Joe Bageant Essays

Not many people under 50, maybe 60, know about the impact that Timothy Leary had on American culture. Leary was a respected faculty member at Harvard when he conducted government-funded tests of LSD and psilocybin, which back then were perfectly legal. Leary believed LSD showed therapeutic potential in psychiatry. He popularized catch phrases such as "turn on, tune in, drop out" and "think for yourself and question authority." His drug-related notoriety led to his dismissal from Harvard.

Leary became a media sensation and an affront to the establishment, which contributed to LSD being declared an illegal drug. He had a long series of arrests and long prison terms, too much to detail here, but mostly for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Facing prison, he fled the United States for Europe, North Africa and Central Asia. Leary was eventually caught and extradited, returned to the US where he faced additional charges for jumping bail.

During the 60s and 70s, Leary was arrested often enough to see the inside of 29 different prisons worldwide. President Richard M. Nixon once described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America" -- even though Leary had never physically harmed anybody. The judge at his remand hearing said, "If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas."

Joe Bageant greatly respected the ideas and the person of Timothy Leary, so much so that Joe named his first son Timothy. Joe met and came to know many big names during his writing career, but he rarely talked about any celebrities or famous writers and musicians he had known. One exception to this was Leary. In his home, Joe had framed a hand-written note from Leary, on the stationary of a Tokyo hotel, praising Joe for his writing.

After Joe died two years ago, friends of his sent me copies of articles he had written in the 70s. I typed and posted one such article several months ago, followed by a second. The response was good, so here is another old article by Joe. This is based on conversations that Joe had with Leary during a two-day visit to Colorado in 1977, just several months after Leary had been released from a California prison.

The two previous old articles are "Tribute to a white trash saint" (Hank Williams) and  "In the footsteps of Neal Cassady's ghost".

-- Ken Smith,

Rocky Mountain Musical Express, February 1977

By Joe Bageant

In natural accordance with the laws of God and airports, Stapleton was locked tight in the grip of a traffic jam the night Leary arrived. And since there was nothing to do but make the best of a bad situation, I got comfortable in the back seat, dug out a crumpled pack of smokes, and proffered some rather thin conversation toward other parties involved in this mission -- three students from the Colorado University Program Council, Leary's sponsor. But because I was ten years their senior, didn't ski and never go to movies, silence gradually won out as memory took over … dredging up images a decade old.

Flashbacks of Leary on the cover of Life Magazine, Leary on the street of Haight, Leary the psychologist/acid-priest/revolutionary/fugitive whose name became the pop culture trademark for consciousness expansion and the LSD spiritual movement -- a movement touching millions, many of which still look upon as the time of their awakening. Now he was back, released from prison on bail, and somehow it all felt like a rerun as he passed across 70 million TV screens flickering in slow motion to the flashbulb's glare. This time though, he was baffling everyone with science fiction-like statements about radical new world visions, outer space migration, human mutation and superintended lifespans and a program called SMIILE (Space Migration Increased Intelligence Life Extension).

Finally, the sheer compression of the jam squeezed our rented car, inch by inch to the front of the terminal -- where we disembarked to plow through hundreds of strangers under what felt like searchlights, mounted in the ceiling of the lobby. Porters, hippies, soldiers … pressed, pushed and jostled to the intercom's monotone for a few buzzing minutes, then Leary appeared. There was no mistaking him.

* * *

Decked out East Coast style, in plaid pants and a polo shirt, he was all smiles as he padded forward on glowing white tennis shoes. Even under the harsh light, he didn't look 56. After quick and polite intros all around, luggage clunked, car doors slammed and we were rolling. The car peeled back cold night air on its way to Denver's KTLK radio station where an interview was scheduled to happen.

