Tricksters of the World, Unite!

There have been few elections as decisive to America’s
future as this year’s, which is why we are devoting pages in coming
issues to the questions of electoral politics. But come November 3,
win or lose, the cause of making a better world will continue.
That’s why Bradford Keeney’s message that political organizing is
not just about practical strategies and earnest endeavor seems
important to keep in mind. Keeney, a psychologist and adventurer
who has spent many years studying the healing traditions of
traditional peoples, details how seemingly crazy ideas can
sometimes make all the difference in the world. — The

Millions of people around the world are standing up for social
reform. Now more than ever, the causes of justice, ecology, peace,
and common decency need support from citizens everywhere. But many
of us are feeling weary and uninspired about activism as it’s
practiced today. Our spirits long to be lifted by a radically fresh
perspective on tactics and strategies. We need to bring a new sense
of imagination and hope to modern-day politics. I propose we do
this by going crazy.

I am not joking, although I do think we need a lot more jokes
and a lot less somber rhetoric in our political movements.
Subversive humor, pointed satire, and crazy wisdom have long been
recognized as effective political tools, that, in the right hands,
are capable of changing the world. Abbie Hoffman, the clown prince
of the ’60s Yippie movement, offered America a clear lesson about
justice by turning a Chicago courtroom into a theater of the
absurd. The usefulness of crazy wisdom is seen all through history.
Look at the Trickster character, a charming conniver and truth
teller found in the rituals and tales of many indigenous people.
He’s known to many Native Americans as Coyote, to African Americans
as Br’er Rabbit, and even to several generations of young Americans
in a watered-down form as Bugs Bunny. Tricksters and other rebels
of the mythic realm have helped oppressed people survive one
invasion and calamity after another yet still keep their spirit and

Let us, activists and dreamers and citizens, rediscover this
universal archetype — the shamanic rascal who is capable of
juggling realities and transforming fantasy into something
powerful. This Coyote spirit can help guide us in many ways: by
mixing up all our rigid assumptions, by instilling in us the hope
of an underdog, or simply by making us laugh when we most need

Crazy wisdom, at its essence, is about tripping ourselves into
seeing, hearing, and feeling the world with a different awareness.
It offers everyone the chance to have accidents of enlightenment
and transformation.

Holy fools and jesters through the ages have always known that
the first step toward liberation and enlightenment is to escape
from lives that are overgoverned by the ideals of efficiency,
predictability, control, and rationality. The essential ingredients
of being human are always upside down, mirror-imaged, and reversals
of common sense. Do not trust anyone, for example, who says ‘Trust
me.’ Crazy wisdom helps us question leaders who lazily invoke
metaphors of patriotism, law, and duty to fight a war or lock up
alleged troublemakers. Crazy wisdom lets us tune in to the sounds
of unknown prophets who dare us to love our enemies, take care of
the planet, and dance wildly in the streets.

Most cultures around the world have always valued the wild ones
— those who flirt during a solemn ceremony, laugh at a funeral, or
weep at a joke. The ancient Chinese text known as the Tao Te
was onto this when it advised:

To remain whole, be twisted.
To become straight, let yourself be bent.
To become full, be hollow.

Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason,
George Carlin, and Lily Tomlin, among others, have continued the
tradition of teasing out the big truths that can never be heard
from the sober voices of clergy, academics, pundits, and

Here are some of my own holy foolish ideas for sparking
political, cultural, and spiritual change. I don’t mean to suggest
that you give up organizing rallies and get-out-the vote drives,
but only that a refreshing new spirit can sail into all that you do
in the world. Crazy ideas of your own will soon arise, and you can
pass them on to others.

  • Hang a photograph of George W. Bush over your dresser. Then for
    every person you meet who promises to vote for anyone but
    Bush, place a small sticker over the photo until his image has
    completely disappeared. Repeat with John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld,
    Gale Norton, and Dick Cheney until you feel optimistic about the
  • Once a week, choose a heavily advertised product you already
    have in your home that is not essential to your existence. Move it
    to a spot where it looks completely out of place. For instance, you
    could put your hair dryer inside the refrigerator or hang a box of
    junk food over the fireplace. Think about how easy it could be to
    part with these consumerist items by recognizing their real lack of
  • Write to your local library or literature teacher to ask which
    books are most likely to get banned if we end up with more
    narrow-minded Supreme Court justices. Publish this
    endangered-reading list in your local newspaper.
  • Encourage (or even commission) local musicians and composers to
    write songs that pay tribute to the way local industries have
    polluted the environment. Send a tape of the songs to every public
    school teacher in the area.
  • Organize a fund-raising campaign to annually appoint and
    support a local trickster. Teenagers and senior citizens might be
    particularly suited for the job.

Consider the patriotic playfulness of our country’s founding
gadfly, Benjamin Franklin, who dared to tap lightning in a reckless
experiment using his famous key and kite. What would happen if you
tried to channel a similar wild, unpredictable bolt of energy into
your politics — on campus, in the streets? That is what the holy
fool can do for us. The result could be the thunderclap that jolts
us out of our somber concern for the world into a new state of
energy and purpose that just might serve us better.

Bradford Keeney is Distinguished Scholar of Cultural Studies
with the Ringing Rocks Foundation
and author of the book Bushman Shaman (Inner Traditions), coming
out later this year. See the profile of Keeney in
(July/Aug. 2003).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.