The Overachieving Dude: An Interview With Paul Krassner
by Nathaniel S. Berke
Paul Krassner would be The Dude from The Big Lebowski if The Dude had done something with his life. Krassner is a holdover of 1960s hippismo, a laid-back stoner-for-life type with a quick wit and irreverent attitude. He wears his ideology on his sleeve, and that ideology is decidedly anti-"The Man."
But while The Dude bowls, Krassner keeps himself much busier. Political activist, prankster, writer, and avid pothead, Krassner has been an inextricable part of American culture, helping mold it for over 50 years by fighting the hypocritical standard-bearers of decency, and advocating for truth, openness, and "liberated communication" in the public debate.
He's best known for founding The Realist, a newspaper of "investigative satire," in 1958. It introduced readers to writers and comedians who would go on to be icons of American irreverence, including Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Dick Gregory, and Lenny Bruce. But The Realist was best known for its sharp-tongued critiques of American decorum, using satire and pranks to expose hypocrisy and tear down the notion of obscenity in America. Its legendary hoaxes, which included a widely believed "exposé" that described President Lyndon Johnson fornicating with the neck-wound of recently assassinated President Kennedy, are now the stuff of dreams for would-be pranksters.
Pranks aside, Krassner often took an active involvement in his stories, believing passionately in the causes he reported on. After interviewing a doctor who performed abortions when it was illegal in the US, Krassner ran an underground abortion referral service. While covering the antiwar movement, he co-founded the Yippies political party with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the iconic leaders of America's counterculture. While chronicling the psychedelic revolution that was sweeping America, he took LSD with Tim Leary, Ram Dass, and Ken Kesey, later accompanying Groucho Marx on his first acid trip.
For his efforts, The Realist has been described as the best satirical publication in America. Krassner is the only person to win awards from both Playboy magazine (for satire) and the Feminist Party Media Workshop (for journalism). He was inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, and was described by the FBI as "a raving, unconfined nut."
While The Realist retired in 2001, Krassner hasn't. He writes a monthly column for High Times, a bimonthly column for AVN [Adult Video News] Online, and is an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Playboy, Penthouse, Mother Jones, the Nation, National Lampoon and the Village Voice, among others.
What's next for The Dude that has done so much? "The unknown, and I welcome it."
ETS!: What's the significance of the phrase "Irreverence is our only sacred cow"?
Krassner: That was a slogan for The Realist. It meant that there was no subject that we--the writers and cartoonists--would be afraid to make fun of. But, at least for me, I don't appreciate irreverence for its own sake. Otherwise, it's pointless. Oppressors, not victims, should be the targets.
ETS!: What is an "investigative satirist"?
Krassner: Simple. I do research on an individual, a group, a trend, an act, a concept--whatever strikes me as hypocritical or cruel or absurd--and then, working from what I've gathered, I find a form to satirize it. However, I never labeled an article as satire or journalism. I didn't want to deprive readers of the pleasure of determining for themselves whether something was the literal truth or an extension of it.
ETS!: You have done a tremendous amount to demystify taboos and tear down the notion of obscenity in America. What's your fuckin' problem?
Krassner: Well, I just had nothin' better to do, asshole! I never learned how to drive a car, and I can't even shuffle cards, but I did have a certain talent for recognizing irrationality and seeing through bullshit and the way people rationalize their evil ways. Taboos were arbitrary and anti-obscenity was a vehicle for control.
ETS!: When it comes to the sacred cows, we're in a whole new world. A lot of the stuff you couldn't say in the US before is fair game. It seems sex, swearing and narcotics are the new national pastimes. While they're a lot more fun than baseball--are we really better off for it?
Krassner: It's the risk of freedom. When I started, I was a lone voice. But controversy has become a commodity. And irreverence has become an industry. Now sarcasm passes for irony. Name-calling passes for insight. Bleeped-out four-letter words pass for wit. Easy-reference jokes pass for analysis. Instead of laughing, audiences applaud, as if they're patting themselves on the back for recognizing a reference.
ETS!: The other day, the southern conservative Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, speaking on the Senate floor, described the auto bailout as "ass backwards." In an era when a guy like that can make a comment like that in a place like that--what the heck are today's sacred cows?
Krassner: Depends on the culture. In America, I think the biggest sacred cow has to do with the fear of admitting that the soldiers in Iraq have died in vain, killed in vain, been maimed for life, physically and mentally--all in vain. Also, eating your own shit at a table in a posh restaurant is generally looked down upon. Unless, of course, you had a reservation and are a big tipper.
ETS!: You worked with Lenny Bruce and knew him better than most people. What would Bruce think of the world today?
Krassner: He would be saddened, he would be outraged, he would be amused--simultaneously. He would practice his form of alchemy, transforming horror into humor. Having been a self-taught semanticist, he would be embarrassed at the indiscriminate use of words--the same words that he got arrested again and again for saying--now serving stand-up comedians as all-purpose nouns, verbs, adjectives, expletives... I think Lenny would decide never to say cocksucker again. That's what his first arrest was for, by the way.
ETS!: Through your writing and activism, you've been a proponent of legalization and a critic of US drug policy. Why do you oppose the War on Drugs?
Krassner: Oh, you must mean the War on Some People Who Use Some Drugs. Sometimes. I'm pro-choice whether it has to do with reproductive rights or the freedom to smoke, ingest, inject, shove it up one's rectum, as long as it's done voluntarily. Tobacco is legal, and results in the death of 1200 people a day in the US alone. Marijuana is illegal and the worst that can happen is maybe you'll raid the refrigerator at midnight. As long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which drugs are illegal, then anyone in prison on a nonviolent drug charge is a political prisoner.
