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Noam Chomsky

David Jay Brown

Noam Chomsky

Although Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of linguistics, he is best known as one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. The book Chomsky for Beginners begins with David Cogswell’s statement “Noam Chomsky is one of the ten most-quoted writers of all time,” and one encounters this assertion in many essays about Chomsky’s work. However, when Chomsky read the draft for this introduction, he told me that, “this is probably nonsense invented by some PR office. It can’t possibly be true…inconceivable.” 

Yet, according to The Chicago Tribune, “a  survey of standard reference work, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, found that over the past dozen years Chomsky was the most-often-cited living author. Among intellectual luminaries of all eras, Chomsky placed eighth, just behind Plato and Sigmund Freud.” The New York Times called Chomsky “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”

The son of a Hebrew language scholar, Chomsky’s independent scholarship earned him entry into the Society of Fellows at Harvard University in 1951. He received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, although most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. After receiving his Ph.D., Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 19 years. In 1976, he was appointed Institute Professor, and he held the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. In addition to authoring more than eighty books on language and politics, Chomsky also lectures widely, and is one of America’s most popular speakers, drawing standing-room-only audiences all over the country.

In his book The End of Science, John Horgan states that, “in spite of his denials, Chomsky is the most important linguist who has ever lived.” The Encyclopedia Britannica declares that “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that there is no major theoretical issue in linguistics today that is debated in terms other than those in which he has chosen to define it.” Yet when Chomsky read over the draft for this introduction, and he read my phrase “Chomsky is generally regarded as the most important linguist who has ever lived,” he wrote me back saying, “that’s a huge exaggeration.” 

Among his many accomplishments as a linguist, Chomsky is most famous for his work on what is called generative grammar. He revolutionized the discipline of linguistics by arguing that the acquisition of language is part of the natural or innate structure of the human brain, and that there is a “universal grammar”, genetically hard-wired into us from birth, that defines the rules, range, and limits of all possible human languages. Some of his books on this subject include Knowledge of Language and Language and Mind.

Although the Arts and Humanities Citation Index declares Chomsky to be the most-often-cited living author, it’s rare that you’ll hear about him in the mainstream media. This is because since 1965 Chomsky has been very outspoken about his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and the corporate influence on the media. His book of essays American Power and the New Mandarins is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against the American involvement in Vietnam. Some of his many other political books include Towards a New Cold War, The Manufacture of Consent, Rogue States, The Chomsky Reader, 9-11: Understanding Power and Middle East Illusions.

Many of Chomsky’s political books recount in disturbing detail how the U.S. government has supported violent dictators and totalitarian regimes throughout the world, and how it has repeatedly inflicted horrific atrocities on Third World countries that fail to support American corporate interests. He goes into painstaking detail describing how these atrocities have been covered up by the mainstream, corporate-owned media, and how they have created a strong negative sentiment toward America around the world. 

I spoke with Professor Chomsky on May 30, 2003. Despite his staggering accomplishments, Chomsky comes across as unusually humble. He has a very gentle, yet highly persuasive manner about him, and he choses his words with great care when he speaks. Chomsky exudes conviction and calmness, and expresses himself with great clarity, serenity and eloquence, as well as the utmost patience; I was acutely aware that he had answered some of the questions that I was asking him at least a thousand times before, yet he replied with such thoughtfulness that it seemed as if he was answering these questions for the first time.

There is a great generosity to Chomsky’s spirit, and he has an incredibly vast, truly encyclopedic knowledge-base of scientific and political facts stored in his head. I spoke with Chomsky about propaganda and the media, the political potential of the internet, how to improve democracy, medical marijuana and the Drug War, the relationship between language and consciousness, and what he thinks are the greatest threats to the human species-a subject he spoke about with great urgency.

David: Why do you think it’s so important to question authority?

Noam: Just out of the commitment to freedom. I think people have every right to be free, independent creatures, and that means to question any kind of hierarchy or domination, or authority. It’s almost true by definition if you believe in freedom.

David: All previous forms of media-television, radio, newspapers, etc.-have been monopolized by corporations. It seems that they can’t monopolize the internet. Do you think that this will make a difference sociologically?

Noam: First of all, historically, that’s not really true. I don’t know about other countries, but the history of media in the modern period-the last two centuries-has been studied pretty closely in England and the United States, and the period when the press was most free was probably the Nineteenth Century. There was a very substantial press in the Nineteenth Century, and it was very diverse. There was a working class press, an ethnic press, and so on-with a lot of participation and involvement. It reached a great many people, and it presented a variety opinions and point of views. 

Over time this changed. Actually there was an effort, first in England, to try to censor the independent press by various government means, such as taxation and others. Now that didn’t work, there were too many ways around it. It was finally recognized that through the forces of capital concentration and advertiser reliance, the independent press would simply be eroded since it would not be able to gain business support, either capital investment or advertising. And over time the press has narrowed, very sharply in fact. It’s been going on for the last few years, and the mass-based independent press has largely disappeared. 

In the United States, for example, as recently as the 1950’s, there were about 800 labor-based newspapers which reached, maybe, thirty million people a week. Of course that’s completely disappeared. If you go back to the early part of the century, about a century ago, popular-based, what we would call left-oriented journals, were on the scale of commercial press, and the same has been true in England. So it’s not entirely true that it’s always been monopolized, that’s a process that takes place through capital accumulation and reliance on advertising. 

The internet is a very important case. Like most of the modern economy, it was developed in the state system, and for about thirty years it was either within the Pentagon, or later the National Science Foundation. It was only privatized in the mid-90’s, and since then it has changed. So far it’s been impossible to really control, so if people want to use it for their own purposes they can. 

But there are major efforts being made by the corporate owners and advertisers to shape the internet, so that it will be mostly used for advertising, commerce, diversion and so on. Then those who wish to use it for information, political organizing, and other such activities will have a harder time. Now that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s really a terrain of struggle. But what’s going on with the internet is, in some respects, similar to the early days of print press, later radio, to some extent television.

David: What sort of difference do you think the internet has made politically? Do you see it as a tool for improving human rights and democracy?

Noam: The appearance of the internet has had a big effect. So a good deal of the organizing and activism of the past say ten years has been internet based. Now that’s true inside particular countries. So, for example, the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was very much facilitated by internet contact among people, many of them students, who were able to organize, and overthrow the dictatorship. Now we’ve just seen it in South Korea very dramatically. 

Like just about every major element of

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Robert Anton Wilson - 2

Quantum Sociology and Neuropolitics
David Jay Brown Interviews Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson is a writer and philosopher with a huge cult following. He is the author of over 35 popular fiction and nonfiction books, dealing with such themes as quantum mechanics, the future evolution of the human species, weird unexplained phenomena, conspiracy theories, synchronicity, the occult, altered states of consciousness, and the nature of belief systems. His books explore the relationship between the brain and consciousness, and the link between science and mysticism, with wit, wisdom, and personal insights. Comedian George Carlin said, “I have learned more from Robert Anton Wilson than I have from any other source.”

Wilson is a very entertaining writer, and both his fiction and nonfiction books can be as reality-shifting as a hearty swig of shamanic jungle juice. Wilson has an uncanny ability to lead his readers, unsuspectingly, into a state of mind where they are playfully tricked into “aha” experiences that cause them to question their most basic assumptions. The writers of many popular science fiction films and television shows have been influenced by Wilson’s writings, and they will sometimes make subtle cryptic references to his philosophy in their stories-often by making the number 23 significant in some way, which refers to Wilson’s strange synchronicities around that number.

Since 1962 Wilson has worked as an editor, futurist, novelist, playwright, poet, lecturer and stand-up comic. He earned his doctorate in psychology from Paideia University, and from 1966-1971 he was the Associate Editor of Playboy magazine. He is perhaps best known for the science fiction trilogy Illuminatus!, which he co-authored with Robert Shea in 1975. The Village Voice called the trilogy “the biggest sci-fi cult novel to come along since Dune.” His Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy was called “the most scientific of all science-fiction novels” by New Scientist magazine.

Some of Wilson’s popular nonfiction books, which blend social philosophy with satire, as well as with personal experiments and experience, include Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, Quantum Psychology, The New Inquisition, The Illuminati Papers, Right Where You Are Sitting Now, and Everything is Under Control. His most current book is TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, a satirical commentary about the loss of constitutional rights in America. (TSOG is an acronym for “Tsarist Occupation Government”.)

Wilson has also appeared as a stand-up comic at night clubs throughout the world, and he made a comedy record called Secrets of Power. His more academic lectures are best described as “stand-up philosophy”, and they are as funny and thought-provoking as his comedy routines. He also teaches seminars at New Age retreats, like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and his Web in the top two percent of the most visited sites on the internet. Rev. Ivan Stang, cofounder of The Church Of The Subgenius, described Wilson as “the Carl Sagan of religion, the Jerry Falwell of quantum physics, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of feminism and the James Joyce of swing-set assembly manuals.”

Wilson starred on a Punk Rock record called The Chocolate Biscuit Conspiracy, and his play Wilhelm Reich in Hell was performed at the Edmund Burke Theater in Dublin, Ireland. His novel Illuninatus! was adapted as a ten-hour science fiction rock epic and performed under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Great Britain’s National Theater (where he appeared briefly on stage in a special cameo role).

A documentary about Wilson’s life and work entitled “Maybe Logic” (by Lance Bauscher) was released on July 23, 2003. At the premiere of the film (at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, California), the mayor of Santa Cruz (Emily Reilly) officially declared that, from that day forth, July 23rd would be “Robert Anton Wilson Day” in Santa Cruz.

It was Bob’s book Cosmic Trigger that not only inspired me to become a writer when I was a teenager, but it was also where I first discovered many of the fascinating individuals who would later become the subjects of my interview books. So it was a great thrill for me when Bob wrote the introduction to my first book, Brainchild. I interviewed Bob for my second book, Mavericks of the Mind, in 1989, and wanted to check in with him again to see what he thought about some of the things that we spoke about fourteen years ago, as well as the present state of the world. Bob and I have been good friends for many years, and he continues to inspire me. He is particularly fond of the writings of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and I’ve learned a lot about Finnegan’s Wake and The Cantos by going to his weekly discussion groups.

I interviewed Bob on September 23, 2003. At 72 he remains as sharp and witty as ever. Bob has an uncanny ability to perceive things that few people notice, and he has an incredible memory. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of many different fields-ranging from literature and psychology, to quantum physics and neuroscience. He is unusually creative in his use of language, and he has his own unique style of humor. Despite many personal challenges over the years, Bob has always maintained a strongly upbeat perspective on life, and-regardless of the circumstances-he never fails to make me smile every time I see him. Everyone who meets him agrees; there’s something truly magical about Robert Anton Wilson.

I spoke with Bob about the nature of optimism, why politics on this planet is such a big mess, his decision to run for governor of California, our vanishing constitutional rights in America, the philosophy of “maybe logic”, extraterrestrial intelligence, and why he thinks Hannibal Lector would make a better president than George W. Bush.

David: What were you like as a child?

Bob: Stubborn, it seems; maybe pig-headed. My mother often told me how, when I had polio at age 4, I kept trying to get up and walk. She said that no matter how hard I fell, I’d stand and stagger again until I fell again. I attribute that to Irish genetics-after 800 years of British occupation, the quitters did not survive to reproduce, you know. But I still loathe pessimism, masochism and every kind of self-pity. I regard loser scripts as actively nefarious and, in high doses, toxic. Due to that Nietzschean attitude, and the Sister Kenny treatment, I did walk again and then became highly verbal.

A neighbor said, even before I started school, that I should become a lawyer because no judge could shut me up. I attribute that, not to genetics, but to the polio and polio-related early reading skills. Due to a year of total-to-partial paralysis,I missed a vital part of normal male socialization and never became any good at sports, but I devoured books like a glutton. The nuns at the Catholic school where my parents sent me did shut me up for a while. Catholic education employs both psychologocal and physical terrorism: threats of “Hell” and physical abuse. But they never stopped me from thinking-just from saying what I thought.

David: What inspired you to become a writer?

Bob: The magic of words. One of the biggest thrills of my childhood came at the end of King Kong when Carl Denham says. “No, it wasn’t the airplanes-it was Beauty that killed the Beast.” I didn’t know what the hell that meant, but it stirred something in me. In fact, it felt like what the nuns told me I would feel after eating Holy Eucharist-what we call a mystic experience-except that I didn’t get it from the eucharist but from a gigantic gorilla falling off a gigantic skyscraper and having that line as his epitaph. I wanted to learn to use words in a way that would open people’s minds to wonder and poetry the way those words had opened mine.

David: What is “maybe logic”?

Bob: A label that got stuck on my ideas by film-maker Lance Bauscher. I guess it fits. I certainly recognize the central importance in my thinking-or in my stumbling and fumbling efforts to think-of non-aristotelian systems. That includes von Neumann’s three-valued logic [true, false, maybe], Rapoport’s four-valued logic [true, false, indeterminate, meaningless], Korzybski’s multi-valued logic [degrees of probability], and also Mahayana Buddhist paradoxical logic [it

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Douglas Rushkoff

David Jay Brown 

Interviews Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkhoff

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and social commentator. His books, articles, newspaper columns, talks, and NPR commentaries thoughtfully explore the psychological and sociological consequences of technology, mass media, advertising and youth culture. He is one of the most widely-read media critics in America, and although he is considered one of the world’s experts on youth culture and advertising, his ideas are not without controversy. 

When Ruskkoff’s first book on media theory, Media Virus, was published in 1994, critics initially viewed his upbeat assessments of how teenagers were playfully deconstructing mass media as too idealistic. His ideas-which quickly became popular with younger generations-went against the conventional assumption that computer games and MTV videos were necessarily bad for kids. Rushkoff contended that the new interactive information technologies had the power to accelerate thought and increase intelligence. 

