Everybody wants a piece of The Anarchist. Elevated by mainstream mouthpieces like Newsweek to the position of ideologicial leader of the black-clad trashers of Seattle '99, 56-year-old John Zerzan is in heavy media demand, quickly becoming the most-quoted political radical since the heyday of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. After decades of solitude, Zerzan finds himself pursued by the Big Media Machine he aches to destroy. Along with the rest of civilization.
That's right, John's gripe goes way beyond corporate greed, way beyond the picayune WTO. As I gather it, John wants you to SMASH that TV, Cuisinart and computer, sever your Internet connection, unplug your stereo, put your car up on blocks, turn off the electricity, destroy the supermarket, dig a well, throw your shit onto the compost pile, start subsistence farming and staunch your menstrual flow with moss. Called Future Primitivism, it's John's Impossible Dream. Think suburban tract homes modeled on Theodore Kaczynski's cabin and the picture is complete.
Does Zerzan live like that? No way. "It's too daunting a task," he admits. But that's beside the point. After the debacle in Seattle, he's white-hot. For instance, on December 14th John was part of a major 60 Minutes II profile on the Eugene, Oregon, anarchists alleged to have played an integral role in the controversial trashing of downtown Seattle. He's just completed an exhausting two hours as a guest on a WABC talk radio show which, John tells me, "is heard in 40 states." He's looking for a new book deal after negotiations with Simon & Schuster broke down. And John just turned down an appearance on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, an act that would have any self-respecting publicist tearing her hair out. As John told me, "I wrestled with that because of the large audience I could reach with our message. But then I sat down and watched the thing, and it was just a bunch of entertainers gossiping and trying to sell their latest records and so on. The show had nothing remotely political about it."
Why all this interest in a dour guy who babysits for a living? Plain and simple, Zerzan's well-documented Unabomber connection has turned him into a rising star. In case you don't recall, a couple of years back The New York Times noticed a similarity between the writings of Zerzan and Kaczynski. They contacted John and -- bingo! -- it turns out that John corresponds with his ideological soulmate and has even visited him in prison. Instantly, a Zerzan interview became the next best thing to the Unabomber himself. And the demand has only intensified since Zerzan and his Eugene Anarchists took center stage in Seattle.
John and I met at the hippie-esque Bagel Bakery near his quaint cottage in Eugene. In person, he is the antithesis of the apoplectic bomb-throwing madman. Mournful, with an elongated, sallow face and grey, close-cropped beard, he's more like a monk in a dark Goya painting. Or the figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream with its mouth closed. Painfully shy, he spent most of the interview staring down at the table.
GETTINGIT: What, for you, was the hardest part of the WTO protest?
JOHN ZERZAN: Definitely the walking. There are a lot of hills in Seattle.
GI: But it must have been exhilarating.
JZ: It was. I'm still coming down from a sort of high. Everybody thinks it was highly orchestrated, that the activist community had everything planned. The truth is, until it happened, we had no idea how many people were going to show up, if anyone at all. It was truly a watershed event. It was a spontaneous uprising, in a sense... the start of something bigger... the beginning of a worldwide mass movement.
GI: What do you have to say about the debate over violence?
JZ: The destruction of inanimate objects isn't a violent act. You can only be violent against other human beings, like the Seattle police were against demonstrators. And at any rate, you wouldn't be interviewing me, and the rest of the media would barely have noticed, had there not been property destruction. It made the WTO and its repellent policies a topic for discussion around the world.
GI: That's fine, John. But what happens when a kid who's gotten all heated up by your rhetoric takes it a step further -- blows up a building, shoots a filthy capitalist?
JZ: That's something I worry about all the time. But I don't have control over the actions of others.
GI: But you're old enough to be a grandfather to some of these people. Don't you bear some sort of responsibility if they get carried away?
JZ: It's really my worst nightmare.
GI: John, you live a simple life many people would envy. You own a cottage, spend the day reading, write position papers, get them published, and ride your bike around town. Could you give all that up and go underground? Live life on the run?
JZ: [Long pause] I hope it never comes to that point.
GI: Have you ever been arrested?
JZ: Once. I'd rather not spend time in jail.
GI: Have you experienced increased surveillance since Seattle?
JZ: I operate on the assumption that my phone is tapped. I've heard that Janet Reno might convene a grand jury about us. People have been noticing strange guys filtering into town, possibly federal agents.
GI: If with a single action you could launch a cataclysmic upheaval, like anarchist Gavrilo Princip when he shot Archduke Ferdinand and started the Great War, would you?
JZ: No. I don't believe in that, anyway. Change takes a series of actions.
Peter Fenton is creator of Truth Or Tabloid!, a free email newsletter and simple-minded game.