Lee Camp: 'We're in a New Age of McCarthyism'
Arguably the greatest comedian of his generation, Lenny Bruce appeared on network television just six times. Six times over a career that spanned the better part of two decades. On multiple occasions, he was cited for obscenity—a series of arrests that culminated in his 1964 conviction. (He was posthumously pardoned.) Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood home two years later, a syringe and a burned bottle cap beside him.
Lee Camp knows something about being deemed beyond the pale. In June 2017, he found himself the subject of a bizarre profile in The New York Times that suggested, in so many words, that he was a stooge of Vladimir Putin. “We’re in a new age of McCarthyism,” Camp tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer. “I grew up with people telling me, ‘What a dark time in America’s past! Let’s never go back to such a barbaric way of thinking’ … of guilt by association and letting our cognitive abilities just go by the wayside.”
For the past four years, Camp has hosted “Redacted Tonight” on Russia Today—a comedy show that explores the all-too-familiar ills of American empire: unchecked militarism, Wall Street greed and, perhaps most importantly, the propaganda of our political press. During that time, he has developed a cultlike following among leftists desperately searching for an alternative to corporate media. “I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for 20 years,” Camp says. “It became increasingly political after the Iraq invasion in 2002; you know, that’s when I kind of had [an] awakening as to what was really going on in our world.”
Camp is not the only iconoclast at RT America. The network has featured such prominent independent thinkers as Jesse Ventura, Phil Donahue and the late Ed Schultz—an ex-governor and two former MSNBC hosts, respectively. In November 2017, amid a steady diet of “Russiagate” stories in the national media, the network was forced to comply with the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)—a bill designed to target lobbyists. “[The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)] is the definition of what they’re talking about,” Camp notes. “It is Israel’s lobbying arm in the U.S. And it has never been forced to register as a foreign agent.”
In the latest episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” the comedian explores the legacies of Richard Pryor and George Carlin, as well as Lenny Bruce, big tech’s capacity to strangle independent media and the freedom of working for a network like RT America. “I’d just given up the idea of ever being on television, because the things I talk about are not generally allowed on corporate media,” he says. “RT America [lets me talk] about infinite war and Wall Street exploitation … and I’ve never been told to say anything or told not to say anything.”
Listen to his interview with Scheer or read a transcript of their conversation below.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, someone who’s described as an American comic, but actually I think of as more, dare I say it, a pretty deep thinker about politics. And that’s Lee Camp. But the fact is, the most scurrilous, deceitful, creepy article I’ve ever read in a mainstream newspaper was a hit job on Lee Camp in The New York Times about a year ago. And I couldn’t believe it. I mean, you go through this thing, the guy, because he dares to have a show on RT–and you know, and they couldn’t get anything on Lee Camp, other than that he’s funny; they did admit that he’s very funny. You’ve been a comedian for decades. And so, what’s this all about? You’ve been red-baited, you’re–
Lee Camp: Yeah.
RS: And, you know, what’s going on? It’s kind of a weird, weird atmosphere.
LC: Yeah, that New York Times piece was truly incredible. And yeah, it ended with saying there were Russians outside my show, my standup show in New York. But the guy failed to mention, this so-called journalist failed to mention that there–unrelated, completely unrelated, didn’t even know he was going to be there, there was a Russian, a well-known Russian rapper performing after me at the same venue, like an hour after me. So the people he saw, the Russians he saw in line were Russian-Americans waiting to see this rapper. And apparently, The New York Times couldn’t even dig deep enough to look up at the name in lights that was performing after me. But anyway, yeah, we’re in, you know–and I didn’t live through it, but we’re in a new age of McCarthyism. And you know, I grew up with people telling me, oh man, what a dark time in America’s past! Let’s never go back to such a barbaric way of thinking and guilt by association and being so afraid, and you know, just letting our cognitive abilities just go by the wayside to just point people and say, you know, you’re Russian, you sympathize with the Russians because you want peace, or you stand for something that I don’t necessarily agree with. And we’re all back, it seems like so much, so many Americans are just back there, you know, led by corporate media to just push this ridiculous red-baiting and neo-McCarthyism. And it’s a disgusting time in that sense. And of course I’ve been doing the same stuff for the past 20 years; I’ve been a stand-up comic, talking about these issues; I had a YouTube show before I was at RT; and I’ve been doing my same stuff, talking about the same issues, for 20 years. And only in the past two have people decided, ooh, scary, scary Russian.