Rushkoff’s enthusiasm for youth culture and new technology seemed reminiscent of Timothy Leary’s optimism, and, in fact, Rushkoff’s theories about media built upon Leary’s idea that each generation is a new breed of human-almost a new species-and that kids nowadays have nervous systems that process information in ways that are faster and less linear than previous generations. Rushkoff also expanded upon British biologist Richard Dawkins’s concept of “memes”-units of culture, which replicate like genes-to create the idea of a “media virus”, an idea that spreads through populations due to the media shell that surrounds it.

Ironically, after mainstream businesses and respected academics did start to take Rushkoff’s ideas and observations about media and youth culture seriously (simply because his theories had true predictive value), some people in the digital counterculture saw Rushkoff as something of a “sellout”, largely because he began consulting for Fortune 500 companies. But Rushkoff defends his actions by saying that he has always stayed true to his ideals. Whether he’s addressing a “corporate-culture” or a “counterculture” audience, Rushkoff has always aimed to be a cheerleader for change, growth, cooperation and creativity-what Timothy Leary would have called an “evolutionary agent”. He is trying to help the human race evolve, and one of the ways to do that, he believes, is to break down the artificial distinction between “us” and “them”.

Although Rushkoff is media theorist by trade, this hasn’t stopped him from writing books about everything from altered states of consciousness to Judaism. In addition to Media Virus, Rushkoff’s other popular nonfiction books-which include CyberiaPlaying the Future, and Coercion-explore such themes as the hidden agendas in popular culture, the relationship between computer culture and psychedelic drugs, social values and corporate coercion. He is also the author of two novels, Ecstasy Club and Exit Strategy, as well as the graphic novelClub Zero-G, which explore such diverse topics as rave culture, computer hacking, and the nature of consciousness. In addition, he co-authored the book Stoned Free (with Patrick Wells) about methods for getting high without drugs, and he edited The Gen X Reader, a collection of essays about new trends in thought and culture. His latest book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, moves away from these cyberculture themes and explores Rushkoff’s quest to find meaning in Judaism.

Rushkoff was the correspondent for PBS’s award-winning Frontline documentary on teenage culture, The Merchants of Cool. His weekly commentaries air on CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and they appear on the back page of Timemagazine. Rushkoff also writes for many popular magazines, and his monthly column on cyberculture is distributed through the New York Times Syndicate. He lectures regularly at conferences and universities around the world, and has served as an adjunct professor of communication at New York University. He also served as an Advisor to the United Nations Commission on World Culture, and on the advisory boards of the Media Ecology Association and the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics. 

Rushkoff lives in New York City’s East Village. I interviewed him on October 17, 2003. I’ve corresponded with Doug for several years, and was glad to finally have this opportunity to talk at length with him. Doug strikes me as being unusually sincere; he seems genuinely and deeply devoted to the process of discovery and education. There’s a childlike playfulness in the way that he explores sophisticated ideas. I spoke with Doug about the interplay between youth culture, corporate culture, and the counterculture. We discussed theories of media and media viruses, and the sociological implications of having a generation of reality hackers with their hands on the dashboard of creation.

David: What were you like as a child?

Douglas: I guess it would depend on who you talk to. Or, more importantly, on when you think the childhood ends. I mean, I’m still a child, right? 

I think I was a recontextualizer as a kid. I think I looked at situations, and then tried to keep reframing them. In other words, I would look at, say, the classroom I was sitting in and think, well, what’s really going on here? Is this one older person talking to lots of younger people? Or is this some sort of imitation of a factory floor? And then the teacher’s like the foreman, and we’re the workers. Or is it a family? And the teacher’s like the mommy, and we’re the children. So I just spent a lot of time as a kid, not really imagining things or imagining new scenarios, as much as seeing whatever situation I was in in different ways-and spending a lot of effort to keep my sense of things fluid rather than really fixed. 

David: Are you saying that you didn’t really have any firm belief systems as a child?

Douglas: I don’t know if I thought of it that way. But, I think, for various reasons, probably out of fear, or getting picked on, or being isolated, or being in situations that didn’t really work well for me, I developed a tactic of being able to reimagine the situations I was in as something else. 

Gosh, if you were a slave in ancient Rome, or a victim in some truly catastrophic situation, it would behoove you to be able to re-imagine all this as a scenario in which this is all actually okay-the way a starving Hindu might imagine what he’s doing is paying penitence, so that he can come back in a better life. Most simply, you come up with a story that suits the circumstances around you, but is more pleasing than the story that you seem to be in. Like anyone I developed this technique out of necessity, but then I managed to turn it into something fun, even artistic, and it ended up serving me as a philosophy later on. 
But the simplest way of answering the question would just be to say that, as a kid, I was naughty. I was not naughty in the big sense. I didn’t shoot people, or hurt anybody, but I was kind of devilish, more of a trickster child. I was class clown, but with purpose.

David: How did you become interested in writing about the media and youth culture?

Douglas: I don’t know if it speaks well of me, but I became interested in writing because it was something I could do without sponsorship, and without collaborating. It seemed that everything else that I was interested in involved working with and for other people-some of whom seemed dedicated to interests other than the project at hand. I was very interested in theater and film, but they always required collaboration, and they required someone else’s money to actually do the thing. I got interested in writing because it was something I could do without anybody’s help, without any sponsorship. You had to get it published, and to get it out there in the world you had to collaborate. But just to write, no. It’s just you.

I started by writing about all the weirdness that was going on in the late 80’s-the beginning of internet culture, the psychedelic revival, rave culture, chaos math and new physics, and fantasy role-playing games-all the stuff that ended up coalescing as the book Cyberia. It all seemed to me to be part of a single kind of mass cultural phenomenon-where people felt that they were getting their hands on the dashboard of creation, that people could now design reality in one way or another. And that seemed like a real, almost a categorical shift to me, and something worth telling people about. Although I wrote a couple of cyberdelic screenplays back then, it’s really hard to get whatever millions you need to get a movie made. But writing articles about that was a no-brainer. Even mainstream publications were willing to let me write about this stuff because no one else knew about it at the time. 

So I ended up getting a writing career, less because my writing was particularly good, than because I had access to a story, and a perspective on a story that wasn’t really being covered by anybody else. Then the more I wrote, the more I liked the actual writing and wordsmithing, and then realized that it was a better fit for me. At least for the last twenty years it’s been a better fit for my personality and my way of working than theater was.

David: What do you think adults can learn from youth culture?

Douglas: Why they can learn about the future. Everybody tries to forecast the future using all sorts of strange methodologies about what’s going to happen. So much effort has been expended exploring the question, where’s the human race going? When all that you have to do is look at kid. A kid is basically the next model of human being. So, if you want to know, where’s evolution taking us-whether it’s physical evolution or cultural evolution-you look at kids, because they are quite literally the future.

The other thing we can learn from kids is the trending of our cognitive and neural habits. You can see most readily the different ways that kids draw connections between things than we do, the different ways of processing information. If you can hold back from being judgmental about it, for just a moment, to look at what it is that’s going on for them and inside them. I mean, yeah, there are many tendencies that are very upsetting-a shortened attention span, less memory, less reading, and less consideration, okay, okay, okay. But if you look beyond those surface observations and focus instead on children’s cognitive functioning and pattern recognition, it becomes a lot more interesting. 

You can start to see the differences between the way kids process information and the way we do as being almost as profound as the differences between the way  literate culture looked at things from the way oral culture did before it. There are some extraordinary shifts taking place. Cerrtain things were lost when we learned to write things down. Memory, for one. But other things were gained.

David: I really enjoyed your book Media Virus. You wrote that quite a while ago now.

Douglas: Yeah, that’s still one of my favorites actually. I wrote that in, I guess, 93. It came out 94. It’s funny. That book was basically about the Web-only before the Web came out, you know what I mean? The web wasn’t really around yet, but it’s kind of-it’s not premonitory, that’s too strong a word. But I was already intimating that there were a whole bunch of new pathways about to be opened through which media messages could move from person to person-sideways, down and up, and in all these other ways. 

In Media Virus I’m talking about faxes, usenet groups, and the very beginnings of email, and trying to tell people that, someday, you’ll be using email too, and there will be all sorts of viral communications going on. I remember literally getting laughed out of cocktail parties in New York in 94 and 95 when that book came out, because I was claiming that people would actually have computers on their desks, and internet connections in their homes.

David: They wouldn’t have laughed at you here in California.

Douglas: Exactly. That’s why I spent so much time there, then.

David: Could you define what you mean by a media virus? How the concept related to Richard Dawkin’s concept of memes, and how can media viruses be used to help prevent what Noam Chomsky calls “the manufacture of consent”?

Douglas: Yeah, well, in the hopeful vision I guess it could prevent that. A media virus is really just an idea that’s wrapped in a shell of media. If a real virus, a biological virus, is DNA’s code wrapped in protein, a media virus is ideological or conceptual code-what Richard Dawkins calls memes-wrapped in a media shell. And the point of a viral shell is to allow it to pass unrecognized through the body, or from body to body. So it’s got to really have a way of transmitting, a reason for it to move from person to person.

So a media virus, say the Rodney King tape, is first and foremost a media story, not about Rodney King, but about the tape itself. The reason why that homemade, camcorder video of a black guy getting beaten by white cops spread around the world overnight was not really so much because a black guy was getting by white cops. That happened all the time. The reason that it spread around the country was because the real story was someone caught this on camcorder. So this was a story about media. The shell of the Rodney King media virus is the tape itself. It’s not the carrier, that it’s on videotape. But rather, it’s the story of media being used in a new way. 

Media wants to grow. Media is a living thing. So media passes stories about media more than it passes anything else. But once that virus is spread, it releases it’s code, and that decides whether or not it’s going to replicate and survive. And the code of this virus really did challenge our cultural code. Just as a biological virus, the genes inside it, the DNA inside it, literally interperlates itself into our own genetic code. It turns our cells into virus factories. The media virus uses it’s ideological code, it’s memes, to interperlate itself into our cultural code. So if we have cultural weaknesses, if there are gaps, conflicts, or contradictions in our cultural code, then the meme will find a place to nest, and the virus will end up replicating. 

So, whether it’s Madonna talking about sex, or Howard Dean exploiting Friendster, or, media viruses are launched when people use a medium in a new way. Then, once they have your attention, if the viruses can release ideas, code, or concepts even, that challenge the weaknesses of the culture at any given moment, then they’ll succeed and they’ll move on. Unfortunately, the main group that took up the notion of media viruses were marketers, and it quickly became what they’re calling “viral marketing”. It’s all based on Media Virus. So, on the one hand, I launched a terrific virus. But, on the other hand, it mutated into something that I didn’t expect.

I did see media viruses as way to break down the predictability of the media space, and to challenge a lot of the authorities that people like Chomsky are talking about, by creating a bottom-up media, a way for ideas to spread, and a new channel for activists to get their ideas spread faster and better than anyone else. And sometimes it works. There are thousands of terrific blogs out there, and uppity web sites, from Smoking Gun to Matt Drudge, and they are all sorts of great stories about ideas that have trickled up. But the powers that be tend to imitate the properties of media viruses, the same way that Miller or Budweiser can create a fake microbrewery to make people think that they’re drinking a local beer. Or Starbucks creates fake local coffee houses, that don’t have the Starbucks name on them, just to look like their own competition.

David: What are some of the other ways that major corporations have used media viruses? 

Douglas: One campaign, which was based on Media Virus, that I was told about by the creative people responsible for it was a Calvin Klein campaign, where, apparently, they had all these photos of underage kids in their underwear, and it was reminiscent somehow of child porn. All the Christian groups and child protection groups complained, and Calvin Klein took it off the billboards, or out of magazines. But it had been their intent the whole time to a do a campaign that they would be forced to take down, because they knew they would get far more secondary media attention than they could ever pay for. So for two or three days every newscaster is carrying the Calvin Klein story. So they get name out there. And they get their name out there as a dangerous company that’s doing cool, weird, sexy, rule-breaking stuff, which then, I suppose, makes their underwear seem sexy and naughty, and cool for people to use. 

David: At least to their pedophilic clientele.

Douglas: So that would be a more commercial use of a media virus. I guess the thing that bothers me most about it is not just that it was for commercial culture, or corporate culture, but that it was kind of disingenuous to begin with. It wasn’t really an advertising campaign. It was an advertising campaign created to get taken off the air. In other words, because it was so thought-out in a certain way, it just doesn’t feel genuine to me.

David: What do you mean when you refer to corporations as being an empty set of operating commands, or as dead things, with nobody really in charge?

Douglas: When I’m talking about corporations being mindless usually what I’m trying to do is empower the people that are working for them. It’s funny, a lot of times I’ll be invited to speak at a conference, or even at a corporation, to all the workers and people there, and people in the counterculture get all upset. They think, oh it’s this horrible sellout thing I’m doing to take money to talk to their employees. But what I’m trying to demonstrate to the employees, what I’m trying to explain to them, is that the corporation doesn’t really exist. The corporation is paperwork. It’s a list of rules, through which people are supposed to interact, or priorities that they’re supposed to follow, but there’s nobody home. 

I mean, the worker is listening to the executive, who’s listening to the CEO, who’s listening to the shareholder, who’s just Joe Public finally. It’s the same person walking into the store. So it’s very easy to say, oh corporations are to blame, these horrible entities, but corporations are not conscious. Corporations are groups of people acting in concert, following a set of rules. And what people forget is that those rules can be changed. We’re not here to be at the mercy of a piece of paper. A corporation is like a computer program. What I’m saying, most simply, is that this means the people who think that they are the victims of the corporations they are working for-or that they have shares of, or that are in their communities-have access to the codes through which those corporations exist.

David: How does this type of corporate structure allow for underground artists, psychedelic tricksters, and political activists to “sneak” their unconventional ideas into the public domain? 

