Adbusters' Kalle Lasn: the flawed genius behind Occupy Wall Street
This is the story of the man who inspired the OccupyWallStreet movement, the man who perhaps has been dreaming of a movement like this for 20 years, a movement that may outpace The Tea Party in terms of its impact on the global psyche.
That man is Kalle Lasn, a stout, rugged-looking, white-haired radical, who looks like a farmer, wears gum boots into his office and talks like a philosopher with a pronounced Baltic accent. He reads voraciously, grows apples and loves design, economics, sustainability, and art.
His is a life of ideas, but his story is an inspirational tale of truth. It's a parable about how intention resonates when cultivated as fiercely as his has been over many years. And how, despite all the ambient noise in our culture and how entrenched power has become, how one person's intention can inspire a mass movement.
This is also a story about timing. And confluence. And brilliance.
Timing is everything, and Kalle Lasn's time has come.
Lasn, the founder and driving force behind Adbusters Magazine, lives in a quiet suburb of Vancouver called Aldergrove with his Japanese wife on a farm. Lasn just happens to be based in Vancouver, you could say. His reach is global, his admirers far flung. And Lasn's intention might never have gone beyond the reach of his magazine, Adbusters, had he not held it so long and so fiercely and had it not collided with a rising tide of outrage against corporate America, against foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and government bailouts of major financial institutions in the United States.
In essence, they are the same economic principles Lasn had been battling for years.
An idea decades in the making
Although Occupy Wall Street seemed to be spawned from the outrage of the un-wealthy at the injustices that America's political and financial leaders have committed against the "other 99%", it originated somewhere and that may have been with Lasn.
"He's a geezer -- he was born in WWII," a Lasn admirer in his late twenties told me this week to drive home just how long Lasn's been walking this earth.
"There aren't many people who've held the same beliefs that they had when they were in their twenties," he said, laughing even as he indicated his immense respect for the Canadian publishing radical whose personal history may very well attribute for having spawned the protest movement that is now more than one month old and is coming to Vancouver this weekend.
He used to call his work "Greenpeace for the mental environment" and a lot of Greenpeace activists have worked for him. Adbusters is where I first learned the idea of "meme". And that's the root of how OccupyWallStreet seems to have come about.
Its one of his great achievements after a couple of decades, that a single meme has taken off and traveled far beyond himself.
A meme takes off
Lasn is a visionary. And the movement is consistent with his determination over many years to question the large corporate part of capitalism.
Yet those close to Lasn say he knows that it has grown way beyond him and is amazed by the fact that the movement has swept across America like a storm, fired a normally complacent middle class into action, endorsed by celebrities of enormous stature, like Michael Moore and Tim Robbins, and supported by labour groups and business people alike
Moore said yesterday that it is the revolt he wished for at the end of his 2009 documentary.
Its impact has been enormous. It has become a focus of media giants like Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart, and reviled by right wing pundits like Glenn Beck, who called OWS a "storm of Biblical proportions" and told radio listeners that Occupy Wall Street protesters will "kill everybody". The meme has grown to the point that few people can even trace its origin back to the fiery editor in Vancouver.
"He's not taking ownership of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but he's not baffled by it," another person who knows Lasn well told me.
"All it was was this idea that one of the editors cooked up. I don't think he wants to take credit because it's no longer Adbusters thing. It was just an idea and people ran with it."
Lasn has turned down television interviews. He's refused them so far, because he doesn't want to be seen as the face of this thing, sources say.
In an interview with The Tyee, Lasn revealed that he's "very buoyed" by how the protest has grown.
"When that first Saturday came, Saturday, Sept. 17, then I did have this feeling that the whole damn thing could fizzle ... the whole thing could be just a puff of wind that came and went. It has grown beyond anything I thought was possible in the early days."
At the same time, he expressed concern that the movement lacked a clear idea of its demands.
"We thought it was a mistake for [the protesters] not to discuss what some of the demands could be, and we pushed them very hard to get some of their demands together ... And we believe that one thing could be the Robin Hood tax ... a one per cent tax on all financial transactions."
A source said that despite his criticism, he has high hopes for the movement.
"He's an incredible optimist," a journalist who works at Adbusters said.
"He would tell you it's going to spread from city to city and eventually Obama's going to do something in America to change the financial system."
"His sense is that finally it's starting."
Radical viewpoints and visual audacity
In the course of my six years working in media in Vancouver, I've never met Lasn, but he's a legendary, almost mythological figure amongst the newly graduated journalism professionals who come to work for The Vancouver Observer, after or before a stint at Adbusters.
