Jumping Over the Dead Left

I sing of jams and the man -- Kalle Lasn: author, filmmaker, social critic, founder of Adbusters magazine, and professional culture jammer; a revolutionary of sorts who has the temerity (some would say the naiveté) to believe that "we can change the world."

In his fiery and insightful manifesto, Culture Jam, Lasn charges that America has become a multi-trillion dollar brand marketed throughout the world with catchwords like democracy, opportunity, and freedom. Behind the slogans and flag waving Lasn sees a dangerous corporate agenda at the helm, more concerned with freedom of trade than with the freedom of human beings. A man of many cultures, Lasn was born in Estonia and raised in Australia. After he "made a lot of money" (his words) by starting a successful market research company in Tokyo, he settled in Vancouver, Canada where he earned numerous international awards as a documentary filmmaker.

In 1989 Lasn attempted to broadcast a thirty-second TV spot condemning the destruction of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Not one television station would sell him the airtime to get that message out. Shocked and ticked off, he retaliated by founding the Adbusters Media Foundation (www.adbusters.org), the savvy Adbusters magazine, and launching a host of clever global campaigns including Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week, and World Car-Free Day. His crusade to take on the powers of corporate media as a culture jammer has made Lasn an inspirational figure to many in the anti-globalization movement.

The phrase "culture jamming" first appeared in 1984 when the band Negativland used it to characterize the sabotage of billboards and other media. Before that, "jamming" was used as slang by CBers and ham radio operators for the intentional interrupting of signals or transmissions.

Culture jammers like Lasn have been described as "artistic terrorists," "communications guerillas," and even (though it has become a rather hackneyed term) "anarchists." In a recent interview, Lasn spelled out his take on culture jamming and explained why the old Left must die if it ever hopes to win.

"There was the civil rights movement in the '60s," Lasn said, "the women's movement in the '70s, then the environmental movement. And now this is the era of culture jamming. Culture jamming is a form of social activism that tries to block our existing corporate culture and get it to bite its own tail."

Lasn continued, "America used to be known for a fierce spirit of independence, but that's been lost. Most Americans sit in front of a TV for four or five hours every evening and then dutifully trot off to the malls on the weekend and do exactly what the TV has been telling them to do: consume. Then they go back home and turn the damn TV on again and sit there like consumer drones. That independence is gone, and big corporations have moved into the void and taken over policy making in Washington and turned America into a corporate state."

From where Lasn sits, big business has morphed citizenship into consumership, and sadly, most of us are unthinkingly shackling ourselves into the chains of a Corporate American culture.

"This culture is spreading like an oil slick across the whole planet," he contends. "For the first time in human history we will have a global culture, and that culture will be this dysfunctional, drone-like American culture. That's my biggest fear, that we're all becoming like the people in Huxley's Brave New World. The concept of cool is our soma which we can't get enough of; and we're becoming zombies paralyzed by cynicism."

The commercial media, for Lasn, are the soma dealers who relentlessly bombard us with inane programming and salacious spectacles, while marginalizing alternative viewpoints as idealistic, illogical, or dangerous. Though he has produced nearly forty television spots in support of his anti-corporate and anti-consumption campaigns, every major TV network except one has refused to sell him airtime.

"CNN is the only station in the world that has sold us time in the last ten years," Lasn chuckles, "and they only did because a Wall Street Journal reporter called them up a few weeks before Buy Nothing Day about three years ago and asked them why they had refused. As a yearly ritual we keep sending out spots and the stations keep refusing to sell us airtime. They broadcast thousands of pro-consumption messages but refuse to air this one little anti-consumption message.

"When I argue with them over the phone their response is 'why should we shoot ourselves in the foot and piss off our sponsors by running your spots? We're trying to run a business here.' I say yeah, but what about freedom of speech? And they just say 'freedom of speech, freedom of smeech.' They only care about commercial free speech. People and organizations like Greenpeace or the Media Foundation that have alternative messages are not even allowed to buy airtime. It just goes to show to what extent even freedom of speech has been thwarted in the corporate state we live in."

In his social critique Lasn is reluctant to use words like profit or class that might make him sound "like an old Lefty."

"After the fall of the Soviet Empire it felt like the world suddenly changed, but the Left didn't. The Left was still spouting old Marxist slogans, still marching through the streets with their placards, but no longer accomplishing anything. There's something jaded and old that doesn't work about the Left. If we're going to win this battle then we have to learn to speak differently and find fresh new ways of saying what we mean. We have to be smarter, more sophisticated, and learn to match our own cool with the corporate cool.

"The Nation and many other Lefty magazines," he pointed out, "have a hard time moving from analysis to action. They think that they're doing something if they get some fancy phrases written down and analyze a problem in some interesting way. All they do is talk. We have to get beyond the talk, beyond the old Lefty jargon, and into direct action. If this new activism is going to succeed and really grow into a global movement then we will have to jump over the body of the Left. I'm sorry to say that, but I feel that deep in my gut. We can keep grinding our axe till the battle is lost, or we can get out there and jam!"


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