The Konformist

July 2001

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Konformist of the Century

Timothy Leary

"Tune in, turn on, drop out."


In many ways, the second half of the 20th century is a history of rebellion. Rebellion against a system which, slowly but surely, had developed over the previous 50 years to become covertly (if not overtly) oppressive. What George Orwell had warned of in 1984 quickly became a reality (which, in fact, was the point of the novel: it was written in 1948, or 84 backwards.) From the pop culture of rock 'n roll in the 50s and 60s, the anti-war demonstrations against Vietnam, the dabbling in psychedelic drugs (from marijuana to LSD) to raise psychological awareness, and the rise of the Internet as a tool for intellectual warfare and personal interconnectivity, the message of history from the last fifty years was the rise of people against a system which was increasingly anti-human.

And, almost always, swirling in the center of this battle was Dr. Timothy Leary.

Many would protest this statement, including many who are part of the great rebellion of the 21st century. In fact, there is a widespread sentiment among many modern-day rebels that Leary was a sinister agent of the CIA, whose work was destructive rather than constructive. More on that later, but for now, let us present to you the story of Leary and why he is so honored as The Konformist of the Century.

Like many a great rebel, Leary became one almost by accident. An esteemed psychologist at UC Berkeley and Harvard University, Leary discovered something in his research: while a third of psychological patients improved thanks to the therapy, one third stayed the same and the final third got worse. In other words, the effectiveness of psychotherapy was basically a wash.

Soon after, he began an affair while his wife became increasingly depressed. On his 35th birthday, he woke up and found her dead by suicide. He suffered a nervous breakdown.

He recovered, but his life still seemed pointless. Then, one day in 1960, it was given a point: on vacation in Cuernavaca, he took psilocybin mushrooms. As he put it, "I learned more in six or seven hours of this experience than I had learned in all my years as a psychologist."

Leary convinced Harvard to let him experiment with the drug, and he and his assistant Richard Alpert (who would later simply be known as Ram Dass) went to work. He teamed up with artists and intellectuals such as Alduous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, and turned them on. (Later on, he also allegedly helped JFK flip on acid.) Then, in 1962, Leary encountered LSD: he declared it to be "the most shattering experience of my life." He continued on what would become his consuming passion: while many LSD advocates such as Huxley viewed it as an elitist reward for the privileged few, Leary believed that it was a sacrament which shouldn't be deprived to anyone. Leary soon became the pied piper for the drug-induced sixties social and political rebellion.

Meanwhile, the heat against him by the government was increasing. The Narcotics Bureau and the CIA inquired about his research: both he and Alpert were asked to leave Harvard. He continued the research at the Millbrook House in New York. Future Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy would lead a raid on the mansion. The Senate began to investigate Leary and other LSD advocates. All of this culminated in 1966, when - in an anti-drug hysteria - LSD was outlawed.

None of this seemed to disturb Leary - or the many who were taking LSD and other hallucinogens. If anything, it merely encouraged the movement, by giving the taking of LSD a more outlaw flavor. The outlaw sentiment had validity: no less than Dick Nixon declared: "Timothy Leary is the most dangerous man in America."

Dangerous he was - at least to men like Nixon. LSD became the fuel for the soundtrack of late sixties rock, the music that inspired a generation into opposition to war and authoritarianism. Without Leary, it is doubtful that any of this would be possible.

Finally, in 1969, Leary was busted for possessing two joints. For this horrendous crime, he was sentenced to ten years in prison, after having the highest amount ever set in bail.

Perhaps even more than the Manson slayings or Altamont, the jailing of Leary represented the death of the sixties. Leary managed to escape from prison, then was soon recaptured. It wasn't until 1976 when Leary was finally freed (amid allegations that he had become a snitch to be released.) By that point, the counterculture was on its way out, and Leary was out of favor himself. Society had become darker, more cynical: it was a time of the Sex Pistols and Taxi Driver. Like others from the sixties (such as John Lennon), he ducked out most of the rest of the decade, and in the vacuum came a reactionary movement that led to the Reagan-Bush years. Leary spent most of those years almost a parody of himself, reduced to comedy skits with his former opponent (and fellow 70s felon) Liddy. (Of course, Leary, with his ironic humor, was self-aware of the parody he became, and thus fortunately was merely harmless rather than painfully pathetic.)