RS: The really depressing thing here is the McCarthyites now are my friends. They are people who should know better. And the thing that seems to be driving this McCarthyism–the Russians did it, the Russians did it–is that Hillary Clinton lost the election. I mean, there was a lot of problems with Trump, but the idea that he’s a stooge of Putin–if there was a foreign government that interfered in our election, it was Israel. Why doesn’t anybody dare say it?
LC: I know.
RS: It was Israel! Netanyahu went, spoke to the U.S. Congress, violated all tradition, attacked a sitting president for his deal with Iran, OK–which was, by the way, Obama’s great achievement in foreign policy, and he should be applauded for it.
RS: So you got Israel in an unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia, and you know, backing the Sunnis against the Shiites, and Iran is the great enemy. And what happens with this election is Trump goes over to that position. It’s not only that they influenced the election, but then Trump moves the embassy, you know, to Jerusalem; he embraces Saudi Arabia; and he makes Iran the great enemy. So if you want to talk about influence on this president, it clearly has come from that direction. On the other hand, here’s Putin–if he backed Trump in the way–and I think the documentation is quite light. The main things Putin is supposed to have done is allow us to read or hear what Hillary Clinton said to Goldman Sachs, which Bernie Sanders said we had a right to have, and we didn’t know what she had said. And the other is that the Democratic National Committee was in the business of undermining Bernie Sanders. Those are the two main leaks that came out; maybe we’ll learn more. But the irony is that Trump has done nothing–not only done nothing, he’s tried to savage the Russian economy. He’s increased sanctions, he’s been tough as could be. So you have this really disconnect here, that is alarming, and it’s fed by the same thing that drives MSNBC and others; it’s opportunism, careerism.
LC: I mean, you’re absolutely right. And they made this decision, from what I understand, you know, the internal Clinton people made this decision basically a week after the election. That, you know–because remember, for that first week, they were blaming Comey and the FBI for sinking her chances of winning, because he reopened the investigation or whatnot. And then they realized, well, going against the FBI as the reason we lost this election is not going to be good for us and the democrats. So then, a week later, they shifted to, you know, this–oh, it’s all Russia, Russia did it, and we need to just go after Russia. And Comey became the great hero all of a sudden, of the democrats, which was a stunning–you know, you got to take Dramamine to deal with the amount of spinning they’re doing here. But yeah, it–and Israel was definitely, and continues to definitely be such a p=owerful influence on this government. And you know, the hilarious thing is that RT was the first media outlet, RT America, to be forced to sign up as foreign agents or whatever. I mean, I didn’t personally have to do it, but the company did. And of course, the foreign agent bill, which was initially law, which was initially put in, was designed to–you know, for lobbyists, foreign lobbyists to register as foreign agents, not press agencies. And AIPAC is the definition of what they’re talking about; it is Israel’s lobbying arm in the U.S. And it has never been forced to register as a foreign agent, and it was asked to back in the sixties, and just never did. And so the actual definition of a foreign agent is not registered, but now they’re, you know, forcing this on press agencies; they’re now going after China’s television network, I believe, also had to register. So I guess they’ll just, you know, when are they going to come after BBC and CBC, when are those going to register as foreign agents?
