Author’s Note: I wrote this essay in 2017, hence some of its opinions and sentiments will appear woefully out of date. This will appear most evident regarding politics and conspiracy theories. This essay was written before the Republican Party became the QAnon Party, the conservative mythology about Joe Biden stealing the election, and Trump’s January 6th attempted coup d’etat. I chose to leave this essay mostly unchaged.
“America! Fuck yeah!” – Team America: World Police (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2004)
“America. A land where spelling doesn’t count, but people’s pets do. Where else can you get a job riding a whale at Marineland? The land where a guy’s girlfriend breaks up with him over the phone, so he takes a gun, and kills the principal. Everyone’s sad until they get the day off. Next week, another guy, another gal, another, “We can still be friends” phone call. Whuh-oh! The assistant principal gets killed. And everyone is sad because they don’t get the day off. Because he was only the assistant principal.” – “That’s America” monologue by Bruce McCulloch from The Kids in the Hall (1989 – 1995)
“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” – Allen Ginsberg from “America” (1956)
America. The very word conjures up myriad associations, preconceptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and mythologies. To somehow put a border around the intellectual idea of America seems like an effort of cosmic futility. Yet many have bought in to the idea of the American Dream. This long-cherished belief has mutated into both an idea of individualized destiny and a product of advertising. The American Dream has become, to a majority of the population, this: a home in suburbia, 2.4 children, a pet of some sort (preferably a dog), and an occupational set-up meaning the man works and the wife takes care of the kids. The fact that this family is a nuclear one is a given. Along with its demographic attributes like it being heteronormative, white, and Protestant.
All these characteristics have become welded together with its historical and economic implications stripped bare. The comically monotonous white Protestant straight people living in Levittown didn’t evolve in a vacuum. It came about after decades of endurance, involving the nightmare of the Great Depression and the sacrifice and slaughter of the Second World War. To most, life in suburbia in the 1950s was a spectacular cornucopia of economic opportunity and technological whiz-bang awesomeness. To others, including the Beats, this was boring as hell and the suburban veneer of cheery-eyed housewives and pipe-smoking patriarchs hid a violent and savage underbelly.
Beyond the shallow moral desert of the American suburb lay the lowbrow, the strange, and the underground. An oddness permeates this republic. Each state in the Union has given the nation a bizarre individual or oddball institution. Despite the herd mentality and the overwhelming pressure to conform, the United States presents fertile soil for the cultivation of The Odd.
A HISTORY OF SYSTEMS OF THOUGHT
I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.” “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.” “Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!” “Shut up! Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection. Watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer, you fucking morons.” – Bill Hicks from Rant in E-Minor (1997)
Throughout the course of this book, there have been three major themes emerging. They are: conspiracy theories, cults, and experimental fiction. The first two seem a natural fit. Where does the third fit in?
At the beginning of this essay series, I took my inspiration from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Specifically his ambitious work to uncover “a history of systems of thought.” Conspiracy theory, cults, and experimental fiction all have a surprising common attribute: access to The Knowledge. Whether through the Hiram Key, Illuminati symbolism, or footnotes to Gravity’s Rainbow, these three groups possess knowledge Joe Six-pack just “doesn’t get.” Or as David Lo Pan says to Jack Burton, “You weren’t put on this earth to ‘get it.’” Are these same Americans who think the world is run by a cabal of men in a shadowy room the same ugly Americans who think they are entitled to The Truth?
Possessing knowledge of The Truth is a Promethean task. It can be a dangerous enterprise, yielding ridicule, financial ruin, and exile. The Mainstream will want nothing to do with you. Those in possession of The Truth have included such American oddballs as Joseph Smith, Jr., Charles Manson, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Ezra Pound. It seems like a short hop from Truth-telling Prophet to flat-out crackpot. The Truth also manifests itself in different forms, including art and architecture. Mary Nohl was harassed by neighbors and vandals for her idiosyncratic artistic creations. Alex Jordan built his House on the Rock in the middle of central Wisconsin to fit his gargantuan vision. He also built it to spite Frank Lloyd Wright, the preening archbishop of architectural Modernism.
For a conspiracy theorist, there is a build-up of resentment towards the vaguely powerful. In America, with its egalitarianism, we bristle when someone tells us we can’t know something. Especially when that someone cites “national security” or “executive privilege.” Those words have made it very easy to hide corruption and atrocities.
