Saturday, April 30, 2011

R.I.P. Bennet A. Masel, All-American Activist, 1955-2011

"I transcend your puny categorization."

What to say about Ben Masel?

Unlike many of the people mourning him today, I was never a close friend of Ben - more like an annoying hanger-on at his house, one of those punk kids on the porch. But Ben had an enormous influence on my life. What always impressed me about him was his ability to never, ever feel that the system would win. He was absolutely convinced that WE were winning, that the system had clay feet, that it could and should be fought. That anything, ultimately, could be done: it was only a question of us going out and doing it. I first met Ben in 1985 when I was a freshman at the UW and I cannot even begin to count the things he, Rob Koenig and Brian Allen turned me on to in politics, history and culture.

The first time I was ever busted, at the 1985 shanty town demos, it was Ben who calmed me down and let me know it was all part of the game. Ben was a true CITIZEN, in the most precise and absolute sense of the word. A person who realized that it is us who make the rules and the power, ultimately, and that we thus need to be responsible for them.

Ben Masel was one of the few really great people I have known in my life and not a week goes by that I don't think of him. Wherever I was in the world, there was always a big portion of my heart that was warmed just knowing that he was out there in Madison, kicking ass and taking names. That no matter how politically isolated I felt, no matter how unreal things seemed, I knew that Benny would look at what I was seeing, smile his sardonic smile, shake his head, and sum up in one pithy sentence an analysis of the problem that a lesser man (like myself) would have to use a thesis to describe. I could always comfort myself with the fact that as long as Ben was out there, someone would understand this shit and wouldn't let it defeat them, no matter how overwhelmingly awful it seemed to me.

Today, all I can think of is what a horrible moment it is for us all - especially those of us who love Wisconsin - to lose him. But then again, that was also a part of Ben Masel: he'd take us to where we could be effective, make sure that the dance was well underway and then he'd smile, go home, smoke a joint, watch T.V... He always knew when to step back. Then he'd return. The morale of any demonstration, occupation - any political event at all - would rise whenever his face appeared. My deepest pain, today, is knowing that we won't have that feeling again. But Ben always trusted that the rest of us would keep the ball rolling. Now that we no longer have him to fall back on, we need to make sure that we don't betray that trust. Big, big hugs out to all of you who are today missing Bennet Masel.

You are not alone.

In memory of Ben, here are two Pete & Lou Berryman videos. While virtually visiting with friends today, I realized that a big part of what I’m missing about Ben is the Madison Wisconsin of the 1970s and ‘80s that he represented so well. The demonstrators and radicals in The War at Home were my childhood heroes and when I arrived at the U.W. in 1984, Ben’s house was a hang out for those folks from that time who were still keeping up the good fight.

I think the first of these two videos represents the world’s sense that Madison at that time was a very magical conjuncture in human history and no one who lived there, then, can ever forget it.

In my dreams, I often find myself back in the old La Chateau Co-op or walking down State Street when it was still the city’s commercial center. Going into the old Pegasus Games, for example, and seeing Laurie behind the counter, passing by the Soap Opera, or studying at Steep & Brew (still there). So this video is very poignant to me, as I'm sure it will be to many old Madisonites.

The second video, however, is for those of you who, like me, are threatened to be overwhelmed by nostaglia and what we in Brazil call saudades. It’s Pete and Lou on the steps of the capitol during the demonstrations a month ago. This is the Madison we all love and remember and it’s so important for us now to keep it in our hearts and not let it die.

Hugs out to all of you who are missing Ben today. Please leave a commentary relating one of your best memories of Ben, so that they can be registered in something a bit more firm than Facebook.

Love to you all.

Ben in an iconic moment, and also as I best remember him.

"A new kind of Republican with nothing to hide"
Ben's campaign for Governor on the Republican ticket

Madison Wisconsin - Pete & Lou Berryman

Pete & Lou on the Capitol steps, 2011

(If you're looking for more information on who Ben was, go here. I'll add more links as other stories come in.)

Daily Kos on Ben.

We take the show to Minnesota, we take the show to Monterey

We fly to Boston on a plane and we drive to Portland, Maine
And we gig along the way
And at the end of each performance we blow the audience a kiss
And when following the show they come up to say hello,
Seems it always leads to this:

So how’s ol’ Madison, Wisconsin, is that Paul Soglin still the mayor
And is Rennebohm's expanding, the Club de Wash still there?
I used to sit out on the terrace and watch my grade point disappear
For the life of me I don’t know how I wound up here

Now I can see us in the future, we take a boat to Bengal Bay
From Calcutta on a train to the Himalayan chain
Takes at least another day
We hike for weeks among the foothills, it feels like 700 miles
We ask a Sherpa, could you please help us carry all our cheese?
And he turns around and smiles:


We leave Mount Everest behind us, we hop a steamer tramp to Perth
Old Australia seems to me's far away as you can be
And remain upon the Earth
But in our Bucky Badger derbies as we survey the billabong
We think we’re really off the map till a local sees the cap
And didgery-does a little song:


We leave Australia in a rocket, we hit the moon and take a walk
The craters all are full of guys with enormous buggy eyes
And they all begin to talk
It sounds like "hey gadeng vadaieda oh yah gadeng vadeida hey"
But we realize pretty soon, they mean 'welcome to the moon,
Have a beer and by the way'...

So how’s ol’ Madison, Wisconsin, is that Paul Soglin still the mayor
And is Rennebohm's expanding, the Club de Wash still there?
I used to sit out on the terrace and watch my grade point disappear
For the life of me I don’t know how I wound up here


  1. In addendum: here's a good wikipedia article on the Yippies. Ben Masel gave me the copy of "Blacklisted News" - the collected wisdom of the Yippie's newspapers - that's in the bookshelf right above my head.


  3. Truely great voices can never be silenced, even in death.

  4. I had the fortunate amazing opportunity to spend time with Ben and the WINORML people during the year I lived in Green Bay, and then continued communicating with him through facebook over the next several years. What an amazing presence, and your paragraph regarding his feeling that the system could not win was so right on.

    RIP Ben. Thank you. <3