Remembering Casey Kasem’s Progressive Political Activism
Millions of Americans mourned the loss of Casey Kasem, who died on Sunday at the age of 82 after a long battle against Parkinson’s disease and progressive dementia.
Kasem, the longtime host of the now-defunct “American Top 40” weekly radio pop music countdown, touched generations of Americans with his distinctive voice and endearing broadcast style. In a lesser-known– but equally enduring– role, Kasem also voiced Shaggy, the cowardly slacking sleuth on the popular “Scooby-Doo” TV cartoons.
But what’s far less known about Kasem is that he grew to become a committed political activist later in life. Born Kemal Amin Kasem in Detroit in 1932, the son of Lebanese Druze immigrants told People magazine in 1990 that he was moved to activism by Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which as many as 17,000 innocent Lebanese civilians were killed, horrific massacres of Palestinian refugees occurred and much of his ancestral homeland was left in ruins.
“You wind up with 20,000 dead Lebanese and Palestinians, 40,000 maimed and 150,000 left homeless,” Kasem, then 58, told People. “That’s when my shoe was stepped on. All of a sudden, that was really close to home.”
That People interview occurred during the build-up for America’s first invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. Kasem, whose reputation as a warrior for peace would only grow as he aged, blasted US military aggression in the Middle East.
“I think there are too many cowboys… in Washington who think the best way is to shoot from the hip,” he said. “I don’t want to see our boys coming back in bags. And I don’t want to see Arabs die.”
Kasem was very outspoken against negative American caricaturization of Arabs, partly blaming the frenzied run-up to the Gulf War on decades of warped cultural stereotypes that “demonized and dehumanized Arabs.” He lamented that Arabs were portrayed as “knife-wielding, gun-toting womanizers [who are] not to be trusted.”
“Growing up… I didn’t question that the Arabs were the bad guys,” he told People.
Above all, Kasem was a champion for peace, and his pacifism went beyond a desire for calm in the Middle East. He was arrested for protesting nuclear weapons in Nevada in 1988, and he became a vegan and a staunch critic of factory farming, explaining “the basic thing is to hopefully stop people from killing anything.”
“A non-violent world has roots in a non-violent diet,” he explained.
“Some of the things that I do… I think are much more important than the radio show or the television show that I do or anything else that I do,” Kasem once said. Those were more than just empty words. He quit “Scooby-Doo” in 1995 after being asked to voice Shaggy in a Burger King advertisement. It took seven years– and a promise from the cartoon’s producers that Shaggy would convert to vegetarianism– for him to return to the role.
Kasem was also a tireless advocate for the homeless and the environment. All that activism took up a large chunk of his time.
“Four days a week he devotes to political and humanitarian causes; one day a week he tapes ‘Casey’s Top 40,'” the New York Times reported in 1990.
While some US corporate mainstream media outlets have fleetingly mentioned Kasem’s activism in their obituaries and tributes, most have all but ignored it. Even in life, Kasem’s prolific and vocal pursuit of peace and social justice always seemed to fly under the radar. When it comes to their icons, Americans tend to forget those aspects of their lives that don’t conform with the official narrative. Nobody remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” or that Helen Keller and Albert Einstein were committed socialists. And most Americans are probably still in the dark about Kasem’s incessant activism.
Most, but not all, and not all are mourning his passage.
Debbie Schlussel, a popular far-right polemicist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, asserted that “no tears” should be shed for Kasem, who she called “a far-left, anti-American, anti-Israel creep.”
But among US social justice activists, Kasem will be remembered much more fondly. The Los Angeles branch of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, the ANSWER Coalition, hailed his “lifetime commitment to fighting racism, US wars and occupation, and for social justice at home and for those who are the most denied and oppressed in US society.”