I never met the late Paul Krassner in the flesh, but back in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I had the opportunity to ask him via email about his reaction to that terrible event. His response can be found in the below item, originally posted here on January 8, 2015.
Long before there was a Daily Show there was The Realist. Paul Krassner, who founded the magazine in 1958, is one of America’s most notorious satirists and a pioneer in the great period of American humor that included Lenny Bruce and so many others. He’s still going strong; in 2004, he received the ACLU Uppie (Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression, and in 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” Paul said in accepting it, “and even happier that it wasn’t posthumous.”
As his biography indicates, he is no stranger to the kinds of controversies that Charlie Hebdo so regularly stirred up. I asked Paul this morning for a comment on Charlie Hebdo and the events of the last few days; this is what he told me:
This massacre is an awesome outrage, even to liberals and conservatives alike, although some dinosaur Republicans might try to blame Obama. It’s a horrendous violation of semantic principles, such as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” As an atheist, I perceive the irony of those assassins shouting “God is great” to justify their insane act in the name of a deity that I believe doesn’t exist.
And what could happen in America? Security guards protecting the “Onion” offices? Treat “Funny or Die” as Islamic marching orders? Invade the cyberspace of NBC for broadcasting “Saturday Night Live” until it morphs into “Saturday Night Dead” if it’s not already deceased?
Religions continue to rationalize their dogma, from birth to death — and then comes the hereafter for these Muslim murderers where all those virgins supposedly waiting to greet the Muslim murderers in Nirvana are busy reading “Lysistrata.” OMG has declared war on LOL.
UPDATE: In 2015, Paul responded to my request for a comment about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. You can find that response here.
Satirist Paul Krassner, the founder of the magazine The Realist, took The Final Step yesterday at his home in Desert Hot Springs, CA, at the age of 87. The New York Times obituary is here.
Coincidentally, I’ve just been re-reading his 1993 memoir Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture, which Krassner himself updated seven years ago and offered for sale on his web site (though it’s unlikely now you’ll be able to get an autographed copy). The book charts Krassner’s career and personal life, from his debut on the Carnegie Hall stage at the age of six through the raising of his daughter; more, it charts in its own idiosyncratic way a part of American history we’re still learning to live with. The Realist was founded in 1958, four years after the fall of Joseph McCarthy and six years after the debut of Mad magazine, where Krassner was a freelance contributor; Mad‘s publisher William Gaines generously provided office space for Krassner’s own magazine. Over the next 43 years, Krassner and his contributors pursued a line of absurdist investigative satire that attracted writers such as Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce (Krassner also “edited” Bruce’s own autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People). The symbiotic relationship of Mad and The Realist — both as businesses (early on) and in their aesthetics — led to other satiric magazines such as the National Lampoon and Spy. Both of those magazines, of course, closed down long ago; Krassner closed down The Realist in the first year of this new century; and, as you likely have already heard, Mad magazine will cease regular publication later this year.
The argument’s been made that we have no more magazines of this kind because we no longer need them. They’ve so deeply influenced popular culture to a degree that they’ve rendered themselves irrelevant, the thinking goes. Who needs Mad when you’ve got Mad TV? National Lampoon when you’ve got Saturday Night Live? Spy when you’ve got Last Week with John Oliver and countless other comedy programs on video, from the major networks to YouTube?
Well, as it turns out, we may need them more than ever, and for a variety of reasons. Reading the pages of a magazine or a book is a more intimate variety of communication than watching a video; a reader is, at the best of times, actively interpreting the nuance of word and image, can go back over it, think about it at his or her own pace. The production of a print magazine, too, is more cost-efficient than garnering the resources of a television network for a weekly program (and this program at higher risk of cancellation than a magazine). Finally, both broadcast and paid mass media are more at the whim of self-appointed censors and Standards and Practices departments than magazines and books, as the National Lampoon writers who moved to Saturday Night Live discovered to their chagrin. Mad (in its first few decades) and The Realist ran little to no advertising and were beholden to no advertisers.
