I picked up a recent National Review, flipping to the “Books, Arts, and Manners” section, as is my habit, finding myself somewhat blown away by Andrew Robert’s review of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, by Jonathan Kay. The big block quote in the middle of the review reads:
“Far from ushering in a world of blissful realism, freedom, and mutual comprehension, the Internet has unleashed the private fanaticism of millions of crackpots into cyberspace.”
This, of course, is correct. I’ve argued that, in a lot of ways, the balkanization of weirdos on the internet has actually devalued a lot of the more prominent professional peddlers of conspiracies who previously worked through more traditional means of print and publishing. I was somewhat more dazed when I read that Kay asserts that
“For the first time in history, ordinary people can now spread their opinions, no matter how hateful or eccentric, without first gaining the approval of editors, publishers, broadcasters, or paying consumers.”
I have evidence too, in Ivan Stang’s High Weirdness by Mail, billed as “A directory of the fringe: mad prophets, crackpots, kooks, and true visionaries.” Before the internet allowed us to read the diatribes of fanatics, kooks, and morons of every persuasion, there was this little thing called “postal service,” hence the title.
Many of the zines and essays and audiotapes live on through internet distribution, some hiding in the margins of obscure blogs and websites and DDL services, others having gained at least some mainstream appeal (like the film reviews of the wonderful Joe Bob Briggs) but the majority seems to have rightfully earned the title of “ephemera.” There’s two reasons to read this book, maybe three, as (they say) your mileage may vary. The first is to get a taste of the pre-digital weirdness that many of us are too young to have enjoyed in its natural state.
Divided into somewhat arbitrary sections, like “weird science” and “New Age Saps,” High Weirdness by Mail proffers brief descriptions and mailing addresses for all sorts of strangeness that one could have, in the late eighties, delivered to their front door, or preferably to an anonymous P. O. box. The accompanying commentary runs the gamut from generally respectful to outright derisive, and is even occasionally funny, though not always intentionally.
Genuinely funny, for example, is the entry on the Christian Dating Club (“Gosh durn it, some of these filthy non-Christian women run around in short pants, right in front of men!! With their LEGS showing!!” pg 290). Others are funny because Stang is a silly pseudo-intellectual. I laughed when he said that Al Goldstein’s Screw was “more effectively antiauthoritarian” than political publications written by real people (also pg 290). Familiar enough with Screw to know that this could only be true for a very particular, highly undesirable outlook on culture and politics, I lol’d so hard that the tobacco spit from my snus came out my nose. Good times.
That leads my to my trepidation in recommending this otherwise excellent tome for more sensible gawkers at the wild world of American weirdness. Stang, for those who do not recognize his name or the referential embellishments on the cover, is the president of the Church of the SubGenius, a sort of parody religion that takes aim at goofy evangelicals and cults and New Agers, i.e. the subjects of High Weirdness by Mail. I made the acquaintance of a couple of SubGenius professors during college and can hear their voices throughout the book. Smart, though not nearly as much as they think they are, smug, and, to borrow from Chesterton, “very logical whenever somebody else attempts paradox.”
There’s a degree of obnoxious self-reference and obvious self-promotion going on in this book that’s off-putting except it describes people even more odiously self-absorbed. Stang occasionally runs off on personal tangents that I can’t imagine anybody caring about less than I do, the worst appearing on page 95, where he not only goes off on a rather dull personal examination of the nature of spirituality, but provides a footnote in defense of his use of Antabuse to treat his alcoholism which runs longer than the text pertaining to his actual subject. I’m sure that a SubGenius member might find this interesting, but the Church of SubGenius was a joke that stopped being funny years ago to anyone except aging nerds. They’d probably call me “pink.”
Ignore that equivocation, as I’m about to give the other reason I liked High Weirdness by Mail. The preface of chapter 14 (“Rantzines”) reads:
“…today’s frustrated world saviors and hometown Hearsts enjoy 4 cent photocopies (with reduction!), cheap laser typesetting, and, most importantly, the relentless spread of “instant pring” copies of a twenty page manifesto for less than five hundred dollars. With a home computer, it can be given the polished look of big-time publications – or at least a close enough approximation to fool the rubes. As far as the average reader can tell, it has a great an operating budget, and hence credibility, as any ‘real’ magazine.
Gutenberg would shit.”
And it goes on from there. Sure, it’s expressed a little differently, but Stang’s reaction to home publishing is not unlike what one might read from Mark Helprin in, say, The National Review (anybody still remember or care about Digital Barbarism?).
There’s a mix of pity and disgust here, whereas most of the descriptions and comments from Stang veer to one direction or the other. But Stang makes the obvious observation, which people like Kay and Roberts quoted above do not, which is that, for all of the unlimited ranting potential of home publishing (or, y’know, the internet), little “appreciable political disruption” has actually occurred. I would point out that home publishing actually produced The Turner Diaries, which inspired the OKC bombing, but that was an anomaly. As another of my favorite authors says, “arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false.” So far, Tea Partiers, Alex Jones fans, and 9-11 truthers have done little quantifiable harm beyond inconvenient rallies, foul media performances, and heckling the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill Maher. Some would not count the last as harmful in the least.
There’s a lot to learn from the not-so-distant past, which seems to me the most chronicly distorted part of history. Of chief importance is the revelation of just how not-different we are (which, ironically, is probably why it’s so easy to misunderstand recently ended decades). But maybe it’s the romantic side of me that finds the complementary lesson of just how much things have changed much more appealing. I’d rather receive low-fi cassettes in the mail than download mp3s from myspace and find kooky fanzines in my mailbox than read .pdf files on a computer screen.
I consumed High Weirdness by Mail in one whole bite. The writing, for all of its often flaccid humor, is smooth and some of the observations insightful and wry, sometimes at the same time. Easy reading, here. If you should read it, don’t do it like me, no matter the temptation. By the end of the book, my psyche was so bruised from the Frankenstein combination of SubGenius bullshit and fringe lunacy that I had to read a large quantity of that misanthropic conservatism I mentioned above to cleanse my palate. Florence King’s self-confessed misanthropy becomes rather quaint when compared to the annoyance provoked by descriptions of ridiculous hippies, sociopathic racists, pitiable UFO devotees, and bizarre religious semi-institutions.
Like burning tobacco juice pushed through the sinus cavities by great mirth, High Weirdness by Mail is good times, but it kinda hurts.