Notes from the Underground

The rise of the alternative media is a story that goes beyond the New Left.


One Sunday in 1968, the Washington wing of the Liberation News Service stole a bunch of money, a $400,000 printing press and collator, an addressograph, some office furniture, and every copy of the organization's mailing list from the New York wing of the Liberation News Service, hauling the loot out to a farm in Massachusetts. It was one of the more notorious faction fights in the radical press of the 1960s, a saga that would soon include a kidnapping, a beating, and a rural rumble that was improbably interrupted for an informal concert. When the Georgia State historian John McMillian tells the tale in Smoking Typewriters, his new book on the American underground press, he is able to jump in just two sentences from "When one of them rushed the truck, he was knocked over by the moving vehicle and suffered a few cracked ribs" to "members of the Children of God even brought out their guitars and sang songs."

It would be unfair to say this sort of confrontation was typical of the '60s and '70s left, but it wasn't unique either. The history of underground newspapers, community radio stations, and New Left activist groups is peppered with these little clashes, though they don't normally include abductions and musical interludes. As with the cattle raids that inspired so many medieval Irish sagas, such escapades can be exciting when recounted with élan. Raymond Mungo did that in his memoir Famous Long Ago, which told the tale of the Liberation News Service heist from the thieves' perspective. In Smoking Typewriters, McMillian repeats some of the high points of Mungo's vivid narrative but tempers it with the perspectives of the other parties in and around the melee.

It's one of the best parts of McMillian's book—a segment that doesn't just relate a diverting story but uses it to illustrate a deeper theme about the underground press: the conflict between different visions of what constitutes that New Left ideal, a "participatory democracy."

Unfortunately, most of the book isn't nearly that good. There are other lively sequences, such as McMillian's rundown of the ways the government repressed underground papers, a process that included deliberate attempts to stoke the sort of faction fight that ripped the Liberation News Service apart. But more often, the book drains the life from some of the most colorful episodes in recent history. McMillian manages even to make the banana hoax of 1967, when pranksters spread a rumor that smoking bananas can get you high, into a dull academic argument that the hoax "created a liminal space, a conceptual border area between the counterculture and straight society. In smoking a banana joint, youths could participate in a hippie ritual without undertaking a significant amount of risk."

Besides violating the general rule of thumb that anyone using the word "liminal" is trying too hard, McMillian doesn't grapple with the fact…

Read the rest of this article at The American Conservative, where it originally appeared.


Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. And…that’s a wrap.

  2. The alternative media now is the conservative media, what little there is of it.

    Liberals made a study and decided that obama had a problem. Many americans thought he was not patriotic enough or american enough. So they decided consciously to change this so he could become re elected. They all met in a big hall and drew up their plans. Every news media has the same story about the killing of OBL, about how Obama is part Irish and there are many Irish voters (hint that the Irish will or must vote for him therefore), about the US troops being great guys, about how 9/11 was a horrible evil perpetrated by bad guys (it used to be our fault/a conspiracy by Bush/the Jews) and all sorts of things. Okay maybe they did not meet in a big hall. Maybe there is a kind of osmosis communication between them like aliens in the old Star Trek series. But something weird is going on. And clever. There is no dissent. Those few who are honest lefties like Cornel West are being destroyed by the left. West expressed what was until five minutes ago the left viewpoint. Now they are after him with knives. The MM is united so much it is scary. It is like Tass and Pravda.

    1. Hercule Triathalon is interested in your ideas, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

      1. You jest, but there is a willingness of the media to be led en mass toward the story the government is pedaling. The White House announces that next week they’ll focus on Libya on Monday, Healthcare on Tuesday, etc. and the media is able to spend the next few days preparing stories to complement the agenda of the White House.

        It is sort of a conspiracy of symbiosis. The White House gets to direct our national attention whither they so desire, and the media gets to move at a more measured pace in researching and assembling their stories. No nefarious motives are required for this conspiracy to operate efficiently.

        There are times when politics enters the news cycle via nefarious and conspiratorial means though. The infamous ABC story about Bush’s national guard service was just one element of a coordinated effort between the Kerry campaign and big three news outlets, PBS, NPR and CNN. They coordinated an entire week of stories on Bush’s Vietnam service and parceled out stories to each news outlet. The campaign planned to run attack ads in concert with the news stories. Matt Drudge told me about it two weeks before the Rather fake documents story hit, so it isn’t like it was a big secret.

        It isn’t exactly clear to me how this whole thing wasn’t big news (well, yes it is, but allow it for the rhetorical flourish) but is seems that with this kind of coordination the networks run the risk of violating campaign finance laws via an in-kind contribution. But as you’ve noted, nobody really cares. In fact the Left is still worried that Citizens United benefits the Right…

        1. Er… CBS… oops.

    2. I am still trying to find the antiwar movement. It has evaporated since Obama took office. Remember the truthers? They also have disappeared like a fart in the wind.

      1. Damn! That’s what that smell was…

      2. …Obama Administration trying to justify his war policies.

    3. What are you talking about? Ezra Klein shut down JournoList a year ago.

  3. I wonder if John McMillian is related to Jimmy “The Rent Is Too DAMNED High” McMillan, and just added the extra “i” in the last name to throw everyone off the scent.

    Also, the rent IS too damned high.

  4. Also – like the “ING” ad running while I was reading this.


  5. I’m glad that you reference the same rule about “liminal” that I live by.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.