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Smoking Typewriters and the New Left rebellion

Following the lead of papers like the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other, and the Berkeley Barb, young Americans in the 1960s launched hundreds of mimeographed pamphlets and flyers, small press magazines, and underground newspapers. New, cheaper printing technologies democratized the publishing process and by the decade’s end the combined circulation of underground papers stretched into the millions. Though not technically illegal, these papers were often genuinely subversive, and many of those who produced and sold them-on street-corners, at poetry readings, gallery openings, and coffeehouses-became targets of harassment from local and federal authorities. With writers who actively participated in the events they described, underground newspapers captured the zeitgeist of the ’60s, speaking directly to their readers, and reflecting and magnifying the spirit of cultural and political protest.

In the deeply researched and eloquently written volume Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, author John McMillian captures all the youthful idealism and vibrant tumult of the 1960s as it delivers a brilliant reappraisal of the origins and development of the New Left rebellion. McMillian pays special attention to the ways underground newspapers fostered a sense of community and played a vital role in shaping the New Left’s highly democratic “movement culture.” Below, we present a conversation with McMillian, who is also Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University and the co-editor of The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of an American Radical Tradition, The New Left Revisited, Protest Nation: The Radical Roots of Modern America, The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture

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How did you get interested in the 60s, and what made you want to write about that period?

I’ve had a longstanding layperson’s interest in the 1960s, going all the way back to high school, when I became a huge Beatles fan.  I read about them obsessively, and then a little later on started getting interested in other iconic groups and personalities from the era: Abbie Hoffman, the Black Panthers, even Charles Manson (as weird as that sounds).  But it wasn’t until a bit later – after I started my Ph.D. at Columbia in the mid-to-late 1990s – that it even occurred to me that this was a topic I could study professionally.

Up until that point, most of the writing on the 60s had been accomplished by people who had lived through the decade, and who (at least by some accounts) seemed a little protective of the field.  But soon I discovered that a newer generation of scholars – made up of people who are just a little bit older than myself – were beginning to do some really fascinating work on the period. Meanwhile, I’d encountered essays by Maurice Isserman and Rick Perlstein, both of which were persuasive and encouraging about the idea that the scholarship on the 60s scholarship could use an infusion of fresh voices and new approaches.  And then once I started doing just a little bit of work on the New Left, I realized there were so many amazing troves of untapped primary sources relating to the 60s (the underground newspapers are foremost among then). Most of the time, I really enjoy doing archival work, and once I started studying the 60s professionally I never looked back.

What was it like meeting some of the more colorful personalities you discuss in the book?

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet two of the most colorful personalities in the book.  Marshall Bloom, who co-founded Liberation News Service, killed himself in 1969.  And then Tom Forcade, who for a time was running the Underground Press Syndicate, likewise committed suicide in 1978.  Both of these men had been at the helm of the organizations that really helped the underground press to thrive.

It’s eerie how much they had in common. They were both legendary characters in underground publishing – smart and energetic, with vibrant, impish, oversized personalities.  And (unlike some others in the movement) they were highly efficient – they could get stuff done!  Both had lots of friends – people even seemed to cluster around them, sycophantically – but they both made their share of enemies as well.  My sense is that they both saw themselves as leader-types, yet they were working in a milieu that was highly suspicious of any form of “leadership.”

They were also both deeply troubled.  It’s usually not appropriate for historians to make medical diagnoses, but Bloom almost certainly had bi-polar disorder, and certainly Forcade suffered from major bouts of depression and paranoia.  Bloom was secretly gay and Forcade, I think, was secretly bi-sexual.  Both were politically committed, yet heavily into drugs and youth culture activities that could be distracting to organizers. Forcade was also a major league drug smuggler.  In the early 1970s he had a huge enterprise going on.  (He went on to found High Times magazine and then he got heavily immersed in the punk rock scene).  I would have liked to have known them both.

Are there any memorable conversations or episodes that didn’t get into the book?

Yes, there are a couple of issues that have been nagging at me, but I’m not sure how much I can go into them here.  I’m a historian, and in a sense, my training requires me to be cautious.  I have be careful not to leap to conclusions or argue beyond my evidence.

That said, there still may be a lot we don’t know about the lengths that various authorities went in their efforts to undermine and sabotage the underground press. For instance, there’s a long-circulating rumor that holds that the FBI somehow pressured record label executives to stop advertising in the underground press (to devastating effect). There’s clear evidence that at a low level FBI functionary in the San Francisco Bay Area suggested that the Bureau ought to attempt this, but really no smoking gun.

