Netizens of the World, Unite
Art Kunkin knows a revolution when he sees one. And the sixtysomething activist and editor--”chronologically,” he says with a chuckle, “I’m pushing seventy; spiritually, I always say I’m 136”--sees one on the World Wide Web. “This,” he announces, sitting in the living room of his Pacific Palisades home, “is where the political future of this country is going to be formed.” It’s a future Kunkin hopes will be influenced by the World Wide Free Press, the self-proclaimed “alternative electronic newspaper on the Internet” that he launched in November.
Before you write Kunkin off as an electronic Don Quixote, remember that he’s been accused of tilting at windmills before. In 1964, the former machinist and New York native founded the Los Angeles Free Press as an eight-page newspaper for the KPFK radio-sponsored Renaissance Pleasure Faire, slipping stories about an obscenity bust of Kenneth Anger’s film “Scorpio Rising” and Joan Baez’s tax resistance into a tongue-in-cheek souvenir publication.
Soft-spoken and oddly cherubic, with a boyish corona of brown curls and pale blue eyes, Kunkin edited and published the Free Press for nine years, until a series of debts, staff defections and clashes with the authorities forced him out in 1973. (The paper survived, primarily as a distributor of sex ads, until March 1978, when the family of then-publisher Larry Flynt discontinued it after Flynt was shot.)
The Free Press was a seminal publication, one of the first alternative weeklies in the United States. Inspired by the Village Voice and KPFK, where Kunkin once had a show debating leftist politics, the “Freep,” as it became known, helped set the tone for the social upheavals of the 1960s, combining cultural and political commentary to portray a society in the midst of radical change. Within 15 months of the paper’s debut, the free speech movement exploded on the Berkeley campus, and the Watts riots brought the message of unrest and dissatisfaction home.
“What made the difference between the alternative press in the 1960s and the mass media,” Kunkin says, “was that the mass media [looked] on all events as isolated . . . errors that the system [could] correct. The sense of the 1960s alternative press was that these issues were all connected, that they indicated a certain sickness of the society. And this sickness has not decreased.”
If, as Kunkin suggests, the role of an alternative newspaper is to develop a sense of connections, there may be no more appropriate place to produce one than the World Wide Web. The entire Internet, after all, is about making such connections, about finding links between individual sites that take you in directions you never knew you wanted to go. Still, can the values of the ‘60s translate to a medium where people are essentially disconnected, where so many Web pages seek to explore individual obsessions?
Kunkin believes so. “My intention,” he says, “is to have people help me in surfing the Web and getting material. Ultimately, I’d like to have the Free Press function as a kind of hub for other similarly named sites.”
In an editorial, Kunkin also makes a pitch for the public to contribute to this “reader-written publication,” much as they did in the early days of the Los Angeles Free Press. “The fact that you can connect up with everybody in a matter of minutes is going to compress the time it takes to do things. What’s in my mind is that the Republican Party was really established in 1854, and within six years, they had taken over the presidency using the limited communications of the times.”
The new Free Press operates less as a newspaper than a clearinghouse, a resource for information Kunkin believes is overlooked by the mainstream press. As Web sites go, it’s strikingly low-tech, with no graphics other than a workmanlike logo on the home page. Much of the material is reprinted from elsewhere and consists of long pieces, including a three-part “Primer on Revolution” by Michael Ventura and the complete text of the Unabomber’s manifesto. Also available is a humorous lament for the old CIA written by Robert Scheer for the Los Angeles Times and an essay by Bernard Sanders, “the only independent socialist in the U.S. Congress.” One of the few original contributions comes in a package of material describing the seizure of a Greenpeace ship protesting French nuclear tests; one of the crew members was Kunkin’s daughter, April Fountain, and she delivers an eyewitness account.
Without the bells and whistles that mark so many other Web sites, the World Wide Free Press seems somewhat monochromatic and even a little quaint. “The stories are pretty traditional,” says Abe Peck, who teaches at Northwestern and is the author of “Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press” (Pantheon Books, 1985). “The thing about the Internet is that the crusade is different, in the sense that a lot of people are jazzed not only at the content, but at the form.”
Kunkin, however, seems less concerned with the technological tricksterism of this “converged medium” than with helping to initiate a new era of activism and “a revival of social movements” that will find a focus--or at least a forum--on the Web. “We’re in very difficult times,” Kunkin says, “but I think that because of those difficulties, there will be a new progressive movement. Whether it’s going to be a progressive period or not--that remains to be seen.”
