Magazines, like politics, make for strange bedfellows, and it stands to reason that political magazines would make for the very strangest of all. So it didn't surprise us, as we looked back over our early editions in preparing this celebration of our 30 years in publication, to encounter an odd conjunction or two. The oddest may have been the photographs that illustrated some of our most matter-of-fact columns, of an incorrigibly goofy figure, a costumed jester pictured stealing a painting, sliding down a fire pole, or in fragrante with a rose between his teeth, dressed in a sailor suit. The images paid oblique homage to the topics at hand—the fire pole shot went with a story on the death toll caused by cigarette-ignited house fires. But still—this stuff was silly! The character's name was Pinkie.
Pinkie provoked in us a feeling familiar to any adult looking back on errant childhood: embarrassment. And something else: envy. To have such fun in pursuit of such high goals! To wander so unguarded through the culture wars! Not that we don't amuse ourselves on occasion, but, well, it's not quite the same.
Were he asked, of course, Pinkie might have told us that things back in the late 1970s weren't so different from how they are today. Turn the page in one of Mother Jones' early issues, and you'll find yourself lost in news that an American president "wants broader power to wiretap citizens," that energy companies have directly inserted skewed facts into the (same) president's mouth, that propaganda is being dolled up as reportage and slipped into the media stream as news, that an airplane had been hijacked by a man whose aims didn't include any expectation of landing, that people are being prosecuted for helping illegal Mexican immigrants, that panic-inducing flu pandemics are being spread by animals. You'd have to check the dateline to remind yourself that this isn't 2006. The epidemic is swine flu, the president Jimmy Carter, and the hijacker D.B. Cooper, who parachuted out of his purloined 727 holding $200,000 in cash, never to be seen again.
Still, all that similarity just highlights how utterly things have changed. Unlike our current president, intent on claiming extensive power to spy on American phone communications and bank records, Carter was merely trying to defend the dry legal precept that presidents couldn't be sued, as Richard Nixon had been by a former administration official whose home he'd bugged. (Nixon, by the way, was informed by Congress that such domestic surveillance was impeachable.) And D.B. Cooper never aimed a jet at a skyscraper. The writing may have been on the wall in 1980, the year Pinkie made his last appearance in these pages and decamped for New York (or "zee Big Apple" as the caption cringibly put it), but Americans of any persuasion would not have expected things to get so suddenly dire, for the nation to turn so dramatically to the right, for the corporate and government miscreants Mother Jones had done such a good job of confronting to come revanching back like Grendel's mom, even meaner and fiercer than the first time around, having studied the left's tactics and mastered them. Nor would they have expected a putsch awarding the White House to a group of old Nixon hands so extreme in their disdain for the Constitution they make Tricky Dick himself look like a strict constructionist. Can you imagine any magazine today running a headline saying, "New Orleans Before It's Too Late," referring to a not-to-be-missed jazz festival?
Of course, the collapse toward our current condition was already under way, and the rebellious freedoms of the '60s had begun their wane, well before Pinkie's era. Mother Jones was born in the gloaming of a radical time, not in its heyday. Still, to read those early issues of the magazine is to know that we haven't lived just three decades, but two lifetimes, straddling two distinct political and cultural worlds.
Perched in the earlier of those worlds, it would be hard to envision the full force of onrushing cultural changes: the commercial targeting (and social self-absorption) that's diced life into ever smaller spheres serving ever narrower interest groups, the technology that abets our isolation while giving the impression of intimate communal space—call it safe sects, community without real intercourse. Not to mention the corporate raid on fun itself. There was a time, not long ago, when nearly everything fun belonged to the left, and the left could connect those things to radical politics and reformist principles. Transgressive recreation was on our side. We sold revolution through boinking, bongs, and a good bass beat, oblivious to the danger that sex, drugs, and rock and roll could be co-opted, could be turned into the Trojan horses of Leftopia. They were our consumer items, after all, and when it came to pushing product, we weren't exactly the experts. The other guys were! So, inevitably, Ma Bell and her brethren learned to be hip, and consumers of hip learned to think of corporations as providers of fun and (pseudo-)subversive behavior, and suddenly we, the gonzo left, began to sound stodgy and preachy.
But fun wasn't the important casualty, so much as the confidence to have it. Every page of Mother Jones in the 1970s spoke of something now curtailed, a climate wherein progressives could still feel self-assured, not embattled; reckless, not careful; could argue about how to amplify and extend their vision, not just how to protect it or resurrect it. Ask people back then, as Mother Jones did, what they wished for the world 10 years hence, and the answers weren't defensive. They were forward-looking and adventurous. However deluded their cheer in a time when the clouds were already gathering, these readers and writers were engaged in the engineering and construction of something grand and new, something they may even have thought inevitable. Today, it too often seems, all that their descendants on the left can muster in the ruins of that besieged vision is how to best protest against further demolition, how to turn things around sufficiently to forestall Armageddon and Apocalypse.
It would be easy to chide those early issues, to say, And you would bring a magazine into such a world? How easy you had it, being a new progressive voice when the culture was on your side and your side seemed ascendant and all you had to do to win your point was wink! In such a climate one could relax and be buoyant, and make sport of those poor square blokes about to be run to ground beneath the progressive juggernaut. Now, we could whine, things are serious. But that would be all wrong. Pinkie didn't forsake his dignity on our behalf only to have us disown him. Better to give thanks to him for knowing the importance of being un-earnest, of taking undignified chances, for having the courage to risk all, risk being wrong, risk looking foolish. If there is in fact any secret at all to our amazing longevity, that's surely near the heart of it: knowing how to act the fool like the future depends on it.
In the following pages, we present some excerpts wise, foolish, right, wrong, inspirational, provocational, and downright silly, from the early pages of "the magazine for the rest of us" (as we called ourself): Mother Jones.