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Adbusters' Kalle Lasn: the flawed genius behind Occupy Wall Street

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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.

On the movement's current success, Campbell emphasized that while the idea germinated with Kalle's intention, it has since grown to be something much bigger.
"I think Kalle is as surprised and pleased as anyone that OccupyWallStreet has taken off," she said.

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.

(7) Comments

rajbir singh October 16th 2011 | 11:11 AM

I am very excited, happy and hopefull about "occupy wall street movement' .It presents a ray of hope for better future. Its timing and placing are right to make the blow to the capitalism. America is leading the new capitalism only for profit of corporates only 1% people. This movement is very radicle in nature. Resistence is always worthful for development for society. The american society has been very stagnant for decades. This movement would bring change not only in America even its impact would be felt all over world in coming years. I express my solidarity with this movement. long live.

with salute

rajbir singh

form delhi india     

Department of Redundancy Department October 17th 2011 | 7:07 AM

Brilliant and Genius are redundant.  No need for both in the title.

Aloysius Flyte October 18th 2011 | 1:13 PM

@Rand

It is unfortunate that people with the kind of blind, dumb hatred that you demonstrate should have as much right to post their raving verbal blows online as anyone else. There's no place in this world for attitudes such as you display: haughtiness, arrogance, closed-mindedness, contempt for others, and just plain foolishness. Alas, we must find a way to either build bridges or face the consequences. I would truly hope that each of us could be open-minded enough to the possibility of understanding; failing that we will be left with the need to marginalize or eliminate one another. I, for one, am tired of belonging to the 99% that have been marginalized thus far, while you and others like you dominate the conversation and suck up all the air.

I console myself with the knowledge that your hatred problem stems from fear that the movement will succeed. And that has to be a good sign.

KIm October 31st 2011 | 9:09 AM

Take a look at every house on Vancouver's east side. Look at every single parent walking a child to school. Note every older person buying their fruit and vegetables at a sidewalk market on Vic Drive. They are the people paying the costs of the VPD, the civic garbage collections, the port-o-potty costs, the "free" wifi and everything else associated with this occupation of our streets. They are the 99% and they pay yet again. I don't see Adbusters, Lasn or any of his colleagues footing the bill in this town or any other city for their "great idea." It's too much. It's gone too far. Get off the streets, roll up your sleeves and come up with concrete solutions that won't further burden an already exhausted tax base.

Ben November 2nd 2011 | 12:12 PM
The political and economic systems a flawed, unfair and too often criminal. However Mr. Lasn sounds to me too much like all the vanguard through history, charismatic articulate and dismissive of any authority but his own. Think for Yourself.
longsword November 18th 2011 | 7:19 PM

I just finished reading Lasn and White's article in The Washington Post "Why Occupy Wall Street will keep up the fight", and if you notice, there's something quite pretentious about a supposedly modest Canadian man presumtiously speaking in that context of "we" and "our country" when referring to the US. As far as I can see, Kalle for that reason has become a liability to the occupy movement.

He could have chosed "we" in the global sense, or "our world" also instead of misrepresentative "we" of the OWS. As far as I am aware, Kalle has never even been to OWS. And yet for Micah White and Kalle Lasn to write in The Washington Post, of all places, as if they were central to it seems to me gross misrepresentation. We don't need that. It's surprising coming from a source that insists on transparency and sincerity in communications.

Your headline for this article is not true. Lasn did not start OWS ... he supported this movement after it was a great big going concern through his personal magazine: The Adbusters. Let's get a little reality please!