In the nineties, however, Leary came back in favor, a hero of the cyberculture. An early advocate of computers to link people, his romantic vision of digital head-trips became a reality with the rise of the Web. As much as anyone else (and certainly more than Al Gore), Leary could deserve to proclaim himself the inventor of the Internet, at least in the social structures it would help develop and the way it would transform people's minds with information. As with LSD, while most leaders (including, unsurprisingly, Gore) saw the Web as a tool for intellectuals to share their ideas in an elitist compound, Leary desired it to become a mass force, where ideas and communications became more decentralized and authoritarian tendencies were reduced. As usual, the Leary model won out. It is quite fitting that the year he passed away, 1996, was the same year that the Internet started to become the major social force it is now.

And so, it is for this, for being at the center of the two great social rebellions of the last fifty years in the Western world, that Leary is thus being honored as The Konformist of the Century. The award is merely the latest in the many tributes given to the man.

Of course, when someone inspires love and admiration, he also inspires hatred and contempt. And Leary has earned much of both.

As recent as 1999, the legacy of Leary was attacked by the return of claims that he was a government snitch, claims promoted by the release of documents by the US government. The charge has been dealt with elsewhere on The Konformist and other sites, but in any case, it is interesting to note that selective documents were released by the Feds to paint an unfavorable picture of him only to his greatest supporters. (After all, opponents of Leary's LSD and anti-war stance hardly would be offended with someone collaborating with Uncle Sam.) This is quite revealing in itself: clearly, the image of Leary and what it inspires to this day is threatening enough that authorities feel a need to damage it.

Not that they had to: many information outlaws have been more than happy to do that for the Feds. And to be fair, they put up a pretty good argument, aided in no small part by Leary's own statements and actions.

In essence, the argument boils down to this: the LSD movement of the sixties was financed and promoted by the Pentagon, the CIA and British intelligence, as a potential tool for mass mind kontrol. Leary was a leader of this diabolical program. Further, Leary (it is alleged) was part of CIA MK-ULTRA programs for mind kontrol operations, which the LSD push was merely just another chapter of.

It would be easy to pass this off as propaganda posing as a bogus right-wing conspiracy. (It should be unsurprising that the greatest proponent of this theory is Lyndon Larouche.)

It would be easy, but it wouldn't be the complete truth. Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain aren't intellectual buddies of Larouche, yet in their book Acid Dreams, they effectively show the link between the establishment and LSD. At best, that would suggest that Leary was an unwitting pawn of the military-industrial komplex. (And it must be noted that Leary, for all his anti-establishment leanings, was promoted by Henry Luce of Time-Life, and the Millbrook House was supplied by Mellon family heir William Mellon-Hitchock.)

But the record indicates he was more witting than some would like to think. According to Walter Bowart (author of Operation Mind Control), when he asked Leary about his involvement with the CIA, Leary replied, "Who would you work for - the Yankees or the Dodgers? You want me to work for the KGB?"

At face value, this looks pretty damning. And yet, when one looks at the philosophy promoted by Leary, it all made a lot of sense. His flippant response - making it a choice between the Yankees and the Dodgers - made it clear that he viewed little difference between working for the CIA and the KGB. And the truth is, he was basically right.

There really is no such thing as "clean money". Nearly everyone who has lots of it has dirty hands, and it almost always comes with strings attached. The choice between the CIA or the KGB, then, is comparable to choosing between a check from FOX and AOL-Time Warner.

The real question is not from whom you take money, but what you do for it. And there, Timothy Leary is pretty damn clean. No doubt that the purpose of his funding on the MIKkies' part was pretty sinister, but that he used their money to promote LSD for his purposes qualifies as one of the most magnificent swindles of the 20th century. As John Lennon put it, "We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. They invented LSD to control people, but what they gave us was freedom."

The irony is that in the attempts to slam Leary by those of the counterculture, they have often mimicked the lies and propaganda style of those from the establishment. Many of the arguments demonizing LSD could have easily been written by Art Linkletter. (For the record, Linkletter's daughter was not under the influence of LSD when she died, confirmed by her autopsy. She was, however, still under the effects of his apparently malignant form of parenting, which would be a more likely blame for her suicidal plunge.) The worst injustice comes in the simplistic reduction of his most famous (and most brilliant) phrase: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." When properly presented, the slogan is as important of a formula as Einstein's "E = MC2". Instead, it has become the most misunderstood statement of the century instead.