Most important to me is that first quality: the intimacy of reading. As Victor Klemperer pointed out, language is one of the first victims of a totalitarian society. One of the reasons that magazines such as these had the corrupting effect on me that they did was because I could absorb not only the parody and satire of their contemporary targets, but also their worldviews: primarily, skepticism and a certain kind of cheerful nihilism. Ultimately, their message was that you can’t entirely trust anyone — that people in authority all have their reasons to lie to you, and they will if they must. This includes people in the White House, in Congress, in advertising agencies, in classrooms, in churches and synagogues. You are not, as Jonathan Swift, pointed out, a “thinking animal”; you are an “animal capable of thinking,” which is not at all the same thing. Your duty as a human being is to take advantage of that capability. And if you can make fun of those who are lying to you, all the better: it knocks them down several notches, and laughter is often preferable to tears.
This perspective isn’t something you’re going to get from an entertainment conglomerate, a government, or a church (and, it should be pointed out, you shouldn’t entirely trust Mad or The Realist either). But it is a perspective that we need if we’re “live in truth,” as Vaclav Havel put it. It’s no wonder that one of the greatest satiric novelists of the twentieth century, Vladimir Voinovich, lived under a totalitarian regime. Critical thinking, leavened by a sense of humor, may be the greatest threat to tyranny. And the more deeply we can ingrain that habit of critical thinking — through a critical attitude towards language, which we can gain only if we read — the more ready we are to fight against tyranny, whether governmental, physical, or metaphysical.
The entire print run of Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist is available here, and a 2016 anthology of cartoons originally published in the magazine is available here. In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner, an anthology of his work. It’s available for pre-order here.
It appears that among Donald Trump’s (and the GOP’s) strategies to win re-election in 2020 is to paint the Democratic Party as a bunch of anti-American socialists and Communists. This is to be expected from a man proud of his association with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s legal hatchetman; and it’s also an indication of just how far Trump and the GOP are willing to turn back the clock to the 1950s, one of the most fear-ridden and racially-charged eras of modern American history.
At the time, McCarthy was eventually brought down, not least because of the efforts of journalists to come to the defense of traditional American values. Edward R. Murrow was among them. Of course, parallels are inexact: McCarthy was a Senator, Trump the U.S. President; we were then in the midst of a Cold War, while Trump seems to be in the midst of a re-election campaign. But the tactics they used are the same — perhaps worse now, as Trump is attempting to smear the entire Democratic party and any dissenters from his administration as “un-American.” An interesting difference, too, is that there’s no real organized threat from the Communist Party, as there arguably was then, not to mention the fact that no world economy is purely capitalist or communist. They’re all mixed economies, including our own; socialist-tinged programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies are now staples of American economic life. Even the greatest 20th century critics of socialism like Leszek Kołakowski admitted that, in a compassionate society, some redistribution of income from the better- to the lesser-well-off was necessary for a functioning democratic state.
Another difference is that in 1954, Joseph Welch could appeal to the “sense of decency” of McCarthy and his supporters. It’s apparent to me that neither Trump nor his supporters possess that sense.
The following speech, with which Murrow closed a 1954 television program about McCarthy, is a stirring and honest envoi that admits our own role and our culture’s role in creating both McCarthys and Trumps. It’s also a reminder that the dynamics that produced the Trump Presidency were infesting American society before his election, and they’ll still infest it when he leaves office, whenever that will be.
As part of our mini-vacation in Philadelphia last week, we treated our girls to a twilight “Ghost Tour” of Olde City and Society Hill. A jovial guide led us around the narrow streets of these, among the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, pointing out historical locations such as cemeteries where ghosts have been reported in the past. And, because this is Philadelphia, the guide was able to slip in some historical information as well, not only about the Powel House but also about public health in the 18th century (which was just as scary as any ghost story I can think of).
We didn’t see any ghosts on this tour, but I was reminded that the idea of ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, seems to be something encoded in the human consciousness. Ghosts are not merely spectres, a metaphor for our desire for an afterlife, but a metaphorical reminder that the past infuses the present. In Philadelphia, whether you’re on a ghost tour or not, you’re constantly reminded that you’re walking the same streets as generations past have walked, reaching back not merely to the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also to the Quaker community that founded Philadelphia upon a set of ideals that were the product of Reformation and finally Enlightenment thinking.
