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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jesse Walker talks to RAW Illumination

Prominent libertarian journalist Jesse Walker is the managing editor of Reason magazine, which for years has been the best-known and most influential libertarian magazine.

Yet his personal history suggests that he could just as easily wound up as a music journalist, or concentrated on writing books. His first book, Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, grew out of his experiences as a DJ for a radio station at the University of MIchigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. He freelanced for No Depression, the alternative country magazine, authoring pieces that defended Bob Dylan’s temporary excursion into Christian music and an article describing the Kinks as “the lost fathers of country-rock.”

His wide range of interests include the writings of Robert Anton Wilson. He appears to have read nearly everything Wilson ever published in book form, and quite a few articles and interviews from obscure libertarian journals and fanzines. His two pieces about Robert Anton Wilson for Reason are here and here.

Walker, 41, lives in Baltimore with his wife, Rona Kobell, a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal, and their two daughters. He maintains a prolific Twitter account, @notjessewalker.

I neglected to ask Mr. Walker about the time “he was once hired to help move a clandestine dog farm,” as his official Reason biography states, but I did remember to start the interview by asking about his new book project.

Tell me about the book you’re working on, The United States of Paranoia. And can you say something about how Robert Anton Wilson fits into it?

It's a history of American political paranoia. The central argument is that conspiracy theories aren't just a feature of the fringe but have been a potent force across the political spectrum, in the center as well as the extremes, from the colonial era to the present. I also argue that conspiracy stories need to be read not just as claims to be either believed or debunked but as folklore. When a tale takes hold, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the yarn, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.

The first half of the book will lay out five primal conspiracy narratives that keep recurring in American history, zeroing in on particular examples from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The second half will look at how those primal stories have played out in different contexts in the last four decades. One theme in the second half is what I call the ironic style of American conspiracism -- a sensibility that treats alleged cabals as a bizarre mutant mythos to be mined for laughs, metaphors, and social insights. Not surprisingly, this is where Robert Anton Wilson comes in: He's the godfather of the ironic style.

I'm writing the book for HarperCollins, and we're tentatively planning to have it in stores in fall of 2013.

How did you get interested in Robert Anton Wilson's writings?

It started with Steve Jackson's Illuminati game. In high school I had some friends who were into role-playing games, a hobby that didn't interest me much. But they managed to convince me to try a new game -- not a role-playing game, they promised me, but a card game -- with the promise that it was (a) funny and (b) filled with weird conspiracy theories. Sure enough, it was fun. And since the game was inspired by the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy, I started looking for a copy of the books to read. Fortunately, the one-volume omnibus edition had come out a year or two earlier, just in time for me to devour it. Soon I was buying other Wilson books at the local science fiction and comics shop. And then he came to town to give a talk, and I found out that he was very funny in person too.

What are your favorite RAW books?

ILLUMINATUS! is the book he'll be remembered for. It's both an amazing document of its time -- as good a guide as you'll ever find to the strange apocalyptic fever dreams of the '60s and '70s -- and, underneath all that satire and horror, a very thoughtful novel. It belongs in the same postmodern canon as Pynchon, Burroughs, and Ballard, but it doesn't get the same level of respect, possibly because it's so eager to entertain the reader.

I also think WILHELM REICH IN HELL is a very good play, though its attack on the Cold War arms race might make it feel out of date if it were performed today. THE EARTH WILL SHAKE shows that Wilson can write well in a more realistic mode, and then the sequel, THE WIDOW'S SON, pulls the rug out from under the reader and throws us into another fun postmodern exercise filled with footnotes and pastiches. On the nonfiction side, I think COINCIDANCE and THE ILLUMINATI PAPERS are probably the best collections of essays.

And then there's the original COSMIC TRIGGER, which is one of my favorite memoirs. You never know how seriously to take some of the claims he makes in it, which of course is deliberate and part of the point. And just when you think it's all oddball speculations about drugs and conspiracies and New Age weirdness, there's that wrenching final chapter about his daughter's death and you wind up taking the book very seriously indeed.

