An Interview with Tim LaPietra

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Tim LaPietra now works in the natural foods industry in Austin, but in 1999 he published Ted Kaczynski’s first post-arrest literature, a short parable entitled “Ship of Fools”  in OFF! magazine. Here we discuss the motives for and events leading up to the story’s publication along with Tim’s own ideological shifts and their relations to wildism. See a few excerpts of his letters with Kaczynski here.

Jonah: So, to begin this interview, who are you? All that I’ve found in a Google search is an interview with Ojore Lutalo; what other work have you been part of? What led you to try and publish “Ship of Fools”; what is its significance to you?

Tim: Currently, I’m not involved with anything that directly pertains to the work I did in my late teens/early 20s – the time in my life when I published the “Ship of Fools” parable. The closest tangible thing that somewhat relates is the fact that I work in the natural foods industry, though that’s more coincidence than by design. Some of my hobbies can be seen as parallel – love of the outdoors, fishing in particular, mycology—though in reality those things predate my involvement in primitivism. There are aspects of my personal philosophy/worldview that were inspired and informed by primitivist thought, in some ways directly, others, indirectly. In short, my life has zigged and zagged quite a bit since those days, from flying too close to the sun in my 20s, to trying to somewhat walk the line in my fourth decade.

To give context to the publication of “Ship of Fools,” I became progressively more radical in my mid-teens (which was early/mid 1990s), sort of following the archetypal tract: getting into the punk/hardcore scene, becoming vegan for a period of time, getting involved with various social issues, etc. Primitivist thought eventually became appealing to me since it seemed to address all the things I believed at the time to be “wrong with the world,” rather than the single issue approach that progressives have historically espoused. This was the same time the “Industrial Society and its Future” was published by the NY Times. That really blew me away at the time; not only did I agree with much of the content, but the fact that a major media outfit published something containing ideas that were traditionally ostracized from mainstream discussing was huge, this being the pre-social media era when such media monoliths had a much tighter grip on the narrative than they do now.

By the time of Kaczynski’s conviction, I had developed a respect for FC’s ideas (especially the distinction of anti-industrialism from leftism), though not necessarily the actions. Regardless, the intelligence on display was too interesting to ignore. Once he was sentenced and sent to Florence, I genuinely didn’t know if he had any outlets for his thoughts, so I wrote him, we exchanged a few letters, and I ered him the pages of OFF! magazine (an off campus magazine at SUNY Binghamton, of which I was editor at the time) in the event he was interested in publishing any of his writings. To my surprise, he sent me the manuscript a few months after that offer. In hindsight, I think he was able to detect my sincerity—I was genuinely interested in his ideas, and was perhaps a bit naive in that I did not at all anticipate all the media attention that followed, once it was published. That was one of the common threads when I spoke with media after the fact—they couldn’t wrap their heads around how I had gotten him to speak, when they had failed to do so at that point—but I was just sincerely interested in the ideas, I wasn’t trying to get my face in the paper, impress my friends, or advance a career. Ultimately, I found it to be an excellent parable, especially since by this time I’d become pretty cynical towards progressive activism, given my situation as college activist, what with the crazy Marxists on the one side, and the identity intelligentsia on the other. It was well written, displayed a sense of humor, and summarized what I had felt to be the heart of the issue.

J: I relate pretty heavily to that radicalism developing in the teens/20s trajectory, but, of course, haven’t left those years yet, so the first thing that comes to my mind there is why? What prompted your transition from near-the-sun to “walking the line”?

T: This is something I very much like discussing, though it’s a bit challenging for me to both find a place to start and keep things succinct, while touching on all the points I find relevant, but I’ll try. The first thing for me is, I still harbor some sentiments I’d consider to have derived from primitivist/eco-anarchist thought (apologies if I take some liberties with terminology here & throughout, I would imagine definitions may have evolved since I was more directly active in these things). Although on the surface it probably seems like I’ve done a 180, and in some ways that would be a valid point, it feels more like my actual underlying beliefs evolved and morphed due to more information & experiences accumulated over time. For example, I’m still very much critical of top down hierarchy, even though I believe it’s something we won’t be able to overcome (or, that most people wouldn’t even want to overcome) until we either evolve biologically or achieve some paradigm shifting technology, or both. I don’t think social evolution alone is sufficient, contrary to most critical theory that I’m aware of, since our socialization is a direct function of our biological composition. That being said though, being able to analyze society and people through a critical lens allows for a more accurate understanding of what’s going on, having a more acute BS-detector for instance, with regards to both the grand narrative, and the various counter narratives that exist.

