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Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola joins various other writers and pays tribute to satirist Paul Krassner, who died on July 21 at the age of 87.
Pioneering satirist Paul Krassner proclaimed, “Irreverence is my only sacred cow, and the more repression there is, the more need there is for irreverence toward those who are responsible for that repression.”
Krassner was a notable person in the 1960s counterculture movement in the United States. That was largely owed to his work as the founder, editor, and contributor to The Realist, a freethought magazine he launched in 1958.
As Krassner wrote in his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in Counter-Culture, “America had a powerful tradition of alternative journalism that could be traced back, from contemporary periodicals—The Independent, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, George Seldes’ In Fact, to [William Cowper] Brann’s Iconoclast published in the 1890s in Waco, Texas, all the way back to Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine during revolutionary times.” (The title of his book came from the FBI, which described Krassner as a “raving, unconfined nut.”)
Krassner was not only inspired by this journalistic tradition but also a column from Malcolm Muggeridge, a former writer for Punch, that was published by Esquire in 1958. Muggeridge wrote, “The area of life in which ridicule is permissible is steadily shrinking, and a dangerous tendency is becoming manifest to take ourselves with undue seriousness. The enemy of humor is fear and this, alas, is an age of fear.”
“The only pleasure of living is that every joke should be made, every thought expressed, every line of investigation, irrespective of its direction, pursued to the uttermost limit that ingenuity, courage, and understanding can take it,” he added.
That led to the start of The Realist. At the time, Krassner “had no role models and no competition, just an open field mined with taboos waiting to be exploded.”
“I was the entire office staff, and took no salary, but I did have to figure out how to continue publishing—paying the printer, the mailer, the writers, and artists—without accepting ads. So, naturally, I got involved with a couple of guys who had a system for betting on the horses.”
“Ultimately, I was able to subsidize The Realist with freelance magazine assignments and by performing stand-up at colleges in the guise of giving guest lectures,” Krassner recalled.
Krassner used The Realist in the early 1960s to stand up for the right of women to access abortion. The June 1962 issue featured an “anonymous interview with Dr. Robert Spencer, a human abortionist” to counter the lie that abortion doctors were strictly in the business for money. Krassner promised to go to prison before he ever revealed the identity of Spencer.
“After my interview with Dr. Spencer was published, I began to get phone calls from scared female voices,” according to Krassner. “They were all in desperate search of a safe abortionist. It was preposterous that they should have to seek out the editor of a satirical magazine, but their quest so far had been futile, and they simply didn’t know where else to turn.”
Krassner referred patients to Dr. Spencer. His magazine became an underground referral service.
Dr. Spencer was forced into retirement after state police raided his clinic and arrested him. He was never jailed, but that was only because those he helped supported him. Krassner had to find other physicians for patients who called. And later, he was subpoenaed to appear before grand juries in two cities, where criminal charges were considered against abortion doctors. Krassner refused to testify, even as the cities’ district attorneys threatened him with arrest.
Comedian George Carlin described the political transformation he underwent as a performer, as a result of Krassner’s publication.
“All through this period I was sustained and motivated by The Realist. Paul Krassner’s incredible magazine of satire, revolution, and just plain disrespect. It arrived every month, and with it, a fresh supply of inspiration,” Carlin shared. “I can’t overstate how important it was to me at the time. It allowed me to see that others who disagreed with the American consensus were busy expressing those feelings and using risky humor to do so.”
Carlin added, “Paul’s own writing, in particular, seemed daring and adventurous to me; it took big chances and made important arguments in relentlessly funny ways. I felt, down deep, that maybe I had some of that in me, too; that maybe I could be using my skills to better express my beliefs. The Realist was the inspiration that kept pushing me to the next level. There was no way I could continue reading it and remain the same.”
One particular issue, #74 in May 1967, solidified Krassner’s reputation. Circulation reached 100,000, and in the issue, Krassner published the Disneyland Memorial Orgy, as well as the “Parts Left Out Of The Kennedy Book.” Both resulted in threats of arrest from authorities for publishing “obscene” material.
Following Walt Disney’s death, Krassner thought about all the imaginary characters Disney created. “Disney had been their intelligent designer, and he had repressed all their baser instincts, but now that he had departed, they could finally shed their cumulative inhibitions in an unspeakable Roman binge, to signify the crumbling of an empire.”
The illustration by Wally Wood ran as a centerfold. In Baltimore, a news agency distributed the issue without the orgy. In Oakland, the police threatened to arrest Krassner.
Accompanying this outrage was the uproar over a satirical excerpt he produced from William Manchester’s book on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In 1964, as Krassner recalled, Jackie Kennedy agreed to intimate conversations with Manchester that lasted about 10 hours. Two years later, she did not want many of the things she said to appear in the book. A lawsuit was filed to block publication of certain material. A German magazine with serialization rights suggested it would flout Jackie’s requests but eventually yielded.