That such a simple message could be so easily confused shows the sorry state of mankind. But, in a nutshell, what Leary meant was:

A) Enjoy life to the fullest.

B) Be aware of the world around you.

C) Don't get sucked into the traps of this world.


This message might have been sent by Christ or Buddha. Yet, coming from the lips of Leary, it was demonized into a message of supposed reckless, and many people (quite a few of whom should have known better) translated it merely as "Get high and be irresponsible."

There is another irony here, of course, and that is this distortion buys into the false claim that LSD and drugs destroyed the sixties generation. In fact, the problem with the sixties generation wasn't that they got high, but rather that they stopped getting high and became obedient yuppie consumers instead. The problem then, wasn't that they turned on, but that they forgot to stay tuned in or drop out. Had Leary's advice been followed, the Reagan-Bush-Klinton years would've never happened.

But that isn't the fault of Leary. Indeed, Leary himself became quite philosophical about how his iconic status was often used and abused to advance reactionary agendas. As he so well put it, "You get the Timothy Leary you deserve."

That said, The Konformist believes our readers deserve no less than the Tim Leary as the great hero, revolutionary, prankish troublemaker, and all around fun-loving guy of the century. Here's someone who even turned death into a party: facing it at the end, he asked the simple question, "Why not?" Why not, indeed. And that's why we say three cheers to Leary, The Konformist of the Century.



Timothy Leary's Dead




Flashbacks, Timothy Leary


Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD, and the Sixties Rebellion, Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain


"The Web & the Pentagon," Robert Sterling

Cyberculture Counterconspiracy, Kenn Thomas (Editor)


The Big Book of Vice, Steve Vance (Paradox Press)


Disinformation Dossier: Timothy Leary ( )


Various Articles, Steamshovel Press ( )


Honorable Mention:


There are so many rebels of the 20th century, it seems unfair to limit the runner-ups to these select few. But hey, these are the fine fellows who are the true archetypes to 20th century rebellion.


Political Revolutionary: Martin Luther King

Maybe Gandhi came first, and Malcolm X was more threatening, but MLK was the man who brought civil disobedience up to date with 20th century Western Civilization. He was an incredible combination of strong values, immense bravery, undeniable charisma and - perhaps most important of all - an unequaled sense of pragmatism on how to sell revolution to the masses. Every rebellion since he teamed up with Rosa Parks has had his imprint on it. While the deaths of JFK and RFK were sad political tragedies, King's assassination was the true crusher of the American soul. Since his death, no man has been able to come close to filling his shoes. Don't hold your breath waiting: it's a big order to fill.


Cultural Revolutionary: Elvis Presley

It would be easy to dismiss Elvis and choose The Beatles, or Dylan, or Lenny Bruce instead, but it would be unfair. Let's give credit where it's due: Elvis didn't create rock and roll, but (with all due respect to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis) it wouldn't have become the mass cultural phenomenon without him. Now, twenty-plus years after his (supposed) death, he's still being seen around the world. Little surprise there: the man from Memphis is still The King.


Philosophical Revolutionary: Wilhelm Reich

Sometimes the student overtakes the master. While Sigmund Freud (amazing revolutionary in his own right) would disavow his own seduction theory, Reich would take Freudian philosophy to the ends of its logical extreme. The result: a holistic view of societal and personal pathologies being inspired by sexual repression. At the center was his orgone energy, a unifying force field that became toxic if people weren't careful. His works transcended all disciplines, and he became a victim of an immense intellectual and governmental vendetta. Only now, his reputation is slowly being deservedly restored.


Technological Revolutionary: Nikola Tesla

While Einstein was Time's Man of the Century (and deservedly so) he is the top totem of mainstream science, and has the legacy of the atomic bomb to deal with. Tesla, meanwhile, is the scientist who the establishment has tried to downplay from moment one. Yet television, radio and electricity all have his major personal stamp in their development. Most telling: Tesla pushed alternative currents, while Thomas Edison was behind the inferior direct current. Why, then, is Edison the better known of the two?


Artistic Revolutionary: Orson Welles

You could make a great case for Picasso or Stanley Kubrick, but Orson Welles is an anomaly: a giant in two fields. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast is still one of the most famous shows in the history of the medium: this led way to his film career, and his first cinematic release, Citizen Kane, is still widely viewed as the greatest film ever made. Not too shabby for a guy under 30. Welles took the new technologies of the century and created the finest of cultural works with them.

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