Douglas: There’s a lot of different ways that activists, and wonderful strange people, can get involved in changing the reality in which they live. Sometimes I think the most valuable thing is just to do things that change people’s conception of stuff. In other words, rather than actually taking down a corporation, just demonstrating to everyone in a community that they don’t have to buy their stuff at Walmart. I mean, that, in and of itself, is kind of an eye-opener. Or that there are maybe laws protecting them. Or just that they have a say in what goes on. That they can chose how they think. That they don’t have to work seven days a week. That they might have enough stuff. That there are ways to have fun without buying products. That they can get laid without having those jeans. Those are the things. That’s the area that’s most interesting to me. 

As far as weird people being able to get their messages disseminated by media companies, yeah, that happens too. I mean, because some of them are so big, one right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing-so that Warner Music ends up publishing Cop Killer. Or Paramount-Viacom ends up creating Beavis and Butthead, which ends up really killing the rock video as a revenue stream and as a marketing tool. Because now you’ve got Beavis and Butthead, the creation of a wonderful crazy animator down in Texas, Mike Judge, where they’re deconstructing MTV on television. And fourteen year olds are watching that, realizing, oh, that’s how rock videos are put together. And that’s the way they’re supposed work on my head. So people wonder why they don’t show rock videos on MTV anymore, and that’s really the reason. It’s because those two little animated creatures deconstructed it, and were there someone in charge, they probably wouldn’t have let that happen.      

David: Who are the different audiences that you address in your books, and why do you think it’s important to break down the concept of “us” and “them”.
Douglas: When I wrote Coercion, which was my sixth or seventh book, I wrote that because, I realized my other books were too advanced in some ways. Books like CyberiaMedia Virus, and Playing the Future are celebrating interactivity, and our ability to become the authors in our own media space-the people who hack through the systems one way or another, spread their messages, and build their own reality. That was exciting to me. And there were thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, of people out there who were excited about this opportunity. But what I realized was that the majority of people in America not only didn’t only know that opportunity existed, but didn’t even know why they should. Or that they were not conscious people looking to make a change in the world, but were, pretty much, unconscious people, at the mercy of the media messaging they were receiving. 

I realized not everyone had gone through all the stages that my friends and I had gone through, that most people were still in the thrall of the mainstream media and the marketing universe. So what I needed to do was take a few steps back and say, okay everybody, you know there’s this media space that we all live in, and certain people tend to dominate the messages that you get. And many of the places where you walk are owned by corporations who have a very vested interest in you buying things, and that you are constantly under some level of assault, of manipulation, by all these various forces. 

While you can’t walk around paranoid, constantly deconstructing everything coming at you, or you won’t have a very fun existence, you should at least be able to live on a more level playing field. When you go into a retail or a corporate environment you have to understand that there are a lot of tools being used-from architecture to language and tone of voice, to lighting, to the very paths and surfaces you walk on, that are designed to either intimidate you, or lead you to make certain choices and have certain behaviors.

David: What do you mean when you say that your not counterculture, you’re “pro-culture”?

Douglas: What I’m trying to do in most of my work is break open the rhetoric that has allowed us to stagnate. There are certain patterns of language that reinforce notions about ourselves, and our relationship to the world, that may be more destructive than we realize. And that by keeping our language alive, by understanding what we’re saying when we say it, we become a lot more aware of our conditioning. So if we who care about the future, we who care about the environment, if we accept that we are the counterculture, what have we accepted? We have accepted that we are literally against culture. So now we’ve cast ourselves as kind of the bad guys, the underdogs, the ones who are fighting against something. Well, what if we decided no. We are not the counterculture minority fighting against this great over-culture. No, we are real people. We are culture. George Bush is the counterculture.  I am the culture. 

What is a culture? A culture is like yogurt. A culture is a living thing. This is not just a pun, or a metaphor. The culture is the life. It’s the fertilization. It’s the thing that actually propels us into a future. It’s great. It’s fecund, moist, real, growing and diverse. It’s in constant communication with itself and with other ones. It’s wet, sexy and real. That is what culture is. That’s the petri dish. That’s the yogurt. That’s the moss on the side of the tree. That’s the culture. Counterculture, to me, would mean, dry and sterile, unloving and unsexy. The counterculture are the people who want to kill culture. They’re the people who want to prevent fertility and diversity, the exchange of ideas, fluids, psyches and everything else. 

So, by looking at words, and being willing to reclaim certain language, we can end up shifting our perspective on things tremendously. If you walk outside thinking of yourself as part of culture, then you start saying, well, what are the obstacles to culture? And you realize marketing is an obstacle to culture-because what do marketers do? Marketers try to make people feel unsexy and uncreative, so that they’re dependent on a product to bestow some kind of sexiness or creativity upon them. Wow, so that’s interesting. So what is Nike? What is Jordache? What are Levis? Is that culture, or is that counterculture? Oh, now I’m arguing they’re counter, they’re against culture. So what’s pro-culture? Is pro-culture the thrift store? Is pro-culture the Dead show? Is pro-culture sex with your girlfriend or wife? That’s where culture lives. Pro-culture is nursery school. That’s culture.

David: How has Marshall McLuhan, Noam Chomsky, and Timothy Leary influenced your perspective about the media?

Douglas: I guess Leary has the most. I didn’t really study any Marshall McLuhan until after I’d written a couple of media books. Then, after having gotten compared with him, I figured, okay, I’ll go read one of these things. I just wasn’t that well read then, although now I am. But I wasn’t when I started writing. I was really just a TV head who could write-not a reader who could write, which was interesting in itself. It made my writing into outsider art of a certain kind.

But Leary influenced me in a few ways. First as a writer and thinker when I was in college, and I read his stuff. Then later as a friend. And those were two very different kinds of influence he had. The important thing that I got from him in college was that he affirmed the validity of psychedelic and mystical experiences. As one of three, or maybe ten kids, who were going through those sorts of experiences at Princeton University  in the early Eighties, it was very reassuring to have someone who had visited these many terrains, and had written about them effectively, and come up with some real, very compelling models for consciousness. So it provided me with maps to a landscape that I would have otherwise assumed was uncharted turf. It really created resonances and guideposts, and ways of recognizing certain phenomenon. 
I guess Chomsky influenced me in the sense that he certainly seemed to have a very clear vision on the interplay between money, power, media, messaging, and consciousness-and how tightly controlled this public relations-run spectator democracy is, and how that works. But I generally accept his work as a challenge to prove him wrong, to accept it as a gauntlet. In other words, here’s how things are, or here’s how things could be. Or here’s one way of understanding this. So what I think is, well, what am going to do about that? How am I going to arrest that? How am I going to help people recontextualize that? Where are the unseen triggers? Where are the unknown access points to power that Chomsky doesn’t see?-but I, as I younger and more optimistic soul, can find and then share with others. So that’s really the way he has impacted me most. It’s like, okay, it’s a really bad trip-but what I can I do to flip it? 

McLuhan influenced me in that he helped me see that I come from a tradition. The tradition is not really one of media theory as much as a trickster tradition. There are some people around who, in their work, either tickle, cajole, or trick people into seeing things in new ways. The object of the game, for me, is to exist in this kind of liminal space between the way things are, and the infinity of the way things could be, and help people open their minds to other possibilities. To help people across this chasm of uncertainty, so that they can live in a space of possibility. 

Most people are afraid of possibility because they can’t deal with a shifting reality, and they can’t accept their own responsibility for the way things are. Most people can not cope with a reality that works like a lucid dream, even though they happen to be living in one. So they would rather shut down, and they would rather agree to the consensus reality where they are victimized and unhappy, than accept a more plastic, open-source conception of reality where anything and everything is possible.

David: Speaking of opening minds and shifting realities, how has your experience with psychedelics influenced your writing, and your perspective on life?

Douglas: I think it’s very hard for anyone who has had psychedelic experiences to ever know how many of the insights that they might credit to psychedelia might have happened anyway. In other words, sometimes I think, okay, it’s all the acid. That you have one acid trip and, basically, you never come down from it-just the rest of life kind of comes up to it. (laughter) That there’s a full categorical shift in the way you understand the world, that your perspective is forever changed, and that’s it. 
But I talk to a lot of people who’ve never had psychedelic experiences-at least chemical or plant-induced ones, or who have never even smoked pot-and they still seem just as aware of the fact that we’re all living in reality tunnels, and that we chose different tunnels. And they can have moments of a broader perspective, where they see the way all these things are arbitrarily chosen, and that we’ve been living in a certain picture frame, and how you can pull out of that frame, and see all these other possibilities. So the only thing I know for sure is that psychedelics provide a very tangible and experiential metaphor for the interchangeable contextual frames that we use to understand the world we live in. 
For me, certainly, psychedelics were a valuable medicine-for a kid, who at 19, was really trapped in doing premed, and becoming a doctor. I was going to do all this stuff I didn’t really want to do. I actually made the decision to go be a theater person before I’d had any kind of drug experience, but it definitely helped. Afterwards it helped me see the validity of that decision, and it helped me understand that all this recontextualizing I had been doing, all of the frames within frames. All of the theater that I was so interested in was not for the play, but for the proscenium arch itself, and for the ritual that was going on in the room. All of that had a shamanic history, and it was a bit more universally applicable than I had realized. It wasn’t just something that happened in a theater; it’s something that happens in the world at every moment. We are contextualizing and recontextualizing things based on assumptions.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?

Douglas: I really have no idea. I would guess it goes on for a few minutes. You get to Heaven, and you have those great life-after-life experiences, and then… (laughter) nothing! (laughter

I would think the only way for a person to have anything approaching consciousness after death-real death, when the body actually stops metabolizing, or there’s just no metabolic processes and the brain is really dead dead-would be, while that person is alive, to learn to identify so profoundly with something other than his or her own ego, so that when the self dies, the identification goes on. But most of us really believe in the illusion of individuality. We believe who we are is us. 

So, in a sense, it blows the question out of the water, finally, because you say, well, what happens to consciousness after death? Well, what happens to your consciousness after someone else’s death?  Not a hell of a lot. I mean, you might feel bad that they died, but their consciousness is gone, except for the part of it that’s now in everybody else. 

It certainly shouldn’t be anybody’s goal to extend consciousness after death, because that’s still just a person trying to project their ego. But I would think a fringe benefit of developing true compassion for other people is that if you do identify with other people, other things, and other systems-things that are beyond the four walls of your own limited personal consciousness. Then the death of you or me is inconsequential. But I think that for 99.9999% of people the chances are that they just die.

David: So you think death may be different for some people than other people?

Douglas: Possibly. I would think that the only way out would be to get out while you’re here. I don’t think you can get out after you’re dead.

David: What is your perspective on the concept of God? Do you see any kind of teleology in evolution, and how has Judaism effected your views on spirituality?

Douglas: I think we are no better than fungus, on a rock hurling through cold and meaningless space, and that we were not put here with purpose by a supreme being. But I do believe that God is something that can evolve. I think of God as an emergent phenomenon, rather than a preexisting condition. So I think we can make God. I think we can conceive God. I think we can start to behave in Godly ways. But I think God is something we build together. God is something we make. God is the result of love and ethical action, higher states of consciousness and coordinated action-things like that. 

Not for many people, but for me, this teleology is absolutely consistent with the intention of Judaism-which was to get people to stop worrying about God, particularly idolatry, and start worrying about one another. What the Jews keep doing is smashing idols. They took idols off the arc and left empty spaces there-literally empty spaces. And the empty spaces were protected, sometimes protected by cherubs-like on the top of the Arc of the Covenant. These are all empty places. That’s why I wrote this book called Nothing Sacred. The idea is that this “nothing” is sacred, because only when you have an empty space can you create a dynamic or a voltage between people, and that’s what makes God happen-this communing or community between people. These resonant living fields of interaction between loving human beings is what makes God possible. But I don’t believe in God as a separate thing. I guess I’m a bit like Teilhard de Chardin with this idea of evolution groping towards complexity, rather than us being set in motion by a supreme being who wants us to return to him.

David: How do you integrate your psychedelic experiences with your interest in Judaism? I think for a lot of people it’s hard to understand how organized religion could be compatible with a psychedelic experience.

Douglas: Organized religion isn’t really compatible with any experience. I don’t even see it as compatible with Judaism. Organized religion is not something I’m interested in, and it may not be compatible with a psychedelic experience, or with the genuine expansion and development of consciousness. I don’t look at Judaism as a religion. I look at Judaism as the process by which we get over religion. Most religions were born that way. Most religions were born as fresh breezes, as ways to lift people from the self-protective crouch of religion-whether it was Taoism lifting people out of Confucius, Judaism lifting people out of child-sacrifice to the god Molech, or Christianity trying to lift people out of the restricting rule-sets of Jewish law into a more, all-encompassing spontaneous experience of love. Each one of these new religions starts as way to break the attachment to religion, to just live a good life, and they end up eventually turning into religions themselves. So it’s that moment of liberation, that you want to preserve, and that you want to keep reliving every time you get attached to something. 

That’s why the Jewish mythology is still very effective for me, because it’s all about breaking out of slavery, the leaving Egypt, which in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. It’s leaving the narrow place, the idolatrist place, by smashing the idols-which is what the plagues really are, the desecration of the Egyptian Gods that we used to worship-and moving into a society that cherishes life. That’s why they say, “l ‘chaim!,  l ‘chaim”, or “to life”, and this is the central Jewish belief. That was an illegal sentiment in ancient Egypt, because that was a culture that worshiped death. You asked me what I thought happens after you die. Well, in Judaism it doesn’t really matter what happens after you die, because you’re here. What matters is what you do here, and if something happens after die you’ll worry about it then. The reason to do great things here and now is not because you want to be rewarded after you die. The reason to great things here and now is because that is actually the most fun and meaningful way to live.

