Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis on the culture wars: ‘How has this happened? Where is the escape hatch?’ | Culture
Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis became friends in the late 1990s, having bonded over their shared interests in power, society and the stories we tell about ourselves. Curtis, 66, is a Bafta-winning documentary film-maker whose credits include The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear and HyperNormalisation. His most recent six-part series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, draws on the history of psychology and politics to show how we got to where we are today. Ronson, 54, is a US-based Welsh writer and journalist whose books include 2015’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about social media brutality and the history of public shaming. In recent years, Ronson has turned to podcasting, investigating the porn industry in The Butterfly Effect and its follow-up The Last Days of August.
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His forthcoming BBC podcast, Things Fell Apart, is about the roots of the culture wars and the ways the present is echoed in the past. Over eight episodes, he talks to individuals caught up in ideological conflicts, conspiracy theories and moral panics. These include Alice Moore, the wife of a fundamentalist minister and unexpected culture war instigator who campaigned to remove textbooks containing liberal material from schools, and Kelly Michaels, a daycare worker and victim of the “satanic panic” who was wrongfully imprisoned in 1988 by a New Jersey court for child abuse (the verdict was overturned in 1993).
We are on: Curtis is talking from his office in London while Ronson is at home in New York. By way of preparation before their chat, Curtis has binged on Ronson’s new series. No sooner are cameras switched on than the reminiscences begin.
Jon Ronson Do you remember that time we went to an auction of [the late Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceaușescu’s belongings?
Adam Curtis Yes, now that was exciting.
JR It was. We went on a minibreak to Romania together.
AC I bought Ceaușescu’s cap, and a pair of socks.
JR I also got a pair of socks. There was some very heavy bidding from a mysterious gentleman who got all the ornaments. The prices were getting pretty high so I stuck with the socks. I don’t even know where they are now. I bet you know where your stuff is.
AC I do, actually.
JR We have had many conversations over the years and generally I find I’m asking you questions because I’m trying to get ideas. I always think of you as a fantastic source of insights into the future. In the early days of social media, you were the very first person to say to me: “Don’t think of this as a utopia. There are some problems here.” There are two or three people in my life where, when they talk, I really want to listen to what they have to say, and you are one of those.
AC That is completely not true. What actually happens is that I bollock on about theories which you completely ignore and then you go off on your stories. Anyway, I’m trying to remember when we actually met.
JR I think the first time I met you was when I made the  documentary Tottenham Ayatollah and you came to the screening.
AC And your wife Elaine invited me to meet you in a cafe off Tottenham Court Road. She said: “Can you come and talk to him? Then you could take some of the pressure off me by talking about his film.”
JR She probably said: “I can’t take it any more. He won’t stop agonising.”
AC But when we met you didn’t agonise at all. I think what we recognised in each other – and it’s been the professional bond between us – is that we’re both interested in what happens outside those normal areas that most political journalists examine that involve politics and power. We want to look at things like psychology and how a conspiracy theory plays out and how feelings work through society.
JR I’m really surprised at how frequently the things that we tell stories about overlap. But the way we go about it is so different. I think your brain works better thinking about theories and my brain works better thinking about stories.
The most radical thing you can do is something extraordinary like walking naked around the world, and not tell anyone that you’ve done itAdam Curtis
AC I think you and I are creatures of our time. I got interested in this idea that power now works not through traditional forms but through the idea of individualism; it says you should be allowed to do what you want to do, but we will serve you to get that. You and I both know what it’s like to be an obsessive individualist, but we’ve become intrigued by how that plays out in a society in which you’ve got lots of people wanting to be individuals. I’ve always had this theory that self-expression is the conformity of our age. The most radical thing you can do is something extraordinary like walking naked around the world, and not tell anyone that you’ve done it. You can’t post anything online. When you say that to people, they can’t conceive of it.
JR I really like that idea.
AC The other thing that we both do when we’re interviewing people is not follow a list of questions. You go into a situation where you have questions in your head but suddenly they’ll say something which is either funny or unexpected and you just learn to go with it. It’s like suddenly a little piglet swerves off from the herd, and you go with it up and over the hill.
JR One positive thing that has been said about what I do is that there’s a sincerity to it. I never go into something with an idea of how it will turn out.
AC We’re talking about sincerity? Don’t go there, Jon! You’ll be writing poems next.
JR [Laughs] Well it’s really to do with trying to figure out what I think from my research without being told what to think by other people. I think people appreciate the fact that I’ve worked hard to come to the thoughts I’ve come to.
AC Yes, I agree with that.
‘I never go into something with an idea of how it will turn out’ … Jon Ronson. Photograph: Alberto Paredes/Alamy
JR I guess what we have in common is we’re not ideologues. We don’t go into a situation with a set of agendas. We’re more willing to be a twig in the river of the story and just go where it takes us. By doing that we’re forced to keep an open mind. I don’t even have a list of questions in my head when I’m interviewing somebody. I’m literally a tightrope walker with no safety net, and I have, on many occasions, plummeted to my death like in Squid Game.
AC I think that open-mindedness is clear in your podcast. And it’s absolutely the right time to examine the roots of what we’re calling the culture wars, which is such a difficult and sensitive area. So much journalism, when it goes back into the past to see why something happened, always interviews the people who are defined as the actors, the people who consciously set out to [create conflict]. What I’m increasingly intrigued by is the people who were acted upon by that thing or idea. Because the way ideas or concepts play out in society are never the way that the people who started them think. What you’ve done in these programmes is follow individuals who are acted upon by these forces, because it shows you the real dimensions of what these things called culture wars are.