You are obviously a big movie buff, and so was Robert Anton Wilson. Did you ever get to talk to him, or correspond with him, about movies?

I wrote a short article about Wilson's work for Reason in 2003, and after it came out he added me to his email list and we periodically corresponded. We hit the subjects you'd expect, politics and books and so on, but in retrospect it feels like the main topic was movies. Most Wilson fans know that he loves Orson Welles, but he was a big Clint Eastwood fan too. We both liked COOGAN'S BLUFF a lot.

I met him in person a few times in the late '80s and early '90s, chatting briefly after his speeches and at a couple of libertarian gatherings we both attended. I have no reason to believe he remembered me from one of those quick encounters to another. So I'm in the odd situation of having met him long before, but not after, we knew each other.

I also was lucky enough one evening to have dinner with his ILLUMINATUS! collaborator, Robert Shea, along with several other writers who participated with him in a round-robin zine called the GOLDEN APA. I asked Shea if anyone in particular had inspired the creation of Hagbard Celine. Yes, he told me: Anthony Quinn.

Have you saved those email exchanges with Robert Anton Wilson? Do you plan to make any of them available?

I save all my emails, and I'll be going through the Wilson correspondence again when I write my chapter about him in the paranoia book. If there's anything particularly interesting that might make sense as a standalone document, I'll pass it along to you. A lot of it is already floating around out there somewhere, since he usually cc:ed his whole email list.

As I’ve written on the blog, I never met RAW, but I met Shea once, at the 1989 Worldcon in Boston, at a Golden APA party -- a big thrill. I assume you saw my interview with Arthur Hlavaty about the Golden APA that I posted on my blog.

I forgot about that interview! Yes, I did read it. Hlavaty is the author of one of my favorite lines about school prayer. Quoting from memory and probably botching it: "I'm against this creeping socialism of prayer in the public schools. If the government would just get out of the way, our free-market churches would supply all the prayer our children need."

The GOLDEN APA dinner where I met Shea was in Chicago in '91, so I missed you by two years. I was in town for a libertarian shindig, where Shea and Wilson spoke on a panel with Carl Oglesby and Timothy Leary. Wilson and Leary did a big presentation on virtual reality in another part of town the same weekend, and they both also spoke at a rally against the drug war in the park. And there was a big science fiction convention -- possibly WorldCon -- in town at the same time, which is probably why the GOLDEN APA crew was getting together. So Chicago saw a great big confluence of the subcultures that weekend.

When NPR released its list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, you noted that you've read about 40 of them. Are you now, or have you ever been, a science fiction nerd?

If the cinema of the '80s taught us nothing, it's that we're all nerds deep down inside, so let's gather together by the bleachers while the soundtrack blares a Queen song:

Wait, what was the question? Oh, yeah: I read a lot of science fiction growing up. I was especially attracted to the New Wave writers of the '60s and '70s, the cyberpunk writers of the '80s, and the sort-of-sf category that these days gets called "slipstream." You still run into a prejudice against genre fiction in some quarters, but it's clear to me that genre writers -- not just in sf, but in crime fiction, horror, and so on -- are as capable of producing good writing as the mainstream. The only major genre category that I've never explored is the romance, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that there are hidden geniuses there too.

That said, the modal science fiction nerd's taste might be a little different from mine. My idea of a great sf movie is REPO MAN, not STAR WARS.

I don't publish a lot of fiction, but the short stories that I do write usually have science fiction or fantasy elements. The best of those is called "A Short History of the Roosterville Poetry Massacre," and you can find it in the third issue of the slipstream journal POLYPHONY.

How did you get interested in alternative radio, and how did that grow into your still-in-print first book, Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America?

I guess I got interested in it by listening to it. I was fortunate to grow up in the shadow of WXYC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is a very good station, and then in college I had the wonderful experience of DJing at WCBN in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is an even better station. That got me interested not just in the history of radio but in the regulatory reasons why creative broadcasting is so rare. By this time it was the '90s and a new wave of pirate broadcasters was going on the air, and I started covering them sympathetically. Soon I was a full-fledged part of the movement to legalize low-power radio, helping organize a march in D.C. All that journalism and activism and explorations into radio history turned into the book.