At about the same time as we were lollygagging around on the lush green lawn of Independence Mall last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian and conservative, unveiled a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” snatching up a phrase that was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also appointed Mary Ann Glendon as the chair of that commission. Glendon is described by Politico as “a social conservative who has been a prominent anti-abortion voice, which could lend credence to the concerns among human rights activists that the commission is a ploy to undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.” Somehow I doubt that Pompeo and Glendon ordered up Simone Weil’s study of rights and obligations, The Need for Roots, during Amazon Prime Day.
In announcing the commission, Pompeo said something that gave me considerable pause. “Is it in fact true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts,” he said, “that as human beings we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” It may be that the commission was established merely as a rhetorical platform through which the U.S. can condemn the human rights abuses of other countries. But it also sounds like the commission is seeking, one way or another, to define what those rights are: to legitimize some claims to a political right (say, to gun ownership and the inviolability of private property) and delegitimize others (say, to abortion, free expression of speech and religion, and the ability to define one’s own sexual and gender definition, and hence one’s own inmost identity and conscience).
Shelves of books have been written about how the Founding Fathers and other Americans defined “our creator” or “rights” in the 18th century, and Pompeo’s confidence that he and his commission will be able to ascertain precisely those definitions is just a bit delusional. But what is certainly true is that the Founding Fathers believed it was not the role of governments to bestow those rights on its citizens; it was the role of governments to protect them. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of them did not create these rights out of thin air. They intended instead to conceive of a form of government that would most adequately lay out the basis of political governance in the context of the natural law philosophies of John Locke and others, which themselves had their origins in a study of the Western liberalism represented by certain strands of thought going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention, in some opinions, the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine) — in short, to conceive of a government appropriate to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, at about the same time, Kant was doing the same thing in his investigations into moral philosophy and the idea of the Categorical Imperative.
In the 1920s, Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker dismissed all this; it was a muckraking time, and the Founding Fathers were the muck that they raked, charging that the stated ideals of the framers of both the Declaration and the Constitution were so much lip service to their genuine concerns, which were the preservation of their own property rights and economic self-interest. Later studies by people like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Pauline Maier, however, established that many Americans of all persuasions and classes shared the ideals of the framers: that, indeed, Americans of the time, including the framers, meant what they said.
Among the ghosts that I thought I saw in Philadelphia last week, I’m afraid, were the ghosts of those ideals, which are becoming thinner and thinner in the Trump era. Rights, in Pompeo’s conception, are to be given and selectively protected by governments, not by God or nature, and in the end, what difference does it make anyway? As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at around the same time as the creation of Pompeo’s commission, “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Of course, Putin, as usual, was sowing discord, deliberately conflating the long history of Western liberalism with annoying contemporary politicians who call themselves liberal by contemporary ideological standards. But most Americans — especially those who support Trump — may not care about the distinction. Which is the best way to whittle the memory of those ghosts to nothing.
I’ve written here before about my delight in that most seemingly quotidian of items, the simple pencil. I now note, then, the recent release of Blackwing’s special edition “Volume 10” pencil, dedicated to investigative journalism and, in particular, Nellie Bly, whose Ten Days in a Madhouse (hence the “10” in “Volume 10”) created considerable stir when it was published in the New York World in 1887. Blackwing’s Volume 10 web page continues:
The Blackwing 10 is a tribute to Nellie Bly – and investigative journalists like her – who keep citizens informed, and give them a voice. It features a matte grey newsprint finish, dark grey imprint, silver ferrule, and dark grey eraser. Its extra-firm graphite is ideal for capturing notes in a reporter pad, or completing a newspaper crossword.
A delightful tribute to a free press, when it seems under considerable fire these days. And I can testify that the pencil itself is ideal for the completion of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle: indeed, it’s my new favorite.