At the same time, contradicting the notion of equality for all, is the frisson of specialness one gets from being chosen, one of The Elect. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has an administrative hierarchy every bit as top-down and secretive as the Catholic Church. The same goes for Scientology, although access to The Secret Knowledge can be fast-tracked if one has the financial resources to appeal to its power-brokers.
Experimental literature can also be intimidating, confusing, and just plain opaque to those used to three-act linear narratives. The same people who find Scientology or Mormonism a bastion of crackpot bootlicks will tout their literary hipster street cred to the Normals. These boasts will include reading Gravity’s Rainbow, The Cantos, or sitting through a Béla Tarr movie. The hipster, like the mystic, is a fanatical devotee of the obscure and esoteric. And hipster obscurantism is every bit as infuriating as the formulaic responses of a tight-lipped White House Press Secretary.
AFTER STRANGE GODS
“What religion am I? Well I’m a practicing none of your *****ing business.” – Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation (2009 — 2015)
The common fiction peddled by ambitious politicians and money-grubbing clerics is that America is a Christian nation. But America has been a unique breeding ground for oddball religions and other miscellaneous belief systems. The LDS Church is a uniquely American creation. Joseph Smith, Jr. had the imaginative drive of a William Blake, but he was a Blakean nation-builder. The religion he conceived became a legitimate world religion. Even among the various Christian denominations that pepper the American landscape, the LDS Church represents a theological, cultural, and architectural outlier. It is spectacularly odd.
The Urantia Foundation is an equally strange admixture of science fiction ideas, Seventh-day Adventist theology, and pro-eugenics racial ideology. Despite its long history, it is practiced by few and known by less.
Beyond religious cosmology, there is the personal cosmologies of visionary artists like Henry Darger and Matthew Barney. Darger created a universe every bit as complex as Urantia. (Both Urantia and Darger were based in Chicago. Does the big-shouldered city do something to people to make them create these staggeringly complicated systems of thought?)
America has become the fertile garden for aspiring prophets and myth-makers. On a more secular note, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created a vast mythology for a young comic reading public. The Greeks have the Olympians, we have Kirby’s New Gods.
ILLUMINATI IN THE GAPS
Milhouse: The Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people.
Bart: Thank You!
Milhouse: Under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early, in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner. We’re through the looking glass here, people.
The Simpsons, “Grandpa Vs Sexual Inadequacy,” 2F07
X: That’s the real question isn’t it: why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, The Mafia, keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question: why? Why was Kennedy Killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?
JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
In a cold and heartless world conspiracy theories are comforting. They offer the easy explanations for the persecuted and oppressed. These theories represent a systematic interpretation of world events and charismatic figures. Conspiracy theory can also be weaponized, resulting in guilt by association, antisemitism, and bigotry.
Since the conclusion of the essay series in its online version, the United States has seen the ascension of a president who feeds (and feeds off) conspiranoiac thinking. The likes of Alex Jones and Breitbart have harnessed populism to paranoid conspiracy theories. It would be a challenge to investigate the socioeconomic forces at work in the globalized world. Better to blame the Bilderbergs or the Clinton Foundation. It is a small step from a simplified concept of the world to a simplistic and simple-minded one. Like Lindsay Weir said in Freaks and Geeks, “We are manufacturing idiots.”
The challenge is that the conspiracy theories aren’t completely wrong. They are easy to be dismissed as a whole because of the lazy antisemitism or the more baroque curlicues of their individual theories. Despite its excesses, the film JFK was about a crime. Yet a crime with too many moving parts would be destined to fail. Crime requires simplicity. Too many actors involved and one will squeal to the police.
It is also necessary to differentiate things when discussing conspiracy theories. For me there is a major difference between a number of powerful individuals and organizations with a singular goal in mind and the concept that conspiracy is the operational motive of all history. A conspiracy can be plausible. The Conspiracy is utter bullshit. I’ll go you one further. I may concede that the world is in fact run by a secret cabal of power-brokers in a shady room. Puppet-masters controlling the world, corporations and nations doing their bidding like so many groveling courtiers. Well, they suck at their job. The world is such a chaotic mess right now it hardly deserves the descriptor New World Order. A populist president should be popular and a New World Order should have a modicum of order to it.
GARDEN-VARIETY CONSPIRACY THEORIST [interrupting]: Yes, but the chaos keeps everyone scared. The economy is unstable. There’s mass migration, capital flight–
ME: But you wouldn’t call it orderly?
GVCT: No, but–
ME: You can’t have it both ways. It can’t be The New World Order and total chaos.
GVCT: But that’s what They want you to think!
ME: OK, I’ll bite. “They” who?