Krassner wanted to find the material that was cut and publish it in The Realist. When he was unable to find what he promised to publish, he came up with an incident that readers might believe happened. He suggested Jackie walked in on President Lyndon B. Johnson fucking JFK’s corpse in the throat, in the bullet wound. Its shock value also carried what Krassner believed was a metaphorical truth.
“The most significant thing about ‘The Parts Left Out Of The Kennedy Book’ was its widespread acceptance, if only for a moment, by intelligent literate people, from an ACLU official to a Peabody Award-winning journalist to members of the intelligence community, who knew that sort of thing actually does go on,” according to Krassner.
Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg apparently said to Krassner, “Maybe it was just because I wanted to believe it so badly.”
A police lieutenant visited Krassner after a lawyer submitted a complaint. A plainclothes officer made a visit too. In Chicago, a bookstore owner and distributor was charged with selling and distributing obscene material. The authorities claimed it was in relation to the Disneyland Memorial Orgy, but reporters informed him that was a “smoke screen to attack The Realist for publishing the Kennedy piece.” Charges were eventually dismissed.
It was author Kurt Vonnegut, who gave him credit in 1963 for creating a “miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opinion, as Einstein’s “E = mc2.”
“With the Vietnam War going on, and with its critics discounted and scorned by the government and the mass media, Krassner put on sale a red, white and blue poster that said FUCK COMMUNISM. At the beginning of the 1960s, FUCK was believed to be so full of bad magic as to be unprintable.”
Vonnegut argued, “By having FUCK and COMMUNISM fight it out in a single sentence, Krassner wasn’t merely being funny as heck. He was demonstrating how preposterous it was for so many people to be responding to both words with such cockamamie Pavlovian fear and alarm.”
The first run of The Realist concluded in 1974. It covered Patty Hearst’s trial and explored the links between the FBI and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Krassner resumed publication in the 1980s (although in a smaller form) and published issues of the magazine all the way up to 2001. He continued his work as a satirist after The Realist by writing pieces for CounterPunch, The Nation, Huffington Post, and High Times Magazine.
Having challenged obscenity laws and created space for political satire, he observed the proliferation of late night shows that covered politics and shows like “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” He recognized the degradation of humor about powerful people that lacked an edge.
“These days, sarcasm passes for irony. Name-calling passes for insight. Bleeped-out four-letter words pass for wit. Easy-reference jokes pass for analysis, and the audience applauds itself for recognizing the reference,” Krassner commented in his 2009 book of essays, Who’s To Say What’s Obscene?.
“So many jokes that are based on looks and gaffes tend to trivialize them all. Good satire should have a point of view. It doesn’t have to get a belly laugh, it just has to be valid criticism, which is the classic definition of satire. Jokes with no meaningful point of view aim for the lowest common denominator, along with commercials for erectile dysfunction and politicians alike.”
“During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidates made 110 guest shots on late-night TV shows, up from twenty-five in 2004,” Krassner noted. “The appearance of political candidates on comedy shows is intended to humanize them for voters.”
Krassner observed very early how everything was accelerating. There was not much time for something to happen before it became the target of political satire. Before social media was so ubiquitous, it was already difficult to stay ahead of reality.
“When it was first decided that a fence would be installed to prevent Mexicans from sneaking across the border into the United States, I was performing stand-up and announced that ‘the government is now hiring illegal immigrants to build a fence that will keep themselves out of this country,’” Krassner recalled. “Some months later, in December 2006, the Golden State Fence Company in southern California agreed to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring undocumented workers, and the company’s work actually included constructing part of the fence separating Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego, California.”
“That might seem like satirical prophecy, but reality has long been nipping at the heels of satire. In fact, during the past several years, with ever-increasing frequency, reality has been outrunning satire,” Krassner added.
Ever since President Donald Trump rode in on an escalator, there has been an overbearing feeling that reality has become satire.
At Shadowproof, I was inspired by the work and legacy of Krassner. I wrote a few pieces of satire, refusing to accept that anything was beyond satire simply because it was already too absurd.
I was over-ambitious and quickly found I was unable to publish pieces as frequently as promised. It could not take priority over the journalism produced regularly at Shadowproof. Nonetheless, I still find the vision I had of an alternative online publication, where incisive reporting co-exists with sharp satire, to be appealing.
Among liberals, there exists fear satire cannot exist side-by-side or else it becomes “fake news” that could produce serious consequences. Krassner had the appropriate response to this anxiety.
“There will always be people who believe that it’s real, that the government is capable of the most outrageous things, which, of course, it is. So, in a way, [satire] actually informs people of a danger that’s real by attracting their attention to the truth with a lie.”
Could taking pernicious lies and deftly wielding them as gateways to important truths hold some answers for those seeking effective ways to fight Trump? It could not possibly be more ineffective than the genre of fact-checking that has done little to contain the White House.
And, given the sheer and absurd inhumanity of Trump, this era could not have enough agitators with creative minds willing to innovate responses to the growing repression around us.