You wrote articles for No Depression, a country music magazine, but your blog links to sites about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, James Brown and Charles Mingus (among others). What kind of music did you play as a DJ in Ann Arbor, and what do you listen to now?

I was a freeform DJ, so I mixed all kinds of music together, from Scarlatti to the Sex Pistols. I also was one of the rotating hosts of the country show, which was ultimately a freeform country show, so there were ways to smuggle in the occasional punk or jazz record if I did all the segues just right.

These days my favorite kind of music is the stuff that's right on the boundary between country and soul, where Charlie Rich and Ray Charles rub shoulders with each other. But I listen to all kinds of things. Dylan, the Kinks, P-Funk, Haggard, you name it. As far as new stuff goes, I love mashups, which have a lot in common with the spirit of freeform radio.

I don't want to make any facile assumptions about your politics, but you seem to lean libertarian on at least some issues. How did you get interested in libertarianism, and did ILLUMINATUS! play any role in shaping your political philosophy?

My parents are liberal Democrats, and I adopted their politics as a kid, moving further to the left as I entered my teens. In practice, this meant I was strongly opposed to censorship, to draft registration, to U.S. intervention overseas, to mixing church and state, to bigotry, and to concentrated power -- all positions that I still hold today. Becoming a libertarian was largely a matter of reading free-market economists and getting convinced that their arguments were stronger than the economic views I had absorbed rather haphazardly before then.

But it also helped to read explicitly libertarian books making the case for a consistently anti-statist worldview. And ILLUMINATUS! is one of the first forthrightly libertarian books I read. I've joked that the great invisible divide in the libertarian movement is between the people who were transformed by reading ATLAS SHRUGGED in high school and people who were transformed by reading ILLUMINATUS! I never went through a Rand phase, so you can put me firmly in the ILLUMINATUS! camp.

My wife and I have visited Ann Arbor, and it seems like an interesting, arts-rich college town. Did you enjoy your time there? How did you wind up as a Wolverine?

By the time I finished high school, I considered myself a libertarian but I still identified myself with the left: Coming from North Carolina, where the most prominent conservative was Jesse Helms, I thought of the left as the place to find defenders of civil liberties. Moving to Ann Arbor shattered that. Suddenly I was surrounded by leftists who wanted to censor speech they disagreed with and to trample on due process, and suddenly some of the loudest arguments for civil liberties were coming from the right. That didn't make a Republican out of me, but it did drive home the lesson that progressives were just as capable as conservatives of trampling on the Bill of Rights.

That said, I loved my time in Ann Arbor. It's a fun town to live in, I made a lot of friends, and I enjoyed the arguments. And Jerusalem Garden makes the best felafels in the world. My wife did a fellowship at the University of Michigan in 2008-09, so I got to spend another year back there recently. Turns out it's a nice place to live as a grown-up too.

In the New Libertarian Notes interview with Robert Anton Wilson -- which I was able to reprint because you collected the perodical -- RAW says, "I also read at least one periodical every month by a political group I dislike -- to keep some sense of balance. The overwhelming stupidity of political movements is caused by the fact that political types never read anything but their own gang's agit-prop."

I get the impression you read a lot of people you disagree with. True?

Well, it's not as though the world is filled with people who agree with me about everything. Even if I tried to impose a litmus test on the people I read, chances are good that an unapproved thought might sneak its way through and corrupt me before I managed to stop it.

But yes, I'd rather read a thoughtful argument that challenges me than a rote recitation of the libertarian catechism. For that matter, it's illuminating, and often fun, to read people whose arguments *don't* really challenge you but still offer a window into another way of viewing the world. Think of it as armchair anthropology. I'll certainly be doing a lot of that as I write this history of American paranoia.

Why did you begin collecting obscure libertarian journals with articles by Robert Anton Wilson in them?

I never really thought of myself as a collector. I've just been accumulating zines for decades: I like to read them, and I don't like to throw them out. Many of them have Robert Anton Wilson articles in them.