The clock at the radio station read 9:30 p.m. when Tim Leary breezed its spongy, carpeted corridors to the broadcast booth. A late 20s DJ and a longhaired program director were on hand to welcome their celebrated guest -- who was radiating his famous smile (which seems to go Boiiinnnnnng!). Leary laughs readily and displays the charm of a born extrovert. No social exchange is too small for his attention. In fact, the lighter the rap, the more he appears to get off as he winks and cuts up, enjoying himself in a manner which struck me as sort of verbal ice skating. Visually, he is very kinetic and while he talks and moves about, it has a slight tinge of exaggeration, somewhat akin to the way TV actors move.

Showing a delight in the studio's equipment which bordered on possession at times, his hands dart briefly once or twice as Tim Leary declares his belief that: "Radio stations are temples of the religious ritual of electronic communication, with the DJs as modern technology's gurus who are responsible for getting out the signals; nocturnal shamans who bathe the earth in radio waves while the people sleep!" Tim is big on "signals" these days, and as he sees it: "It is one of my tasks to send out signals to that portion of the human race which is ready to mutate and migrate. It is the basis of my program … using signals to generate the collective energy of those developed to receive them."

Came time for the interview, everyone got a surprise, since a standard question/answer shot was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he whips out a sheaf of typewritten scripts, distributing them among whomever happened to be present, announcing: "We're going to do a live radio show. Everybody game?" Caught off guard, our young DJ stammers. "BBBut Mr. Leary, I have these questions for you to answer . . . "

"What kind of questions?"

"Questions of burning social and spiritual sig . . ."

"Oh Dear God!" Tim grabs his chest jokingly, pretending to collapse under their weight. "Okay, okay," he concedes, "but let's do the show first, then I'll give you all the time you want. A deal?"

"A deal" agrees our man of burning questions.

Next thing I know, we are all reading for the various parts in Leary's production. And mine, to my astonishment, is the role of an amoeba! To be exact, an amoeba named Dr. Protozoa whose speech is being delivered from the bottom of the Pre-Cambrian oceans -- concerning a dangerous new trend gaining popularity in the ranks of young amoeba, called "calcium tripping" (calcium being classified as a HARD drug, naturally). I gave it a try, but didn't get very far.

"No no no," interrupts doctor Tim. "You sound like you are READING it!"

"Well, uh, you've got to admit that it's kind of unusual dialogue," I offered lamely.

"We both know that's not really what's happening here, don't we? What's really happening here is that you aren't in total control of your nervous system. Right?" (He was completely right, since I'd been awake for about 40 hours at that point.) "Can't let it get away from you," he chuckles, and goes back to cajoling the others, all of whom have developed a case of cold feet, excepting the two broadcasters.

"Now this show," Leary begins, "is called 'Broadcasts From Higher Intelligence' and tonight we're going to be rapping with Gautama Buddha, Homer the Greek street cat, some DNA molecules . . . "

The final product was a half-hour commercial for higher intelligence and space migration -- employing humor as a method of slipping a few new ideas over. Radio listeners that night must have wondered what inna hell was going on as their radios broke forth in authoritarian tones warning them to: "Stand by for a transmission from higher intelligence."

* * *

So imperatively does Tim Leary view the SMIILE project that he uses the entire thrust of the media blitz, which began last year, to promote it. In an effort to present an approximate idea of the SMIILE concept, offered herein are some of his answer to questions gathered over a two-day period -- concerning SMIILE and a few other topics.

BAGEANT: "How can you be sure human development is really at the point of implementing such a futuristic program as SMIILE?"

LEARY: "Outer space immigration has been part of the trajectory of human development from the very beginning. We've been headed in that direction ever since we crawled out of the slime … but now we are actually there, and have been ever since the astronauts made the first penetrations."

BAGEANT: "Then we already have the inner biopsychological equipment to move on?"

LEARY: "Sure we do. We all have an extra-terrestrial aspect or side. Anyone who really had a true inner vision during the 60s knows it, has seen it . . . and touched it. It was always inevitable we should have to leave the planet, so why fight it? Let's just lay back and dig it!"

BAGEANT: So many people in this country have just discovered the land, ecology, etc. Such a stark look upward might be a little scary for some."