A quick look at Kunkin’s “Directory of Activist Organizations” suggests the state of this movement as it exists today. There are the Democratic Socialists of America and the Hunger Project, recalling the political activism of the early 1960s. Other groups, like Electronic Witches or Concerned Singles, have a fringey feel. A number of the sites Kunkin lists (and to which the World Wide Free Press is linked by hypertext) are the kinds of blocks a new progressive movement would probably build on, from Earth First! and Amnesty International to AlterNet, FAIR and Pacifica Radio.
Eventually, Kunkin’s goal is to have his site reflect something of the scope of the old Los Angeles Free Press, which, by the late 1960s, had reached a circulation of 100,000 and attracted such serious writers as Ed Sanders, who covered the Manson trial (his articles became the book “The Family”), and Harlan Ellison, who wrote a television column, “The Glass Teat.” Ellison characterizes working for the “Freep” as “positive and life-affirming, in the current phrase . . . a great moment in my literary life.” At the same time, he describes the publication as functioning too often like “a rambunctious baby with a shotgun in its mouth; it didn’t know when not to shoot.”
That rambunctiousness, finally, was the paper’s undoing, beginning with the issue of August 8-14, 1969, which featured on its front page a banner headline reading, “Narcotic Agents Listed: There Should Be No Secret Police.” Inside, the Free Press published a list of 80 California narcotics agents, complete with names, addresses and home phone numbers.
“This was like a bombshell,” Kunkin recalls. Both Kunkin and Jerry Applebaum, the reporter who obtained the list, were convicted of receiving stolen property, although the conviction was overturned on appeal. “I don’t think Art for an instant realized that this was not a very good or very smart idea,” Ellison says.
From the perspective of more than a quarter century, Kunkin maintains a certain equanimity about his decision, recounting with a bittersweet smile the two years of legal battles that left him bankrupt--he paid out $53,000 in settlements to the state and individual agents, as well as “a huge bundle in legal defense.” Partly, this has to do with the eventual softening time works on even our most grievous injuries; partly, with the perspective he claims has come from his metaphysical quests of the last two decades.
During the late 1970s, Kunkin virtually dropped from sight, running a meditation school and exploring Buddhism and Sufism; later, he studied alchemy and put together a publication for Elysium Fields, the Topanga Canyon nudist colony. Now, he says, “There [has] to be a new sense of values, of spirituality in politics. Political movements not only [have] to have programs about taxes and proportional representation and all the economic and social issues, but also some proposals for how to help individuals become better in relation to our emotions and our minds.”
Paul Krassner, a longtime friend and publisher of the Realist, a satirical political newsletter, says these interests have always coincided. “I would describe it as a certain yin/yang quality. It’s deceptive. His demeanor is easygoing, almost Zen-like. Yet he tackles things that are frightening.”
Still, the basic question remains: What kind of impact can a publication have in the floating cyberstew of the Internet? In the four months the Free Press has been online, Kunkin has registered something like 10,000 hits, but most estimates indicate that just 6% of the population has Internet or online access, which means the potential audience for his new brainchild is very limited indeed. Although the Web has democratized the flow of information by giving anyone with the right equipment the opportunity to “publish,” at minimal expense, a page of his or her own, it has also narrowed the dialogue to those who can afford the technology in the first place. In other words, it’s an open process, but only, in Peck’s words, “to anyone already in the tent.”
For his part, Kunkin sees the importance of taking the Free Press beyond the mostly middle-class users of the Net. “It’s true,” he says, “that East Los Angeles and Watts are not going to have the same concentration as other areas, but one person with a computer can become the center of a street network. That’s what happened with fax machines in Tiananmen Square. Critics have the sense of isolated people staring into their computer screens, but everybody is part of a neighborhood. It’s just like having a ham radio. Not everybody does, but one person can contact a whole community.”
Quixotic? Perhaps, but in the end, it’s based on the same notion of grass-roots activism that informed the first issue of the Los Angeles Free Press. In that sense, the World Wide Web may represent an expansion of the very idea of neighborhood. As Peck points out, “The East Village Other used to invoke something called the ‘Intergalactic World Brain.’ And what is the Internet, if not that?”
* The World Wide Free Press can be found on the World Wide Web at https://www.wwfreepress.com.
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