZFLASH: In your book "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention And Other American Absurdities" (LINK: http://www.paulkrassner.com), you say that the "age of irony" is still alive, despite early reports that it was among the casualties of 9/11. Why do you think itís so important that irony survive?
PAUL KRASSNER: Irony will survive without our help. It just exists. What's important is that our perception of irony survives. And that the communication of irony survives. Otherwise, we're only helping the brainwashers to win.
BUZZFLASH: What's your definition of irony?
KRASSNER: Irony is my inability to define it, but it's not cynicism. When I was trying to decide what the cover would be on my CD, "Irony Lives!", it was a challenge to think of a visual for such an abstract concept as irony. But the best I could come up with was something I had already pointed out on the album, and I assigned the artist to draw a little zombie-eyed girl holding an American flag that said, "Made in China." Truth can be the finest example of irony.
BUZZFLASH: What makes you laugh?
KRASSNER: Life itself. Humor that surprises me. When I cry it makes me laugh.
BUZZFLASH: Irony and satire in the face of horrific tragedy are integral parts of whatís called the "sick humor" of the '60s and '70s. For example, National Lampoon published its Vietnamese Baby Book during the US bombing campaign of North Vietnam. The memory-book parody includes mementos of baby's first (and, as it turns out, last) American bombing raid. Although the motto of your newsletter, "The Realist," was irreverence is the only sacred cow, are there any boundaries that satire should never cross?
KRASSNER: I'm offended by irreverence for its own sake, which of course is inconsistent with that motto. It's totally subjective. I don't feel comfortable about making a victim the target of satire. Dennis Miller thinks satire consists of name-calling and obscure references. Last night (February 8, conceivably a week before the invasion of Iraq), I thought that Saturday Night Live crossed the line -- but in the wrong direction. They weren't controversial enough! The opening took place at the UN with Colin Powell speaking; this was such an opportunity to really satirize the contradictions and lies of the U.S. government, but instead they chose to present an innocuous sketch with the delegates discussing where to eat lunch.
BUZZFLASH: Speaking of National Lampoon, its satirical musical revue Lemmings in the early '70s basically declared the '60s counterculture a failure, the victim of violent reaction from without and narcissistic self-destruction from within. As someone who helped to make that decade what it was, what's your take on The Sixties? What's the meaning, if there is any, of that era for today?
KRASSNER: Along with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, there was an epidemic of idealism and creativity -- a spiritual revolution -- and I say that as an atheist in constant dialogue with the deity I don't believe in. There was a government conspiracy to neutralize the counterculture, for political and economic reasons. The FBI had a Hippie Squad, where they learned how to roll a joint, the better to infiltrate. The '60s represented an evolutionary jump in consciousness, the seeds of which are still blossoming.
BUZZFLASH: Do you think John Lennon was killed as part of this effort to neutralize leadership from the '60s rebellion? There was a book that I think alleged he was assassinated by the same intelligence zealots behind the murders of RFK, MLK, and JFK. Beyond that, though, I haven't heard many theories other than Chapman was a deeply disturbed young man who thought Lennon had sold out. It's common knowledge, however, that Lennon was a target on Nixon's enemies list and that the FBI was working hard to have him deported for political reasons.
KRASSNER: There was a story that Mark David Chapman was programmed at the same school as John Hinckley, attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan. Conceivably true, but who knows? Hypnotized Manchurian candidates and ultimate assholes can achieve the same goal, regardless of their motivation.
BUZZFLASH: Why did you decide to take acid right before giving your testimony during the Chicago conspiracy trial in 1970 (the 1969-70 trial of seven Yippie radicals accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, LINK: www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Chicago7/chicago7.html)?
KRASSNER: Why? I guess I'm just a sentimental old fool. Also, I took the acid with a big lunch and wanted to vomit while testifying. I hoped to be thrown out of the courtroom, so that I wouldn't have to memorize the dates and places and personnel of Yippie meetings, as well as making a statement about the injustice of the trial. But I wasn't able to throw up as planned. Now that's irony. (For Krassner's remembrance of the testimony, visit www.ralphmag.org/krassnerZD.html)
BUZZFLASH: Abbie Hoffman (one of those on trial) was pretty mad with you for doing that, wasn't he? Why?
KRASSNER: Abbie was furious, and understandably so. He thought it hurt the defense, and facing prison was not a game. Stopped speaking to me for 10 months.
BUZZFLASH: Did you really accompany Groucho Marx on his first LSD trip, or is that just you being outrageous?
KRASSNER: It really happened AND it's just me being outrageous.
BUZZFLASH: In his book The Bush Dyslexicon, Mark Crispin Miller calls the current resident of the White House "Nixon's revenge" (which, ironically enough, sounds a lot like Montezuma's revenge to me). Anyway, Miller basically says Bush puts a more "likable," telegenic face on the same authoritarian, reactionary powers in this country that gave us Nixon. What similarities and differences do you see between Bush and Nixon?
