The arrests and office ransackings of journalists in Egypt resonate a little bit more deeply with American history professor John McMillian. It’s the same kind of intimidation and outright sabotage of revolutionary dissent that occurred just two generations ago in a more familiar country — the United States.
It’s a little-known story, but McMillian tells it expertly in his new book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, released February 17 in hardcover by the Oxford University Press. McMillian logged a thousand hours of research crisscrossing the country over nine years to study old issues of The Berkeley Barb, Los Angeles Free Press, East Village Other, and dozens of others. It was papers like these, McMillian contends, that provided the script for the Sixties revolution. Below is an interview, edited and structured for brevity and clarity, between Legalization Nation and McMillian, a Georgia State University assistant professor. The full interview is online. McMillian will do a talk/signing at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco on Thursday, February 24, at 7 p.m.
Legalization Nation: So what put you on the trail of this?
John McMillian: At the time, in the mid- to late-Nineties, the only people who had written about the Sixties were people who lived through the decade, veterans who had done good work. But there was a critique building up, saying that having lived through the decade, they didn’t use a lot of primary resources outside of themselves. … [The papers] were a source that allowed you to study the movement from the bottom up.
When you ask the question, ‘How did the Sixties happen with millions of young Americans thinking America was not just in need of reform but rotten to the core?’ — it was due to this underground press playing a crucial role in socializing people to the movement and making them more radical, more confident about their radicalism.
LN: What role did the Controlled Substances Act play in the rise of the underground press, or its downfall?
JM: A lot of these people were, in fact, drug users, and they always claimed they were targeted through drug laws. They said it wasn’t about the drugs, it was about shutting down their papers.
A lot of people used marijuana and discovered it wasn’t such a terrible thing to do and were put off by the fact they’d been exposed to propaganda that it was such a pernicious thing. It led them to have a distrust in the establishment, and the establishment media. … It just, again, contributed to their general frustration or complaint with the establishment, for lack of a better word.
LN: Watching TV about Egyptian cops raiding journalist’s offices in Cairo, suppressing the press, beating the press — two generations ago we were doing the same exact stuff.
JM: I’ve had that exact same thought myself. Even people who are generally protective of free speech rights and concerned about attempts to censor or stifle the free press are still unaware of the lengths to which people went to try to sabotage the underground press. Even among Sixties scholars and media-studies people it’s still not as well-known …. This effort was massive. It wasn’t really a Hoover thing or an FBI thing — it was at all levels, it was local vigilantes and the police and different federal authorities. It was uncoordinated, but still a massive attempt to stifle these papers, and it happened right here, and it hardly drew any protest except for the underground press, who were victims of all this.
LN: The center of dissent has shifted out from newspapers and America to the ‘net and the globe — what’s your take?
JM: I’m not sure I believe that. There’s a new book out combating the idea that social networks are going to be revolutionary. In Iran during the uprising, something like 0.27 percent of Iranians were on Twitter. Dictators and autocrats can use this material to find dissidents and hunt them down. It’s a tool that can be used to greater effect by bad guys than maybe good guys. I’m not so ‘woo woo’ that Facebook or Twitter is going to be a new locus for the expression of radical dissent, especially in places that don’t have the free speech protections we at least have on the books.
LN: Speaking of free speech, High Times was actually a radical publication started by an insanely eclectic drug smuggler who committed suicide with a pearl-handled gun?
JM: It’s an incredible story. This guy, Forcade, his whole life was very interesting. This character from Arizona becomes the national director of UPS, he was also heavy into drugs, and they described him as this “high priest of cool on the search for supplicants.” He was probably maybe a bit bipolar and a bit paranoid, but he financed this documentary on punk rock. He thought correctly that punk rock was the next big thing. He went to Hollywood where he had the best cocaine anybody had and was in with all these directors.
LN: Then his best buddy turned out to be an informant and he shot himself?
JM: One of his friends had also died. He had given him plane lessons after he had taught himself to fly these planes to smuggle planeloads of contraband into Florida. And he was on the ground with a walkie-talkie giving directions to his buddy and he saw his friend crash this plane. He had psychological problems that ran pretty deep.
LN: This book comes out as the first baby boomers turn 65, which makes it all the more shocking to see how hard they sold out. They invented the term “sell-out” before they became self-described “neoconservatives.” They used to want to overthrow the government and now they’re ready to collect Social Security.
JM: I don’t endorse everything people were for in the Sixties. They were naive and reckless and immature. But when I look at politics today, where politicians are trying to win the 10 percent of independent voters in the center to win a national election — the drift rightward has been quite phenomenal.