David: Your books CyberiaMedia Virus, and Playing the Future present a very upbeat and optimistic perspective on youth culture, while your book Coercion was more of a warning signal about sociological manipulation. Would you say that you’re as optimistic about the cultural direction of the human species now, as you were when you wrote your earlier books, and do you think that the human species is going to survive the next hundred years?

Douglas: I never saw CyberiaMedia Virus, and Playing the Future as particularly optimistic. I saw them as realistic, because it seemed to me that the world, or at least the American world, was bemoaning the invention of things that were actually quite cool and progressive. So the standard media theorists of the day-people like Neil Postman, educators and all-were saying the computer’s a bad thing, or kids who go online are going to get stupid. And someone had to say no, wait a minute, kids who watch old fashioned TV are going to stupid. Kids who go online are typing. They’re writing. They’re posting ideas. So what was interpreted by some as optimism was actually just me saying, no, these are actually really cool inventions. Beavis and Butthead isn’t just crap; Beavis and Butthead are deconstructing media. Or Mystery Science Theater is actually a very advanced cultural product.
So I had enthusiasm for some of things that were happening, and in Media Virus I certainly saw the development of an interactive media space as a tool ripe for the taking. I understood that the landscape had shifted, but I always-even in Cyberia-talked about this as a window of opportunity, that the sands are shifting. Our relationship to media is changing, and if we’re going to be smart, we can use this opportunity to change the balance of power in an interesting way, and take charge of our reality much more than we have before, rather than acquiescing our authority to these false parent figures. But even in Playing the Future, which is thought of as the most Pollyannaish of the books, I say it’s a difficult moment when a child realizes his parents aren’t gods. And it’s a difficult moment for civilization to realize that it’s gods aren’t parents.

But that’s the moment we’re in, and this is the insight and sensibility we’re going to have to seize if we want to become adults, if we want to grow up. And if we don’t want to grow up, then we’ll let this opportunity pass. The powers that be will retake the reigns of this coach, and we’ll go back into a kind of cultural dormancy again. So, rather than seeing the early work as optimistic, I see it more as propagandistic. I see it more as creating arguments why it’s okay for people to take charge of the world we’re living in. So, yeah, I painted happy pictures because I thought that if I can paint scenarios by which everything could work out, then maybe we’ll be able to get to one of them. If we can’t even imagine a scenario where human beings will survive another hundred years, then how are we going to do it? 

So, at least, I was trying to make people think it’s possible, so that they would engage with life in a more fulfilling and direct way-in a way that gave them hope and possibility. Although Coercion looks darker-and it is a darker, sadder read in a lot of ways-in a way it’s a more optimistic act to think that giving people this warning would actually do any good. If we live in a marketing universe like that, and if people are that hypnotized, then it’s still an extremely hopeful thing. All I was really doing in that case was going to a less educated group, and giving them the kind of the education that they needed to participate the way that some of us were. 

It just seemed like there weren’t enough of us involved in-whatever you want to call it-the cyber movement, or the consciousness movement. There weren’t enough of us really involved in it to make a difference, and too many of us in the movements became the victims of New Age pyramid schemes, and selling KM, Herbal Life, or one or the other many products, and really getting derailed. Rather than following our bliss we sell our bliss at the top of another pyramid scheme, and that was a shame. But those people really did need to back-fill their education a bit. So that’s what I was trying to do there. 

In terms of now, yeah, I would have to say I’m less hopeful than I was. I mean, I no longer think that we are going to seize this opportunity that we had. I think the window is closing-the window of opportunity to actually make this as profound a renaissance in human consciousness as it could have been. So, what I’m working on instead is trying to lay as many clues as I can in the culture of the future for people who live through the next Dark Age. I want them to see signs of hope and to give them enough clues so they can at least, as best they can, access the back doors. It feels like what we’re doing now is laying down the cultural program for the next hundred or so years. But I think as long as we participating in the writing of that program, we can leave a few back doors, as hackers would put it, through which people can get in again. 

That might be the best we can do. On the other hand, what I’m working on is smaller interactions, with smaller numbers of people. If I can do a talk for five hundred people that turns on three or four hundred of them to the idea that the tiniest actions that they do in each day of their lives actually make a difference, then I feel I’ve really accomplished something. And that’s really what I’m doing. I’m going from place to place, writing books, and doing things even more subtlely. I have a graphic novel- a comic book-coming out next year. So I’m doing things on a less polemic and a, slightly more practical, hand-to-hand or mouth-to-mouth way. To really model behaviors for people. That’s really all I can do in the end, is model a form of behavior that I think is constructive rather than destructive.

As far as will we be here in a hundred years? Yeah, a hundred years isn’t so long. It really isn’t. A hundred years is really just like three generations. Yeah, they’ll still be people here. In a thousand years? Who knows? I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not there’s any people around. I think it’s a matter of whether the civilizations that we built will be around. I think it’s a matter of whether we can sustain a level of consciousness and complexity. I think they’ll be people for a long time, even if they go back and live in tribes, and live off the old warehouses of Coke or whatever until they learn to make food again. I think there will be people for a long time, even after the environment gets bad. I mean, humans are fucking up the environment for sure, but Nature fucks up the environment even more sometimes, at least as far as people are concerned.
If Nature threw one good ice age, or one good drought on us, we might be finished. We’ve been so lucky over the last few thousand years to have had this very temperate mild environment in which to live. That’s why all us little mammals have been able to run around and do all this. Nature could whack us way harder than fluorocarbons are going to whack us. And, in that sense, it’s almost important that we have a certain amount of AmGem, and Genentech, and other bizarre genetic science going on-where people are figuring out how to grow wheat on rocks, or soy on the ocean, because we just may have to. And we have to, not just because we are fucking things up so badly, but because Nature really can turn on a dime, and the environment can change profoundly in a half century. We’ve seen it happen before. The Sahara Desert was fertile at one time. The deserts of Iraq were the most fertile part of the world that we even knew about. So things shift. Things move around.

David: How do you envision the future evolution of the human race?

Douglas: I don’t know. I hope people become more conscious and aware of each other. If there’s any real plot to be followed, then I’d hope for the human race to become a more coordinated being. Right now people don’t want to coordinate because they think it would mean the loss of individuality. But what they don’t realize is that the only way they’re ever going to find their individuality is by coordinating. So it’s not a matter of becoming the super-organism, as defined by the pre-fascist philosophers, or Hegel or those guys.

It’s not a super-organism. But there is an organizational level that we’re capable of. Rather than a collective unconscious, there’s a way to have a collective consciousness. I think the only reason why people don’t have it is because they are afraid of it. They’re afraid of the loss of privacy. They’re afraid of losing what they think of as their self. But what people are going to have to slowly learn-and it make take thousands of years to do this-is that the self separated from human community doesn’t even exist. 

The self only only exists in relationship to other people-just like a Web site only exists in it’s links to other places, or from other places really. So eventually people will see their way through what looks like a paradox to them now, and, instead, see it as the crucial dynamic through which people can evolve into something greater than the little, isolated, lonely, puny intelligences they are today.

David: What are you currently working on?

Douglas: I’m working on a book that actually has a tentative title, Follow the Fun. It’s really about that. It’s about how people need to move up Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, out of this illusion that they are fighting for their survival, and realize that pursuing the deepest fun-and I don’t mean diversion, but real meaningful fun-will lead to levels of success unimaginable by someone who pursuing gain in order to promote their own survival.

David: What gives you hope?

Douglas: Interactions with happy people. As long as I can have a meaningful interaction with another person, and experience the creation of joy from what wasn’t there before, I have hope-because it means that humans are still capable of manufacturing love and joy where there wasn’t any before. Not finding light, but doing light. As long people can do that, then I still have some faith in the relatively infinite capability of people to recreate reality on their own terms.

George Carlin

David Jay Brown

Interviews George Carlin

George Carlin is a writer, standup comedian, actor and proponent of free speech. His irreverent, controversial, and thought-provoking standup routines have gotten him arrested, earned him four Grammy Awards, and tested the limits of free speech in America.

Carlin grew up in uptown Manhattan, in west Harlem. He began his performance career as a disk jockey in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1956, not long after quitting high school at the age of sixteen. After a few broadcasting jobs, Carlin left for Hollywood, to pursue a career in comedy. There, with his partner Jack Burns, he began doing offbeat comedy team routines. In the early 60’s, the comedy team of “Burns and Carlin” was a huge success. They had a radio show, did night clubs, and had an album, Burns & Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight. With the help of Lenny Bruce, they got an agent and began touring nightclubs around the country.

Carlin decided to go solo with his career in 1962. He appeared on The Tonight Show, and started playing nightclubs around the country. Although, by conventional standards, Carlin became a great success during the Sixties, by the end of the decade he began to question what he was doing as a comedian. He wasn’t content performing tame comedy routines to mainstream, conservative audiences. He wanted to begin to speak to his own generation, and the youth culture with which he identified.

Carlin risked his successful career, to break away from the traditional comedy routines, and do something entirely new. He completely re-created his approach and his material, and, in the process, helped to recreate standup comedy. Over a two-year period, Carlin went from being a clean-cut, suit-and-tie, mainstream entertainer, to being a bearded, long-haired, casually-dressed comedian who incorporated politics, philosophy, and material into his act that some people called “profanity”. Some of his old fans found his new material offensive.

Although he was fired from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969 for saying “ass”, and again in 1970 for saying “shit”, his risky gamble paid off. He soon found a new, much larger audience. During the early Seventies, Carlin’s riffs on sex, drugs, language and politics gained him an avid following among his own generation and the counterculture. His first album, FM & AM, went gold in 1972, the first of four that earned gold status and won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. Carlin had numerous successful albums produced, such as Occupation Foole and Class Clown, which featured the recorded debut of the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine.

Carlin is probably most well-known for the “Filthy Words” routine, which was aired on WBAI in New York in 1973, and almost cost the radio station its broadcasting license. The legal battle that ensued went all the way to the Supreme Court, and although the Supreme Court ruled in the Federal Communication Commission’s favor-so it remained a crime to broadcast those seven naughty words over the air-this controversy, along with Carlin’s arrest after a Milwaukee concert appearance for violating local obscenity laws, only served to elevate his popularity. Carlin became a counterculture hero.

In 1975 Carlin hosted the debut episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Since then, he has written and performed in 13 HBO specials, and has appeared in many films, such as Car Wash, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dogma, Prince of Tides, and Jersey Girl. In 1987 he received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star at the corner of Vine and Selma Streets. In the early 1990’s Carlin hosted the PBS children’s series Shining Time Station, and in 1994 he starred as a cab driver in the Fox television sitcom The George Carlin Show. Some of his other albums include A Place for My Stuff, Playin’ With Your Head, Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, Back in Town, Jammin in New York, and You Are All Diseased. His newest album is Complaints and Grievances. He is also the author of several books that made The New York Times bestseller list, including Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help, Brain Droppings, and Napalm & Silly Putty. His most recently published book is When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?

At the age of 67, Carlin continues to tour, doing ninety concerts a year, and turning out a new HBO show and CD every two years, and he continues to act in films. I’ve been a huge fan of Carlin’s work ever since I was a teenager, so it was quite a thrill for me to spend this time with him. I spoke with George on September 28, 2003. For someone who has such a sharp tongue during his performances, and who defines himself as an antiauthoritarian lawbreaker, George is a really nice guy, and his charisma simply shimmers. He has an extraordinary mastery of the English language, and he can be simply dazzling with his use of words. Although George can’t seem to help being funny at times, he took the questions in this interview quite seriously. He put a lot of thought into how he chose each of his words when he answered my questions. He also kept making me laugh. I spoke with George about the process of creativity, the relationship between shamanism, altered states of consciousness and comedy, the joys of language, politics in America, and why he thinks it’s important to destroy authority and shatter taboos.

David: What were you like as a child? 

George: I came from a family where my father was not present in the home. He could not metabolize ethanol effectively, so he was given his hat early on. My mother raised my brother and me in the 40’s-late 30’s, 40’s, 50’s-on a good job she had in advertising. So I was alone most of the day after school, except for some playmates I had. But I would have the house to myself. I listened to the radio. I was kind of sweet kid, according my mother, and my recollections. Thoughtful and good, but kind of alone-although I didn’t interpret it that way, as such. Children never interpret these things. They think they understand logically. 

So my father wasn’t there, and my mother had to work, and underneath I felt somewhat alone and unlooked out for. So I became very independent, and very self-sufficient. I did a lot of thinking, and used mental activity to relieve whatever feelings I had. I became very left-brained, and I was good in school. That is, I was a smart kid. I went to a very progressive Catholic school-not the kind we always hear about-where individuality was encouraged. I was good at class work, but I was a distraction. I was a class clown, of the classic term for it. I would get the work done easily, and then I would try to deprive other people of their educations. I developed skills for mimicry, and I was a good showoff. I knew how to get attention, and I knew how to do it in a positive funny way. 

David: How did you become interested in doing comedy?

George: Well, it became apparent to me that there was a reward in being like that. You get people’s attention and approval, most of the time. So I gravitated toward being a funny guy. I liked the radio comedians. I lived in the Golden Age of radio, and the Golden Age of television came along when I was still in my early teens. I listened to comedians on the radio. I watched comedians in the movies-Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Red Skeleton. My friend Roger Hogan had an collection of Spike Jones record albums, and I thought they were fabulous. And I became a guy who wanted to be a comedian someday, or a comic actor. The way I put it was, I’ll be like Danny Kaye. He was kind of the model I had in mind.

I’d look at him in the movies, and I’d say, I can do that. I liked him because he had a verbal fluency, and he was fast. He could do accents, funny faces and body postures. So early in life I decided to be a comedian, with the goal of becoming-I called it-an actor. But comedian was really the dominant trait, the dominant part of this skill package that I had.