LEARY: "Space migration should not scare anyone, especially Americans. Every American is a descendant of immigrants who in turn were part of some larger migratory chain. The main difference is that we've come a long way from creaky little wooden ships."

BAGEANT: "So far, most of the space projects have been the exclusive area of the government. How do they feel about SMIILE?"

LEARY: "Naturally they are against it. So is big business … which leaves it up to the private sector. But at least they aren't conspiring against it -- they aren't hip enough to do that -- since they are still hung up in ancient mammalian territorial monkey games which force them to fight rather than respect the limitations of the planet. They spend more money fighting over the old world than it takes to build new ones. Meanwhile, many of the 60s consciousness mutants have come out of their cocoons of internal travel and are pushing outwards toward external progress.  Let's forget about astral travel and do some real traveling. Outer space is up for grabs."

BAGEANT: "Any thoughts or observations on the way things have developed since your incarceration, or while you were 'out' so to speak? What about the system in general?"

LEARY: "Well, even though I have gone through prison at the hands of the system, I still feel that, as Americans, we are light-years ahead of the rest of the world -- and have more REAL freedom than any place else on earth. Freedom is the capability to change things -- more of it now than ever before. Spiritually, the country took a downer about the time of the Kennedy assassination, but now we're getting our hope back, building up a new wave. The 60s mutants are everywhere. Right now there are two great forces at work on the face of this globe: mass centralization, as in China, which breeds insect suspicion, and the American self-realization movement towards individuality and self-improvement. What is at stake here is the future of the human race, so we are playing hard ball playing for keeps."

BAGEANT: "What about the hippies who retreated back to the soil, or embraced Eastern doctrines?"

LEARY: "Too many of the 60s crowd seem to be just fossilizing or sitting around. They got hung up in the Eastern doctrines such as Hinduism, which are pre-scientific and incapable of producing the kinds of results we now need. 'Lay back and be here and now' type solutions not only don't work, they are boring as hell. They were designed to placate people into waiting for Messiahs which never seem to come. We've got to do the job ourselves or it won't get done."

BAGEANT: "What do you think about the possible new life form they've found on the moon? The one that doesn't move or breathe, but gives off excreta?"

LEARY: "Sounds like they have found Republicans to me."

BAGEANT: "Speaking of politicians, any thoughts on Carter?"

LEARY: "With the election of Carter, we are seeing the blossoming of the 60s in the White House. I think he will be one of the greatest Presidents we've ever had, though I may be wrong and look like a fool five years from now. But he has every chance of it."

BAGEANT: "You might not have to wait five years to look like a fool, considering the way some of the media portrays you."

LEARY: "The media tells the middle class exactly what it wants to hear, so that they in turn will listen to the media. So actually, it only excommunicates a closed-off group of people who are plugged into a cycle which would never allow them to conceive of what I'm about anyway."

BAGEANT: "Do you have anything to say in general to persons waiting for signals?"

LEARY: "Yeah. Change, change, change, change. Keep mutating, keep molting. Go faster, go higher, get better. Follow the genetic imperative to learn and go forward. We are the nation with the vision and the equipment. So, let's go do it!"


Commonly held as the notion is, Timothy Leary is not burned out. At least not in the bombed-out brain cell sense of the word. Moreover, he is not even as crispy round the edges as your average rock star, and this new Leary seems more logical than the famous acid outlaw of years ago.

The difference in the two Learys (though this is not an entirely fair division) looks to be this: The old Leary sent back signals from deepest intercellular space, reached and perceived via acid, while the current one gathers his signals from the macrocosm, relying on the cold, clean accuracy of his own sort-system. Given that the general direction of his intelligence has always run along academic lines, it seems natural he should wind up depending upon his own intellectual machinery. True to the Leary form, he's determined to reach the farthest limits it will take him, even to the point of fulfilling the Moody Blues musical claim that "He's on the outside looking in."

Considering the contemporary cultural legend Tim Leary represents, only the most naive would fail to see there is more to it than his early endorsements of acid, or the small quantity of weed which sent him into exile and later to prison. Others have done those same things without becoming famous or pulling as much time as Leary has. Leary's legal crimes were just a technicality of the real crime.

