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The Chaining of America

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland

Mindpower: Political Backyards

Your World

Politics Is Being Reinvented

The School of the Americas

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cat-a-lyst (n) 1. Any substance serving as the agent in catalysis. 2. A person or thing acting as the stimulus in bringing about a happening or result. (Webster's)

It's funny, the things that stay with you. Sometimes you wonder why you remember specific things a long time after they've happened. My recollection of a trip to Atlanta, for instance, seems to boil down to a really bad peach daiquiri I had in a revolving bar on the top of the Peachtree Plaza and a really good mint julep I had at Pittypat's Porch.

I have a theory that you keep the things with you that helped shape your future. I have a box I've carried around for 30 years. In it, there are clippings from magazines, a few old rock and roll posters, and things like that. There's also a nearly-complete set of "The Catalyst."

"The Catalyst" was the underground newspaper published by a bunch of hippie students at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. It was the first example of alternative media I ever saw. It has a hand-drawn, psychedelic-looking logo, showing an eye floating amid stars and clouds.

The text was all type-written--on a typewriter with a gloppy fabric ribbon. The artwork is all handmade, except for the cartoons and comic strips which were obviously chopped out of other publications, like "National Lampoon" and "Zap" comics. (I wonder if they paid royalties to Gilbert Shelton for using his "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" strips? Probably not.)

The whole thing was obviously cut-and-paste assembledčas in cut with scissors and pasted with rubber cement. That was state-of-the-art desktop publishing back then. In spite of the primitive layout technology, it was all pretty creative. The front cover of the Christmas, 1969 issue, for instance, featured a collage of images from the year. There's a starving Bengali child at the center, surrounded by images of dead bodies piled up in My Lai, the backs of American soldiers marching through the Vietnam jungle, and the tear-streaked face of an American college student weeping over the fallen body of her antiwar-demonstrating boyfriend.

The content is pretty inflammatory, too. There's an editorial about the Zapruder film, a story about student activism on campus, a story about Lubbock undercover cops filming student activists on campus, a story about My Lai, an opinion piece urging the legalization of abortion, four pages of bad poetry, an opinion piece urging the end of apartheid, more stories about student activism in Paris and Montreal, a review of "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test," a parody of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" which attacks the college board of regents for being rich, fat, and clueless--to be sung by student activists--reviews of the Rolling Stones' "Through the Past Darkly" and Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers," and two more stories about student activism.

You're probably thinking I'm getting ready to go off on one of those "the youth of today are so lackadaisical/no one's an activist any more" tirades. I'm not. The youth of today are fine. And the truth be told, Lubbock, Texas wasn't exactly a hotbed of political subversion. It just had a pretty good underground paper.

There are still plenty of young people who strive to dig out the truth. It's just that facing the consequences of getting drafted and sent off to get shot at in a foreign jungle seems pretty urgent compared to facing the consequences of global warming and ozone depletion.

In 1969, the enemies were a lot easier to recognize. Probably, watching the TV news at dinner and seeing kids about your own age bleeding and getting zipped up into body bags was a more catalyzing event than reading the underground paper.

Who's your enemy now? The military-industrial complex? Or the mechanic who puts black market freon in your car's air conditioner? An HIV virus? Burger King?

It's pretty easy to get incited to violence by photos of starving children, dismembered bodies, and burning villages. It's much harder to get too worked up over a shot of an urban toxic waste dump, a rain forest replaced by a cattle ranch, a kid relegated to a career in the fast-food industry, or a cancer cell.

My point is, there are still plenty of things to get active about, and there are plenty of forums, like Impact, that publish out-of-the-mainstream information. While you may not find a protest march to join very often, there are plenty of good ways to get involved in building a better world for yourself and your children. Most are less romantic than standing in an on-campus protest line and greeting the national guard with a bouquet of carnations. Many are probably a hell of a lot more productive, too.

You can man a food line at a homeless shelter, for instance. Volunteer at the service organization of your choice--be it a struggling arts group, an AIDS support group, or one of the organizations that hike or canoe through natural areas picking up other people's trash. There are thousands of opportunities like this.

So, I was a fat, geeky thirteen-year-old when I picked up my first copy of the "Catalyst." It probably changed my life--certainly much more than that peach daiquiri did, or even the mint julep. I was still a fat, geeky thirteen-year-old, but now I knew what I was going to do with myself--although, to tell the truth, I didn't consciously know I knew it. I still thought I was going to be the fifth Beatle when I grew up.

On some level, however, I must have known. I must have realized that, at some point thirty years or so hence, I would have set aside the BMW, the pinstripe suit, and the business trips to Atlanta in favor of sitting at a keyboard and writing about activism. I must have known that, sooner or later, I'd shift my focus away from being a capitalist and toward being a catalyst.

I think so, anyway. It's the only way I can explain carrying the damn things around in a box for 30 years.

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