No Invisible Gorillas Read HST in the Making of this Issue: “MAD #515”

I close this issue of MAD for maybe the fourth time this week, issue #515, and some things still stick. I’m going to be chuckling all through the interview with MAD Editor, John Ficarra. But it’s a call with John, I was going to be chuckling all through anyway. This is a big issue, the first official Summer issue. And if, for the world of fashion stewarded by magazines like Vogue Fall is the opening season of the year (I can recall the beautiful, poignancy of the portrait woven about Ana Wintour in the documentary The September Issue a few years back), for MAD the opening shot is definitely the June issue.

This issue doesn’t disappoint. There’s “The 50 Worst Things About America” this issue. A MAD Movie Satire on The Hunger Games. A shopping catalog for idiots (ok fine, those Bono safety goggles do look gauche). Probably my favorite Spy Vs. Spy (at least until some future issue, but this Da Vincian style-verticality is purely beautiful). And a kind of laser-target drone homing in on Siri and Apple. It’s all very funny ha-ha. But also funny makes-you-think. Issue #515 stands on a cusp of a new kind of evolution of critical thought, one they’ve been pushing for generations, one first notice by Marshall McLuhan in his Understanding Media.

Getting into the “50 Worst”, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a critique of the gap between our idealized expectations of ourselves and the freedoms the idea of America enshrines, and, on the other side of the chasm, our day-to-day, workaday, ordinary world that really does need Popeye’s and NetFlix. (I can’t imagine that being any kind of real demographic, some large group out there going, gotta get me “Popeye’s”, then I’m streaming Mona Lisa Smile, but what you gonna do?). One the one side of this, there’s who we know we ought to be. And on the other, across an increasingly growing chasm of the ordinary, there is the dirt of a lived-in world, the dust of our everyday lives. The summer’s the perfect time for thinking about this gap. And MAD pulls this meditation off flawlessly.

Despite John’s protestations that he is, to quote the Counting Crows, “…an idiot walking a tightrope of fortune and fame, an acrobat swinging trapeze through circles of flame…”, there’s something deeper at play in his role as Editor. I know where John’s coming from. The first thing you do is assemble a team. Then you get out of their way. So it doesn’t seem like all that much on the surface of it. But there is something deeper here. It’s all the invisible things an Editor does to establish a culture of success. It’s pushing for a rethink more than pushing for a rewrite. But it’s also, always in the most successful publications, creating a culture of the prethink. It’s the problem of the Invisible Gorilla.

You probably know the example well by now. Dead on 50%, near-as-anything-you-like to 50%, of people simply cannot see the Gorilla. Ok, it’s a guy in a Gorilla suit, but still… That 50% of people are people are just too busy with the task at hand (counting the number of dance moves say, or counting the number of times a red-white-and-blue basketball is passed), to ever really notice the Gorilla walk into the center of the frame, dance around a little, and then walk back off-screen. Some people can, and some people have a harder time shifting their perception to include what should appear as the obvious. The Invisible Gorilla isn’t only about seeing what is versus seeing what ought to be, it’s about rethinking how you use what you have available to you. Post-It glue for example can be an utter failure if you’re looking for an permanent adhesive solvent. But are heaven-sent if you can realize that they stick, unstick, then restick.

HST, for his sins, found exactly the same kind of Invisible Gorilla playing out at a conceptual level in an October first article (10/1, back in 1970) he wrote for Rolling Stone. Go get out your copy of The Great Shark Hunt and read it for yourself. The piece is “Freak Power in the Rockies”, and it’s pure poetry. In lucid prose Thompson describes this long, slow arc of “Hippie” and “Freak” migration from sites on the West Coast in the late ’60s (think the Summer of Love, think 67, think San Fran and that whole scene) to more rural areas of the country, like Colorado. Back Then, in the Summer of Love when the Hippies were plugged-in and socially aware, and hoping for change, their “weirdness” (Thompson’s word, not mine, although come to think of it, mine wouldn’t be far off), meant an unwanted and a building kind of invasive attention from Government, and Law Enforcement. Think of John Lennon’s ongoing battles with the Nixon Administration.

The move “Back East”, (for some not all the way Back East) also meant a cultural shift. Social activism gave way to simply unplugging from society. That what Jonathan Rabin would eventually term “surveillance culture” become all to imposing. And that, for these veterans of social activism, simply engaging the system in any way, came at just too high a price. In one of the most moving passages, Thompson charts this Eastern Expansion of the Hippie movement, and refers to it as “the opposite of the Good German”. By which he of course means the tacit signature of the workaday German, which came to endorse the Nazi regime, its systemic atrocities and the Holocaust. When HST writes, he writes from the safety of someone having woken from a long and unhurried nightmare, into the kind of America where this kind of socially-mobilizing, culturally-endorsed genocide can never happen. This is the America of Jefferson rather than Capone, of Chandler not Rand.