What lies at the heart of the matter is the symbolic/conceptual crime he committed when he publicly violated middle-class taboos through the national media. Since the middle-class home is always ripe for a nice titillating, shocking infraction of their values, and since the news is always looking for someone to star in the 9 o'clock line up -- Leary was a natural for the part. Along with other players whose crimes were entertaining enough to make them suitable for mass consumption: William Calley, Patty Hearst, Manson, Speck, Cleaver (usually through crimes more brutal than Leary's).

What is fascinating and unique about Leary's though is the fact that his crime was, and still is an ongoing process -- instead of a one-time affair. His consciousness is still expanding far outside the realms of the national sensibilities. He won't have to kill anybody or repeat a bank robbery or hawk the rights to his memoirs as quickly as possible, in order to retain future identity. Instead, he has chosen to claim the future as part of HIS identity. Now THAT'S an expanded consciousness.

Concerning the Leary/Stool Pigeon Charges:

Timothy Leary was released amid widespread rumors that he bought his way out of prison by turning in some of his former cohorts from the old acid days. Since the print media has already mined the subject thoroughly, without producing any hard evidence to support these allegations (or even the source of them in most cases), we have purposefully avoided generating more copy on the subject. Leary's answer to the charge is a challenge to: "Produce one single person who has been indicted or convicted by anything I've told the government." To date, no one has.

It’s been almost three years since Joe Bageant, one of America’s most unique, populist political voices, passed away rather suddenly from cancer. During his life he kept company with American folk heroes such as Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and Alan Ginsberg, bartended on the same Indian reservation that author Sherman Alexie grew up on, and in his spare time became one of the preeminent gonzo journalists of his generation. Pretty impressive for a guy who grew up dirt-poor in Winchester, Virginia, dropped out of High School at sixteen to join the Navy, and never earned higher than a GED.

I did not know Joe personally, but through engaging with his writing felt like I did. I’m sure many admirers of his work feel the same way. I did however have the honor of having a thirty-minute phone conversation with him in August of 2010, approximately six months before he passed. He had forwarded me, a person he barely knew, his phone number after only a brief email exchange. He was spending some time in his Mexican bungalow at the time, and our conversation ranged from the evils of the mortgage industry to his terminally ill family dog. He even extended an invitation to spend some time with him down in Mexico after the New Year. Unfortunately that was not meant to be, but I still consider our conversation as one of the greatest gifts of my life. Not everyone has the opportunity to dialogue with their personal hero.

Beyond being endowed with a capacity for feeling and an emotional intelligence that were both off the charts, Joe possessed one of the sharpest analytical minds around and an unparalleled wit to match; qualities he regularly showcased through his elegant yet straightforward prose. He often referred to America as “The Hologram”: a self-referential corporatist theatre state in which the consciousness of its denizens had been mutated by an endless parade of consumer spectacle. Could any thinking person really argue with such a clear and concise characterization of America’s modus operandi?

The recent Duck Dynasty “controversy” is a case in point. Why should anyone care what Phil Robertson, a multi-millionaire pseudo-everyman “reality” star who peddles crap merchandise through Wal-Mart, thinks about anything let alone homosexuals? Did any of the people who piled criticism on Robertson and A&E really imagine they were making some kind of meaningful stand against bigotry? Were the 1.5 million others who rose to his defense on Facebook and elsewhere really deluded enough to think they were defending free speech? The sad and likely answer to both questions is a resounding “yes”. Lacking the ability to recognize let alone focus on what’s actually important, we have become addicted to the celebrity-driven media circus, and are desperate to be a part of it (whether consciously or subconsciously) if it means even a brief respite from our disempowered, anxiety driven lives. Working-class American citizens have been made to feel so small that we now seek vicarious experience and pseudo-empowerment wherever we can manage to drudge them up.

