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When did America's culture wars begin, and how can they end? Jon Ronson has answers

A woman tosses a Ouija Board into a bonfire outside a church in New Mexico in 2001, after  the church's pastor urged parishioners to burn dozens of Harry Potter books and other types of literature and games they found offensive.
Neil Jacobs
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Getty Images
A woman tosses a Ouija Board into a bonfire outside a church in New Mexico in 2001, after the church's pastor urged parishioners to burn dozens of Harry Potter books and other types of literature and games they found offensive.

America's culture wars are creating a world of "magnificent heroes and sickening villains" as people fight a fierce battle in black and white, says writer and podcaster Jon Ronson.

Ronson said he watched his own friends fight in the trenches, often to their own detriment, and he wanted to know more.

So he set out to explore not just the culture wars themselves, but the humans behind the stories and how these fights began.

Riffing on a famous line of poetry by William Butler Yeats that reads, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," Ronson has released a new BBC podcast called "Things Fell Apart".

In each episode, he goes back in time to a starting point in a particular debate – from school books to abortion and the "Satanic Panic" that spread in the 1980s.

He spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about what he learned about the culture wars from studying it, and how they could end.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Ronson says a key takeaway from his research is that people are complicated.
/ Jason Kempin
/
Jason Kempin
Jon Ronson says a key takeaway from his research is that people are complicated.

On why he made the series

I was watching friends just, frankly, ruin their lives after getting overly engaged in a war. It wasn't so much the war itself, it was the fact that they were fighting it with such an intensity that it was ruining their reputations, ruining their marriages, and so on. So it felt very important to do something about it. But I didn't want to make a show about the culture wars that would become a part of the culture wars.

So what I did was I took the last 50 years of the culture wars, the noise, and I just honed in on these tiny, human stories. Because I thought, if you take anger out of the equation, and instead you're telling human stories, then your brain could be filled with curiosity, and with empathy, and so on.

And when I started to find these human stories, I just noticed that many of them were origin stories. Somebody makes a tiny decision that may have absolutely nothing to do with the culture wars. In one episode, there's a man called Frank Schaeffer who was a teenage boy growing up in the Alps in Switzerland, who dreamed of making Hollywood movies. He wanted a showreel to impress Hollywood producers. And that ambition led directly to abortion doctors being murdered 30 years later.

On what conclusions he drew from the conversations

People are complicated.

Good people do stupid things and vice-versa. We're complicated with gray areas, we're a mess. And I think that's a very positive way of telling stories to remember that human beings are a complicated mess.

My base level is liking people. ... A neighbor of mine once said to me, 'You spend so much time with, you know, Nazis and white supremacists, and you're always surprised when they turned around to behave completely abhorrently towards you.' But I guess it's quite a good baseline to be curious, as opposed to, I suppose, to prejudging somebody.

On the episode about a televangelist making a connection with a man living with AIDS

This is a story about connection. It's about warring factions: the Christian right and AIDS activists in the 1980s, coming together and listening to each other. And the result was wonderful. The ripples of that interview [between televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and Steve Pieters in 1985] are just extraordinary in terms of bringing together those two factions at a time when Tammy Faye's peer group, like Jerry Falwell, were convincing Ronald Reagan to not say the word AIDS, which he didn't for four years.

Steve Pieters is maybe the most extraordinary person I've interviewed in 35 years of being a journalist. It's a miracle that he went on this TV show, and the two of them were so brilliant that they did so much good. They connected so much. You know, after the interview ended, a woman watching phoned the studio and said that her son had AIDS and she always thought that her son was going to go to hell when he died. But now she knew that her son was going to go to heaven when he died. So that was the impact in the evangelical world that this interview had ... So, it's a miracle on top of a miracle, this story.

On his statement that the culture wars began in the U.S.

I think there was a specific set of circumstances in the early 1970s, where the culture wars sprung up, because finally the evangelical right felt galvanized into doing something. But why they really begin here, it's hard to know. You know, they migrate all over the place, and there are certain culture wars that burn hotter in other countries than they do here. For instance, the debate over trans rights burns very, very hot in the United Kingdom. And a little less so here. So why it starts here? You know, I wish I had a great answer for that. To be honest, I don't know. All I can tell you is that pretty much every culture war that swallowed up the world began in this great nation.

On how the culture wars end

Well, the Tammy Faye-Steve Pieters story is a beautiful example of that. I mean, one could argue that in the West, given how gay marriage is legal in however many countries — 28-30 countries — that war has pretty much been decisively won, at least in the West. And it was things like Steve Pieters going on Tammy's show, showing the human face, showing that you can be a Christian and be gay, showing that people with AIDS didn't need to be feared. Tammy was crying and saying to Steve, 'If I could put my arm around you and hug you' — because this was done over satellite, this interview — 'I would. And isn't it terrible that as Christians, we're scared of putting our arms around people and telling them that we care.' So wars end when people connect and listen to each other and are curious about each other, instead of instantly judgmental.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.