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  Ishmael Community: A Dialogue

A Dialogue with Bob Conrad

    A while back, Dennis Lanigan, a reader of Ishmael, sent me a huge sampling of punk literature to see what I thought. One of his favorite punk magazines, Second Guess, is published by Bob Conrad. On the basis of my response, Lanigan urged Conrad to have a look at Ishmael. After reading Ishmael and The Story of B, Conrad contacted me to see if I'd be interested in engaging in a dialogue to be published in his magazine. I said sure, provided I could put the dialogue up here on the Ishmael website as well.

    DQ: In my reply to Lanigan, I said I wasn't sure I had any very profound insights about the punk phenomenon. I went on to say: "The hippies found something they could preempt for themselves that mainstream Americans didn't have recreational drugs, easy sex, rocknroll, bluejean chic, and so on. Then, by golly, mainstream Americans sucked all that stuff in, and the hippies were left with nothing to call their own. Punks found something they could preempt for themselves that mainstream Americans don't have, and they've made it sufficiently unattractive that mainstream Americans have left it alone. This is the lesson the punks learned from the hippies: If you want to survive as a subculture, you've got to STAY marginalized. And the punks seem to be doing that very well. They may be doing something besides staying marginalized, but I frankly have no idea what it is." I still don't.

    BC: What should we be doing then? (We being people, even punks, who are concerned about the direction the world is heading.) Punk to me provides an adequate foundation for looking at things more critically, but you're correct to say its movement is about nil. It's stagnant and apparently incapable of addressing concerns beyond who's sold out, who's eating meat and other silly attempts at solving inconsequential "problems." You bring up an important way of looking at and addressing worldly concerns in The Story of B, but I thought it lacked specifics in terms of what course of action we should follow, aside from spreading B's important information.

    DQ: There IS no "course of action" we should follow. Each must say, "Here is where I am and here is what I'm capable of doing." No two of us are placed the same way or are capable of achieving the same things. People in America (perhaps more than elsewhere) are used to being organized into "campaigns" -- support this cause, elect this president, boycott this product, vote for this legislator, support this bill, and so on -- but there is no campaign that is going to assure us having a livable world. For many generations, we've all been collaborators in bringing us to the point of extinction, but we weren't following any "course of action," as we did this. Rather, we were following a vision (or as Ishmael put it, enacting a story). Political leaders and captains of industry followed the vision in their own way (and contributed in their own way to our situation). Shopkeepers and workers followed the vision in their own way (and contributed in their own way to our situation). In reversing the situation, how could it possibly be different?

    BC: I guess my language isn't accurate. For you, you've found what you're capable of doing. And this isn't appropriate for probably most people, but certainly there's some kind of thought-out objective, as B puts it, that motivates you to do what you do. You've found your means of communication. What are other objectives you think might be worthwhile?

    DQ: EVERYONE must find what he or she is capable of doing. Aside from awakening his or her neighbors (as Uru suggests), there is no GENERIC thing that everyone can do. I mean, of course, apart from the obvious -- support good legislation, oppose bad legislation, vote for conscientious leaders, recycle, reduce, reuse, and so on. I have no secret program that I'm keeping to myself; I really believe what I'm saying in B, that if the world is saved, it will not be save by old minds with new programs, it will be saved by people with new minds and no programs at all.

    BC: How can we go about disseminating the kind of information the mainstream is so resistant to?

    DQ: Again, there is no one right way of doing this. I'm doing it my way, others must do it their way. Never despise reaching one person, because that one person may reach a million. In the sixties a new music fostered a new set of values -- and a new set of values fostered a new music. Music will reach more people than any book -- but I have no idea what that music will sound like.

    BC: Many punks would say it's their music that carries a message for, ultimately, a better society. Put simply, because punk has survived without much mainstream influence, and due to its critical and self-reliant nature, it's at least made the subculture more aware of how the world is turning and what possible solutions might be to worldly problems, misguided or not. What you said about the 60s is true; punk, however, seems to place more of an emphasis on collectivism and autonomy to the point of it often being punk's driving force (or objective). The DIY ethic is an example which has seemed to create for many people a new way of existing, a new community with an emphasis on freedom. While I view self-reliance as a solution created more out of necessity I also note that punk at the very least does offer a small web of information which is partly responsible for this interview and other sources of constructive dialogue. Some have gone so far as to say that punk has been the foundation for some of the more important minds of this time. Your comments?

    DQ: Isolation from mainstream influence is a two-way street of course -- you're isolated from it and it's isolated from you. Which means, for example, that I'm not plugged into the "small web of information" you mention and have no way of knowing what you have in mind when you say that "punk has been the foundation for some of the more important minds of this time." I'm not saying it isn't so, I just have no idea what or who you're thinking of.