Then I quit school. In your teenage years, early adolescence, there’s a differentiation that has to go on between you and your parents, especially with the parent of the opposite sex. In adolescence you have to separate yourself and establish your identity. So, being very independent anyway, I took charge. My mother and I had a lot of distance between us emotionally, although, on the surface, most of the time, we appeared good and friendly, and all that. But I was a problem. I was a street kid. 

So I quit school in ninth grade, even though I was good at the studies. I knew I didn’t need school for what I wanted. I knew I had a command of English. I knew I could think well. I knew enough arithmetic so that I could balance a checkbook, as they say. So I just quit school in ninth grade, and worked for a year at Western Union at a desk job. Then I went in the Air Force at seventeen to launch myself. It was to get away from my mother a little bit too. 

I had run away from home three times. I had been kicked out of three different schools under different circumstances. I was kicked out of everything that I didn’t quit. Kicked out of schools. Kicked out of summer camp, the Boy Scouts, the alter boys, the choir, and something else that I can’t think of, that I’m proud of. Anyway, that was my pattern. I just began to invent myself early in life, and went out and did something about it.

David: What inspires your comedy writing? 

George: The impulse comes from within, from the need to express yourself, as with any artist. Now, I am an entertainer by definition. However, there’s a difference between entertainer and artist. Sometimes they go together, and sometimes they don’t. Some entertainers just do that. They sing songs that other people wrote, and they act in parts other people wrote. There’s a bit of creativity in their interpretation, but it’s not seminal. It doesn’t really come from them. 

Then there are the people who create their work-painters, composers, and, of course, writers. Originally I described myself as a comedian who wrote his own material, and it was true. That was a distinguishing feature among comedians. A lot of them didn’t do that, and a lot them weren’t very prolific. They didn’t have a constant flow of new things. So I stood out, certainly in my own mind, as someone who had something extra going on. 

I used to describe myself as a comedian who wrote his own material, but over the years I discovered that what I really was, was a writer who performed his own material. This was a key distinction for me to discover, because it gave me a kind of artistic confidence, that I had something special. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I had some special gift for expression and verbal fluency-whether the verbs and nouns are on a page, or whether they’re in a microphone. It’s all verbal, and my father and mother gave me that to me. They had very highly pronounced verbal traits-that is, a facility and ease with language-and they were funny. 

So I inherited that, really. I never take credit for anything, because it’s mostly genetic to my way of thinking. Even the need to work hard with some genetic talent you’re given-the need to go out and develop it, and push hard to bring it to people. That could be a genetic trait too-the trait to strive, and to be aggressive with your pursuits. So it’s very nice, all these achievements-but down deep I know this thing is heredity.

David: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?

George: Here’s how my creative system works. I’m going to talk about my own case, although I sometimes think it applies to all of people who create, and it probably does. But I can best speak about my own situation, what happens over the years, if you’re curious, you read, and try to absorb and soak up information. I quit school when I was sixteen, yet I had a good mind, so I had the need to educate myself, and fill myself with just plain facts and information. I found it interesting to learn secondhand all about Shakespeare, and then some of the classics. Not that I know much about them, but I know the references when I see them.

When you quit school at an early age, I think you have a lifelong need to show the world-and maybe yourself-that you’re really smart after all. So there was this drive to interpret the world. Most art is an interpretation of the world around the artist, whether it’s in paint or in music. I’m not trying to sound grand here with this overuse of the word artist, but I think there’s no other good word for it. So I’ll use it, and risk sounding somewhat self-important. It’s an interpretation of the world around you. It’s the world through your filter. You recreate the world and say, here’s the world as it comes through me. 

Now I’m 66, and over the years I noticed that what occurs as you age is an accumulation of information, data, knowledge, and what I’m going to call the matrix of the mind. There’s just a rich, textured, field of information and impressions that have been all networked by the brain. The neurons are always working, creating new neural networks, and working out connections between things. You don’t even have to work on that. So a person who’s in his Sixties has a much richer interpretation of life as he sees it today, than he did when he was twenty, because at twenty he had less in his matrix. It just wasn’t there experientially. So that’s what happened to me over the years. I developed and matured as an individual/creative person, and my writing matured as well. First of all, my technique improved. For one thing, I got better at the actual writing. And secondly, the comparisons, the information that comes in now is compared against this richer field in my brain. So it has more life to it. There’s more discovery and reality in it for me than there was when it was a little more simplistic. 

Now, in terms of actually functioning day-to-day, here’s what I do. If you buy that brain hemisphere theory-and there’s some question about it now-then I’m right-brained, because I have this free-flowing, creative side. But I’m also extremely left-brained. I’m very organized. I have what you would call obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Now, I don’t have a problem with it. A shrink once taught me to use this to my benefit, not to my detriment. Because it can hurt a person’s life. It can interfere with life. But it can greatly benefit you if it’s channeled correctly. 

So what I’ve always done is try to channel my compulsive need to have order in my physical world and in my work. The more organized my files are (they’re now computer files, although they used to be hard pieces of paper), the more I have to draw from. Because you don’t remember-certainly not consciously-everything you ever heard. So you write things done. I write notes down all the time-anything I think of that has promise for me. Anything that I think fits into my world of what I want to comment on, or know about, I write it down. If I’m in a car, I’ll use a little hand recorder.

Then, regularly-every couple of weeks-I harvest these accumulated notes. Every two weeks or so I put them in the proper places in their files-whether it’s under “animals”, “colors”, “clothing”, “male/female”, “race”, “politics”, “driving”, or “cats and dogs”. These things go in their proper files, and as you put them in, you see the rest of the file, and it makes an impression on you-even if you’re not consciously trying for it. It goes through the system once again. It goes through the neural system, and so these things just become richer and richer.

Then files have a way of maturing on their own, to where I really love it. I look at the thing, and I say, this is good. I got to tell people this. Boy, wait’ll they hear this. That’s the impulse behind the showoff-wait’ll they hear this. So I get that feeling, and I know I’m ready, or sometimes not, because I don’t have enough time in my shows. I have an hour and twenty minutes that I do. I do an HBO show every two years, and that’s an hour’s worth. So if you start out with an hour’s worth of stuff, by the time you get finished with it in a couple of years, it’s an hour and a half, and you don’t get to do it all. 

So there’s this great surplus. And I just write all the time, in some form or another-whether it’s writing notes, harvesting the notes, or taking things from the files and actually doing the writing. That is what I do, and then I channel it on to the stage. The stage goes into HBO and CDs, and now I have this book outlet. I’ve done two books that have done very well, and I’m writing a third one now. It’s called When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?, and it’s another collection, but this the best one. I guess, unintentionally, I saved a lot of the best stuff from the first two books. I mean, I’m proud of those first two books, but I know I saved a lot of real gold, and now I’m going to get to use it in this book. So that’s the process.

David: In an interview with Larry Wilde you said that all comedians are motivated by a sense of justice. How has this motivated you? 

George: Comedy is grievances. It’s a recitation of grievances-whether they’re inconsequential, superficial-like “my wife shops too much”, or “kids today”, all those old-fashioned themes-or, if it’s deeper, and somewhat more thoughtful, about social imbalance and inequities, and the folly of human behavior. It’s usually a complaint. So I think inherent in some of that complaint is a sense of wanting more balance, more fairness, and I guess that can translate to justice. 

I’m sure there are examples in certain comedy we can find that would be specific to justice itself, in the broader sense of justice. Then there’s a lot, which is less defined, but leans in that direction-of things that look to redress imbalances and inequities. It’s all about dissatisfaction. My comedy is about being very dissatisfied with my fellow humans, and with the people in this country. I think, basically I think the human species is a failed species. 

I mean, we had a great opportunity, with great gifts. We had this wonderful intellect that raised us up, that gave us the ability to objectify and say, I am here. It is out there. It hasn’t been used for the wrong purposes, but the emphasis has gone in the wrong direction. We were given two great things that distinguished us from other animals, or made us special-and that was the ability to cooperate, but then we also had the natural lower brain need to compete. So competition and cooperation together are what made this species leap, leap, leap forward. But now, I think, competition far outweighs the ability to cooperate. 

There’s no real enlightened self-interest. There’s no foresight. There’s no planning. I mean, there’s a modicum of it you see. They’ll talk about this or that five years down time, but no one is sitting around making concrete plans for things that will happen. They wait for them to happen. They wait for emergencies. They wait for near-emergencies. Then it’s patchwork, and then there’s no money for it. Then some other group has a complaint. It’s just that the competing interests prevent a real, honest beneficent development of the species. I’m talking now partly about the culture, apart from the species, as I mention some of those things. 

There are two things in our culture, I think, that lead us astray. I think we turned everything over-mankind in general, not just our culture-to the high priests and the traders. Everything was turned over to those who wanted to control us through mysterious beliefs. And we had an impulse to connect to the universe. They knew that. The clergy, in general, were very, very devious and clever. They knew people had a need to connect to the “One” of some sort. They know there’s this longing to rejoin nature, because we now feel outside of nature. We objectify. We say, man against nature. Well, that’s absurd because man is obviously a part of nature. 

So when we distinguish ourselves, we set up this battle. And they knew we have underneath that a longing to correct that, to reunite. So they twisted and distorted that into these narrow, superstitious belief systems, where you have this invisible man in the sky who’s judging you, going to put you in fiery place. They manipulated people-some of whom were simply weaker, and some of whom were just easy to manipulate. The traders, the business people, the commercial, the merchant class, they turned everything into acquisition and ownership-and, to oversimplify, “having the latest thing”.

People have material needs, but you don’t need a deodorant for every different day of the week. You don’t need four hundred varieties of mustard. There are are over four hundred different varieties of mustard that some place in Menlo Park, I believe, has at some supermarket there. I counted 151 different choices in the cat food section alone, forgetting dogs. At the car wash I counted over 120 separate ways of changing the smell in your car, whether it was beads, or a little sashay thing, or oils, or sprays, or charms that you hang from the mirror. 120 of them, if you counted all the scents, and all these delivery systems. This is what I call too many choices. There are too many choices in America. 

These are the trivial things that we’re given. We’re given many choices to distract us from the fact that our real choices have been diminished in number. Two political parties. Maybe three or four large banks now. Credit card companies, just a couple, a handful. Newspapers, reduced. Ownership of media, reduced, down to five or six big companies now. Big stock brokerage firms, reduced in number. All of these important things we have less choice. Then we’re distracted with these frivolous choices. 21 flavors of ice cream. 35 flavors of popcorn. You see specialty shops with 35 flavors of popcorn, like chocolate-walnut popcorn. These are absurd distractions from what we are doing to ourselves, because we engage in this. It’s not really all imposed. So that’s my feeling.

David: Why do you think it’s important to question authority? 

George: I think it’s not only necessary to question authority, I say destroy authority-or at least attempt to. I think questioning is not enough, because first of all you have to get the right person to question it, and you have to question it in the proper setting. You have to be in a forum where questioning it will have some effect. Just sitting around saying this or that to yourself doesn’t seem to help. You have to act on those feelings. You have to live your life in an antiauthoritarian way, in a way that defies authority. I’m a rule-breaker. I’m a law breaker. I don’t respect any laws or rules unless there’s something that can get me in trouble. Self-interested, enlightened self-interest. 

I jaywalk, because I can do that skillfully, and I’m not disturbing anyone else’s pattern of life. If I think that jaywalking is going to make someone slow down or stop for me, then I don’t do it. I don’t want people doing that to me, and I don’t need help crossing the street. So, to me, authority is something that a freer spirit, a more independent mind, and a person who can handle the world, doesn’t need guidance from. I think it’s important to put your own situation in mind when you deal with authority. How does it effect me? How do I benefit or lose? Without hurting others, without imposing any inconvenience or hardship on another, can I get around this somehow? That’s just simple selfishness that I think has a good quality to it.

David: Why do you think people create taboos, and why do you think it’s important to break taboos-and find humor in many of the things that a lot of people wouldn’t dare joke about? 

George: I’m not well-read enough, but I’ve heard passing references to the effect that there are taboos in all societies, and in primitive societies. It sounds like it’s related to the superstitious impulse behind certain religious things-like there’s a need to have things that are out of reach, beyond, or, in this case, unmentionable. I think it’s important to break taboos for the same reason it’s important to break laws and rules-because either you’re a slave to them, or you’re taking matters into your hands.

No one has to come see my shows who doesn’t like me talking about white Christians. They are free not buy a ticket. They’re free to leave at any time. So I’m not imposing anything on anyone. Therefore I feel free to cross the line. I’ve found out most of these things about my own comedy in looking back-either a year, two years, five years, or ten years-and finding out what it is I do. I don’t set out with these things in mind that are now ways I have of analyzing, but I look for where the line is drawn on any subject. I look for where the line is drawn by these taboos, and I deliberately cross that line. I try to do it with wit and humor, and good rational and logical underpinning. 

I like good ideas. I don’t want just do something for it’s own sake to bother people, but if I can bother them with a logical argument about something they have agreed to in society simplistically-like children are sacred, the cult of the child, this cult of professional parenthood, and of course religion, and respect for policemen and the law, and all of these untouchable areas. I like attacking those beliefs, but in with good sound thinking, and an unusual approach. If I can find a new direction into an old subject, that’s what you’re up there for. 

Now, all of these socially critical aspects of the work are secondary to the main thing you’re up there for-that’s to entertain. And that means two things to me. Not just getting laughs, which I love. I love big jokes, and I try to have good big fat home-run jokes. All of them. All the time. Fast. Lots of them. But when you’re not joking, you can also still engage their imaginations with thought, and dazzle them verbally-by showing jazz riffs, and verbal flights and passages that have an entertainment value of their own, that people aren’t even fully aware of. So the job is entertaining and engaging imagination. Laughter is part of it. Thought is part of it-not making people think. I never set out to do that. Sometimes interviewers will ask me, do you like to make people think with your shows? I say, no, I like them to know I’m thinking. Then I like to show them that. And they take and do what they want. But, generally, I try to make it entertaining. 