GVCT: They? Who? The Elite, obviously.
ME [rolling eyes]: Another vague term like The One Percent or The Patriarchy.
GVCT: ISIS was a creature of the CIA. Bill Clinton had Vince Foster killed. The Mossad were behind 9/11.
ME: I thought you said it was an inside job by George W. Bush and the CIA.
GVCT:Osama bin Laden used to work for the CIA. We knew his last address.
ME: This is getting tiresome.
GVCT: Deep State!
ME: Dude, seriously, fuck off. Your buzzwords are hollow bleats into the Internet void. The entire premise is based on the fact that this global conspiracy, the product of centuries of secretive activities, is somehow known to you. If your assumptions were correct, then you’d be found dead in a dumpster the moment you said anything online! America has done its fair share of evil shit since its founding, it doesn’t need you fabricating stuff. Your gung-ho conservative patriotism is at odds with your hair-trigger willingness to go Full Timothy McVeigh against your addlepated suspicions. I’m getting a migraine simply trying to wrap my head around your cognitive dissonance.
ME: And scene!
For every sober investigation into horrific events like the JFK assassination and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, there are thousands of self-anointed truth-tellers like Jim Marrs. He spins tales enlarded with wild speculation and then yammers on about the Illuminati and Freemasons, time-traveling Nazis wielding the Spear of Longinus, and how fluoride is bad because the Nazis used it to pacify Jews in the concentration camps. Is it any wonder conspiracy theorists aren’t taken seriously?
My individual stance on the whole thing is that I am a skeptic … about everything. I’m skeptical of the Conspiracy Theory that purports to explain it all. I’m also skeptical of the Official Story (usually being peddled by someone in government, religious, or corporate spheres). Both come across as too clean, too efficient, and too effective. I’m super-doubtful about the 9/11 terrorist attacks being an inside job, but I am convinced the Bush II White House were adepts at public relations management and exploiting a national tragedy for personal gain. It’s unfortunate that the word “truther” has been turned into a punchline because the Truther movements are riddled with goggle-eyed conspiranoiacs and other assorted moonbats. The September 11th terrorists attacks were first and foremost a crime. I don’t believe the crime has been adequately solved or the perpetrators adequately punished.
While I am eternally skeptical of catchall conspiracy theories, history has proven time and again that instances exist where powerful institutions have come together in cases of mutual self-interest. To solve a crime, an investigation needs to gather evidence. With insufficient concrete evidence, conspiracy theories are nothing more than parlor games for the easily distracted and credulous.
“JUST ASK THIS SCIENTICIAN,” OR, SCIENCE, SCIENTISM, AND SCIENCE FICTION
“All facts begin as dreams, dreamt by a wizard!” – From “The Limits of Science,” a mockumentary sketch from Mr. Show.
Oddball individualism requires a unique field of vision. It is easy to dismiss Urantia on scientific grounds. Martin Gardener is rather smug and dismissive of the entire cult. But unlike Branch Davidians and Christian fundamentalists bombing abortion clinics, Urantia is harmless. America requires a four-fold vision (to borrow William Blake’s phrase) to understand and appreciate it. Science provides many answers, but it doesn’t provide all the answers.
In the United States, the strange convergence of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the consistently awful behavior of conservative Christians have made it a fertile breeding ground for non-believers of all labels (atheist, agnostic, freethinker, bright, none, etc.). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media has been the happy hunting grounds for a thriving American atheism. One of the main consequences has been the revival and popularization of science. But another consequence has been the over-reliance on science as an interpretive device. More specifically, as an interpretive device for topics utterly inappropriate to science in general. Hence books about Proust as a neurosurgeon and using science to “solve” problems regarding personal taste. “Because science!” has become every bit a catchall panacea and explanation, at the same time becoming something of a punchline.
One of the pleasures of this series has been reading re-reading Kooks! Scientism, the belief in the supremacy of scientific explanations, has led to hilarious examples of junk science. Creationism, phrenology, and race-science represent the most glowing examples of junk science. Yet this isn’t an online shouting fest that immediately devolves into name-calling. This isn’t a Manichean either/or debate. This isn’t pro- or anti-science as much as illustrating “scientific thought” is one of many kinds of thought. Wandering through any modern art museum will reveal many examples of contemporary art blurring the line between aesthetics and science.
Oddball beliefs shouldn’t be debunked but celebrated. Cryptids are only mythical until we find a body of one. With the insane amount of guns in this country, you’d think someone would have the foresight to shoot a Bigfoot and strap it to the hood of their Ford F-150?