RS: So let me ask you about comedy. Because it’s interesting how taste can be, or matters of taste, can be used to dismiss people. You know, and I want to bring up Lenny Bruce, because I do think he was one of the great, great thinkers as well as comics. And they were able to totally marginalize and destroy this guy, destroy–you’re not funny, you’re beyond the pale. And I get the, a little bit of the feeling that people are doing that with you. You know, that you’re a threat because you actually do have a following, and you are funny. So let me ask you about careerism. Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you came from, how you became a comic, and why you’re not more obviously selling out.
LC: Well, I don’t know that I have the answer to all those questions. But I was born to a military doctor father here at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., the famous military hospital. And then grew up, most of my younger years, in Richmond, Virginia; went to University of Virginia. I started writing comedy when I was about 12, thought I was going to be a comedy writer because I’d never been on a stage, I had no interest in acting or anything. And then when I got to college, started performing onstage and became obsessed with standup comedy. And immediately after school, went to New York to be a standup comic. And you know, I think like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing this for, I’ve been doing standup comedy for 20 years. It became increasingly political after the Iraq invasion in 2002; you know, that’s when I kind of had, continued to have my awakening as to what was really going on in our world. Started reading people like Chomsky and Hedges and yourself, and started to really understand the truth behind the corporate media, that maybe they don’t really want to touch on so much. And I just kind of felt that that is what I wanted to be talking about onstage, even if it made my path a little more difficult, even if it meant that, you know, if you’re playing to a roomful of tourists in New York City, a certain percentage of them are going to be a little turned off. I got pretty good at kind of putting these political ideas in there while still entertaining the entire crowd, even if they were right-wing or something. And that’s, I think, the great gift of comedy, is that people will sit and listen to ideas that they might disagree with, despite finding them a bit appalling or upsetting or uncomfortable or what have you. Whereas if you just lecture somebody and they disagree, they’ll often walk out in the first five minutes. And you know, I think that’s what’s exciting about comedy. But you know, people ask me which came first, the comedy or the activism; and it was definitely the comedy. I just wanted to be a comedian, I wanted to be Seinfeld when I was, you know, 15 or 16. And then the activism and the politics came later. And now I just find I–you know, there are great comedians out there that aren’t saying anything important; there’s absurdist comedians, people like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, that are brilliant. But–or were brilliant. But for me, what I find interesting is really dealing with these deep, dark subjects, and yet inserting the comedy to make them go down a little easier. Because even those who agree can burn out so quickly if we don’t have a bit of a release, a bit of a spoonful of honey to go with the medicine. So yeah, I’ve just been going down that path. And you know, I’d given up–to talk about careerism, I’d given up on the idea of ever being on TV, really. I mean, I’d had little–I’d basically had one interview on each network, because once they saw what I said and realized, oh, that’s not acceptable for our airwaves–I’d been on CNN once, I’d been on MSNBC once, I’d been on [Laughs] all these networks one time. Fox News, you know, had me escorted out of the building. So I basically had appeared on each of these things, they realized I was not acceptable for corporate America; Comedy Central I was on once. And so I’d just given up the idea of ever being on television, because the things I talk about are not generally allowed on your corporate media. And then RT America basically was like, do whatever–do what it is you’re doing. You know, do whatever you want. And I’ve found such freedom there, that I can talk about these issues, talk about infinite war and Wall Street exploitation, and I’m not–I’ve never been told to say anything or told not to say anything. So it is this crazy situation, where I’ve gotten very lucky that I’m doing something that I feel is important, and yet can still be seen by people.
RS: Yeah, it’s interesting about our relation to media, mass media. The great thinker Leonard Cohen had a song, “There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets through.” And my own feeling, you know, you mentioned a few people–Chris Hedges; well, Chris Hedges wrote for, as you have pointed out, for The New York Times for a long time. He did great work, he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer; he did great work reporting from the Mideast. I think Chris Hedges is the best journalist that we’ve produced in our modern period; Sy Hersh is another great one, worked sometimes for The New York Times, but he also wrote, when I was editing Ramparts magazine–
LC: And how–I actually want to ask you this–how outrageous is it that someone like Sy Hersh has to publish amazing journalism in German magazines? Because they won’t publish it here!