ETS!: For the first time in US history, the nation has elected a president who has written and spoken unapologetically about his drug use. Does the election of Barack Obama mean a boost to legalization efforts, and does it put the end of the War on Drugs in sight?
Krassner: Not an end in sight but a hint of hope. Obama is trying to maintain his balance while walking along a tightrope between status quo and progress. So, on one hand, he says that he'll stop the DEA from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, but on the other hand, he's gone back and forth on recreational use of pot. Five years ago he supported eliminating criminal penalties for possession or use. He said that the war on drugs has been a failure and that the marijuana laws should be decriminalized. But now that he was in the heat of a presidential campaign--and, because he wanted to be president, he compromised, pandered, and flip-flopped--claiming he did not support eliminating criminal penalties for possession or use. It's really disappointing, but he's all we got, and if McCain had won, it would really have depressed me. Obama may grow in the Oval Office, but one thing is sure, he won't grow pot there.
ETS!: What about the US's international drug policy? How will ending the War on Drugs affect our relationships with other countries?
Krassner: Ideally, it would set an example for them. Realistically, those who have a vested interest in continuing prohibition--those who benefit from the criminalization of drugs, from the smugglers to the dealers, from their [police] captors to their attorneys--would not be very happy. Because, like everybody else, they want to keep their high-paying jobs. How many innocent Mexicans have been killed in the Drug War--over 5,000 at last count--and wouldn't they still be alive if the vast drug industry had been legal?
ETS!: Can't it be argued that--whatever the cost at home--the War on Drugs has been beneficial to certain foreign countries? In South America, for example, Peru and Colombia receive substantial aid packages tied to their efforts to combat coca production and smuggling. Proponents say that aid has helped provide stability in those nations, and has put violent groups like the FARC and Shining Path on the defensive--nearly eliminating them. Could ending the War on Drugs legitimize these groups and undermine stability in those countries?
Krassner: Yes, it can be so argued, but where's the morality? The US government gave $43 million to the Taliban five months before the 9/11 attacks to prevent the cultivation of poppies in Afghanistan. I try to see things through the eyes of Peruvian farmers deprived of their livelihoods, thanks to America funding the war on their coca crops. But it's too complex a process for me to predict whether ending the Drug War would undermine stability in another country and whether that could help bring about liberation by the citizens of that country.
ETS!: From your work at The Realist you've been called the father of the counterculture press--to which you demanded a paternity test. What is the counterculture press, and how has it affected today's culture and politics?
Krassner: In the early 1960s, independent weekly papers began to flourish around the US, reaching a peak of about 300, serving as a form of counter-propaganda by articulating the consciousness of a generation of young people who experienced the difference between what they experienced in the streets and the way it was reported in the mainstream media. The notions that were taboo then now play an inextricable part in the marketplace of free expression.
ETS!: Are blogs the new underground press? Where do you think blogging will take us?
Krassner: Definitely. It's changed the nature of research and communication. When I launched The Realist in 1958, my mission was to communicate without compromise. I decided to publish the final issue in 2001. One reason was that personal computers enabled anyone to communicate without compromise, with a minimum of expense, and with the potential of reaching a large audience. Blogging on the Internet provides virtual immediacy to the spreading of information, misinformation, disinformation, opinion, entertainment, insight, and triviality. I'm becoming almost as much in awe of technology as I am of Nature.
ETS!: What's a "Yippie," how does it differ from "Hippie," and what do you have to do with it?
Krassner: The Yippies (Youth International Party) was a name I invented on December 31, 1967 at a meeting to plan a counter-convention at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Yippie signified a phenomenon that already existed: an organic coalition of political activists and stoned hippies who indulged in a cross-fertilization of values at civil rights demonstrations and antiwar protests. They saw the connection between busting kids for smoking a weed in America and burning kids to death with napalm on the other side of the globe, understanding that those events were linearly-connected dehumanization extended to its ultimate extension. A Yippie was a hippie who got hit on the head by a cop with a billy club.
ETS!: During the 60s, Yippies used street theater and flamboyant theatrics to capture the media's attention and manipulate the political narrative. As a master of such media manipulation, what changes--in politics, media, culture--need to be made so such tactics won't work?
Krassner: Actually, we borrowed a tactic from the CIA. You didn't have to manipulate the media if you could manipulate the events that the media reported on, from throwing money in the stock exchange to levitating the Pentagon. These days, websites such as the Huffington Post, Counterpunch, and TruthDig are providing the antidotes to the secrecy that's necessary for such tactics to work. The election of Obama can have a trickle-down effect that will result in more transparency in politics. And, as usual, the culture will be ahead of the political curve.
ETS!: For the past decade or more the term "liberal" was the dirtiest word in politics. But with a half-black Democrat president, an increasingly open mind towards progressive economic and environmental policies, and a general resentment towards the right-wing establishment--what does the future hold for American liberals?
Krassner: In my dreams, peace and justice replace greed and misuse of power. In my waking life, I'm scared shitless of worldwide disorder and anguish. Excuse me while I go back to sleep for a while so my subconscious can figure out what I can do to transform my dream into a reality, starting with myself and working my way out.
ETS!: In a recent article, "The Last Election," you hinted that you thought Obama's election was a possible culmination of the cultural and political activism of the 1960s leftists, and pondered whether it "signified the early tremors of a nonviolent revolution." Well, did it?
Krassner: There are too many outside variable factors that leave me only with hope. But as the singer/songwriter Harry Chapin once told me, "If you don't act like there's hope, there is no hope." And remember, placebos work.