But if anything, HST fails to stare down his own Invisible Gorilla. “Freak Power in the Rockies” is about Thompson himself running a co/i/n (Counter /I/nsurgency) political campaign for a Freak Power candidate, a lawyer who had successfully sued Aspen in ’69. Through his writing, Thompson ponders out loud whether or not you should run for Sheriff of Aspen in ’71. The Invisible Gorilla at hand, is not whether Thompson and his team can successfully convince the “Freaks” to plug back into the system for long enough to vote (a necessary task amid the voter intimidation and power-mongering and the rights abuses that will eventually ensue, if history is any kind of verification of this, should the current liberal-conservative complex be allowed to endure). The real Invisible Gorilla is, does unleashing Freak Power qualitatively shift the cultural reality of the “dropout” vote? Does reengaging people change them?

It’s really this unstated question that really, for me, ties together both the culture of MAD and that Magical Bullpen that John works with everyday, and the long, slow, and often painful ruminations often brought on by summer. Behind the hotdogs and the fireworks and the days spent at lakes there’s something more to the summer. Or it feels like there should be. Like the thing that brought us here, an idea called America, should be a larger part of our everyday lives. Like we should be able to conceive of, and enact Distant Things. And yet, there’s always the luxuriance of the summer also. The fact that it is a welcome rest, and necessary break from the ordinary, Starbucks-fueled workaday we know.

Tidying up the thinking, the idea goes a little like this… If Dominic was right about there being a system that produces a culture that influences both leaders and the led… If Dominic was right, and he is (here’s a little trifle, Dr. Zee on the “Lucifer Effect”), then there must be at least a way of conceiving of a system that critiques power, just as there is a system that installs the desire for power. If such a system if could be imagined, it would necessarily be focused on that gap, the gap between ourselves as we and, and the better selves we imagine, ourselves as we can be, perhaps ought to be.

It would necessarily have to be a very different kind of system. One that produces love not power, one that can be opted into, rather than needed to be dropped out of. I hear that hum, and that human noise, that power, and feel that delicate touch of thunder, that promise of this new kind of system when I read, folded into the pages of GQ, James Ellroy’s “Where I Get My Weird Shit”. It’s an essay and a short one, printed in the September 2002 issue, but reprinted in the Ellroy collected edition, Destination: Morgue!.

“LA is everywhere,” writes Ellroy in a line as powerful as it is reminiscent of Howard Chaykin’s line from American Century: Scars & Stripes, “But, America is everywhere…,” Ellroy writes out his own Batman-style origin story. In the wake of an incredible tragedy, his mother being murdered in Some Saturday Night Gone Wrong, the young Elroy discovers crime. And with it discovers a new kind of LA. A dark and deadly and above all dangerous LA that could be neatly rendered in lurid magazines, gossip rags and detective story pulps. “I wrote about LA as a native son, and assumed LA was everywhere…,” Ellroy writes, or words much to that effect. The idea that the conditionality he encountered, that “soft underbelly” of the high life of crime, was all-pervasive. The idea that the tools he had built to grab the world on his own terms, was enough to encounter the real world, the outer world, the world outside of LA.

It’s a powerful idea, the notion that all you’d really need is a way of looking, and then you’d be freed from any kind of invasive power-structure seeking to topple your internal kingdom, and disrupt your interior rhythms. And it’s also an idea that tackles directly that gap between our acceded selves, and our aspirant selves. And it is, ultimately, an idea that glimpses at that counter-power system.

And it is the summer, and it is MAD.

When I read the “50 Worst”, when I read those Siri/Apple ad parodies in a magazine that openly advertises it’s iPad app (wonderful!), when I read the “Hazard Fraught Tools” catalog, or “The Hunger Pains” or the “FAQs about Google’s New Privacy Policy”, or The Strip Club’s “The Machine That Travels Through Time” (a blatant “drop-out” strip that is every bit the equal of Tom Waits’ “the Eyeball Kid”), it’s a revolution I can hold in my hand. This idea that we can all opt into a new way of looking, it changes things for you. And when I read “Worst #7”: “That we can find Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden but somehow, within the borders of our own country, Bigfoot still eludes justice.” The sheer lunacy of the proposition is something to cling to.

Issue #515 isn’t the best issue of MAD to date. Simply because the classic gradations of good, better and best no longer apply, when every issue is a statement about a new way of looking. But it is the summer. It is both the Distant Things, and the unplugging from the routinelle of the ordinary. And it is its own kind of cultural shift. Because the next issue of MAD will be the best issue of MAD, again.