Like his name, Jello Biafra is at once comical and very, very disturbing.
Biafra (born Eric Boucher, renaming himself after a Nigerian civil war that claimed more than a million lives, mostly women and children) is a master of mixing humor with a portentous political commentary seldom found in mainstream media.
His stage show -- which he calls "info-tainment" -- falls somewhere between Noam Chomsky and Jon Stewart. More light-hearted than Michael Moore, far more shocking than Bill Maher. Similar politics to all of the above.
Before turning prolific political iconoclast, Biafra built his name as the frontman for the seminal punk band, The Dead Kennedys. In 1987, the band was thrust into the role of First Amendment champion when its "Frankenchrist" album (specifically the album art by H.R. Giger entitled "Penis Landscape") was challenged in court as "distribution of harmful matter to minors." This, the first case where a musical recording faced such criminal charges, resulted in a hung jury but also a dissolved Dead Kennedys.
Biafra took the change in stride, initially by appearing on talk shows such as "Oprah" to discuss free speech opposite Tipper Gore, and eventually by releasing a dozen solo spoken-word albums. Over the years, he's spoken at Kansas University, at the Opera House (now Liberty Hall), as well as at the River City Reunion in 1987 alongside Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, Timothy Leary and William S. Burroughs.
In talking with Biafra, it's clear he has at least some appreciation for Lawrence (he casually mentions The Love Garden and The Outhouse, for example), but he's decidedly short when asked to elaborate.
"Let's do some other questions, I'm not coming up with much here," he says, laughing.
Actually, Biafra just seems reluctant to say anything quotable that's off-topic. But when asked about something on-topic, Biafra instantly taps a seemingly endless train of thought.
Q: How are we doing in the war on terrorism?
A: I think we're losing, and we're losing badly, because the worst terrorists in the world right now are our own government. And the rest of the world knows it. The so-called blow-back from this is going to haunt us for years to come. We've probably burned more bridges with our allies and friends over this than even during the Vietnam War.
You can't really win a war until you've secured the peace and in Afghanistan we didn't even do that. Bush's proposed budget for 2004 doesn't include a single dollar for rebuilding Afghanistan. I'm sure that's lost on people in the know in the Middle East about what our real plans for Iraq are ... I doubt they have any plans for true democracy in Iraq because guess who'd get elected: Islamic fundamentalist parties who would mainly run on a platform of how much they hate Americans.
Q: Do you think the Bush administration lied about rebuilding Iraq?
A: We WILL rebuild the oil infrastructure. And some of the people that have gotten quite a chunk of change from the goodie bowl is Dick Cheney's old firm, Haliburton, who also took over $28 billion directly from Saddam Hussein to put his oil infrastructure back together after the Gulf War. At the time they were happy to do business with Saddam, their CEO was Dick Cheney.
Why are we putting so many bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and up into Uzbekistan and beyond, when we only use a small portion of the Persian Gulf oil in our own country? It's because we want to have other countries' oil supplies by the nuts so they can't ... "aspire to a greater regional or global role" than we have in mind for them.
This was a study done at the behest of Bush's father in 1991 -- and even daddy Bush dismissed it as lunacy -- (and it) was written by Paul Wolfowitz and Louis Libby, another chicken hawk who is now Cheney's chief of staff. Even though Bush's father rolled his eyes at it and nobody took it much seriously at that time, then-general Colin Powell did and defended it before a House committee, saying "I want to be the bully on the block."
Q: Where did you find things like that? Surely it wasn't in the mainstream media?
A: They are printed in some media, just not our commercial-controlled media. Ever since the Reagan administration deregulated corporate take-over laws, our commercial mass media has slowly but surely merged into bigger and bigger corporate conglomerates often owned by very corrupt, lawless corporations that (the media) used to help police by reporting their misdeeds. For example, NBC is owned by General Electric, one of the world's largest arms manufacturers and nuclear power people. This gives General Electric editorial control over NBC news. At ABC people have to answer to Mickey Mouse. And let's not even get into Fox News.
The worst form of censorship in this country is not Tipper Gore or Jerry Falwell or John Ashcroft or even the recently deposed Kansas Board of Education. It's the deliberate omission of important facts and issues from the mass media (that) most people believe is telling them the truth. Fox News, CNN and NPR might as well be stenographers for the Pentagon at this point. Maybe we should give them cheerleading uniforms.
It's important that people develop their own media literacy and get their information from other places. (Check www.lawrence.com for Jello's suggested reading list.)
My attitude towards the biased news coverage is: Don't hate the media, become the media, even if it means going one-on-one with people you know at home, at work, at school, in your family.
The easiest way to get through even to someone with a big flag on their SUV is just to point out that the war on terrorism is poor military strategy. As I said earlier, all we're accomplishing every time we blow people up in the Middle East is planting the seeds for the next Osama bin Laden, more Al-Qaedas, more suicide bombers, thus making our own country and our own lives less and less and less safe.
Q: Actually I've presented just that point to many people and their response is that they hate us anyway, we've got to do something about it.
A: Will killing people get people in other countries to hate us LESS? I don't think so. Exhibit A: our big kick-ass victory in Bush's daddy's Gulf War was directly responsible for Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden has said that that event and the fact that we used Saudi soil to kill other Muslims led him to refocus Al-Qaeda to target Americans more than Israelis or the Saudi royal family.
That was our end reward for Gulf War No. 1 was all those innocent people killed on Sept. 11. It may not happen again right away but it's sure as hell gonna happen unless we rethink our policies and stop treating the rest of the world as our own little slave plantation to make sure we don't have to pay too much money for oil or running shoes.
Q: It's obvious that you think about these things all the time. How do you keep it from just totally depressing you?
A: I would get more depressed but I'm very grateful that I'm able to channel my feelings on this into my performances. I have an outlet for my feelings and views and it helps bring other people together and realize that there are hundreds of people in the same room that hate Bush as much as they do.
Q: Do you attempt to organize people to put their thoughts into action?
A: I'm not the world's greatest organizer. What I do is provide what I guess you'd call "infotainment." I try to let my sick sense of humor be up front so people don't get bored after a while. Even if people already agree with what I have to say, I give them more brain food and ammunition, and hopefully inspire people in their own personal way to get off their butts and start fighting corporate dictatorship.
Some of the best ways to fight back against corporate power is something people can do individually without having to go to a bunch of meetings and getting their head cracked at demonstrations. Just talk a long, hard look at how much of your money is going to these corporations. DON'T GIVE YOUR MONEY TO CHAIN STORES! Don't give your money to chain restaurants. Put your money back into the places actually are part of the community instead.
Who's going to have a better selection of music: Wal-Mart or Love Garden? Think of all the benefits of supporting community businesses. It's so easy to pull your money away from these corporate thugs as an individual.
For Christ's sake! Does Coca-Cola taste half as good as it did when you were a kid? Doubtful.