When I was a student at Michigan, I read a lot of old radical magazines at the Labadie Collection, including some journals that ran a lot of Wilson articles: WAY OUT (which he edited for a while), NO GOVERNOR (which Robert Shea edited), NEW LIBERTARIAN, ROGERSPARK CHICAGO, MINORITY OF ONE, etc. Sometimes I would run across articles or letters with a byline of "Simon Moon" or some other name that would later surface in ILLUMINATUS! If I thought like a collector, I would have had the library make copies of all those articles for me -- I wish I had, because writing this book would be much easier. Now one item on my agenda is to go back to Ann Arbor and dig those up again.

My favorite Reason magazine piece in the last few months was your interview with Thaddeus Russell, who interests me partially because I can't quite figure him out. Apparently he doesn't quite understand libertarians, either. I was amazed by his Tweet, "I don't understand why libertarians aren't aligning themselves with the London rioters." Do you think he's an up and comer among American public intellectuals?

He's certainly a very sharp and interesting writer, and I'm glad he's now contributing to Reason. He has a great piece about Obama in our October issue. I doubt the establishment organs that take it upon themselves to decide who is or isn't a "public intellectual" will ask him to be a part of their next symposium, but so much the worse for them.

Thad and I corresponded a bit during the London riots, which I believe he saw, or at least initially saw, purely as a reaction to police brutality. He has done interesting historical work on anti-cop riots in the Old South, arguing that they played a significant role in ending Jim Crow. But it became clear pretty soon that the London rioters were attacking a lot of innocent third parties, and when I pointed that out to him he said that it gave him pause. So I don't know if he'd still stand by that tweet. (You should ask him! He's very approachable.)

Who are your favorite current libertarian thinkers and writers? Is there anyone you pay particular attention to?

I'm fortunate to work with some of the best libertarian writers in the country at Reason magazine, and I encourage everyone out there to read all my colleagues. Aside from Reason's staffers and columnists, the currently active libertarian and libertarian-leaning writers that I regularly enjoy reading include Radley Balko, Randy Barnett, David Beito, Paul Cantor, Tim Carney, Kevin Carson, Hernando De Soto, Mark Frauenfelder, David Friedman, Glenn Garvin, Anthony Gregory, Thomas Hazlett, Gene Healy, Robert Higgs, Kerry Howley, Jeff Hummel, Charles W. Johnson, Bill Kauffman, Tim Lee, Peter Leeson, Jacob Levy, Roderick Long, Daniel McCarthy, Deirdre McCloskey, Joanne McNeil, Robert Nelson, Elinor Ostrom, Virginia Postrel, Ralph Raico, John Shelton Reed, Julian Sanchez, Jack Shafer, Thomas Szasz, Timothy Virkkala, Eugene know, at this point the list is so long that I'm worried the many people I'm temporarily forgetting will feel like they've been deliberately snubbed, so I'll just say the world is filled with smart libertarian writers and I do my best to persuade them all to write articles for Reason.

As this is kind of a long list, are there one or two blogs you want to recommend, or one or two recent books you wish you could get everyone to read?

My favorite libertarian blog is -- honest to God -- Reason's own Hit & Run. The most important libertarian books I've read in the last few years are Kurt Schock's UNARMED INSURRECTIONS and James C. Scott's THE ART OF NOT BEING GOVERNED. The authors would probably object to being called libertarians, but I'm going to claim their books anyway.

I like your division of libertarians between RAW folks and Randians, but perhaps another split is between the people who march to the polls every election and participate in Libertarian Party politics, and the folks who don't vote and have given up on the system. Do you see any point to actually participating? Many libertarians who hoped to see Obama as an improvement on peace and civil liberties have been bitterly disappointed.

I'm not *against* political participation, but I think libertarians need to be aware of its limits. I'm less interested in electing officials who agree with me than in building movements that can pressure elected officials who *don't* agree with me. And those movements should be modular. When you assemble coalitions around issues rather than candidates, you can bring people together who don't agree on (say) trade policy but do agree on (say) the need to restore the Fourth Amendment. And then you can be a part of a different coalition a week later when it's time to take a stand on a trade issue.