KRASSNER: Nixon and Bush have in common that they put their own careers ahead of their souls, the human race and the earth. The difference is Bush has better technology and propaganda. Nixon said, "I am not a crook." Bush says, "I am not a dictator."
BUZZFLASH: As a satirist who has experience at exposing and hammering the weak links in official realities, do you see any Achilles heels in Bush that, like Nixon, will ultimately bring him down?
KRASSNER: Hopefully, the desire to be re-elected. Or should I say, the desire to be elected. The Impeach Bush campaign is growing, and I thought that his defense would be, "You can't impeach me, I wasn't elected," until my wife Nancy reminded me, "But he was inaugurated."
BUZZFLASH: Who's more scary: John Ashcroft or J. Edgar Hoover? Why?
KRASSNER: Ashcroft, because he's still at it, building a police state in the guise of security.
BUZZFLASH: In an interview you did with (spiritual teacher) Ram Dass in 1973, he said that he was "horrified" by how impotent the public and Congress were to stop Nixon's bombing of North Vietnam. Yet he also said that he felt it was the "spirit of protest in America that forced the end of that Vietnam thing." Although a lot of people share the same sense of horror today over Bush's so-called War on Terrorism, a lot of people don't know what good protesting can do to stop Bushís war machine. What are your thoughts? Do antiwar protests like we saw in January really accomplish anything?
KRASSNER: The alternative is to do nothing. These demonstrations serve to unite people, to spread information, to inspire, to send a message. You never know the ripple effect. The peace movement ultimately resulted in Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not run for a second term in 1968. When I interviewed Ram Dass in '73, he was trying to love Nixon. I saw him last year at the Oregon Country Fair, and now he's trying to love Bush.
BUZZFLASH: I sense a growing anger and restlessness among people at recent antiwar protests, an impatience with listening to speeches and marching around. Historian Howard Zinn talks about how this raw activist energy throughout American history has been too often absorbed into political structures controlled by the ruling elites and then pretty much tamed into ineffectiveness. What advice do you have for keeping this growing "people power" independent of officialdom and still remain an effective force?
KRASSNER: I would rather listen to and learn from them than give advice, although I do think that they shouldn't take themselves as seriously as their causes. But they are the ones who have been using the Internet not only as an organizing tool, but also as a vehicle for demystifying traditional methods of resistance.
BUZZFLASH: Recently, you wrote an essay on why you're optimistic about the future. You credit Ram Dass with your renewed sense of optimism. You were particularly impressed with what Dass last summer about how "the greatest social action is the individual heart...heart to heart resuscitation," with renewing your sense of optimism. So, has Krassner the jaded realist become Paul the mushy optimist?
KRASSNER: Just to put it into mushy context, here's how the piece ends:
Recently, I asked "High Times" editor Steve Hager, who is deep into conspiracy research, how he remains optimistic. He replied, "My rule is: Forget about tearing down the establishment (it'll never happen, the Octopus is too powerful). Instead, concentrate on building an alternative culture and passing it down to anyone who cares. Real ceremonies create positive energy, but when you focus solely on exposing Nazis, you are living in their twisted world."
Or, as Ram Dass said at the Oregon Country Fair in July, "The greatest social action is the individual heart...heart to heart resuscitation." Hanging around with him renewed my sense of optimism, but of course that may merely be a result of my damaged chromosomes from taking too many acid trips.
BUZZFLASH: Why did you stop publishing "The Realist"?
KRASSNER: After publishing it from 1958 to 2001, it had served its purpose: to help liberate communication. I still have other outlets, and now, with the Internet, let a thousand Realists bloom.
BUZZFLASH: You say in the last issue of "The Realist" (spring 2001) that the newsletter "so precisely defined its era -- an historical period so bizarre as to be beyond satire -- that it's hard to imagine an era stranger, yet I suspect we are entering one now." It seems to me that, especially beginning with Bush's theft of the 2000 election, the times, they are a-changing and getting weirder all the time. In what ways are these times stranger than the era you chronicled in "The Realist"?
KRASSNER: I didn't write that, Lynn Phillips did, but I agree. The times are stranger now because as I write this, my country -- which I once was proud of and have become ashamed of -- is insisting that Iraq disarm itself before we invade. The worldwide terror that this will unleash makes me sad and angry, and I'm not quite ready yet to find the blessing in disguise.
Of course, the war is only inevitable after it happens, and there is an increasing global consciousness against it happening, but ironically that's why the administration is in such a hurry to invade. They study the trends in public opinion and have been watching the growing opposition to their misuse of power and lack of compassion. Either they believe that if an invasion takes place, the polls will indicate that Americans will support our boys and girls over there, or they know that the protests in this country will serve as their excuse for further fascistic laws.
And that's why I'm an optimist.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original