RS: Yeah, but I’m going to tell you, as an older guy, it’s always been that way. There’s always been these contradictions. And you know what, I’m going to take a quick break. I’ve been talking to Lee Camp, a terrific comic–I say “comic” sort of demeans this, although he’ll take exception–I think he’s a big thinker, and it comes out in his comedy, it’s informed by it. But we’ll be right back. [omission for station break] We’re right back with Lee Camp, who’s got a comedy special that we’re going to talk about, coming on Election Day, so you can’t forget it–Election Day. And I want to talk to you about a basic issue about, how do you survive as a writer, as a comic, as a thinker, as an artist. And you know, you’ve had your difficulties, your connection with RT, of course you have connections with lots of things. And what I, the reason I wanted to have you on this interview, I am really ticked off with people who say that going on RT disqualifies you. Why doesn’t it disqualify you if you work for The New York Times and they shamelessly, as you have pointed out in the case of Chris Hedges, they not only shamelessly supported the Iraq War and the lies about it, but they fired Chris Hedges for daring to give a commencement speech criticizing the war, which he had witnessed, on the ground, in person. And yet he was forced out.
LC: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And you can go down the list of people that have been forced out of these networks for being against war, or not standing the corporate line. You know, Phil Donahue pushed out at MSNBC; Jessie Ventura had a giant contract with MSNBC that, once they found out he was against the Iraq War, they paid him a lot of money to get out of the contract, never airing his show; Ed Schultz kind of pushed out because he supported Bernie Sanders. So it is a very fine line of what you’re allowed to say on those corporate airwaves.
RS: Well, you know, my own view is that you are providing a good model of how to survive. Because if you don’t survive and get the word out and get to talk to people, then what are you doing? You’re just [Laughs] you know, proving to your god or something that you’re virtuous. Even that won’t cut it if, you know, the god is discerning; he’ll say, wait a minute, that was a cop-out [Laughter], you just went to some monastery and shut up, that doesn’t do it. So you know, the fact of the matter is, you’re out there with your big mouth and your comedy and your big ideas and everything else. And so what’s happening now? I mean, can you make a living?
LC: [Laughs] Well, yeah. No, I’m doing fine, because I have this TV show, “Redacted Tonight,” at RT America. But other than that, you know, the touring is pretty, is OK; but you know, that’s, you just kind of break even with the live touring. I’m luckily in the situation where I’m excited that I can put out this comedy special on my own without any corporate backers, and I don’t have to deal with that side of things. So I’ve kind of gotten lucky that that is a, you know, now a point of pride, that this thing’s only at LeeCampComedySpecial.com. But you know, I appreciate that, and you know, you brought up other comedians that have walked this line–most of the ones that were allowed to get famous, they got famous doing things that were not overtly political, or at least not too much. You know, if you look at the early stuff of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, they were not very political in the early days. And once they had that fame, they started talking about more important issues. And then of course, you know, George Carlin was taken all the way to the Supreme Court with the NPR case, right, and Lenny Bruce was basically driven to his death; they made it impossible for him to perform and make money, because anywhere he performed at, he’d get arrested for speech violations or obscenity violations. You know, Carlin said some very important things, and that’s why his legend continues to live on, and I think it’ll just continue to grow. And it’s because he already had that audience, he’d developed a large audience without saying things that threatened corporate America or the, you know, the gatekeepers. And then once he was threatening, it was too late; he was, he had such a massive platform, and was adored by so many people that it was too late. And some of his stuff in the nineties and early thousands is really important thought, for a comedian, at least, on the fact that we’re bombing endlessly, and that we perpetrate war so often, and those type of things that you don’t hear a lot from your entertainment. You know, I’m sure there’s plenty of kind of no-name comedians out there, and if they’re talking about this stuff, it’s not easy to break in.