JR Well, I realised that I would watch people become overconsumed by these cultural conflicts, to the extent that it was impacting their mental health and tearing families apart. But every show that’s about the culture ends up a part of the culture wars, and I didn’t want to do that. So I thought the way to do it was by focusing on a moment and a human story and tell that story in as unexpected a way as possible. In the end we found eight stories about the complexity of human life and they all happen to be origin stories. These are the pebbles being thrown in the pond and creating these ripples.
AC Yes, these people have got caught up in the great tides of history that have come sweeping over them. It feels real. If you follow people who are acted upon, you start to understand, in a much more sympathetic way, why people do things that you might not like or approve of. You see how someone is led to something, with no idea of the consequences. In the first two episodes, you talk about how the evangelical movement up until the early 1970s had been completely detached from any involvement in the moral, political or social questions of American society. And what you trace is how two people got sucked into a particular issue, which then acted like a fuse to reawaken the evangelical movement.
Illustration: Klawe Rzeczy/The Guardian
JR For decades the Christian right were silent: they consumed their own media, they went to their own churches and they listened to their own radio shows, and they were totally unengaged with what was happening. But then a few things happened that finally galvanised them into becoming soldiers in a culture war, and one was a new diversity of thought in school textbooks. In the series I talk to Alice Moore, who is in her 80s now and was one of the earliest cultural warriors for the evangelical right. She was a church minister’s wife in West Virginia who discovered there was going to be a new sex education lesson taught in schools, and she wasn’t having that. So she got on to the school board, and then the new curriculum arrived in 1974 that was full of all these multicultural voices, and things got so heated over just one semester that school buses were shot at – in fact, shots were fired from both sides – and a school was bombed. And I discovered while talking to Alice that one of the reasons for the intensity of the anger was a misinterpretation of a poem [that appeared in one of the new school textbooks].
AC By Roger McGough!
JR Yes. It was a poem [1967’s At Lunchtime: A Story of Love] that featured a spontaneous orgy that takes place on a bus, because the passengers thought the world was about to end at lunchtime in a nuclear war. So Alice was reading out this poem to me and I was thinking: “I don’t think this is in favour of spontaneous orgies on buses. I think this poet is agreeing with you, to an extent.” So then I went off to talk to Roger about it.
AC And then you went back to Alice, and she was quite grumpy about it, which was funny. But I think this is a beautiful example of what we were talking about. As I was listening to that episode I was thinking: “Hang on, this isn’t quite as bad as she thinks it is.” And then, Jon’s brain is thinking the same thing, but without judgment.
JR I like to steer clear of conflict as much as I can.
AC Which is good and also rare. Most people would pursue her with their agenda. Right now, everyone is judged as either being good or bad. It’s good versus evil – that’s where journalism has got to now. But yours doesn’t do that.
JR I’m interested in everybody as a human being and I’m quite startled by the myriad examples of the media being a part of the culture wars. It seems to happen everywhere, this mistelling of a story so it fits into a particular ideology a little more clearly. It happens on all sides. I get very disheartened when CNN lies to me or is biased or omits certain aspects of the truth to tell a certain version of the story. During the Trump years I really felt that with CNN. I felt like I was in QAnon and my Q was Anderson Cooper.
AC I would read the New York Times all about the close friendship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. And I know enough Russian journalists who I trust to know that it’s just complete rubbish. So hysteria happened on both sides. I mean if you go back over reports even from my own organisation, the BBC, about how Trump was actually an agent of Putin, it’s extraordinary. It’s a conspiracy theory. That’s as much of a panic as anything else you get on the right.
Illustration: Klawe Rzeczy/The Guardian
JR I also think a lot of journalists are, like: “Oh my God. All this time I’ve just been a liberal but look at these things that are happening: Trump’s election, George Floyd.” So they think it’s not enough to be a liberal journalist, they have to be an activist journalist. And I think it’s completely understandable and, in some cases, it’s a great thing. But then in other cases, it’s really troublesome because journalism now has pre-existing ideologies.
AC And then journalism lifts off from Planet Real and goes off into the realms of histrionic personality disorder. I actually think histrionic personality disorder describes most of the progressive classes in western societies, in that they’ve given up on their progressivism and retreated into a histrionic attitude to the world.
JR I do think these stories tell us an awful lot about the way we live our lives today. In the satanic panic episode, which is about moral panics in the 1980s, you think it’s going to be about the parallels today with QAnon. But it becomes clear that there are also parallels with the panics on the left today, and that we all have these cognitive biases. I tell this story in which daycare workers are being accused of satanic activity, which clearly never happened, and where people actually went to jail. Suddenly it wasn’t just the Christian right worried about satanic cults at the end of your street, but mainstream America. When the flame is burning hot, we can all act in irrational, brutal or inhuman ways, and you see it across the spectrum.
AC The series did make me think: how has this happened? Not just the culture wars but their ferocity. And where is the escape hatch? Because I think all sides now feel that there’s something not quite right. If you examine the years since Trump and Brexit, there has been this enormous hysteria in newspapers and on television about it. But actually the politicians have done nothing to change society. It’s almost been like a frozen world. So, I think the real answer to why this is happening is because politics has failed. It’s become this dead area, this desert surrounded by thinktanks, and someone’s got to get in there and regenerate it. The new politics is waiting to come. And I think it will happen.
Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart continues Tuesday, 9am Radio 4 and BBC Sounds. It will be available in the US and Canada exclusively on BBC Podcasts Premium on Apple Podcasts. Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head is on BBC iPlayer.