Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis on the culture wars: ‘How has this happened? Where is the escape hatch?’ | Culture

Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis turned mates in the late Nineties, having bonded over their shared pursuits in energy, society and the tales we inform about ourselves. Curtis, 66, is a Bafta-winning documentary film-maker whose credit embrace The Energy of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Worry and HyperNormalisation. His most up-to-date six-part sequence, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, attracts on the historical past of psychology and politics to point out how we received to the place we’re at present. Ronson, 54, is a US-based Welsh author and journalist whose books embrace 2015’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about social media brutality and the historical past of public shaming. In recent times, Ronson has turned to podcasting, investigating the porn trade in The Butterfly Impact and its follow-up The Final Days of August.

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His forthcoming BBC podcast, Things Fell Apart, is about the roots of the culture wars and the methods the current is echoed in the previous. Over eight episodes, he talks to people caught up in ideological conflicts, conspiracy theories and ethical panics. These embrace Alice Moore, the spouse of a fundamentalist minister and sudden culture battle instigator who campaigned to take away textbooks containing liberal materials from faculties, and Kelly Michaels, a daycare employee and sufferer of the “satanic panic” who was wrongfully imprisoned in 1988 by a New Jersey court docket for baby abuse (the verdict was overturned in 1993).

We’re on: Curtis is speaking from his workplace in London whereas Ronson is at house in New York. By means of preparation earlier than their chat, Curtis has binged on Ronson’s new sequence. No sooner are cameras switched on than the reminiscences start.

Jon Ronson Do you do not forget that time we went to an public sale of [the late Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceaușescu’s belongings?

Adam Curtis Sure, now that was thrilling.

JR It was. We went on a minibreak to Romania collectively.

AC I purchased Ceaușescu’s cap, and a pair of socks.

JR I additionally received a pair of socks. There was some very heavy bidding from a mysterious gentleman who received all the ornaments. The costs have been getting fairly excessive so I caught with the socks. I don’t even know the place they’re now. I wager the place your stuff is.

AC I do, truly.

JR Now we have had many conversations over the years and typically I discover I’m asking you questions as a result of I’m making an attempt to get concepts. I all the time consider you as a improbable supply of insights into the future. In the early days of social media, you have been the very first particular person to say to me: “Don’t consider this as a utopia. There are some issues right here.” There are two or three folks in my life the place, after they discuss, I actually wish to hearken to what they must say, and you might be a kind of.

AC That is utterly not true. What truly occurs is that I bollock on about theories which you utterly ignore and then you definitely go off on your tales. Anyway, I’m making an attempt to recollect after we truly met.

JR I believe the first time I met you was after I made the [1997] documentary Tottenham Ayatollah and you got here to the screening.

AC And your spouse Elaine invited me to satisfy you in a restaurant off Tottenham Court docket Highway. She stated: “Are you able to come and discuss to him? Then you might take a few of the strain off me by speaking about his movie.”

JR She most likely stated: “I can’t take it any extra. He received’t cease agonising.”

AC However after we met you didn’t agonise in any respect. I believe what we recognised in one another – and it’s been the skilled bond between us – is that we’re each curious about what occurs exterior these regular areas that almost all political journalists look at that contain politics and energy. We wish to have a look at issues like psychology and how a conspiracy concept performs out and how emotions work via society.

JR I’m actually shocked at how often the issues that we inform tales about overlap. However the method we go about it is so completely different. I believe your mind works higher enthusiastic about theories and my mind works higher enthusiastic about tales.

AC I believe you and I are creatures of our time. I received curious about this concept that energy now works not via conventional types however via the thought of individualism; it says you have to be allowed to do what you wish to do, however we’ll serve you to get that. You and I each know what it’s wish to be an obsessive individualist, however we’ve turn out to be intrigued by how that performs out in a society wherein you’ve received a number of folks eager to be people. I’ve all the time had this concept that self-expression is the conformity of our age. Essentially the most radical factor you are able to do is one thing extraordinary like strolling bare round the world, and not inform anybody that you just’ve carried out it. You may’t publish something on-line. While you say that to folks, they will’t conceive of it.

JR I actually like that concept.

