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Ken Kesey--Lessons For Occupy Movement

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Ken Kesey and Magic Bus
Ken Kesey and Magic Bus
(Image by Allan Wayne)
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Ken Kesey wrote two masterpiece novels about individuals fighting the system, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, about the mental health field, and Sometimes a Great Notion, about the logging industry. In both stories, heroes suffer casualties, but never give in to oppression.
In my analysis, I ask: How can an author who champions the common man, and whose characters exemplify freedom, rugged individualism, and man's indelible spirit not give a resounding endorsement to Occupy Wall Street, or Occupy America, movements that fight for the common good? 
Well, Kesey was a magician, and prankster, for one thing, and looked at accomplishment in a different light than many. Material riches were not his major goal. He dabbled in success and failure, but was always ahead of the loop--a pioneer, prophet and proponent--in many social movements that changed America and the world forever, whether one agrees with Kesey's beliefs, or not.
I watched Kesey interact at a workshop on a beach in Port Townsend, Washington, attended a Kesey Little Trickster reading in Newport, Oregon, and had him sign a book in Portland when he stopped by with his Magic Bus on the way to the Smithsonian in DC. He was an impressive man in his colored jacket and beret hat, yet seemed relatively quiet as he interacted. In truth, he was a writer and not a fire-breathing orator, in spite of storied exploits.
When I heard him speak on the radio, probably 1999, about the dangers of fascism in the United States, I was surprised. Clinton was President and America was embarking on a unprecedented wave of economic growth. Things seemed good, True, Kesey and John Babbs had spoken before about fascism, Gestapo-like tactics, and corporate greed, regarding the yearly held Country Fair outside of Eugene, Oregon. The fair was a free-spirited celebration of hippies and tribal-spirited folks, with craft booths, smell of hemp, music, body painting, performers, and some nudity. Kesey and the Grateful Dead were part of the pioneering force behind the Fair's non-profit beginnings, but felt it was being restricted by rules and focus on the almighty dollar. Kesey railed against a fascist United States and also former President Bush Sr.'s war against Iraq regarding Kuwait.
At that time, in spite of my huge respect, I thought Kesey was a little crazy. Fascism, then, was not such a visibly observable political reality, as it is today. Fascism was something that happen under Mussolini in WWII. How times have changed, and how prescient Kesey was.
Kesey was a master at occupying the nation's imagination. His cross country Magic Bus ride, replete with tie-dye Merry Pranksters, marijuana, free sex, and LSD, was a physical attempt to change the country's consciousness, a one-vehicle parade in contrast to mind-numbing conformity and material consumerism. He occupied and defied the country.
In a 1986 Co-Evolution Quarterly interview (financed by Whole Earth Catalogue) with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder and others, Kesey expands:
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KEN KESEY: One thing I want to talk about tonight is what I see as a growing fascism in the United States, and who we are and how we can combat it. A lot of people don't know what fascism is. They misuse the word and all they can think of is Mussolini and "kill the Jews." Fascism goes back to the old Roman word of fasci, which means sticks bound by a cord so they all work together: Usually it's big business, big church, and big governments. So when you see Reagan talking with Falwell about the labor movement, that, by its nature, is fascism. The real weapon against fascism is individualism and tribal cohesiveness and families and communities.
The fascist consciousness wants Baptists coast to coast, so when the Bhagwan is up there with his Rajneeshpuram, everybody is pissed at him; but I got up there and said, look, whether you're pissed at him or not, it's a healthy thing to have him there. As long as we can still have guys like the Bhagwan come and take over a town and create that much fuss up in Oregon, it says something about the openness of that culture. When we wipe out the Bhagwan and those guys, fascism will take over.
Me:  Kesey is talking about the Bhagwan occupying the town of Antelope, Oregon, which did not turn out great. When American Indians occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, however, for 71 days, it was a different matter.  The Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement battled the FBI, CIA, ATF, and US Military with rifles and real bullets. Unfortunately, lives were lost on both sides. Previously, Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Both occupations ended with Indian arrests and relinquishment of occupied holdings, but it brought unprecedented modern awareness to the plight of American Indians and reservation life. In truth, the Occupations birthed a new beginning for Indian representation in the United States.
When Kesey is questioned by economist Paul Hawken about how the Boomer Generation will change politics, he responds:
PH:  I think in five to ten years from now a whole 'nother generation will come to power that's going to be very, very different than these people who are fascists. And I agree with the definition, but I see them as disintegrating. I don't see them as having power in the true sense of the word, which is to implement reasoned intention. I haven't seen that kind of activity for six, seven years.
KK: I used to think that way, too. I thought we were going to change the world. I don't think so anymore. I don't even think we're going to change the United States anymore. Most people are just pretty much exactly like they were 20 years ago. Stewart and I are balder, but we pretty much think about the same things. We've learned a few things on how to keep from gettin' into trouble.
