Paul Schmelzer: No one expected such a huge outcry against the FCC’s ruling in June—despite a near blackout in the mainstream press, some 2 million Americans contacted the FCC or Congress urging them to overturn the ownership ruling. Is this merely a one-time case of consumer outrage, or is it part of the "mental environmental" movement?
Kalle Lasn: It’s definitely a part of it, but I can’t quite answer to what extent. I do know that, ever since the Battle in Seattle, whenever I talk to other jammers, the edgy issues seem to be less green issues and more blue issues--blue issues being politics of the mental environment and media democracy issues. I think that the real fire in the belly of many activists is this gnawing feeling that they grew up in a toxic culture and they’re not whole human beings anymore. That they’ve been--I keep using this word mindfucked, because that’s the term they use. They say, "I’ve been mindfucked."
They feel like they’ve been lied to and subverted all their lives as they grew up. And now at the age of 16 or 18 or 20, whatever they art, they just feel that something valuable has been taken away from them--in Situationist terms, this spontaneity, this authenticity, this feeling of really being alive. That somehow that’s been taken away and they’re forced into these branded, cynical lives that aren’t worth too much. And I think this feeling that they’ve been cheated--that they’ve been mentally cheated, that they’ve been psychically cheated--this is a very powerful force.
The real fire in the belly of many activists is this gnawing feeling that they grew up in a toxic culture and they’re not whole human beings anymore. If you feel that the corporations or the mass media have taken away your soul, I think this is the sort of rage--what I call psycho-rage--that drives revolution.
If you feel that the corporations or the mass media have taken away your soul like that, I think this is the sort of rage--what I call psycho-rage--that drives revolution. This is the rage that is driving this movement that some people call the media democracy movement and some people call the mental environmental movement and other people don’t even call it anything, they’re just fighting back because they know that something is wrong.
PS: You’ve used the term "Media Carta" for some time now...
KL: That’s been our buzzword, but more and more lately, we’re using both. We’re using media carta as a campaign we’re trying to pull off. Now we’re openly talking about the mental environmental movement. And we’re basically saying that this movement will be driven by this psycho-rage, and that rage will be every bit as strong as the eco-rage that drove the physical environmental movement 20 or 30 years ago, and that this movement has the potential to change every damn nook and cranny of the way the world is run. Everything from the way television stations are run to the way parents look at the media diet of their kids to human rights issues like what is going to be the human right of the communication age—well, it’s going to be the right to communicate, the right that every human being on the planet should have to access the media. Not just to have freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, but actually have access: to be able to buy airtime on TV stations and to be able to have your own website (you can already do that). To have real access, so that if you have some opinions, you can make those opinions heard.
This movement has the potential to change every damn nook and cranny of the way the world is run. Everything from the way television stations are run to the way parents look at the media diet of their kids to issues like what is going to be the human right of the communication age.
PS: Are all these movements gelling together? Mental environmentalism seems to be the umbrella that encompasses the work of Commercial Alert, Adbusters, Free Press, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, etc.
KL: I think you’re definitely right. There’s a huge, crazy mix of things: the media literacy movement, on one hand, that’s percolating among high schools and some universities, and there’s pirate radio and pirate TV and there’s these people running around with their camcorders and making really nice short films they can stream on their websites. Then, of course, there’s that larger official media democracy movement that’s holding conferences like the media reform conference that’s happening soon, like the people behind the counter-summit at the information summit in Geneva. They’re actively pushing for this "media carta" kind of right to communicate. So, yeah, there’s a whole motley bunch of people who are all realizing that they well may be part of the same movement that’s gelling now.
PS: Changing subjects: I wasn’t aware that you were actually producing a shoe, the Black Spot Sneaker.
KL: Yeah, we’ve got this exciting thing—this kind of crazy thing—that’s guaranteed to piss a few people off, but we’re seeing where it can possibly lead. It’s at the very, very early stages at the moment, and I’m surprised actually that we’re getting this kind of publicity on it.