AC The opposite factor that we each do after we’re interviewing folks is not comply with an inventory of questions. You go right into a scenario the place you’ve got questions in your head however out of the blue they’ll say one thing which is both humorous or sudden and you simply be taught to go along with it. It’s like out of the blue just a little piglet swerves off from the herd, and you go along with it up and over the hill.

JR One optimistic factor that has been stated about what I do is that there’s a sincerity to it. I by no means go into one thing with an thought of the way it will end up.

AC We’re speaking about sincerity? Don’t go there, Jon! You’ll be writing poems subsequent.

JR [Laughs] Properly it’s actually to do with making an attempt to determine what I believe from my analysis with out being advised what to assume by different folks. I believe folks admire the indisputable fact that I’ve labored laborious to return to the ideas I’ve come to.

AC Sure, I agree with that.

‘I never go into something with an idea of how it will turn out’ ... Jon Ronson.
‘I by no means go into one thing with an thought of the way it will end up’ … Jon Ronson. {Photograph}: Alberto Paredes/Alamy

JR I assume what we’ve got in widespread is we’re not ideologues. We don’t go right into a scenario with a set of agendas. We’re extra keen to be a twig in the river of the story and simply go the place it takes us. By doing that we’re pressured to maintain an open thoughts. I don’t actually have a checklist of questions in my head after I’m interviewing any individual. I’m actually a tightrope walker with no security internet, and I’ve, on many events, plummeted to my dying like in Squid Recreation.

AC I believe that open-mindedness is clear in your podcast. And it’s completely the proper time to look at the roots of what we’re calling the culture wars, which is such a troublesome and delicate space. A lot journalism, when it goes again into the previous to see why one thing occurred, all the time interviews the people who find themselves outlined as the actors, the individuals who consciously got down to [create conflict]. What I’m more and more intrigued by is the individuals who have been acted upon by that factor or thought. As a result of the method concepts or ideas play out in society are by no means the method that the individuals who began them assume. What you’ve carried out in these programmes is comply with people who’re acted upon by these forces, as a result of it reveals you the actual dimensions of what these items referred to as culture wars are.

JR Properly, I realised that I’d watch folks turn out to be overconsumed by these cultural conflicts, to the extent that it was impacting their psychological well being and tearing households aside. However each present that’s about the culture finally ends up part of the culture wars, and I didn’t wish to try this. So I believed the strategy to do it was by focusing on a second and a human story and inform that story in as sudden a method as doable. In the finish we discovered eight tales about the complexity of human life and all of them occur to be origin tales. These are the pebbles being thrown in the pond and creating these ripples.

AC Sure, these folks have gotten caught up in the nice tides of historical past which have come sweeping over them. It feels actual. In case you comply with people who find themselves acted upon, you begin to perceive, in a way more sympathetic method, why folks do issues that you just may not like or approve of. You see how somebody is led to one thing, with no thought of the penalties. In the first two episodes, you discuss how the evangelical motion up till the early Nineteen Seventies had been utterly indifferent from any involvement in the ethical, political or social questions of American society. And what you hint is how two folks received sucked into a selected challenge, which then acted like a fuse to reawaken the evangelical motion.

Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis
Illustration: Klawe Rzeczy/The Guardian

JR For many years the Christian proper have been silent: they consumed their very own media, they went to their very own church buildings and they listened to their very own radio reveals, and they have been completely unengaged with what was occurring. However then just a few issues occurred that lastly galvanised them into changing into troopers in a culture battle, and one was a brand new range of thought at school textbooks. In the sequence I discuss to Alice Moore, who is in her 80s now and was one in every of the earliest cultural warriors for the evangelical proper. She was a church minister’s spouse in West Virginia who found there was going to be a brand new intercourse training lesson taught in faculties, and she wasn’t having that. So she received on to the faculty board, and then the new curriculum arrived in 1974 that was filled with all these multicultural voices, and issues received so heated over only one semester that faculty buses have been shot at – actually, pictures have been fired from each side – and a faculty was bombed. And I found whereas speaking to Alice that one in every of the causes for the depth of the anger was a misinterpretation of a poem [that appeared in one of the new school textbooks].