Scientific understanding needs to be cultivating as much as the literary and artistic imagination. Working in concert on a project could yield incredible results.
DIAGNOSING THE VISIONARY
“Unreason is to reason as dazzlement is to daylight.” – Michel Foucault from History of Madness (1961)
Whether it is an outsider artist or a crackpot peddling an unpopular theory, the natural reaction is to label the individual “crazy” and return to our daily tasks. Many outsider artists practiced their art in insane asylums, but this leaves out other individuals who weren’t. Henry Darger is a shining example. Granted, he lived a lonely life and experienced psychic trauma, labeling him insane comes across as reductive and inaccurate.
What compels us to enact these amateur diagnoses? We are driven to self-identify one way or the other. As a feminist … As a Democrat … As a Christian … Take your pick. Social media profiles have become classificatory labyrinths, constantly morphing and mutating to fit whatever cause du jour. But the Oddball American can either cosplay Bartelby the Scrivener and simply choose not to or they could find these fissures within The System and actively work to subvert it. It’s one thing to append the “Spiritual but not religious” label to your Facebook profile. It’s quite another thing to “Church of the SubGenius” on the Religion area of the Facebook profile. Or go meta and put down “Verdukian.”
The constant drive to diagnose feeds into a desire to feel normal. It is instinctual within the human animal. We want to find others like us. How alike? That depends on the topic and the time of day. In this hyper-mediated, fragmented, hysterical social media-driven society, it is more challenging to find a consensus. Blocking people on Twitter and Facebook is easy, but at the cost of turning us into hermits inhabiting our own fishbowls. (Full disclosure: I’ve blocked people on Twitter. When I speak, it is hardly from a place of personal superiority.)
Determining sanity is based on consensus. But what happens when there is no consensus?
THE SEDUCTION OF NORMALCY
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.” – President Warren G. Harding
“The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes — all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.” – Equus (1973) by Peter Shaffer
A concomitant behavior to diagnosing the visionary is the seduction of normalcy. Frederick Wertham titled his famous book The Seduction of the Innocent, spinning hysteria to worried parents about the dangers of comic books. But there is another threat to the national security of these United States. The threat is: the Normal. Bob Dobbs laid it out plainly in his revelations. He warned us against the threat of The Pinks.
Normalcy is a threat when it shaves off all the edges and makes things more palatable. It shouldn’t be confused with similar notions like popularity and the mainstream. Popularity ebbs and flows with the fads and trends. The mainstream is more of a place within the field of social production. The mainstream envelops and discards people, things, trends, etc., depending on the fickle fascinations of a populace bombarded with spectacle and sensation. It may be shallow, superficial, and disposable, but the mainstream is an ever-changing engine of commerce and ideas. Normalcy is something more insidious.
Is being normal (whatever the current definition is) or acting normal better or worse than the desire to be normal? The last several years have been fascinating when observing the changing definition of normal. Movies based on comic books used to make one a nerd or a geek. The rise of Marvel and DC cinematic universes has made it normal to like comic book movies. The dearth of TV shows based on comic book properties has further cemented this into the cultural mainstream. The recent Supreme Court decision has made same-sex marriage legal and the concept has rapidly become a normal and accepted part of everyday life. But this has upturned the conservative notion about marriage. Trans awareness has upended the conservative notion about gender. When normalcy changes, it can leave others in the dustbin of history.
Normalcy, like sanity, is yet another aspect of existence based on consensus. But consensus never remains the same. Consensus is amorphous and ever-changing.
THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK AS SPIRITUAL EPICENTER OF THE UNITED STATES
“Too much” is always better than not enough. – The Book of the SubGenius
The House on the Rock is the spiritual epicenter of the United States. It represent a specific thread of spirituality. Many tributaries meet up in the House on the Rock. It is a roadside attraction. It exemplifies the dream of an oddball visionary. The House celebrates the strange, the peculiar, and the beautiful. The celebration occurs within a space devoted to excess and spectacle.
The House’s spiritual aspect is not my unique take either. Neil Gaiman explored this same notion in his novel American Gods. The place radiates its own unique aura. In the annals of American oddness, it holds a place every bit as hallowed and sacred as The Vatican or the Salt Lake City Temple. But unlike those sites of pilgrimage, The House on the Rock is the end result of a dream made real. It is the repository of Alex Jordan’s obsessions.
