Media Watch: The Rag in the Modern World

Olde Ragsters revive in a Digital Age

The Rag's Thorne Dreyer on the radio
The Rag's Thorne Dreyer on the radio
Photo by Alan Pogue

For most of us, the underground press movement of the Sixties exists as little more than myth and legend, tall tales of radical journalists throwing bombs at the establishment in the form of wild, drug-induced articles and freaky cartoons. For a brief period, art, culture, and politics converged in cheaply produced newspapers, which were often amateurish, repeatedly offensive, and passionately devoured by anyone under 30 who thought Tricky Dick Nixon was a sweaty weasel.

In Austin, The Rag was a firebrand little troublemaker that grew out of the University of Texas in 1966 and then spent 11 years spraying lighter fluid on local culture. A seminal influence in the national underground press movement, it served as Austin's primary link to the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS' offspring the Weather­men, naked hippies, Jerry Rubin, and a generation of hygiene-ambivalent kids trying to change the world in their own dippy way.

Flash forward three decades, and The Rag is back. Instead of selling for 20 cents on the Drag, The Rag now exists as a blog and a radio show on KOOP-FM, part of an effort to revive some of the rabble-rousing counterculture spirit of the Sixties. "There are a lot of similarities in the two eras," said Thorne Dreyer, the editor of the Rag Blog, who dropped out of UT in the Sixties to fight the fight and work on the original Rag.

Opening the Perspectives

With Dreyer as "funnel," the Rag Blog (www.theragblog.blogspot.com) keeps up a steady stream of essays and articles covering everything from the travails of the American Civil Liberties Union to the passing of historian and social activist Howard Zinn. Headlines trumpet, "Is America Already a Failed State?" and "Health Care and Campaign Finance: The Corporate Strangle­hold" – "Brought to you," the site proclaims, "by the miracle of functioning anarchy." Regular contributors include Dick Reav­is, Jim Retherford, Alan Pogue, Roger Baker, Harvey Wasserman, Gregg Barrios, Paul Buhle, and a host of other writers and artists with lengthy pedigrees in progressive media.

They're working in a media landscape light-years removed from the offset printing presses of their youth. While the original Rag would be lucky to sell 15,000 copies on Austin street corners, the 3-year-old Rag Blog attracts 45,000 unique visitors a month, drawing comments from Russia, Japan, and all parts of the globe. On any given day, a Rag post might pingpong through the digital atmosphere, creating the type of traffic the kids of the Sixties couldn't imagine, not even with the right psychedelics.

To oversee the new Rag, a core group of old Ragsters formed a nonprofit organization, the New Journalism Project, which hopes to reach across generations and cultivate young journalists. "We're looking to keep expanding the variety of perspectives, including some that might be hard to find if you rely on the mainstream media," said Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, an associate professor at UT who serves as president of the nonprofit's board. "The Digital Age provides opportunities to create a product that mirrors the goals of the Sixties."

There are, as Dreyer notes, similarities in the eras. Much as in the Sixties, the Rag is re-emerging at a time of extreme political polarization, when progressives are increasingly disillusioned and isolated. Media is as ubiquitous as water these days, yet many lefties feel as though they have no voice, despite the growth of Daily Kos, the Huffing­ton Post, and other liberal outlets. The rantings of Olber­mann and Matthews seem no more relevant or interesting to the movement than the babblings of Hannity and Beck.

"Keith Olbermann doesn't represent my political perspective," said UT journalism professor Rob­ert Jensen, a prolific author and Rag contributor who describes himself as "anti-capitalistic" and "anti-empire." "There's no political party that represents us and no media outlet that represents us."

If the progressive movement seemed marginalized in the Sixties, that's even truer today. Terms like "socialist" and "liberal" have become meaningless slurs in the political dialogue. Any connection to the radicalism of the past is political dynamite, evidenced by the way Barack Obama was demonized for his past association with professor and social activist Bill Ayers (whose articles have appeared on the Rag Blog) – for things Ayers allegedly said or did decades ago.

If anything, it's harder than ever for the radical press, the true lefties, to influence the dialogue. As the Sixties raged, The Rag could whip up a crowd to protest the tyranny of library cards. Today the Rag Blog can engage readers in Uzbekistan, but it's tough to create a ripple in the media ocean, unless they're taking on the frenzy du jour, screaming about the use of the word "retard" or debating whether the president is a socialist, fascist, or just a really sneaky Kenyan Nazi.

It's a Zen koan of the YouTube era: When everyone has a megaphone, it's impossible to be heard.

"There's just too much noise," Dreyer said. "You have to find ways to make a real connection." The original Rag was founded on the idea of unabashedly marrying activism and journalism, a concept that seems almost quaint now. Everybody preaches to the choir these days.

Big Plans

With a straight face, it could be argued that it's the tea party movement that's staking out the anti-establishment, counterculture media turf these days. The tea baggers may believe that Obama is the spawn of the devil, God is personally writing scripts for Fox News, and Sarah Palin is intellectually stimulating, but they're the ones taking to the streets and changing the dialogue, not progressives.

It's Bizarro World for progressives. Instead of helping the progressive movement, the democratization of media has led to little progress, in terms of breaking the media power structure. The original Rag "may not have had the circulation, but it had a personal impact," said Alice Embree, one of the original Rag crew who now sits on the board of the nonprofit. "We're losing that sense of community people used to have, and I don't know if digital media makes up for that."

For Dreyer, 64, a self-described "old doofus," editing the Rag Blog has been an education in the new media. On several occasions, right-wing sites have picked up Rag articles and twisted them for their own purposes, he says. And in contrast to the communal, all-for-one sharing days of the Sixties, not all liberal writers and illustrators have been happy about finding their work used without compensation on the Rag's site. ("We send them a link," Dreyer said. "If anybody doesn't want us to run it, we'll take it down.")

Plans call for the Rag to shed its limited blog format and expand into a full website. The New Journalism Project is also trying to raise grant money and generate funds for new programs. The focus is on bringing new voices into the project, especially young journalists.

While the old Rag was known for its free-flowing prose, ignoring conventions of grammar and taste, Dreyer wants the new Rag to traffic above the fray. "I'm more concerned about offending people," he said. "The shock aspect of the underground press is not what I'm going to be into doing."

As a result, in another ironic twist, it's the old hippies who come off as reasoned and informed, at least compared to the slogan-chanting right. Many Rag articles seem downright homey when placed alongside the rantings of radio circus acts like Alex Jones and Michael Savage. "I want to reach more people," Dreyer said. "And I want to reach them in a calmer way. I want to have a real discourse." If that sounds like a very un-Rag-like statement, Dreyer says the new Rag is "informed" by the underground press movement, but it is, in fact, a new era.

"There is a different sense of how to communicate," Dreyer said. "We're not crazy rebels now. We're something more sophisticated."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Rag, Thorne Dreyer, Robert Jensen, Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, Alice Embree

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