RS: Well you know the whole thing is, we’re trying to scratch–to find a little hole in the dike or something, that we can slip something through. Because the fact is, you know, the freedom of press that was guaranteed in our Constitution was a press that pretty much any white male [Laughs] farmer could own. You know, it was the penny–any printer could put out a penny press; that’s what Tom Paine did, he seduced the wife of a printer, and we got, you know, some of these great pamphlets.
LC: Well, and that’s why the information revolution is so threatening to the powers that be, is because it is, everybody does have a voice. And I think you’re seeing that kind of being shut down now, with these, just like week, you know, Anti Media and Free Thought Project all banned, 800 pages banned from Facebook, and their accounts of their editors on Twitter simultaneously suspended. So clearly, Facebook and Twitter discussed that these pages needed to be shut down. And to me, that’s very frightening; that’s, to see that level of conspiring between these large social media platforms to shut out alternative or independent journalism outlets.
RS: So the reality is, OK, these people, the business model is broken for journalism. And the people on the internet who are making the enormous amount of money and becoming trillion-dollar companies are, in the main, robbing your privacy. But it’s not against the Constitution, because the government is involved. And governments all over the world do it. So then, the real issue here is, what are the motives of these companies? And now you have an incredible, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post–very interesting. I happen to edit a publication that was on a list of publications that The Washington Post–and I know Marty Baron; I worked with him at the LA Times, he knows it’s all nonsense. Most of the people who edit Truthdig worked at the LA Times, a few worked at The New York Times and the Hearst Corporation. And yet, you know, boom–there was some mysterious group, PropOrNot, or something, and they said oh, these people are all bad actors.
LC: Oh, yeah. How ridiculous.
RS: Very similar to what’s happening with Facebook now, and everything. And what they could do–oh, The Washington Post ran that story, you know. Well–
LC: Incredible, yeah.
RS: And you know, they can put you out of business; you know, that’s totally irresponsible. And so–
LC: Well, it actually turns out the pages that were blacked out on Facebook were almost all connected to that PropOrNot.
RS: I want to cut to the chase here about what one should do. Because I’m trying to look for role models, what people can do. And the fact is, we do have space in this society. And people have to use it. And as I say, the freedom of the press that the Founders had in mind was one that pretty much anybody could start, who as I say, was a white male–yes, we all know the limitations, severe limitations–but with very small capitalization. Now that’s not the case. That’s not the case, and it hasn’t been for a long time. And so the people playing in that field have a different, dare I say it, class interest, and a different view of the society. And so I want to end, really, getting to your dilemma right now, the dilemma of Lee Camp. You know, there aren’t too many people doing what you’re doing. Most of them sell out. Most of what we teach in these schools and everything now is, how do you get on the bandwagon? How do you get some crumbs off the table? And so I want to end, really, with this idea of, you know, how do you survive in this society and be a good citizen?