But I no longer think that we're going to win. I believe we are the losers. I believe that we're a very select group of losers and we have to understand that. I knew I wasn't going to be elected student body president. Or the most popular kid in college.
I wanted to be powerful. That was more important to me than influencing enormous numbers of people. I wanted to influence the correct number of people. I think this correct number of people is getting smaller and more elite and tougher. But I don't expect all of a sudden to have the bad guys die off and a bunch of good ones take over, because they're training bad guys just as fast and harder than we're training the good guys.
PH: That's the problem with the 60s world view -- that there's an us and a them. The problem was that it was too easy to be right in the 60s. It was so easy, with the war, with the environment, with the politics that existed at that time. I'm not talking about changing the world. All I said is that there's another group of leaders coming up, and I think they're different. Different is different. And the idea of taking what's out there right now and going, oh my God, it's going to hell in a handbasket, and throwing up your arms and saying we're a select bunch of losers, is self-reinforcing.
KK: I'm not throwing up my arms about it, but I'm not running around San Francisco trying to turn everybody else onto acid either.
PH: Well, 'cause it didn't work.
KK: It's because it'll never work. It's because there ...
PH: So what are you trying now that's working?
KK: We're trying to get the marijuana law passed up there [in Oregon]. We slipped the bottle bill in on 'em, and they've been trying to get it out. If it came to a vote now, they'd vote it down, just like they're going to vote in handguns. Look how many people go to see Rambo. There's going to be more and more and more of those people and there's going to be a tougher and tougher little crew over here, just the way it's always been. There's always this little crew of ornery, mean son of a guns who are snapping at the big part of society and society's trying to kill 'em.
We won't win, but we will keep them from killing us. And when you don't think there's a them and an us, spend a few nights in the county jail. You'll find there's a them and an us and they're stronger than ever and just as mean as Attila the Hun.
GARY SNYDER: Well, you know, I can go to the Mother's Day Scotch Broom Breakfast in the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Hall every year (it's called Scotch Broom Breakfast because the Scotch broom is all in bloom right then), and sit right next to the county sheriff and have a good chat with him and his deputy and he knows me by name and I know him by name. Every year. Been doin' it for seven or eight years now. You've probably been doing the same thing. It's been a lot of fun for me, discovering that what was really radical sometimes seems extraordinarily conservative.
Now I'll say something about environmentalism. Not a one of the world's current problems was caused by radical environmentalists -- regardless of what anybody says in the newspapers. But one of the most radical programs of the anarchist branch of the ecology movement is the bioregional proposal that nobody should move -- that they should all stay where they are and live there the rest of their lives. In other words, the idea is to become like a normal human being over the last 40,000 years and have a place. But when you do something like that, you wonder if you're on the far right or on the far left, because then what you're suggesting to people is that they go to school board meetings, and join the garden club, and take responsibility for what goes on in their community. And is that old or new? I don't know. But it sure does improve the quality of life.
KK: I was at an auction a few days ago up in Oregon. The loggers went into our oldest stand of trees in Oregon -- a cathedral of trees that we have up there -- some of the trees 900 years old. There's been a big court battle to preserve these trees for a long time. They went in on Easter and they cut those trees down, because there was a one-day lapse between the injunction and the thing that was coming up on Monday. They got 'em. They cut 'em down. And so we went to a big auction to raise money to kind of fight this, and there at this auction were maybe 150 people. And as I looked out there at those people, they're many of the same people that I know, and you can rely on them. And they are not the majority. They are in the very strong and reliable minority. They're the people like this guy Lloyd Marbett who is just one guy who has almost single-handedly kept nuclear power out of Oregon. If he'd left it up to the population of Oregon, we'd have had nuclear power plants on the Columbia on our side of the river. This one guy just kept at 'em and kept at 'em and kept filing injunctions and protesting and then he would get on top of one of the towers, and over the last ten years, this guy has made enemies out of everybody except the good guys, who know that he's out there, and that as long as old Lloyd Marbett is out there, he's more powerful than a thousand people, just by being there and doing it. 
Me: It seems that Kesey, eternal Trickster and Prankster that he is, is trying to have it both ways, saying that changing society will never work, that progressives will never win, when they are up against the corporate juggernaut.
Yet in a 1992 interview,, The Psychedelic Shakespeare Solution, A 1992 New York Interview,
Kesey says: 
Do you hear much encouragement in the streets? We need to encourage each other. The issue is carrying this little flame and people passing it on. All it takes is one person. One person to know CPR, one person to stand up and say I'm gonna stand up and fight for what's true. Fascism wants Baptism coast to coast. You can have 400,000 troops marching by and just one guy could be standing along the side of the street yelling fish! fish! fish! It drives them crazy !! and that's something we can all do.
Kesey died in 2001, well before the Occupy Movement. Yet his spirit lives. 


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Conceived on west coast, born on east coast, returned to northwest spawning grounds. Never far from water.

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