These are young people who have a passion for their work and who hope for an inspired career in journalism and a job where they can truly make a difference. They hope to shine a light on social inequity and write creatively about problems in the society that corporate news organizations increasingly refuse to touch. Lasn not only addresses these issues, but brings a design brilliance to express radical viewpoints. That's been his secret to success.
Adbusters is a sophisticated, high-gloss magazine which seeks to subvert the reader's acceptance of capitalism by deconstructing the advertising industry. Although its website claims its circulation is 120,000, a source said that the real figures are 10,000 subscribers and 40,000 to 60,000 in newsstand sales, depending on the issue. First published in 1989, it is published bi-monthly by the Adbusters Media Foundation, a non-profit organization.
I first subscribed to the magazine when I lived in New York City, partially because it made me feel smart and cool and on the edge of things. It also disturbed my capitulation to the images around me, making me look at them with a more critical eye. I lived in a neighborhood dominated by giant posters of teen-aged models looking perversely mean, staring out over the traffic on Houston Street in bras and panties or lying down on the sides of buses shirtless, thronged by men.
With "front covers" on both sides of the magazine, Adbusters' pages were windows into the forces of marketing that shape our psyches.
The magazine sought to shock with images, like that of a doctor marking a woman's body and preparing to perform plastic surgery on her. Degraded by violent sexualization and objectification, she looked mean and hard and ultimately brutalized.
It had a raw quality and when it arrived in my mail box. I was especially blown away by the issue that came out after 9-11, with two front covers.
Adbusters' visual commentary during those years was spot on, although, for me, the writing in the magazine paled by comparison to its imagery. The images lorded over the word. Lasn has been at it with Adbusters for many years, inspiring young design students globally. Many who produced content for the magazine went on to push radical edges in their own contexts after leaving. Saying what others wouldn't in any respectable or mainstream media won Lasn great loyalty from adherents.
Adbusters first raised my awareness, but then it offended me
But after the 9-11 issue, I started to find the magazine predictable. The message screamed from its pages and the articles were like manifestos that I'd heard a thousand times. I flipped through it quickly and felt I was learning nothing new.
I'd gotten the message years before, and it had influenced me deeply. I've been studying media since university and read hundreds of books about it, so it wasn't like I didn't know what the advertising industry was up to. Adbusters raised my awareness of how ugly some of what it really was, particularly as it relates to women. Still, it was already getting old for me when I received my October 2004 issue of Adbusters with an article entitled, "Why won't anyone say they are Jewish?" listing 50 influential neoconservatives in the Bush administration and highlighting those who were Jewish with black dots.
"Here at Adbusters, we decided to tackle the issue (Israel) head on and came up with a carefully researched list of who appear to be the 50 most influential new cons in the US... And half of them are Jewish."
Kalle Lasn signed this article in the March/April 2004 issue of Adbusters.
My first thought was that the magazine needed to find something that would shock its audience and make it important again. But being Jewish, I'd been the singled out too many times in my life for my culture and origins, and although I disliked the neocons probably as much as Lasn, I thought it was exploitative to single people out for their religious background.
I agreed with the people who said it was anti-Semitic. And along with thousands of others, I cancelled my subscription.
And I didn't think about Adbusters again, until I moved to Vancouver. And then I began learning more about the man.
Kalle Lasn: a short history
Lasn was born in Tallinn, Estonia, in March 1942, just seven months after Nazis Germany began occupying the country, according to his own biographical accounts. His family escaped to Germany in 1944, as the Russian army was approaching his home city. Kalle spent the next five years of his childhood in a German refugee camp for displaced persons, before moving to Australia at the age of seven. He earned a Bachelor of Science in pure and applied mathematics from the University of Adelaide, and began working for Australia's Defense Department, where he worked with computer-simulated war games in the Pacific Ocean.
When he was 23, Lasn went to Europe, but his boat stopped in Yokohama, a port city just outside of Tokyo, for two days. He said he “fell in love with Japan and was unable to get back on the boat”. As a testament to Lasn's resourcefulness, he managed to create a market research company in the post-war Tokyo during the 60s and made enough money to go traveling the world for three years. He then returned to Japan, married Masako Tominaga, and immigrated to Canada in 1970.
He began making documentary films over the next 20 years, and these were broadcast on PBS, CBC and around the world, winning over 15 international awards. His most famous films include Japan, Inc. (1980), The Rise and Fall of American Business Culture (1984), and The Autumn Rain: Crime in Japan (1990).
His first big clash with corporations and big media came in 1989, when he created a TV spot that criticized the logging of B.C.'s forests. After finding that TV stations all rejected his request to buy air time for his spot, Lasn had an “epiphany” that there were certain voices being excluded on the airwaves.