TOWARD AN ODDBALL PATRIOTISM
“(unintelligible)” – President Donald Trump
Patriotism has received bad press lately. It doesn’t help that those using it have been self-interested, self-aggrandizing moral hypocrites and frauds. Current events emanating from The Beltway make one feel like one is staring into the abyss. Where can one find respite when it seems like every interaction has become monetized and commodified? Can an oddball patriotism even be cultivated in a hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized, media-saturated environment fed on knee-jerk reaction and hysteria?
But what is oddball patriotism? Garden variety patriotism involves a lot of flags and accepted national rituals. At its worst patriotism celebrates a freedom it will never practice or allow. At its worst patriotism is nothing more than empty catch-phrases uttered over empty ritualism. It is the epitome of style over substance. Oddball patriotism reinvigorates the notion of patriotism, not with Thomas Jefferson’s call for blood, but with individuals and organizations devoted, nay, monomaniacally obsessed with creating things strange, weird, and downright unclassifiable. “Keep Austin Weird” as the bumper sticker says.
It is harnessing the strange and bizarre for fun and enjoyment. This isn’t a call to arms for yet another grad student intellectual circle jerk. Oddball patriotism is open to all regardless of socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, neurological status, and so forth. It represents the photo-negative of Trumpian faux populism with its shibboleths and off-tune dog whistles glorifying the Fake Past and its imagined version of a caricatured Fifties suburbia. (We have Zippy the Pinhead and Bob Dobbs for that! Thank you very much!) Oddball patriotism should be unburdened by partisan loyalties. It is political only in the long-term, republican in spirit and democratic in scope. Kings and dictators are useful only as the target of unrelenting unshackled ridicule.
Where is the next Bob Dobbs? Where is the next Joseph Smith, Jr. or Matthew Barney? Where’s the next Prince? In the era of McMansions, a new Alex Jordan could built his vision, house his obsessions, and break the architectural monotony worshiped by the One Percent. It’s time to build a Brutalist amusement park! Or record a surrealist triple-album so chock-full of WTF moments it will make Captain Beefheart look positively average! I would like to see an author win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and then pen an epic so balls-out bugfuck weird it defies classification. George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, and William T. Vollmann all exemplify stylistically daring authors, but few have tarried far from the whitebread culture of respectability and propriety of New Yorker and Atlantic thinkpieces. Only Vollmann has come close with his ambitious epic seven-volume treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down.
Oddball patriotism is less about shocking the normals than simply puzzling them. American culture needs more things that defy taxonomic categorization. Don’t create for a specific market, create for yourself. This book has shown that if you are unsatisfied with the religion you grew up with, you can create your own. The online self-publishing boom has democratized authorship, for better or worse. (Mainly for better and worse.) America is a land of boundless energy, crackpot inventiveness, and rugged (downright irresponsible) individualism. There’s plenty of room out there for weirdos, oddballs, and wackaloons to create glorious cultural products. Don’t listen to the haters, just make it!
This is my third collection of non-fiction essays published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP). Unlike previous books, this one in particular took a long time to write. During its gestation I experienced several major changes. These included moving back to Wisconsin from Minnesota. My occupational status changed many times during the writing of this book. From unemployed to under-employed to temporary worker to permanently employed. (If you want specifics, check my LinkedIn profile.) Other changes included moving back into my parent’s house when my wife and I relocated from Minnesota. And then we moved out into a place of our own. Finally, during the writing of this book I turned 40. It is one of those major milestone birthdays. Forty is when the fangs of nostalgia really begin to inject their poison. Criticism and book reviewing become more of a challenge because the bromide “The past was better” is that much easier to dredge up and use as a cudgel against an unwary reader. Nostalgia, like absinthe, works best in small doses. Used too much and the entire systems become poisoned.
While all these major changes haven’t been painless, it might be easy to concoct a conspiracy theory about it. Life has taught me otherwise. Reality lay somewhere between the consequences of one’s own actions and the larger structural forces at work. Rugged individualism can sometimes work, but not without denying our interdependencies on others and the fact that the cards are always stacked against the weak and the vulnerable.
To avoid turning this into an authorial filibuster, I will end by saying it is always a privilege working with Jason Pettus. Not only does he have a laser-focused editorial eye, but he has allowed me to indulge my obsessions and curiosities.
Where else could I write long-form pieces about The House on the Rock, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Joseph Smith’s mom, Zippy the Pinhead, Henry Darger, and Gilbert Sorrentino all within the same pages? The book has been a long time coming, but this book has been like cultivating an exotic orchid. It takes time. I’m glad you had the patience to read it. [Ed. The American Odd book has remained unrealized as of this posting.]