LC: Well, you know, it’s just–I mean, now I’m at the point that I’m, you know, able to make money doing this, and you know, I’ll make money with this comedy special, and I make a little bit of money from my touring, and obviously I make money from the TV show. So it’s not, you know, I don’t want to act like I’m poor or anything. But when I wasn’t making money, you know, right before I got “Redacted Tonight,” and I’d spent probably three, four years with very little income. And what kept me going, and what kept me talking about these issues and not kind of becoming a different style of comedian, was just kind of an inner obligation. I didn’t, I didn’t–I’m incapable, whatever it is in me, I’m incapable of just turning the other way and ignoring the path, ignoring the fact that we–you know, for example, we have eleven years until we’re past the point of no return on climate change. I, to me, I can’t just go onstage in front of a group of people every night and act like that doesn’t exist. Or that we aren’t dropping, you know, somewhere between 50 and 100 bombs a day in our names. And it’s like those type of things just, they don’t go away, and I think they would haunt me if I was ignoring them. And so you know, there may be temptations to do some other style of comedy, or to avoid the things that make people uncomfortable, but I’ve just never been able to really shut that off in my mind. And you know, I’ve–ever since I was little, you know, I wasn’t an activist, but I’ve always been very angry at being lied to or being misled. I, manipulation just makes me furious. And so [Laughs] I think that’s part of what has kept the fire of my anger going, and you know, kept me angry on this latest standup special, is I just hate to see so many people manipulated and then exploited through that manipulation. And I just want to do my part to continue to talk about these things, to continue to get these issues out there. And like I said earlier, to do it in a way that luckily, you know, with throwing a little comedy in there, people can not burn out, and continue to care about these things, hopefully. And obviously, for the information that I then funnel through comedy, I look to the great thinkers and the great journalists that are putting kind of the pure, the pure dope out there; they’re putting the pure facts out there, and then I take that and funnel it through my comedy. And so I hope that that’s what people get from this new comedy special. And you know, I understand I’ve been tremendously lucky to even have a career talking about these things. And it is that–like, I don’t understand people that, you know, get rich or have huge success and don’t–and then turn against those who are being most exploited in our society. It should be the opposite. If you end up getting money or getting success, you should want to help all those that didn’t have that luck, that didn’t have that thing, that didn’t have that door open. And so I have no intent or understanding, even, of people that turn their back on the lowest in our society. And you know, I just want to keep fighting for more equality and a world that can live sustainably and peacefully. And I don’t know how to put it other than that.
RS: The price is not just to individuals. But if we’re afraid, and we can’t bring up certain subjects; if we can’t discuss, you know–I mean, for instance, one that I brought up on the show, which I’m sure I’ll get a lot of angry response to: that it was Israel and Saudi Arabia that successfully meddled in our election. You know, and Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to get along quite nicely, and you got the richest Arab country bombing the hell out of the poorest, in Yemen, and this horrible–
LC: Yemen is awful.
RS: Yeah. And then you know, and the picking on–you know, yes, I’m not for any theocracy, and certainly not for the Ayatollahs of Iran; but I mean, my goodness, it wasn’t Iranian hijackers that were on those planes. And yet you know, we bought that view of the Mideast, and the Palestinians are getting screwed–I don’t know, I’ve stopped watching Rachel Maddow, but does she ever talk about, you know, human rights and the Palestinians?
LC: Well, I can tell you, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found out that in an entire year, ending in this past July, they did zero stories on Yemen, and they did 455 on Stormy Daniels on their main, on their main shows. So, clearly, Rachel Maddow’s not talking about Yemen. [Laughs]
RS: OK, but so let me just end on a point–because you, I noticed in these articles about you and RT and so forth, they say you don’t talk about Putin, and you don’t talk about Russia, and so forth. Which your answer is, that’s not what I’m here, basically, to do; I’m here to talk about American corporations, and so forth.
LC: Well, it’s also not true. I’ve covered Russiagate extensively; I’ve just covered it not in the way they want me to, I’ve covered it the way Chris Hedges and Ray McGovern see it, you know.
RS: The whole problem is intimidation. And that’s the real enemy of journalism, is when you’re intimidated, either by career or fear of a totalitarian state, or you know, the desire to be loved. And I would argue–and I felt this during, watching Jon Stewart, who I have my own issues with. But nonetheless, I felt Jon Stewart, for a period there, did better journalism than the mainstream media. And you can actually get on a stage, as you’re going to do for Election Day–where do people go? LeeCampComedySpecial, it’s all one thing, dot com?
LC: LeeCampComedySpecial.com, and I’m a terrible salesman, but if they use the promo code UncleSam, one word, they’ll get 25 percent off.
RS: Uncle Sam! Twenty-five–and it’s Election Day. So it’s a good thing to do Election Day. And we’ve had a terrific interview with Lee Camp. If you want to hear more from him, check out LeeCampComedySpecial.com on Election Day. Our producers for this show of Scheer Intelligence have been Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Engineering here at KCRW is provided by Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we’ve had an assist from NPR in Washington.