Lots of other people have memorialized Ben Masel, most of them far better writers than I am. But I was unsatisfied. There is a word missing in these obituaries, from Daily Kos, to NORML, to TalkLeft and everyone in between.
That word is YIPPIE.
Ben was a YIPPIE.
Why are the lefty honchos avoiding the word in the obits? Because the "serious" leftists never liked us, that's why. But they loved Ben, who was extremely lovable. So, they avoid the word. It's their way of being polite.
Ben would say, hey, you gonna mention that I was a Yippie?
I can hear him now. And my reply to him, is to write this.
He sure was. He was THE Yippie.
At times like this, I wish I had a scanner, and I wish I was more organized. Somewhere in all the detritus, I have several photos of Ben, including one of us together on a skanky old couch, looking particularly wide-eyed and paranoid. This photo has someone's thumb in the corner of it, and I remember: peyote and lots of it. We are looking at the camera, but not really. I was wearing a Jeff Beck t-shirt, and Ben is holding a cigarette. (Now that we know his cause of death was lung cancer, I dearly wish he wasn't holding it.)
Ben looked exactly like Cat Stevens when he was young, and I had a ferocious crush on him. He was witty as the dickens, and I loved provoking him to see what kinds of funny things he would say.
I have a couple of Ben-stories to add to the collection.
The first one involves an endless journey, and I am not quite sure where it began and ended, but it took us through most of the Midwest, Madison and on into the Dakotas, to the Black Hills Alliance Survival Gathering in 1979. I do remember a van breaking down in the dead of night, leaving us stranded in what seemed like a vacant moonscape, as we had just left the Badlands. We walked or hitchhiked (a little of both?) to the rest area, which was designed as a giant cement teepee, appearing quite formidable from a distance.
After using the restroom, I come out of the giant cement teepee, and some clean-cut fellow approaches me out of nowhere. "Hey!" says this strange person good-naturedly, "Ben is already in the van!" The van? Which van? And so I follow the stranger to a gleaming new van with Missouri plates, where Ben is already sitting in the passenger seat, holding forth, talking to the other passengers about the Black Hills Alliance.
Okay, what!? Who are these people?
So, I go ahead and get in (glad they weren't serial killers or anything), and it comes together: these are friends of Ben's. Well, of course they are. But... damn, in the middle of South Dakota? He has friends at a rest stop in the middle of South Dakota????!!!
Yes, he did. Ben had friends everywhere, all over the place. When I told other Yippies this story, they just shrugged: "Ben knows everybody." And I think of all the other people I've known who supposedly "knew everybody"--and it usually meant they only knew a lot of people. I can't imagine them getting picked up by strangers at a rest stop in God-knows-where.
But Ben knew everybody. I mean, he really did.
Unfortunately, my next story is somewhat garbled, since the two principals are no longer with us.
I can't remember who was in jail, Steve Conliff or Ben. This was during the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in 1976, and one of the two (often known as the Glimmer Twins in Yippie parlance) was in jail for some silly traffic violation (and probable possession of marijuana) in Raytown, Missouri. If memory serves, it was Ben who was in jail, while Conliff took to local talk radio to threaten to bring a thousand Yippies to Raytown, to spring Ben. (Of course, there were never "a thousand Yippies"--which was the inside joke.)
"We aren't gonna let a punk town like Raytown get away with this!" Conliff bellowed over the airwaves.
And so, magically, the authorities let Ben go. That afternoon. And they specifically told him to tell his friend on the radio: "This is not a PUNK town!"
Ben assured them he would pass the word along. He then repeated the charge later that night to a reporter for the Kansas City Star: "I got busted last night in some punk town called RAYTOWN!" he pointedly said.
They quoted him, too.
A young photo of Ben; I told you he looked just like Cat Stevens!
And finally, THIS colorful and insane event, the Republican National Convention in 1980 in Detroit, wherein Ben was busted and Conliff miraculously avoided detection by shaving his head.
In the Detroit courtroom where about a dozen Yippies were arraigned, one Yippie was given 10 days for contempt of court. Ben spoke up: "Your honor, you have to give me 20 days, because I have twice as much contempt for your court as she has!"
Ben went to jail a lot, and sued them all later for arresting him. He won, too, frequently joking that it was a good living if you could wait forever to get paid.
This is the obit that gets quoted here on DEAD AIR, since it dares to use the dreaded word YIPPIE:
"Ben knew the laws better than the police did," explained his longtime friend Amy Gros-Louis, echoing a sentiment shared by judges, lawyers and the many police officers who came to regard Masel with a mix of frustration, awe and, eventually, respect.
So it was with Masel, whose death Saturday at age 56 robbed Madison, Wisconsin and the United States of one of the truest champions of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the founding faith that the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights are not just ideals; they are practical tools to be used on a daily basis to challenge the powerful, to offend the elites, to tip the balance toward some rough equivalent of justice.
These commitments made Masel a supreme annoyance to prickly policemen, prying prosecutors and pretenders to the presidency. Before he reached the age of 18, Masel made it onto the list of Nixon White House enemies, and he would later earn national headlines for mocking segregationist George Wallace and spitting at conservative Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who earned the wrath of Masel and his Yippie compatriots for his steady service to the military-industrial complex.
In later years, the exuberant agitator would express a measure of remorse for some of the more extreme acts of his youth. But he never apologized for exercising every right afforded a citizen.
No one pushed harder against the limits on dissent in what was supposed to be a free society. That pushing earned him dozens of court dates. But Bennett Masel, the New Jersey native who came to Madison as a UW undergrad and remained to become a local icon, was never merely a provocateur. He was, for all the theatrics, a serious believer in a left-libertarian analysis of the individual liberty that lawyers and judges came to understand as a credible extension of the thinking of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the longest-serving justice on the high court and a hero to 1970s radicals such as Masel.
Goodbye Ben, and thank you for teaching me to be a Yippie. It was the major lesson in civil disobedience that I never forgot.
Ben Masel, an activist's activist
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Ben Masel - Professional Activist