    BC: A couple of the more relevant writers to my mind are: Tom Frank of The Baffler, who has illustrated the ills of the culture industry; and Fred Woodworth of The Match has been, since '69, emphasizing freedom from government, religion and business. In their own ways, these writers and many others active in marginal scenes, have often provided important, new ideas, only later to have similar views commodified and diluted by the mainstream when it's convenient or fashionable.

    DQ: It seems to me useless to say that they have provided important new ideas, when this is precisely what they have FAILED to do -- they have failed to find a way to PROVIDE their ideas and are content to circulate them in a limited way, among the marginalized.

    BC: The fact is, few mainstream outlets are receptive to messages similar to your own, yet revolutionary ideas thrive in underground forums.

    DQ: If truly revolutionary ideas are being circulated in underground forums, then I'd say that they're languishing there, not thriving. It would have been possible for me to publish my ideas in underground forums (in fact one underground publisher wanted to publish Another Story To Be In, version six of the book that ultimately became Ishmael), but I wanted my ideas to reach the widest possible audience and labored on until they were in a form that would enable that to happen. I didn't succeed because I found a mainstream outlet that was receptive to my message, I succeeded because I presented my message in a form that would be attractive to a mainstream outlet. I'm living proof of the fact that you can challenge absolutely fundamental cultural beliefs -- without either going underground or softening the challenge.

    BC: Journals like The Baffler or The Match are passionately and intelligently trying to negate the temperament of the times.

    DQ: I'll use Buckminster Fuller's words to express my reaction to this: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

    BC: Is it important to be marginalized?

    DQ: I personally see no value in being marginalized.

    BC: I guess my point is, is if we must each do what we are capable of, as you state, this often requires being marginal -- not always by choice.

    DQ: If you can only be effective by being marginal, then be marginal. I've never spoken against marginalization. I just don't see it as carrying a special virtue. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always perceived marginalization as a virtue -- as Jesus put it, "Blessed are those who suffer insults and persecutions and every sort of calumny for my sake. Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven; they persecuted the prophets in the same way before you." It's a common perception that unpopular ideas MUST be nobler than popular ones. I don't buy it.

    BC: The basis of punk seems to be to abandon what isn't working bureaucratically speaking (government and big business) in favor of trying to develop a functioning subculture that DOES WORK even though it might not in the end. In many ways, the implications of part of punk's agenda falls in line with the implications of your views. But your emphasis seems to be (correct me if I'm not accurate) less about self-reliance and more on letting valid ideas be heard because the time is right for important messages to be heard. My confusion is with what appears to be a difference in methodology.

    DQ: I don't HAVE a suggested methodology. My point is that people with the same old vision will do the same old thing, whereas people with a new vision will do a new thing. If your house is on fire, changing people's minds takes second place to putting out the fire. If Congress is trying to pass a bill rescinding all laws protecting the environment, changing people's minds takes second place to writing a letter to your congressperson in an effort to stop this legislation.

    BC: Society is becoming stratified on so many levels to the point of disintegration. What is your analysis of self-induced separatism among concerned activist groups, such as black and white racialists, feminists, anarchists, etc.?

    DQ: This "cause-specialization" is a good strategy for establishing identity and attracting attention and funds. Each group proclaims that its concerns come ahead of every other group's. Who believes them? How long will they be around? Who knows? Is it the trend of the future? I doubt it.

    BC: A feminist comment stated that feminist concerns need to be solved BEFORE larger issues can be addressed. What are your thoughts on this assertion and feminism in general?

    DQ: They ALL say this, don't they? I mean, it isn't just feminists. I once had a guy tell me that FIRST -- before ANYTHING ELSE -- people had to learn RESPECT. Yeah, great, so how long are we supposed to wait for that to happen? A few years ago WorldWatch gave as its estimate that we have forty years to turn things around here. After that, they judge, the vast negative impact we're having on the world will result in irreversible damage. They're talking about human extinction. In my own hierarchy of values, nothing ranks ahead of saving the world, but if we fail at that, all other causes obviously become moot. We have to attend to saving the world as urgently as if it were our house burning down around us. As for feminism in general, I consider myself a feminist. But I have an opinion that many feminists dislike, which is that men and women are both victims of a vicious cultural system, though they suffer their victimization in different ways.

    BC: B says: "If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by people with old minds and new programs. It will be saved by new minds -- with no programs." There's an element of anarchism in this statement. What are your thoughts on anarchism?

    DQ: I would say that there's an element of what I'm saying in anarchism, rather than that there's an element of anarchism in what I'm saying. Governments are okay for taking care of streets and delivering mail, but they aren't constituted to do what we must do to save ourselves. My position on governments is, let them go on fixing the streets and delivering the mail while we get on with the business of saving the world. If anarchism holds that all governments should be abolished, I guess I don't have much interest in anarchism; it would be too much work to abolish them. Just leave them behind.