Primitive societies, or social groupings, had shamans, and some of them even more recent in time. Shamans were tricksters. There was a tradition of the trickster, and the trickster was a clown, a humorous fellow. His task was to trick the gods, to humor the gods into laughing, so that there was access to the divine-because laughter is a moment when we are completely ourselves. It’s that disarming moment, or disarmed moment, when something strikes us, and we laugh without even knowing it, trying it, or being able to prevent it. It just happens. No one is more himself than the moment when he’s laughing at a joke. It’s at those moments that people’s defenses go down, and that’s when you can slip in a good idea. So if the good joke carries a good idea, the entrance is open at that moment. I learned that one time, and saw how it definitely applied. And I’ve always been kind of charmed by that notion.

David: You’ve said that America’s only public metaphor for problem-solving is declaring war. What is your perspective on the American government’s War on Drugs and War on Terrorism?

George: I’ve done some writing about the whole metaphor of war. I mean, they have a War on Trash, a War on Cancer. Some of them are absurd. I’ve kept track of them. I have about thirty of them, and I wish I could think of some of the more trivial ones. But let’s keep it with America for now. America is a kind of friendly aggressor. We’ve been very aggressive at taking over the world with our culture in order to impose our business structure on the world, for free market capitalism. Apparently, it’s one of the better systems, by the way, for getting more things to the most people. I can’t deny that. Some of these distortions have their own oddly beneficial aspects to them, and I don’t know enough about things to pull that that apart properly. 

But let me just say that the white Europeans have always exploited the dark, the black, the brown, tan people. The northern hemisphere has always plundered the southern hemisphere. And there are interesting, or sound, historical reasons why this happened. But it doesn’t gainsay the fact that I think there’s a highly developed ability, for want of a better word, to dominate others, and use them for our profit. We want to impose democracy where we can, and we want to impose market capitalism, because, basically, I think we want to sell refrigerators. 

I think we look at a place like Bosnia and we say, you know something, if these people all had fucking laptops, and cell phones, and microwaves, we could sell a lot of merchandise. I think that’s in there somewhere, this need to conquer and overcome other people in order to have them become part of the marketplace. I really don’t think there’s a lot of ideology to it. I really don’t think it has anything to do with “spreading democracy” and giving people “free choice”, because there are no free choices. The whole system is rigged. The whole system is rigged against The Little Man. There is an ownership class in America. I call them The People Who Own Everything. 

And people say, oh your conspiracy thing. Listen, don’t be making fun of the word conspiracy. It has meaning. Powerful people have convergent interests. They don’t always need a meeting to decide on something. They inhabit the same gentlemen’s clubs or golf clubs. They sit on the same boards of directors. They’re on the same board of trustees at the university. They all have this common ownership background of the American enterprise, and they are very few in number. They control everything, and they do whatever they want. They have a system called the two-party system that keeps the people at bay. They give them microwaves. They give them fannypacks. They give them sneakers with lights in the heals. They give them Dustbusters, and whoopee cushions, to keep them distracted, and keep them just calm enough that they’re not going to try something. 

Now, of course, the ownership class has all these fucking guns, and weapons, and helmets, and radios, and radars, and night vision and everything-so there’s never any hope anymore of a real revolution. They got that covered. But for a long time they just kept it all down by giving the people just what they needed, and then running things themselves. They give them this illusion of choice between liberals and conservatives. But you’ll notice that anyone who’s an extreme liberal, or an extreme conservative, is marginalized. They’re not on mainstream television. That’s why FOX has tried, I guess, so hard to push a very hard right-wing conservative line, and make it common place in America to be hearing those things. Right-wing radio does that. 

But essentially, the real freaks, on either side, are not heard from. They are marginalized. The Ralph Naders of the world, for instance. They give them a modicum of time to make it appear like he has a slight voice. But he’s ridiculed. They marginalize you by calling you a kook. Or it used to be a communist, or fanatic, or whatever the word is they use when you cross the line, and you really are radical. And radical just means root; it comes from the word root. So it’s root-thinking. If you’re a radical thinker they have no place for you. 

So they control this center, and they keep the people relatively quiet. Even a Clinton-I mean, you say, well, what about Clinton? He was very oriented toward people’s needs and everything. Yeah, but he was backed by the Bilderbergers. I mean, they have bend in them. The ownership class has a flexibility. People say, well, I say people have no voice. And they say, what about the antiwar movement and Vietnam? Yeah, how long did it take? And it didn’t happen until the ownership class decided it was no longer in their interest. Same thing with the civil rights movement. They decided this is no longer in our interest to maintain this system. Let’s bend a little. And they bend a little.

David: What is your perspective on our vanishing Constitutional rights in America? 

George: First of all, people are dreaming if they think they have rights. They’ve never had rights. There’s no such thing. They say God-given rights. If you ask them, where do these rights come from? They say well, they came from God. They’re God-given rights. And I say, well, let me tell you this. The American Bill of Rights has ten stipulations. The British has thirteen. The Dutch, the Germans, the Belgians-all of them have different numbers of rights in their constitutional guarantees, different numbers of rights. Why would God give different numbers, of different rights, to different people, in different places? Amusement? Oversight? What’s going on? 

So clearly these things have nothing to do with a God, if there even is one. These are privileges, which are temporarily granted to the people to keep them placated so that the market economies, and market constitutional systems-the parliamentary or president, whatever kind of democratic institutions they are, parliamentary or otherwise-so that they can function. And the people are happy. There’s a balance. And that’s the way things are handled, but rights can be taken away. So they’re not really rights, if they can be taken away by human beings. The Japanese-Americans who went to the camps in 1941 had rights, but suddenly someone says, well, not that one they don’t have. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. 

It’s capricious and arbitrary, and people are wrong when they think they have rights. I say, if you think you has rights, you is wrong. I’ve written a thing on this; it’s going to be in the next book. In fact, it might even be in the next HBO show. It’s what I call the “Patriotic Suite”. I have this seven part thing, that’s all about red, white, and blue, swearing on The Bible, taking off your hat, saluting the flag, and all this stuff. And one of them is about rights. There has been a long progression of erosion of Americans’ stated rights-or the way they’re interpreted in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution-long time cutting away, cutting away, cutting away. 

Now, it has taken a huge leap with the Patriot Act. The Ashcrofts, the disciplinarian, authoritarian, strict, Calvinist, Christian mindset is in a position of power now, and they’re just shredding that Bill of Rights. Not that it wasn’t under attack before they came along, but they’ve really jumped on the bandwagon with this 9-11. I would not be surprised if 9-11, if that whole thing-and this will get all the anti-conspiracy people interested- were not staged by the Bush-Carlyle Group empire. The Bush empire, the dynasty, that whole, entire secret society sort of ownership. I don’t know. I ‘m clearly in over my head here, because it’s it’s a thing that I think about sometimes, but it would make a lot of sense for them. Here’s The New York Times. On the front page today, “United States Uses Terror Law”-that would be the Patriot Act-“To Pursue Crimes From Drugs to Swindling”. So they’re branching out now. 

You asked about the War on Drugs. Obviously, drugs represent a form of freedom and personal choice. So here’s one thing where you have no freedom of choice. You’re told you can do this, but you can’t do that. You can’t drink after 2:00 in this state. But you can drive across the border, and you can drink until 4:00 in that state. There are all these forms of control. People think they have freedom of choice in this country. Here’s your fucking choice-paper or plastic? That’s your choice. Will this be charge or cash? That’s your choice. Visa or Mastercard? Coke or Diet Coke? Smoking or Nonsmoking? Window or aisle. Those are your fucking choices America. You have no choices. They’re imposed.

David: Some of your humor stems from a playful deconstruction of language. Why do you think it’s important to reflect on our use of language, and how do you think our use of language effects our view of reality? 

George: Well, we think in language. We think in words. Language is the landscape of thought. It’s how thought is realized, and, obviously, how we communicate ideas. It’s how we individuate ourselves, how we are human individuals that are separate from others. And there’s some virtue to it, in separation, earlier I was saying. We’re completely at odds with nature, and that’s true. But it is important to understand your identity, and your place in the scheme of things, and in the universe even. So that all comes from having language available for thought and expression.

The language attraction in me came from the family. It’s very heredity. My mother’s father, Dennis Bearey, was a New York City policeman at the turn of the last turn of the century, the 1900’s coming in. He was self-educated. He had quit school, come to America, young, and taught himself. During his adult years, he wrote out most of the works of Shakespeare longhand, copying them from a book, because of the joy the language gave him. 

So that’s a pretty dramatic expression of appreciation for language. He was Irish, and the Irish have that gift, of perhaps, you know a little bit disproportionately to some other cultures-although there are great writers everywhere. But the Irish really have the gift of gab. The ratio of poets, playwrights, and authors to mechanics is much different in Ireland. So he had that. He gave that to my mother. She got it hereditarily, and it was reinforced at home, because at dinner time they would discuss-not all the time, I guess-but they would often discuss language, and Shakespeare’s use of it. 

My mother was very careful with me to point out good writing. She would call me into her room. I’d bring her her newspaper, and she was tired after work. She’d be reading, and she’d say, “George come here. Look at this. Look at this word. Look how this sentence cuts”-she was dramatic the way she spoke-”this sentence just cuts right through”. So I had the genetic marker for it, and then she encouraged it by pointing out the joy in savoring the graceful and incisive use of language. 

So, to me, language is just my instrument. I have the computer open here. I was working on the book, and I just have the greatest joyful feeling when I’m altering a sentence. When I’m fixing a paragraph, it’s just like some kind of union with something. I don’t understand it. I know there’s a joy. I have a woman in my life, Sally Wade, and we have a joyful wonderful life together. And that’s a separate form of joy, being with Sally, enjoying each other. But being at that computer, with the words, is just…I don’t know, somehow, it goes to my foundation.

David: I can relate well.

George: Yeah. Boy, when they came up with being able to highlight a whole paragraph, and move it somewhere else-holy shit did they change the world! I mean, you say, wait a minute, this goes at the end. I can’t imagine how people did that with yellow tablets, or dipping a pen or a quill. And these great things that came out of, what must have been such a long laborious process. Having to do something over, or delete something, and put an insert, and all; you know, it must have been a mess. I did it, and I don’t remember how messy it was. But, boy, my writing changed qualitatively, not just quantitatively, with my use of the word processor. I noticed that the thinking and the writing, as they are combined, became more complex and more interesting. And I’ll use that word textured again. It just really changed the quality of what it was, not just how fast I could do it, or how much I do. So I’m glad you know. Obviously you know that.

David: Yeah, it becomes more like sculpting.

George: Absolutely. Yeah, taking off things that don’t belong.

David: You said before that you’re not trying to get people to think in your comedy routines. However, I still wonder if you’re aren’t sometimes trying to educate people. Is this ever part of your intention? 

George: Well, let me cop to one thing that I’m aware of. Someone once said, if you scratch a cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. That really rang a bell with me-because I recognized that, within me, there is this flame, of wishing it were better, wishing people had better lives, that there was more of an authentic sharing and harmony with nature. So these complaints, this thing that sometimes reads as anger to people, is largely a discontent, a dissatisfaction, sometimes a disappointment in what we have allowed, passively or actively, to happen to us, as a species and as a culture. 

I know that I would have been a good teacher. Had I gone on and had a continuing formal education, I would have made a good teacher. I would have made a good trial lawyer, because I like persuasion. I like the art of forensics, of using language and thought to shape…I guess we’re talking about to shape other people’s thinking. Sure. I mean, it has such a potentially pretentious ring to it, to me, that I shrink from it. But words are words, and descriptions are descriptions. You have seen something that is true.

Someone recently-a woman at a dentist’s office-gave me, not quite a thesis, but a paper that her son wrote at Berkeley, comparing certain aspects of Kierkegaard to some things I said about religion and politics. And boy, I mean, I was a little flattered to be thrown into philosophical company like that, but the things he pointed out hit me, again, right on the button-because they were about the need to tell people that it’s up to them. It’s not up God. It’s your responsibility. 

Whether it’s citizenship, or whether it’s morality, things don’t come from God. Things come from you, and things that you want to change in the world have to start inside yourself. You can’t just acquiesce. You can’t be at the mall, with a fanny-pack on, scratching your nuts, buying sneakers with lights in them. You have to be thinking. You have to be resisting. You have to be talking. 

So these things are pointed out to me sometimes in passing, or directly, and, frankly, I’m impressed by them, and, naturally, I’ll use the word flattered here again. I think flattery is usually artificial, so I don’t like the word flattery. It usually suggests insincerity to me. But complimented, I mean, just really complimented by it. Because, to take myself seriously here for a moment, an artist, a creative person, I often don’t know the things that I’m doing. Not all artists are the same, but this is true in my case, and I’m sure it’s true in some other cases as well. They don’t know some of the underlying things that are happening. They just do it, because there’s a certain satisfaction, a certain joy. It fills some need.

And yet, another person can come along and point out things that they don’t see. I’ve seen this with people who wrote certain things about Lenny Bruce, that I’m sure Lenny didn’t sit around and think of. But they would interpret him, and they would say, do you see what he’s doing here? Do you see what this is? Do you see how this fits with that? So, to a person who’s looking carefully, it’s true that there are probably some things about my work that reveal idealism, and whatever the other qualities are that are more high flown, less concrete and earthy. Things that are more substantial.

David: How do you maintain a sense of wonder, and keep a fresh perspective on the world? 