Either way, though, it’s clear that in the late 60s, the really big record companies started sending lots of their advertising dollars to Rolling Stone, a newer magazine that was favorable toward the youth culture, but critical of radical leftwing politics.  Maybe the record executives thought this made better business sense.   But a lot of underground press people remain very angry with Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone’s founder), and I wish I could have learned more about this.

Also, there’s a character in the book who I think might have been working, at least for a time, as a kind of countercultural double-agent – celebrating and promoting the hippie lifestyle, while at the same time drawing from the payroll of a large corporation that was trying to exploit the youth culture. If I can ever figure this out, it will be explosive.

Do you feel today’s political and news blogs in any way embody the spirit of the alternative press of the 60s? And do any reporters who reflect those values or ideals come to mind?

Without a doubt, the underground newspapers did a lot of things that the blogosphere is credited with doing today – they helped to democratize the media, helped like-minded people to build communities, and brought overlooked issues to the mainstream media’s attention.

And of course today, we have plenty of bloggers who are every bit as fiery and partisan as any of the underground journalists of the 60s.  A key difference, though, is that in the 60s, the rise of polemical journalism seemed refreshing (at least to some readers).  Before then, supposedly “extreme” voices had a hard time getting a hearing.  Nowadays, they’re everywhere.

The important thing to remember, though, is that the underground press of the 60s was mainly designed to facilitate the growth of the leftwing protest movement.  In some vague way, bloggers in the “netroots” are trying to do something similar, and make no mistake, I think the work that’s being done by MoveOn.org and Media Matters and ThinkProgress is valuable. But the concerns and issues of most leftwing bloggers today are pretty far removed from the types of things that riled up underground journalists in the 60s.

In the Afterword, you make the claim that we’ll never again “see anything like the underground press of the Sixties.” In brief, why do you perceive this to be so, and more importantly, what (if anything) do you think our culture has lost in the process?

One reason is because the underground press was so directly a product of the ferment of the 60s.  The youth rebellion of the 60s was arguably the largest mass movement in American history, and we simply aren’t going to see anything quite like it again. Also, it’s no longer cost-effective or interesting to disseminate news and graphics with ink and paper.

There’s that old cliché, attributed to A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”  With the advent of the photo offset printing in the 60s, newspaper publishing suddenly became much more accessible.  For just a few hundred dollars, someone could print thousands of copies of an 8 or 16-page tabloid newspaper, which they could then sell for a dime or a quarter.  Someone once pointed out an irony in all of this: even though the underground papers of the 60s were very critical of capitalism, they were a great example of practical free enterprise.   Only a tiny handful of them turned a profit, but the rest of them could at least adhere to a “business model” (for lack of a better phrase) that allowed them to carry on.

Obviously that’s no longer the case.  Nowadays there’s a newer cliché, “Freedom of the press belongs to anyone with a laptop computer and an Internet provider.” I don’t think anyone doubts that print media is vanishing, and quickly.

If you could only read, listen to or watch one news outlet what would it be (and why)?

The New York Times, for sure. For one, I’m deeply habituated to it. A day without the New York Times always leaves me feeling a little incomplete.  Maybe this is ironic too?  In the 60s, of course, underground journalists regarded the Times as an enemy.  They seemed perpetually furious with the paper, particularly for its biased coverage of the New Left and the counterculture.

Looking back, I think the radicals made some good points about the deficiencies of professional journalism, but they were deluded if they thought their own work was an adequate substitute for it.

And the mainstream press seems evermore important today. One of the things I’m really concerned about is a phenomenon that people are calling “epistemic closure” – the tendency of people to expose themselves only to those news sources that tell them what they want to hear, or that confirm their worldview.

I consume a lot of partisan media myself, but I also think that the service that is performed by daily, general interest newspapers (and newsweeklies) is almost immeasurable.  No one paper is going to get everything right, but we need professional editors and trained reporters to try determine what is most important for people to know. And we need responsible, qualified people who will try – to the very best of their abilities – to report the news fairly and accurately.

Of course, people are always going to disagree about how to interpret the news.  And that’s great!  A society like ours needs robust and healthy debates about public affairs.  But our political culture is sick right now, and part of the reason is that people don’t have a shared base of knowledge about what’s actually going on.  They need much more of the type of information that a good daily newspaper can provide.

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