In between being overworked, having their collective willpower sucked dry, and suffering endless pop-culture distraction Americans are also mercilessly subjected to the endless diatribes of the American “Information Class”. This group of corporatist shills has been entrusted with being the disseminators of “fair and balanced” information, and is presently constituted by a number of “hard-hitting” professionals such as “atheist” Christian apologist S.E. Cupp, as well as that sincere-looking, silver-fox stalwart Anderson Cooper. Similar to their reality show counterparts, these poser journalists have proven quite successful at painting an exceedingly warped picture of the world, and keeping the working-class divided on trivial wedge issues at the same time. Joe once lovingly characterized them all as “[A] gaggle of meat puppets and journalism hacks who have been cultivated and bred to be clueless by the university industry and others serving our corporate empire.

All the while the republic burns as austerity measures continue unabated, unemployment accelerates, and the NSA continues to stick its bloated corrupt nose where it doesn’t belong. Abroad we invite inevitable blowback as we continue to dump depleted uranium into the Middle-East and fund “freedom fighters” through illicit back-channels in an effort to topple regimes that are no longer convenient for the “American self-interest”. And the American consumer-class, some brow-beaten while others simply bored into a state of submissiveness, sit idly by as it all happens; more contented to debate the finer points of Duck Dynasty or stare vacantly at S.E. Cupp’s T&A than engage in meaningful dialogue. None of this would really surprise Joe Bageant, who had become fully aware of the stupefying and imbibing effects that sixty plus years of economic warfare augmented by plug-in drugs could have on a population; most notably Joe’s people, the white underclass. Those “gun-owning, uninsured, underemployed white tribes inhabiting America’s urban and suburban heartland” who always seem to vote against their own self-interest.

Better than anyone else Joe made it crystal clear that the greatest mass delusion hanging over the United States is the widespread belief that we are a “classless” nation where people are supposedly “created equal”. Despite our unusual talent for collective self-denial, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to uphold such a ridiculous myth when 1% of the population is holding 45% of the nation’s wealth hostage. To quote from the seven commandments of Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Many of us who have suffered one indignity or another at the hands of snow-job America have come to recognize that the emperor wears no clothes, but most remain oblivious, willfully ignorant, or apathetic in the face of it. If we can’t recognize, acknowledge, or organize for the class war staring us dead in the eye, what hope do we have of winning it?

So what can we do to help a nation full of misled and damaged consumers? Perhaps America as we know it is beyond saving. But I like to think we can still salvage something meaningful from the wreckage, and I believe Joe felt this way as well. And is “America as we know it” really worth saving anyway? We need to evolve America, not preserve its current state of arrested development. In an interview held before the 2008 election Joe pointed out that “Ignorance is the worst kind of prison. It’s the one you can barely escape from…because you don’t know why these things are affecting you. But your angst, your confusion, your darkness is somebody’s tool. And that is the business of politics.” Joe constantly touted the potentially revolutionary implications of free, universal education that actually teaches people critical thinking and facts about class dynamics. While it seems unlikely that the capitalist gulag-state will provide such an altruistic service to its captives anytime soon, it doesn’t mean we can’t still work toward that goal on a smaller scale.

We need to think and act locally. We need to dialogue with our neighbors, even those we might subconsciously perceive as “untouchable”. We need to become conscious in how we utilize language, and how we can make better use of it to break through cultural barriers that only appear insurmountable. In response to being asked what his picture of the American Dream was Joe said, “Fairness, justice, the thing that’s right…If you can go to the most fundamental level of what is just, there’s no man so [beaten down] by labor that he will not recognize that, if you keep it fundamental and right enough. And I think for liberals…and that working man alike…that’s the thing that’s the same…the struggle is for the consciousness of the planet.

I miss Joe, and I’m sure if you knew him or were familiar with his work, you do too. Although success is far from guaranteed, let’s honor his memory by at least attempting to be our brother’s keeper. Let each of us make a personal effort to enrich the community we live in, and in the process maybe reclaim something that was lost to the undertow of our hyper-monetized “society”. First things first, start up a dialogue with that person wearing the asinine “Duck Commander” tee-shirt and see where it takes you.

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