At the end of the day, my primitivist beliefs were mired in morality and were emotionally charged, based on perceptions that were ill-begotten. Civilization, especially Western civilization, was bad, insane, oppressive, etc., while nature was the exact opposite. The Paleolithic represented the ideal human society. For me, it was more about anger towards the status quo, than love for wild nature. Sure, I thought I liked nature, who doesn’t. But I didn’t really know nature. I never lived in the wilderness. I never had to eat insects to avoid starvation. I never approached death from an infection from a flesh wound that could have been easily treated by modern medicine. Nor was I planning to anytime soon. I drove cars, enjoyed hanging out in large urban centers, loved music that was amplified electronically, got to eat my dinner without the risk of it goring or trampling me to death before I got the better of it. The politically correct anthropology of the time didn’t help either: the bits about prehistoric peoples having more leisure time, having more autonomy, not suffering the so-called psychological ills of western civ, etc. gave more legitimacy to the whole thing, for me. I could only tell myself that people like me needed to stay within the belly of the beast in order to “spread the message” and ultimately topple the system, before that line of reasoning wore thin, and I needed to get more psychoanalytical on myself and address the reasons why I felt that way. This isn’t to speak ill or suggest misguided intentions with regards to others who feel this way about civilization, it was purely my own experience.

Then, there are other, more philosophical issues that had a hand in changing my mind. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Dr. Joseph Tussman, though I heard it second hand—whoever said it, it’s a great point—“The world is a terrible show to be run by angels, but if you think of it as being run by monkeys…Pretty amazing!” I’ve always not just believed, but tried to hold at the forefront, the fact humans are animals. Over time, this has become more and more apparent with every shining example experienced in everyday life. It became impossible for me to reconcile the fact that we are animals, and therefore, everything we do is “natural” (as much as I hate that term)—by the strict definition that we are operating within the known confines of the laws of the physical universe—with the belief that what we are and what we do is somehow distinct from the non-human world. So really I view humans as a wild species, even with the Internet, genetic modification, and the International Space Station. Our brains, and the things they’ve enabled us to use to adapt to our environment, our culture, language, the scientific method, technology, etc., are just evolutionary adaptations like a giraffe’s long neck, or a predator’s ability to see well enough at night.

Not to mention, we evolved “naturally.” [See “The Nature/Artifice Distinction.”] So we’re just organisms, socially & intellectually sophisticated, unprecedented in biological history perhaps, but still organisms. And that’s what matters most—survival. Starve an organic foodie blogger for a few days and they will beg for that Bt corn you’re taunting them with, glyphosate and all. So as I see it, the moral grandstanding is only so thick—how would people behave after industrial collapse? Tangentially, how many radical progressives would I trust in a position of power after toppling the status quo and all its many evil “isms”? None that I’ve known personally, at least. I’m not trying to invalidate all the critical thinking aimed at the status quo, I think much of it is valuable, but as I’ve gotten older the key I believe is to pose a better alternative, rather than tear down what exists and hope for the best.

J: Now, do you see “Ship of Fools” as still being as relevant as it was then? Having just read it myself, I was definitely struck by its clear resonance with the present day, but some things felt very simplified; as you see it, have conditions changed since the ’90s in some fundamental way that changes the way that people now can relate to that short story? You mentioned shifting power in media; what sort of impact do you think that’s had on the ability of these sorts of non-mainstream narratives to circulate?

T: I might be biased, but I honestly think Ship of Fools is a great story, almost in an Aesop’s Fables sense, it conveys an important point that I feel is relevant even outside of what TK is trying to advocate. Even relevant with respect to single-issue progressive causes, it rings true: solidarity seems to be a pipe dream, and for a variety of reasons progressives/activists rarely are able to come together to enact change, even with a seemingly immediate tangible goal. One wants to yell in a bullhorn, another wants to read a poem, another one is feeling oppressed, this one over here is yelling about intersectionality; I think if you break down reasons behind this behavior, you actually gain valuable insight into the human condition, but that analysis could get pretty lengthy. Even in the very general sense of the story, the idea of trying to address the root of a problem is applicable in almost any problem-solving scenario. I would agree that it is simplistic, but in my opinion I feel that was somewhat deliberate, in the sense of creating a short, accessible, metaphorical story that generally conveys the author’s intentions. In that context I think it does the job.