PS: My first response is: that’s weird. Now they’re going to run ads in Adbusters and run $500,000 campaigns on CNN? It reminds me, too, of "hip consumerism," the concept Thomas Frank wrote about in The Conquest of Cool: now I can purchase shoes that tell the world I’m anticorporate.
KL: Yeah, but there’s another way of looking at it. Sure we’re selling a shoe, but what we’re really selling is an idea. The idea that you can whine against Nike, you can bite at their heels, you can try to boycott them and all the rest of it, but it’s possible also to develop an anti-brand that uses their multibillion-dollar cool and subverts it in some way and actually reduces their market share--and then uses that money to fuel the sort of ideas and campaigns that we believe in. I know it’s a very controversial idea, but I like the idea. I like the idea of going head-to-head with Philly Boy [Nike CEO Phil Knight]. I’ve already got hundreds of people who preordered the shoe, just in the three days the website’s been up—it’s not even properly up yet.
PS: Culture-jamming has that notion of jujitsu—using the weight of your enemy against him: this does seem like the manufacturing version of that. It’s a Trojan Horse: it’s an athletic shoe, but it embodies different values.
You can whine against Nike, you can bite at their heels, you can try to boycott them and all the rest of it, but it’s possible also to develop an anti-brand that basically uses their multibillion-dollar cool and subverts it.
KL: You can see it as a product, as everybody does at the moment. I just did a radio interview based on that Globe and Mail article, and they tried to blast me out of the water because they just don’t like Adbusters talking that way. But I see that if you’re wearing that shoe of ours, you’re actually wearing more of an idea than you’re wearing a shoe. You’re basically an ad for a different kind of capitalism. The idea side of what we’re doing is way more important than the shoe itself. If we pull this off, I think a similar kind of precedent-setting thing can be pulled off in other industries as well. I don’t see any reason why we can’t develop some sort of anti-brand that has its own cool and its own incredible power.
For the past 10 years, Phil Knight’s been laughing at us. And he’s been playing games with us. And we haven't uncooled him hardly at all. He’s still flying high. This may worry him a bit more than another liberated billboard of his. Especially the way we’ll try to mock him in the New York Times and put up a billboard right next to his Beaverton headquarters and we’ll try to jam his Niketowns. I think we can have some fun with this.
PS: I tend to buy things—if it’s Fair Trade, I’ll buy it because it fits my values. I think people have a problem that it’s you guys doing it, not that you’re selling shoes that are from non-sweatshop factories and…
KL: Paul, I’ll sell you a pair of sneakers!
PS: Of course, I’m critical of it, but I’d like to get a pair too.
KL: That’s another interesting part. Another reason why I’m doing this—it’s a side reason—is I’ve been uncomfortable with this whole sweatshop phenomenon for a long time. I traveled around the poorest countries of the world for three years when I was young, and I know that some of these factories aren’t sweatshops, and some of them are the best factories in those countries. I know that we can find a factory that we can be absolutely proud of in Indonesia or in China or god knows wherever we decide to go. I don’t like the idea that every factory in China is dubbed a sweatshop. That’s not right. This is a big mistake the activist community has made. It’s more driven by the trade union people than it is by the activists. The activists are making a big mistake.
PS: It’s a good point. I’m a big label-reader, but I don’t know if everything in Thailand is produced in sweatshop conditions.
KL: There are some bad sweatshops in Thailand, but I can assure that there are some really good factories there, that are the best factories in the land, that pay more than any other factory, that have better working conditions--and the whole country really needs those factories.
PS: So will these shoes have that kind of transparency? Here’s where it was made, here are the conditions…
KL: I’m not quite sure yet. We’re still brainstorming on all this. Even within the office there are a lot of people who don’t really like what we’re doing. But down the road, I’m sure we’ll muddle through, and we may actually launch a huge debate and challenge the activist community on their half-baked ideas about sweatshops. That could be another side-benefit.