Autosaurus meets CanWest and CBC's resistance
Then he attempted to place anti-car ads on TV, a 30 second clip that called the car "Autosaurus." The ad's message was that "there's a monster out there that's eating up the environment."
Both Canwest (now owned by Postmedia) and the CBC refused to run the ad. Lasn sued. Litigation went on for years, another indication of the man's perseverance and determination. On April 3, 2009, the British Columbia Court of Appeal overturned a BC Supreme Court ruling that dismissed the case and granted Adbusters permission to go after the major media corporations that originally refused to run the ad. Automobile advertising is one of the largest sources of revenue for media corporations. It was a high stakes ruling. Lasn said the ruling allowed Adbusters "permission to take on the media corporations and hold them up to media scrutiny."
He won the suit against Canwest, but then the newspaper chain declared bankruptcy and Lasn wasn't able to collect.
Other Adbusters campaigns have been TV Turnoff Week and Digital Detox Week that enoucrage people to spend seven days unplugged without any electronics.
Spoof ads parodied popular marketing campaigns by brands like Nike, Calvin Klein, Camel cigarettes and Lasn and his fellow media activists thumbed their nose at rampant consumerism by launching the “Buy Nothing Day” campaign.
Adbusters sponsored a "One Flag" competition that asked readers to create a flag that stood for global citizenship without using words or previously used symbols. It was a breath of fresh air for people who felt that their flag -- ones reflecting a colonized past or a major religion -- didn't truly represent them.
The magazine then sold "open source" shoes without brands or trademarks in 2004. The shoes were designed by another local celebrity, John Fluevog, and were made from organic hemp and recycled car tires.
In 1999, Adbusters was named "Magazine of the Year" in Canada.
"The best lack all conviction..."
"I worked with Kalle at a time when the protests against the Iraq war mobilized millions around the world and yet were completely ignored, when the neoconservatives in Washington were running the show with impunity, when it was obvious things were going off the rails — economically, environmentally, socially — but nobody seemed able to do much about it," Deborah Campbell, a former associate editor at Adbusters, told The Vancouver Observer.
Campbell has since also written on international affairs in publications including The Economist and Harper's. For a long time, she said, Kalle had the same lament as the poet Yeats:
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
That was especially true, Campbell said, when it seemed like the momentum was with groups like the Tea Party, funded by billionaires who were twisting people's legitimate outrage to their own ends.
The Adbusters website has been a powerful medium that is connecting the movements in different cities together and provides updates to people in NYC about what's happening across the continent. Lasn has reportedly met with some of the OccupyWallStreet Vancouver organizers and encouraged them. But, sources say, he has remained somewhat aloof from the organizational fray.
A flawed icon
Lasn's ideas about sustainability, economic justice and anti-consumerism have attracted a devoted following. One former staff member recalls how people would come knocking on the basement door of Adbusters' basement-home office to pay respects to the magazine and its founder.
But Lasn leaves some of his past employees cold.
Lasn has deep set feelings about both corporate rule and how to rule, they say. He's no saint. Rough-edged. Highly critical. Demanding. Judgmental. Tough. Belligerent. Smart. Committed. Relentless. He's complex. He's completely dedicated.
One former staffer who worked at Adbusters for several years bluntly called Lasn “an [expletive]”.
While criticizing Lasn's treatment of employees, the source pointed out that, despite his flaws, Lasn's still "the perfect person to keep this OccupyWallStreet thing in line and on target. This movement needs [someone] who can steer the ship without letting too many [people] grab the wheel.”
Deepest respect for Lasn
Nonetheless, an impressive group of writers and designres have contributed to Adbusters. The list includes among those mentioned in this story, like Deborah Campbell, as well as Chris Hedges, Matt Taibbi, Bill McKibben, Jim Munroe, Douglas Rushkoff, Jonathan Barnbrook, David Graeber, and Darren Fleet, who contributed to the Vancouver Observer's award-winning Lost Canadians series and now serves as associate editor. Many writers are already well-established in their own right, but wrote for Adbusters out of a sense of respect for the magazine's bold ideas.
Luck. Timing. Passion. Brilliance. Call it what you will. Occupy Wall Street has spread to 150 cities in America, to Canada and to Europe.
And ultimately, after reading the magazine for so many years, loving it and leaving it, and observing the birth of the OccupyWallStreet movement, I'm in the camp of Lasn admirers. Like all heroes, he's passionate, single-minded and a human being with flaws. I like how he questions power and is so bold about doing so.
Lasn does a lot to help deconstruct media and public relations and advertising. For so many years, he's been naming the power of corporate hypnosis.
Lasn's intention has collided with history and is waking us up.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this piece are Linda Solomon's personal opinions. Jenny Uechi added to the story with invaluable contributions of interviews and files.