George: Well, the world never stops surprising me. I mean, it’s a two sided coin. I always say, people complain because they wonder, did you hear about this? Did you hear what they did? And I say, tell me you’re surprised. Are you really surprised at this? In this culture, in this country, does this surprise you? Then, on the other hand, my brother has an expression. I’ll point out something to him that’s absurd, or he’ll tell me something absurd he heard or read about, and he says, you know George, they never let us down. They’re always in there working-meaning the society, the culture is always devising new ways to amaze us, my brother and me. The people who think we’re all cynics, and who, underneath, have some really idealistic candle lit. So it’s both. It’s, how can you be surprised anymore? And, on the other hand, how can you not be? As things build upon things, everything is almost an exponential leap from from wherever it springs.

It’s just a lot of fun. I call it the freak show. I say, if you’re born in America, you’re given a ticket to the freak show. Some people are in the freak show. Those are the freaks. Some people, most of us, are there to watch the show. So sit back, and enjoy the fucking freak show. Now, there are some people who try to change the freaks. These are so-called do-gooders, environmentalists, the social activists, ACLUs and all this. We’re going to fix the freak show. We’re going to fix the freaks. And some of us get to just review the freak show. We write reviews about it. And that’s what I do. I don’t take a position necessarily that is moral. It usually stems from logic-this doesn’t make sense. Now, there might be a moral underpinning to it, but, generally, I don’t retreat to that concept of morality, or right and wrong, except fair and unfair. I don’t like unfairness. So that’s kind of a moral thing. 

But anyway, I’m all over the joint. Ah, the freak show, American freak show. That’s what this is all about. So I just enjoy the show. The world, to me, is a big theater-in-the-round, literally, spinning, on a little insignificant rock, around a second-rate star, in a very poor part of the galactic neighborhood, by the way. And we’re just living out our time, and it’s here to be enjoyed. Some people have to feel differently from that. I don’t say everyone can feel that way. But, for me, that’s where I found my happiness.

David: How has marijuana and your use of psychedelics effected your comedy career and your perspective on life? 

George: What they did was effect my consciousness, obviously, and that effects everything about you. So, naturally, in this line of work it’s extremely important, extremely influential. Your consciousness influences the work. 

I was an early pot smoker. I was smoking pot when I was 13 in 1950. It was an unheard of act in an Irish-American neighborhood. People didn’t know anything about it, and considered it to be on a level with heroin. I mean, it was just… (George speaks in a scratchy, old geezer voice) marijuana-you smoke one of those things, and yeah, boy, you’re gone for life. So, we were kind of a daring little group of us. We were on a new generational cusp. 

We lived in West Harlem, white Harlem we called it, between Columbia University and all of the institutional establishments. Let me tell you what was in my neighborhood. Right across the street from my house, was the entrance to Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Barnard was there. Columbia University was there. St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in America. Riverside Church, a 23 story gothic tower was at the end of my block, with the biggest carillon in the world. Union Theological Seminary, the largest multi-denominational protestant seminary. 

Literally around the corner from me, without crossing the street, was the Jewish Theological Seminary. Again, largest of its kind. Diagonally across the corner was Julliard School of Music, when it was still uptown. We played and fooled around at Grant’s Tomb. So we had this incredibly high-powered institutional neighborhood, full of learning and striving. Harry Emison Fasdigger was the Pasteur over at Riverside Church, and I know that it had an effect on me. But I choose to hang around the other direction. I went down the hill to Harlem, toward the latin, and black, and working-class Irish-because that’s were the fun was! There were good smells coming out of the windows. The music was great. And my peers were there.

So we were on the beginning of the generation. The kids who were a little older than us, my bigger brother’s guys-they were still street fighters and drinkers, and wore the big shoes. We had gravitated from the big shoes, and the peg pants, into conservative three-button charcoal suits, like the black dudes wore. We got into rhythm and blues. We got into pot smoking. We were a change. And that’s why that piece of material in one of my albums-Occupation Fool-is called “Grass Swept the Neighborhood”, because it changed us. 

I think that marijuana is a consciousness-altering drug which has a cumulative effect. I also think it is a self-limiting drug, if a person is paying attention. It is a drug that suggests it’s own disuse, eventually. Some people maintain a certain consumption, at a good level, and they’re not just half asleep all the time, and can’t think. They save it for night time, or the weekend, or whatever, and that’s different. 

But generally marijuana, and LSD, and they’re both, I think, essentially hallucinogenics. I’m not 100 percent sure of that. I wouldn’t be on record with that, but they’re certainly not in the narcotic classes, stimulants, or any of those things. They are separate. LSD-originally as unaltered by man-along with peyote, pot and those forms of hallucinogens, are all completely natural. They come from nature, and the only things that are done with them is they’re passed from one person to another. It’s these other drugs-where we get in the laboratory, or the garage, and we start altering their molecular structure-that are the deadly ones. The really deadly things have come from man’s altering of nature, of the parts he can manipulate.

Pot is an herb. It’s very natural, It obviously has some healing qualities and some palliative qualities. I think it changed my thinking. It fostered offbeat thinking, the kind of alternative thinking that was already an internal part of me-this disbelief in the received wisdom, and in the authority, as it was passed along. I think it fostered that. Then it changed my comedy. I was a straight, mainstream, suit-and-tie comic for ten years, from 1960-1969 or 70. I had a two tiered life going on, and I didn’t even know it. 

One of them was this law breaking, school quitting, pot-smoking person, with no respect for authority. The other one was a mainstream dream. I wanted to be in the movies. I wanted to be Danny Kaye. Well, you can’t be Danny Kaye if you’re going to be this other thing. So I lived two lives. My professional life was this straight path of pleasing the public. It wasn’t until the late 60’s that things changed, and this was because of the alternative culture-the people I could really identify with, what’s called the counterculture. This began to manifest itself through the youth culture, with it’s disrespect for authority, free love-and “let’s get high”, and “here’s how I feel”,  and “here’s what’s going on in my mind and my heart”. All those things had been suppressed in America-some voluntarily, some not-prior to that. The Fifties are notorious for that. But jazz and the beatniks were the exception. The bohemian world. But they were just starting. 

Anyway, I was attracted to this other thing in the late Sixties, because all my friends were musicians who had gone through the changes already. I was a big pot smoker. But slowly I used a little peyote, a little mescaline, and these tendencies in me to be myself, and not play a fake role as a people-pleasing, mainstream comedian came to the fore. I became more myself. The comedy became more personal, therefore more political, and therefore more successful. I think you can never be successful unless you are yourself, at least certainly not successful in the good, rich sense of the word. So, suddenly, I also became materially successful. People started buying albums. I had four Gold albums in a row. So the LSD, directly-in conjunction with it’s role in the counterculture, and my taking of it, those two things-definitely changed my life, because my creativity shifted into a very high gear.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the body, and what is your perspective on God? 

George: I don’t know. It’s obviously one of the most fascinating things that we don’t know. I profess no belief in God, which by definition is true, especially if we take the accepted definition of God. But to be an atheist is to also have a belief, and have a system, and I don’t know that I like that either. And yet I shrink from the word agnostic, because it seems like a handy weigh station to park at. I don’t know. And I’m satisfied not knowing, because it allows me to be filled with speculation, and imagination, about all the possibilities. 

I find it interesting to read about, or listen, to people who have highly developed beliefs in an afterlife-forgetting now Christians, God and religion-and second chances, reincarnation, other planes of existence, other dimensions. Now, we get into the physical realm of the universes-which is interesting because universe means one, and here we are talking about multi-universes. 

David: I actually asked Stephen Hawking-the renown physicist-about that once. He often writes and lectures about multiple universes and baby universes. I asked him how there could be more than one universe, when, by definition, the word universe means everything that exists. He told me that “a universe is a set of related events”. Apparently, you can have many self-contained, “sets of related events”, that have no influence upon one another, and each one is considered its own universe.

George: Well, it’s just fascinating, and you get lost in the possibilities. There’s no way to hang your hat on any of these things. There’s just no way to say, ah, this a good one. I’ll go with this. Because they’re all titillating, and they’re tempting. And they’re all entertaining to the way I’ve developed my mind. I find it highly entertaining to consider wormholes, and alternate parallel universes, and all the things that Robert Anton Wilson sometimes writes about.

It’s just endlessly entertaining and fascinating. So I’m quite content in being in this position. I think there’s a certain arrogance of spirit that says, here’s the way it goes. Here’s what happens. Or to narrow it down to two things or so, maybe it’s okay. I don’t know. But for me, I can’t live that way. I have to keep all the doors open, just for the fun of it. 

I don’t care what happens to me after I die, but I know this. I know that if there’s some sort of moral reckoning, I know I’ll come out clean. I know I’ve never done a mean thing intentionally to anyone. I know I’ve only tried to make people feel better, and be more at ease. I don’t mean professionally. I mean in personal relationships. I try to put people at ease, make them feel good. And I know that if there’s some sort of reckoning by something, that says, well, let’s look at your record here, I’m clean. So I’m happy with that.

David: Do you think that the human species is going to survive the next hundred years, and if so, how do you envision the future evolution of the human race? 

George: I would guess that some cataclysm, man-made or nature-made might happen. Obviously not real original thinking here, but I’ll try and give a personal shape in a moment. Some sort of cataclysm will alter this thing. There are too many people. Let’s say that the American Dream-and they call it a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it-is spread everywhere, and everyone in India, and everyone in China, has a car. Actually China-everyone has a car, or two cars, and big cars. 

Okay, now, I’m a little bored by environmentalists. I’m a little bored with the whole, almost Christian fervor of these people. I do like vandalism, by the way. I like the big spikes in the trees. I like vandalizing the SUVs. That’s fun. But the idealistic sitting around-all that shit-it kind of bores me. I understand the importance of it, but it bores me. But I also understand the fact the earth is an organism, and that life is completely interdependent, everything upon everything. And if you alter one thing, in some minute fashion, you alter everything. And sometimes it’s not so minute. And there comes a tipping point. And if everyone has a car, and everyone is spewing out shit, think of the consequences. And even if they try to fix that, and then they go to the next thing, they’ll fuck it up. We will always overstep. We will always use our brains to our self-disadvantage, ultimately.

And they’ll be a tipping point. It’ll either be environmental, or one of these lovely germs will get loose. Let’s face it, if everybody, if all these countries in the world-and there’s a lot of them now-are playing around with all of these different lovely microbes. We don’t even need to list them, because we all know what they are. Ebola, Jesus. Plague. Smallpox. All these things for which there is no cure or prevention, at least not now. I’m sure the people in charge have gotten their shot. But, sooner or later, someone drops a vial. Sooner or later, somebody takes something home. Sooner or later, a window is left open in building. Something in the perfection of the system slips, and they’ll be, perhaps, that kind of a disaster. It could be locally contained. They might be able to put a ring around it, and say, well, this part of the world is unlivable for the next thousand years. 

But hey, we’re all going to eat, and we all get fucking hats, and we’re all in good shape. So things will go on. But then there might be something wide enough, whether its nuclear, or any of these lovely chemical things we have. Or nature, like just plain old volcanoes coming of age again, or some other huge geologic disturbance. Nature usually works very slowly. But suddenly, the slow process becomes a very rapid change. Volcanoes, and magma, and all that stuff build very slowly. But when they reach a threshold, they look-vvwoooom-and it’s happening instantly. A mountain range has come up.

But anyway, what I’m trying to say is, what might happen to the human species is that it is greatly reduced in numbers, greatly reduced in it’s ability to use technology to any benefit. I mean, people may sit around, and still have their laptops, but if there’s no internet, or if there’s no electricity, then you can’t charge whatever the fuck it is. 

I’m just saying, the systems will be compromised enough, and the numbers reduced, so that a-not a fresh start, because it won’t be that-but a re-gearing. Maybe they’ll be a hundred thousand people left. Maybe they’ll be ten million. Maybe they’ll be scattered. Maybe they’ll all be in one corner of the world. Maybe they’ll have a little technology. Maybe nobody will have anything. So, I mean, it’s just, again, one of those wonderful things to speculate on. I have no idea. But I hope it’s dramatic and funny. Please God, let it be violent, and let it be funny. That’s all I ask.

David: What are you currently working on? 

George: I’m working on my third book, When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops? I’m doing 90 shows a year. I do about 80 or 90 concerts a year, in theaters and concert halls, and then I do about eight weeks in Las Vegas, because it’s a different scene there. I can sit in my condo for two weeks at time, and write all day. I don’t have to get in a little plane each night, although I don’t mind that. So it’s a little different down there, but it’s another eight weeks of working that I do. And every two years this stuff turns into an HBO show. So I’m currently between show #12 and show #13. Number 13 will be in the Fall of 05. 

The book will be in Fall of 04. Next Spring there’s a movie, Jersey Girl, where I play a kind of serious role. I play Ben Afleck’s father in the movie, which is about raising a little girl in New Jersey. People are starting to take me a little more seriously in acting now, so I get these extra little entertainment things. For me, going and doing some acting, collaborating, and interpreting some other part that other people have thought of, is like using different muscles. And that’s kind of fun to do. So those are things I’m currently working on. The movie is done, the book is in progress, and the show takes care of itself.

To find out more about George Carlin’s work, visit his Web site: 

William Irwin Thompson

The Science of Myth

“The history of the soul is always the history of the voicelss, the opressed, the repressed….”

with William Irwin Thompson


He spends his time contemplating such nuances of thought as the relation ship of birdsong to light changes in a sunset, the mythic levels of meaning in the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the relationship of oral sex to the development of consciousness, and the rain dances of chimpanzees. He is a cultural historian, poet, and mystic, weaving his imagination deep into the fabric of scientific theory.

William Irwin Thompson received his doctorate from Cornell and has taught at Cornell, MIT, New York University, and the University of Toronto. In 1972, feeling the needfor a more improvisational forum, he established the Lindisfarne Association, an intellectual community where artists, humanists, and scientists can share their ideas and insights, beyond the con fines and agendas of academia. A meeting of minds and friends, Lindisfarne is a modlel for the realization of a planetary culture. Over the years, it has attracted some of the most envelope-pushing thinkers of our day, such as Bucky Fuller; Marshall McLuhan, Gregory Bateson, and more recently, Ralph Abraham, James Lovelock, and Lynn Margulis.