At every stage of this process, you need to be not just ready but eager to reach across traditional left/right lines. One of the biggest barriers to serious change in this country is the way people get channeled into these Red Team/Blue Team poo-throwing matches. You have Americans more worried about some nightmare scenario of the far left or far right taking power than they are about the cozy bipartisan center that produces most of the bad ideas that actually get enacted.

It's also important to keep a bottom-up perspective. Let the people in Washington look at the world from Washington's point of view; the rest of us shouldn't be seduced into thinking like a legislator. Useful libertarian activism is a matter of defending and extending the zones of free action. The majority of the most promising transformations in America over the last few decades took place not because officials decided on their own to relinquish some of their authority, but because grassroots institutions either seized new ground or crept onto it while no one was watching. Examples range from the homeschooling revolution, which achieved tremendous victories while school choice legislation was at best sputtering forward, to the various DIY alternatives eating away at licensed professions from building to broadcasting. With any domestic policy you dislike, someone somewhere has probably found a way to route around it. Libertarian activists should look for ways to turn that route into a superhighway.

Finally, you should try to think in both the long and short terms. It's a pretty safe bet that the America of one year from now is not going to be very different from the America we live in today. But it's an even safer bet that the America of 100 years from now will be drastically different. Radical change isn't just possible—it's inevitable. The question is how to nudge that change in the directions we like.

When I was in high school, I was a liberal Democrat who opposed the war in Vietnam but didn't like Communism; when I went to college, I finally figured out I was a "libertarian." Do you see any hope for pro-peace liberals and libertarians to get together to change U.S. foreign policy in a "Glenn Greenwald coalition," or should I grow up and forget about it?

The coalition shouldn't just include antiwar liberals and libertarians -- there are antiwar conservatives as well, and they need to be part of the team too. I'm part of a group called Come Home America that's trying to build bridges between people whose opposition to U.S. foreign policy comes from different ideological perspectives. I don't know if we'll get anywhere, but we have yet to decide to grow up and forget about it.


michael said...

What a fantastic interview! Thanks!

Rogerspark and Minority of One: I'd love to see "Simon Moon"'s articles from those obscure journals, also.

When Walker sez Illuminatus! vividly captures the tenor of its times, he's in great harmony with Philip Jenkins of U. of Penn, who usually writes about religious ideas, although he's a square professor who's really pretty "hip."

This guy also thought Illuminatus! was spot-on:

Believe it or not, as, I believe, Rodney Allen Rippy once said.

michael said...

ADDENDA: I hope no one watched Philip Jenkins hoping he would elaborate on Illuminatus!; I posted to show how diverse some of the Good Book's fans might be. If anyone wants to see Jenkins's remarks on the book, check out his Decade of Nightmares, pp.51-56, on conspiracy theories in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Tweedy Jenkins says Illuminatus! "best captures the mood of those years."

For people (like myself) who are not conventionally religious at all, but are still interested in religious movements, Jenkins is a good guy to check out.

For other scholars of conspiracy and satire, have a look at Architects of Fear, by George Johnson (RAW is mentioned), Conspiracy Theories by Mark Fenster (RAW covered), and Stauffer's The Bavarian Illuminati In America: on pp.262-263 there's a citation from the Massachusetts Mercury from November 30, 1789 that might be the "first" satire on the Illuminati in English, by "Trepidus."

I ain't a-sayin' Johnson, Fenster or Trepidus "nailed it;" I'm merely saying they got something to SAY on the ish.

Jesse said...

Glad you enjoyed the interview, Michael. Philip Jenkins has written a lot of books that might be of interest to Robert Anton Wilson fans. Besides DECADE OF NIGHTMARES, there's MYSTICS AND MESSIAHS, a history of American "cults," and IMAGES OF TERROR, about the social construction of terrorism.

Eric Wagner said...

I wonder what books people will remember Bob Wilson for. Over at, some folks selected Prometheus Rising as the book of his which left them with the strongest impression, with Cosmic Trigger in second place.

Jim Gill said...

Great interview! Can't wait to read the book.