AC By Roger McGough!

JR Sure. It was a poem [1967’s At Lunchtime: A Story of Love] that featured a spontaneous orgy that takes place on a bus, as a result of the passengers thought the world was about to finish at lunchtime in a nuclear battle. So Alice was studying out this poem to me and I used to be considering: “I don’t assume this is in favour of spontaneous orgies on buses. I believe this poet is agreeing with you, to an extent.” So then I went off to speak to Roger about it.

AC And then you definitely went again to Alice, and she was fairly grumpy about it, which was humorous. However I believe this is an exquisite instance of what we have been speaking about. As I used to be listening to that episode I used to be considering: “Hold on, this isn’t fairly as unhealthy as she thinks it is.” After which, Jon’s mind is considering the identical factor, however with out judgment.

JR I wish to avoid battle as a lot as I can.

AC Which is good and additionally uncommon. Most individuals would pursue her with their agenda. Proper now, everybody is judged as both being good or unhealthy. It’s good versus evil – that’s the place journalism has received to now. However yours doesn’t try this.

JR I’m curious about all people as a human being and I’m fairly startled by the myriad examples of the media being part of the culture wars. It appears to occur in every single place, this mistelling of a narrative so it suits into a selected ideology just a little extra clearly. It occurs on all sides. I get very disheartened when CNN lies to me or is biased or omits sure facets of the fact to inform a sure model of the story. Throughout the Trump years I actually felt that with CNN. I felt like I used to be in QAnon and my Q was Anderson Cooper.

AC I’d learn the New York Instances all about the shut friendship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. And I do know sufficient Russian journalists who I belief to know that it’s simply full garbage. So hysteria occurred on each side. I imply should you return over reviews even from my very own organisation, the BBC, about how Trump was truly an agent of Putin, it’s extraordinary. It’s a conspiracy concept. That’s as a lot of a panic as anything you get on the proper.

Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis
Illustration: Klawe Rzeczy/The Guardian

JR I additionally assume quite a lot of journalists are, like: “Oh my God. All this time I’ve simply been a liberal however have a look at these items which might be occurring: Trump’s election, George Floyd.” In order that they assume it’s not sufficient to be a liberal journalist, they must be an activist journalist. And I believe it’s utterly comprehensible and, in some circumstances, it’s a terrific factor. However then in different circumstances, it’s actually troublesome as a result of journalism now has pre-existing ideologies.

AC After which journalism lifts off from Planet Actual and goes off into the realms of histrionic character dysfunction. I truly assume histrionic character dysfunction describes most of the progressive courses in western societies, in that they’ve given up on their progressivism and retreated right into a histrionic perspective to the world.

JR I do assume these tales inform us an terrible lot about the method we stay our lives at present. In the satanic panic episode, which is about ethical panics in the Eighties, you assume it’s going to be about the parallels at present with QAnon. However it turns into clear that there are additionally parallels with the panics on the left at present, and that all of us have these cognitive biases. I inform this story wherein daycare staff are being accused of satanic exercise, which clearly by no means occurred, and the place folks truly went to jail. Out of the blue it wasn’t simply the Christian proper fearful about satanic cults at the finish of your avenue, however mainstream America. When the flame is burning scorching, we are able to all act in irrational, brutal or inhuman methods, and you see it throughout the spectrum.

AC The sequence did make me assume: how has this occurred? Not simply the culture wars however their ferocity. And the place is the escape hatch? As a result of I believe all sides now really feel that there’s one thing not fairly proper. In case you look at the years since Trump and Brexit, there has been this monumental hysteria in newspapers and on tv about it. However truly the politicians have carried out nothing to vary society. It’s virtually been like a frozen world. So, I believe the actual reply to why this is occurring is as a result of politics has failed. It’s turn out to be this useless space, this desert surrounded by thinktanks, and somebody’s received to get in there and regenerate it. The brand new politics is ready to return. And I believe it can occur.

Jon Ronson’s Issues Fell Aside continues Tuesday, 9am Radio 4 and BBC Sounds. It will likely be out there in the US and Canada solely on BBC Podcasts Premium on Apple Podcasts. Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head is on BBC iPlayer.

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