    BC: So you would abandon aspects of government that aren't working? How do you address this same idea in regards to business, which often has more control over the individual's life?

    DQ. I didn't exactly recommend abandoning aspects of government that aren't working. What I recommend is that we stop waiting for government to save us (because it isn't going to do that). We should also stop waiting for business to save us, though it could conceivably be more effective in that direction than government. Government is categorically blind to the possibility of human extinction; I mean that it has no category under which such a concept may be examined and dealt with. Business isn't categorically blind to the possibility of human extinction. Business knows that human extinction will definitely not be good for business. Business knows that no amount of greed will offset becoming extinct; survival is a necessary prerequisite to business success. Will businesspersons make use of this knowledge? It's possible; they can't ALL be dismissed as fools and knaves. At one point you mention the "DIY ethic." I guess I must have figured out what DIY stands for (since I didn't ask) but if so it eludes me now.

    BC: The DIY ethic is the idea brought to a way of being in the punk movement. It means literally Do It Yourself instead of relying on outside entities. It became a standard after the Sex Pistols and others were taken advantage of by major record companies. Now it's a standard that if strayed from gets one the tag of "sellout." Obviously this is problematic. Seen in this light, you would be criticized for associating with large publishing entities, having a bar-code on your books and even an ISBN#, all of which imply control by corporations and government, in addition to the profit they will see off your work. (Speaking of which, what is the significance of the triangle next to the barcode on all of your books?) Some acknowledge the reality of the situation, others are vehement across the board to the point of violence (I've been physically threatened for speaking out against some of this nonsense). Maximum Rocknroll, a long time and influential punk magazine (on newsprint), takes an almost militant stance against non-DIY music (having direct ties to major labels), but will occasionally allow reviews of punk-related or radical movies and books in its pages even if these products have ties with large corporations. It's seen by some that until the independent community can develop a solvent means of producing in all media, it's "OK" to acknowledge some non-DIY efforts. I'm curious to see what you have to say about this. The issues of Second Guess I sent you kind of went into this discussion here and there.

    DQ: Those who insist on DIY pay a certain price for a certain benefit that seems worth the price. If they're happy with their bargain, why should I criticize them? By choosing a mass-market publisher for my work, I too pay a certain price for a certain benefit that seems worth the price. I don't expect others to make the bargain I've made; why should they expect me to make the bargain they've made? The little triangle by the barcode is probably a secret code that means "Work of the Devil -- Do not read!!"

    BC: Final `punk' related question, I promise: The point I've been trying to make between what you say and some of what punk seems to say is that changing minds is important. Mykel Board, a writer for Maximum Rocknroll, said this in Second Guess #4 -- to do what we're capable of to change minds. Only you're correct to say that these ideas have not gone far. You say you're living proof that ideas can challenge the status quo on a wider scale, but I see it more as you being afforded that luxury. Most people either aren't capable of doing what you have or have TRIED to achieve similar objectives only to be coerced into being marginalized. The Match, if you read Issue 12 of Second Guess, was forced out of existence by local and federal authorities until Fred was no longer able to GIVE AWAY copies of it in Tucson, Ariz.

    DQ: Don't quite know what you mean when you say that I'm being "afforded" that luxury. I worked for twelve years to put my ideas into a form that would reach people on a wide scale. No one "afforded" me that luxury.

    BC: The What To Do dialogue provides a good example of what you're saying. The piece brings a few questons to mind: Sure, Ray Anderson changed his mind about how he conducts one aspect of his business, but how many others in his position will do likewise?

    DQ: And therefore . . . what? Are you saying it's worthless for one giant company to change the way it does business? If a first company doesn't do it, how can there be a second?

    BC: Other companies find ways to increase competition by exploiting third-world labor. Ray Anderson is concerned; is Shell Oil? What has Ray Anderson done about other issues of concern, such as job security, health benefits, livable wages etc.?

    DQ: I'm not proposing Ray Anderson for sainthood. Even if he's a capitalist swine (which he isn't, as far as I know) he's still a world leader in the field of industrial sustainability.

    BC: What about the issue of consumption, which America has an unnerving fetish for, and taking MORE than we need (as B mentions)?

    DQ: Everyone's aware of this issue -- all the way down to kindergarten. My effort is to uncover issues NO ONE is looking at. I'm not saying the issue of consumption isn't important, I'm saying it doesn't need my attention because it's already got everyone else's attention.

    BC: You say IF the world is saved...I'm skeptical it will be for many of these reasons. Obviously what you're saying is one ray of hope that it's possible. I just don't trust humanity enough to grasp and understand what Ishmael has said (as you can see, I'm having difficulties myself), and furthermore, to care.

    DQ: As you note, I do say IF. Obviously the outcome is in doubt. If the outcome were certain, all effort would be pointless -- either way. Since it isn't certain, those who care must struggle on as best they can. What's to be said about those who don't care? They're just people who don't care.

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