With respect to how things have changed since the late 90s, I think there’s a lot more “noise” to contend with. In general, there’s more information out there, so one has to employ better data hygiene tactics to be able to navigate effectively and try to get at the truth. That’s speaking very broadly of course. More to the point of the story, I feel it was written with respect of dealing with folks who have gripes with the status quo, who again I typically associate with progressives, and though I deliberately stay away from that activist scene (though on certain issues my stance would probably be defined as quite progressive currently), I can only imagine that’s gotten even more amplified since the 90s. And it was pretty bad back then. Those memes definitely seemed to have bred in people’s minds like rabbits, from what I’ve seen peripherally, at least. And again, I think there’s an interesting lesson in human psychology if you parse through that behavior, not to mention the nature of memes, but that deserves its own discussion.

As far as what the Internet and the development of social media have done for alternative narratives, I think it’s ultimately great, but not without issues that require caution. Back in the day, there was this sense that part of the reason the powers that be continued to prosper was because they controlled the media and therefore the narrative. If only “the people” could hear “the message”, revolution would soon follow. It may be too soon in the course of things to make this call, but I think it’s fair to say that line of thinking was not correct. Sure, one can make the argument that today you have nefarious algorithms, and over saturation of pop culture that make it difficult for interesting, valid perspectives to get the attention they deserve, but really, it’s not that hard to uncover divergent threads of thought, if one were so inclined.

On the other hand, you do have certain things that were pretty underground in the 90s really pop into the mainstream, partly because of the access to information (not necessarily accurate information, though). Look at the natural foods industry. There are some aspects of it that I respect, that I think are genuinely good for people and the planet. There are many others that are harmful, there’s a lot of pseudoscience, a lot of fear mongering that ultimately serves to make someone more money—not so different from the supposedly malevolent status quo. For example, you have Chipotle claiming to be GMO free—except for the corn syrup in the soda, and the enzymes used to make the cheese, and please don’t mind the dangerous bacteria. How is that any different than any other marketing ploy? At the end of the day, both sides are out to make a buck. When you have this sense that you’re an underdog, like you’re fighting Monsanto or whatever, it seems like that gives license to engage in propaganda, which I never personally liked. And I think it will ultimately hurt that movement in the long run, which brings me to the point I wanted to make regarding the change in landscape of the media: the internet led to a state of too much information, continuing until today, but I get the sense, in turn, that it has sharpened peoples intellectual tools a bit. An ever growing number of people want to see sources from peer reviewed journals, not naturalnews.com, for example. So there seems to be almost this dialectical thing going on, that I think we’re in the midst of, and I think it’s great. For valid narratives, it will only serve to strengthen them, for weak ones, they are more likely to be exposed as weak—by being exposed to a wider audience, rather than a narrow niche of like-minded individuals.

J: I can certainly follow you on lots of that, though I’m still cloudy about the end goal. What, if not completely progressive and not primitivist, is the “better alternative” you mentioned? How does that inform the kind of work you do with food?

T: The better alternative in the context of what I mentioned earlier was more so directed at people who are proclaiming radical ideologies. There always seemed to be this emphasis on destroying something, at least, that was my experience, and my own beliefs were centered on that. As a primitivist, I felt you had to destroy the industrial system. For radical feminists, you had to destroy the patriarchy, for run of the mill anarchists, you had to smash the state, and so on. Again I think this sentiment speaks more to the psychology that’s enabling these ideologies, but even from the perspective of trying to get into the head of this mindset, I think if you genuinely want to see a radical transformation of society, you need to develop a working alternative, not on paper, but in reality. And this isn’t because I’m necessarily the most peace loving person, at least by nature, though it’s an ideal I try to strive for at this point, but really because I think that’s because first, history seems to show that changes take place when there’s an alternative that people can gravitate towards. Just overthrowing something and trying to figure something new out on the fly doesn’t seem sustainable, and I can’t think of any examples where that seems to have worked. Things that have made an improvement on the world tend to be just more appealing/empowering versions of what existed. Capitalism, while full of problems, is certainly better than feudalism, in my opinion at least, for example. Democracy, as insanely frustrating as it can be, does seem to do less harm than more authoritarian types of government. At least having power somewhat distributed among the powerful will tend to slow things down a bit. This is obviously not perfect, but again, better than prior systems, as far as I’m concerned.