Thompson is known for his staggering trapeze acts of thought. Performing without the safety net of empiricism, he spans the subjects of sexuality, cultural origins, science, and mythology in giant sweeps, grasping them in metatheories of poetic grandeur He is completely at home at the hearth of his intuition, where his rational intellect can sit and warm its hands. He received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986 and is the author of fifteen books, including the classic At the Edge of History, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He brings a mythic perspective to just about everything, from homosexuality to Darwinian theory. His beef with sociobiologists centers on what he perceives as the arrogant assumption that their theories, with terms such as evolutionary momentum, are free from the flights of imagination that characterize the language of the mystic. Thompson prefers “to take my mysticism neat. ”

Every fall and spring he serves as the Lindisfarne Scholar in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In the winter he is the Rockefeller Scholar at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where this interview took place on June 11, 1994. He declined to be photographed, so Victoria Sulski, an artist and friend of mine, came along to sketch him. I think that the drawing captures the spirit of this inteview better than any photo could.

A strong upholder of European standards of excellence, William Irwin Thompson seems a trifle out of place only two blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. It ‘s hard to imagine him with flowers in his hair-bur then, his Celtic soul is already decked with the garlands of his private spring.


David: What was the source of your inspiration for becoming a cultural historian, and how did you gain your mytho-poetic perspective?

Bill: It was from Stravinsky. Before I knew how to read my mother took me to my first experience of a public theater. I was a four year old child, seeing the creation of the solar system, set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Disney’s Fantasia.

While I was watching the camera’s point of view approach the planet from the outside, I had a shockingly familiar experience and it triggered a deja vu in my mind of, “yeah, that’s exactly how I got here. Finally, here is a human experience that makes sense!” The rest of the time, when you’re a child, you’re surrounded by stuff that doesn’t make any sense, whether it’s cribs, punishment or whatever, and you wonder, “what is all this? How did I get here?”

When I was in the theater, Stravinsky’s music was so overwhelming and uninterrupted that it had something of the effect of an Eleusynian mystery rite. It imprinted my imagination with visual mythopoeics and I became fascinated with cosmology and the story of the universe.

Then I went home and discovered that I could turn the dial on the radio. I would turn on the classical music station and lie down on the couch and go into Samadhi.

David: I’m curious about your formal educational process.

Bill: Well, grammar school and the nuns were a little after the fact. They were trying to teach me Roman Catholicism when I had already discovered yoga! (laughter) But I was a good boy and I won lots of medals and I got A’s, but I didn’t find Catholicism spiritual enough.

The movie theater seemed to be a really sacred space but the church seemed just to be filled with images of mutilation and torture - with a mangled Jesus on the cross. When I went to church mass on Sunday, Father Quinn would just scream at us that we weren’t giving enough money to the church. So religion was very unappealing.

At age seven and eight I was sent to a Catholic military school. There, if you were bad, you were punished by having to stand to attention for five hours, and some children would faint in the sun. Today they would be sued and charged with child abuse. (laughter)

I remember one time I went into a library and opened up a children’s encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. There was a picture of a spiral nebula and it told the story of the creation of the universe. It connected me back to my original Mind. I realized once more that there was this larger universe out there that wasn’t controlled by nuns.

The Catholic military school was a double whammy because the headmaster was a shell-shocked major from WW II. He had a paddle that had holes put in it so that it would scream through the air as it came down.(laughter)

The patron saint of the school was St. Catherine who, as Ralph Abraham points out, is actually Hepatica. She was tortured and killed by the Catholic mob. Even the namesake of the school was a figure of torture! So, as soon as I had the opportunity to get out of all that stuff I did.

David: So your primary orientation was spiritual rather than intellectual.

Bill: Oh totally. And also artistic. From the very beginning I was writing poetry. The Europeans have the understanding that a writer doesn’t have to be a specialist. In America, if you’re a poet you’re Robert Bly, if you’re a philosopher, you’re Dan Dennet and if you’re a scientist you’re Gerald Edelman.

In America they’re always trying to figure out what it is you’re trying to sell and how you can put it in a sound-bite. This explains why I’ve spent a lot of time out of the country. I’ve lived in Canada and Ireland and for twelve years in Switzerland.

Rebecca: You got disillusioned with academia after a while and in your books you describe how you went on to explore other modes of learning in community.

Bill: But I liked academia in some senses because since I came from the working class, it gave me a chance to move up and get out of that kind of life. So I had a good career in terms of going from instructor to full professor in seven years and being promoted every year at MIT.

I didn’t leave academia because I failed, but I went through it so fast that suddenly I was a full professor at thirty-four. I thought, am I supposed to keep doing this for the next thirty years? - I’m bored so I’m leaving. In the seventies, a lot of people were doing the same and trying to create new institutions.

Rebecca: Tell us about the community of Lindisfarne. How did it begin and what goes on there?

Bill: Lindisfarne has been going for 23 years, and every year it’s different. It’s more of a distributive fellowship and a concert rather than an institution, although at various times we’ve had functions and courses and things.

I had been really impressed with Michael Murphy’s work at Esalen, but it was too wild, sloppy, Dionysian, psychedelic, American and consumer-oriented. It wasn’t really disciplined enough for my sensibility. I didn’t want to do it in California because I felt that California would encourage those qualities, so I decided to set it up in New York.

It started out as an alternative to academia and as another way of doing the humanities in a technological society. Originally I tried to cross religion and science at MIT and create an honor college within M.I.T., but the president didn’t want to do it. It was during the Vietnam war and they had another political agenda. So that’s when I quit and went to Canada.

Rebecca: Who were the original people you worked with in setting up Lindisfarne?

Bill: A lot of it was inspired by the Mother and Sri Auribindo, and Findhorn, and the whole spiritual evolution of consciousness movement of the late sixties and seventies. I had gone through the training of Yognanda and did the whole seven year program of Kriya yoga. My approach has always been yogic and I always had this interior yoga that was in conflict with the institutions I was in.

For example, when I was at LA. High they sent the cops to get me because I would never go to school on Friday. I wanted to stay at home and read Melville and Dostoyevsky instead. They got really tough because it was during the McCarthy era. Being an intellectual in America at that time was kind of like being a Darter snail - you’re really a vanishing species. The father of my best friend came out in a drunken rage and called

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Elizabeth Gips

Pilgrimage of Change

“…you get the cosmic badge of honor pinned on you…when you can dance on totally nothing.”

with Elizabeth Gips


Born half-paralyzed in 1922, and dictating poetry four years later Elizabeth Gips had interviewed most of the people in the two volumes of Mavericks of the Mind long before we even got started Her infamous radio show Changes, which has now aired in northern California far over twenty years, has inspired countless individuals to explore new realms of heightened awareness. She is well known for her lively interviews with virtually everyone who is anyone in the alternative cultural matrix. Her recently published book Scrapbook of a Haight-Ashbury Pilgrim is an important historical document, a timeless epic adventure that overflows with contagious enthusiasm inspired during the peak of San Francisco js citywide hallucinogenic experience during the late sixties.

Needless to say, Elizabeth has been through a lot of changes herself: She discovered her power to arouse the emotions in others in 1939, when she got out of high school a year early because her English teacher threw an ink bottle at her in frustration. She then attended Mills College, discovered beat poetry, and marijuana, and had a number of experiences “falling in love with the wrong boys. ” In 1964 her son turned her on to the peyote cactus, and she metamorphosed into an “errant hippie, ” wandering around the U.S. trailing after charismatic commune-founder Stephen Gaskin. She landed on “the Farm” in Tennessee (the well-known commune at which, according to Gaskin, a young Al Gore spent some time). In 1971 Elizabeth left the Farm and started doing radio at her son ‘s station, KDNA in St. Louis. She began her Santa Cruz radio show, Changes, in 1975 and soon started writing articles and reviews for many alternative magazines.

At the age of seventy-one, Elizabeth, now a grandmother; is still very much at the forefront of cultural evolution. She still loves doing radio, is working on several new books, has apparently fallen in love with the “right man, ” and says that she no longer seeks “enlightenment. ” We interviewed her in her cozy home in Santa Cruz on June 10, 1994. Her house is decorated with compelling psychedelic art and exotic religious artifacts from around the world. Youthful optimism and vibrant enthusiasm stream from Elizabeth ‘s spirit. She is filled with curiosity, and her eyes and heart both seem wide open. A passion-filled fireball of energy, Elizabeth gets very excited when she’s talking, and laughs a lot. Sometimes like a fountain, other times like a volcano, she is just bursting with life, spewing forth a stream of amazing adventures stories and rainbow revelations, reminding us of those feel-good times in our lives when laughing, loving, and learning all danced hand in hand.


Elizabeth: Do you want to know all my names?

David & Rebecca: Okay.

Elizabeth: Isis, Tara, Sisyphus….(laughter)

Rebecca: Who’s Sisyphus?

Elizabeth: He was the guy who had to push a big stone up a hill indefinitely and every day and every night it would tumble down. I did a picture a few years back which shows Sisyphus sitting up on the top of the hill like Rodin’s thinker. There’s a large crowd of people down at the bottom and he’s saying something like, “I got wise, there’s hundreds of people who want to push this stone up the hill, I don’t have to do it any more!”

David:: How did your experiences in Haight Ashbury during the sixties influence who you are today?

Elizabeth: There’s a film called St. Simon the Skylight. In the end Simon is in a rock club and the devil is tempting him. He says to the devil, “I think I’d like to go back and stand on my pillar again for the rest of my life,” and she says, (the devil’s a woman) “it’s too late, someone else is doing it.” Well, someone else is doing the Haight Ashbury trip, and I’m hardly enough of that person anymore, except in my book.

I’m sure that it freed me to a great extent from the American need of identification through stuff - money and business power etc.. I went through a long period of poverty, although I didn’t experience it as poverty, I just didn’t have money. So that made the new acquisition of some stuff very joyful - I’m really enjoying having things around again.(laughter) But it was a dramatic shift in values.

Rebecca: What were you doing before?

Elizabeth: I was a big business woman. I had 52 employees. My jewelry business did just under half a million in the last year before I left. Then I opened a store on Haight street.

David & Rebecca: (Knowing laughter)

Elizabeth: Well, I bought a mansion on Ashbury and that was the significant thing because I took acid shortly after that. And I walked out of everything - my marriage and my business and my whole way of life. I took all of my clothes and jewelry and threw them into the middle of the floor and said, “everybody dig in - I’m gone.”

Rebecca: Could you describe the quality of that time, and what were your hopes and dreams of what would come out of the sixties?

Elizabeth: A word that I use a lot in my book is `spirit.’ It’s as though for the first time, a whole bunch of people took part in the mystical experience, and there was that camaraderie of shared experience beyond the realm of the American standard. If you wanted to merchandise the American standard experience, experiencing Godhead was not it.(laughter)

Rebecca: So the fact that the experience was shared and not just personal made a big difference?

Elizabeth: I think so. You are here doing an interview to share more of what I am and more of what you are and that sharing of experience is how evolution happens.

Rebecca: Many people feel that during the `80’s, the last vestiges of the sixties idealism got swept away. Do you think that’s true or did some lasting influence come out of that time?

Elizabeth: I think that there are more young people aware today than there ever have been in the history of the world and that the best part of the rave generation is proof of it. Hundreds and thousands of people all over the world between 18 and 25 are sharing a spiritual experience with tribal overload and huge sensory input. There was a continuity of spirit that got bigger and bigger, and even though many people became yuppies (it’s okay to be yuppie and be comfortable, but we didn’t know that in the Haight Ashbury) I don’t think that they have entirely forgotten who they are.

But in that time we really thought that in five years everything would be changed. We thought we would find better ways of communicating, which we have, that marijuana would be legal and that people would be nicer to each other - that’s the bottom line.

Rebecca: Do you think people are nicer to each other?

Elizabeth: (pause) I think there are more people working on how to be nicer to each other.

David:: What relevance do you think this period will have on the future?

Elizabeth: It was the first time that a significant number of people assumed that evolution could be consciously directed. I think that’s what the future holds as we travel around in the mystery - the idea that we can mold a world that’s better for everyone. I know it’s simplistic, but I think that’s one of the things that came out of the Haight Ashbury period. And I’m not sure that it isn’t happening under our very noses, but we forget and let the media play on our negative feelings which we’ve still certainly got plenty of.

David:: How would you say psychedelics influenced your perspective on life?

Elizabeth: Holy Mackerel Andy! Well, I was an atheist and now I’m nothing. Boy, that’s a big change! (laughter) I just had the experience! You can’t talk about it, c’mon!

Rebecca: Well, if we met you before the experience and then met you afterwards, what differences might we notice?

Elizabeth: Well, let’s talk about the similarities. You’d see the same bounciness and intelligence and creativity and insecurities. But right after I began taking psychedelics I was kind of messianic - I wanted everyone to get on board because otherwise maybe it was all just a dream and it never really happened. My hair was long and I painted my face and I wore elk skin dresses - it was kind of romantic but too outrageous for society. It became too much trouble to stay in that place.

Rebecca: Do you think that if you hadn’t taken psychedelics you would have still arrived where you are now, through a gradual process of natural selection?

Elizabeth: They switched me to a whole other quantum level. If electrons jump from one ring to another I made a jump, and things are not the same. I’m a human chauvinist in a way because I think there’s something very special about the human brain. If I can take a tiny pill and 45 minutes later I’ve died to my personality and am in contact with realities that are seemingly infinitely unfolding, then it seems that the human brain has some special place in the whole drama of the universe.

David:: Was there any link between your taking psychedelics and getting involved in broadcast media?

Elizabeth: I followed Stephen Gaskin and I only lasted about seven months down on the farm in Tennessee.

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