To speak about what I see as a better alternative would be a bit different. Far less dramatic and exciting sounding as what I used to believe. Looking at the present day in context of history, on average any given human is living more peacefully and has greater opportunity for prosperity than previously. They key term there being average—there certainly are extremes, warfare in some places, failed states where violent crime is rampant, poverty, etc. are very much realities for many and need to be worked against. But suggesting that the status quo needs to be destroyed assumes that it is uniquely oppressive, and after further research on my part, I no longer believe that is the case. One thing I continue to respect about primitivism over leftism, it understands that there are commonalities among all civilizations, it’s not just the west that’s oppressive as many leftists try to argue. Where I would now differ from primitivism would be that I don’t think the Paleolithic era was something that was better for humans on an individual level. Better for wild nature due to population size, certainly not because of human behavior (for example, large mammals in the Americas and Australia that seemed to have gone extinct by hunter/gatherer expansion during that time). I used to be of the mindset that there was greater psychological well-being pre-civilization, but that’s hard to truly discern, and hard to imagine when you look at what current evidence seems to suggest: the much higher levels of violence during that time, infant mortality, dying in childbirth, etc. Certainly there is, and will continue to be, varying degrees of malaise that result from the changes that technology will continue to bring, but to me that speaks more to the interesting contradictions that the human mind has brought about, rather than any inherent problem with technology itself.

So as far as what I believe the next steps should be, it wouldn’t be to topple the status quo, but to continue to improve upon what we have. Very generally and simply put, I think we need to enable the maximization of human brain power. In the US, for me that means encouraging kids to pursue the hard sciences, improving the curriculum, healthcare reform, immigration reform (as in legislating the goals of DAPA/DACA), funneling more money away from warfare and putting into the above mentioned things, education and so forth. Sensible regulation of financial institutions, things of that nature. I think since we spent most of our biological history as hunter/gatherers, there’s going to be this apprehension about the pace at which technology continues to evolve, as I mentioned above. If you asked me in the late 90s, I would have assumed we’d be living in total dystopia by 2016. I would have thought genetic engineering would have wrought an environmental and health crisis. That was just torch and pitchfork superstition on my part, GE technologies are improving efficiency in agriculture and not giving everyone autism, if you look at the actual science. More broadly, the things that have really helped people throughout the world aren’t radical ideas, but simple sounding (yet rather “revolutionary” when you really examine them) things: vaccines, hand washing, access to clean water, education.

Lastly, I really don’t like the precautionary principle, at least how it’s typically used by activists. Over-precaution has its consequences. I’m not saying civilization is a sure fire thing, collapse and reversion to a primitive state is certainly a possibility (I like to view things in terms of probability, rather than absolutist terms, the latter being what ideology tends to do). However if that did happen, I would think it happening as a result of something beyond the control of an particular group of people, like the result of our collective inability to respond effectively to climate change, a new pathogen that we can’t stop, human irrelevance due to the emergence of a super intelligence, and so forth.

J: And, to pair that question with one about the story itself, how did “Ship of Fools” influence you at first, particularly regarding your direction of OFF!?

T: Ideologically, it didn’t necessarily influence me much since I was already in that mindset, if anything it encouraged me more. I liked the boldness of it, especially the critique of leftwing activism that it displayed. It definitely helped to expose OFF! to a broader audience, brought in more submissions, that sort of thing, which was great. Since it was a university funded magazine it wasn’t solely focused on primitivism, though I tried to emphasize that aspect where I could. It brought me into contact with some new and interesting people, which is always a good thing. As far as the cynicism towards progressives, that was something that was always present for me, even before I had identified specifically as a primitivist, so no real specific influence ideologically, but certainly the benefits of increased exposure for the magazine.

J: From that, though, the last question I have for you: Given the fact that your views are very far from those of most readers, and definitely far from wildism as it currently stands, what do you think are the advantages or benefits of this interview, both to you and to those who’ll be reading it?

T: All of the circumstances surrounding the publication of “Ship of Fools” certainly made for an interesting period of time for me, so it’s fun for me to discuss it, as well as ideas involved. If there’s one thing I hope this interview may have conveyed, as bland and generic as this sounds, is the importance of keeping an open mind: an understanding that, over a long enough time line, with different life experiences and new information, some folks may experience a change their viewpoint. This may sound strange, but in a way, my fundamental principles haven’t changed much, but my perspective has obviously changed a great deal. While I still think many components of primitivist thought provide a valuable critique of modern society, there is the particularly unique challenge with this ideology of reconciling the theory behind it with navigating the world as one goes through life. If anything, I think it’s important to recognize that there’s always value in discussing ideas among those with different points of view. I think that’s something that’s vital for any ideology.

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