The Men Who Stare At Goats – 3/5 Stars
I wished I liked this better, and I didn’t dislike it, but it felt more cobbled together and scattershot than I would have hoped for. That’s more or less true of a lot of the Jon Ronson books, where he takes a central thesis and explores different connected ideas, stories, parts, etc to try to tell a more fuller version of things. But because this book begins with a set of events and government program, the disparate parts that are brought in don’t feel as fully integrated and workable as in the more idea driven books.
So the premise here begins in the 1970s at Fort Bragg, NC where the US Army has collected about 100 goats and “de-bleated” them, which you can imagine was probably horrific. (Also as a side note, I lover goats. I spent the evening a few nights ago in an Air BNB on a goat farm and was very very very charmed by the goats there). Anyway, the goats are there in order to be experimented on. And with any animal experimentation, your mileage varies on what you know, are willing to tolerate, and what you can handle in regards to learning about it. Different about this experimentation is that these goats are to be the subjects of the subjects of experimentation. Specifically, various psychological subjects will be trying to use psychokinetic power to explode the hearts of the goats.
So that launches the rest of the book, a look into both the extra-sensory experimentations in the US military industry, alongside the much more real psyops organizations. And because this book comes out during the US-Iraq/US-Afghanistan wars in the early 2000s, there’s some bringing these subjects to bear on those contemporary conflicts. The whole is way lower than the sum of its parts on this one.
So re-reading after a year or more from the first and rethinking about some of the news events of the last two years, thinking also of Teju Cole’s essay on mob violence, reading a few books about crowds, and listening to Mike Daisey’s monolog show on Audible, I find myself still agreeing with…myself…but in a mixed-mindset kind of way. What I found that continues to work about this book in general is that while Jon Ronson does try to and says what he thinks about the various justifications for online shaming, he’s mostly concerned with the functions and functionality of it (what it serves and how it works), as well as the impact.I work in a job that is more or less public-facing and as a consequence I have pretty much no social media. In fact, Goodreads, which I use more or less anonymously, and an Instagram, which is almost only used for animal pictures, and which are not linked together, are my only social media. If I think back to previous iterations, I can more or less recall the worst things I’ve ever posted with my name attached (and will not be repeating them here) and while for the most part I am not worried about them coming back to haunt me, the shifts in the landscape have made so I basically will never post anything publicly ever again. I recommend most people do the same.The debate is often had in more Left circles about what should and should not be called out, and I think this is a worthy question to explore, and serves a valuable purpose. But what is less discussed is whether or not those methods of public discussion do the things that the earnestly engaged want them to, and whether or not there are not unintended consequences for those actions. On the Right, the debate is basically a pure backlash against “wokeness” and “cancel culture” purposely ignoring that they’ve been canceling people for centuries — ask witches or Alger Hiss about it.And what I find is basically no answers publicly, and plenty of answers personally. And I think this book does a job of highlighting the human impact of some high profile public shaming moments.
I don’t tend to read the kind of books that make-up or spawn from NPR and This American Life stories. I will admit: I don’t particularly like David Sedaris. Anyway, this book I picked up because I want to do a unit of media literacy, choices, and online futures with my English 12 students, and I was hoping at least one chapter of this would be useful to share with them. For the most part the book isn’t great for high school students because he jumps quite easily into R-rated language and a lot of the examples deal pretty expressly with sex, so I feel like most of it won’t work.
I do however think the idea behind the book is a great premise to work with students, especially in the framework of “Choices”: and this book presents two sets of choices…the choice to do something that might get you shamed and the choice to participate in the shaming.
What I do appreciate about the book is that Jon Ronson, for as goofy as he is and as funny as he is, seems to be a pretty sober thinker. He’s good at presenting a moderate understanding in scope of the things that get people shamed. He also deals with this as being a reality and not a thought-experiment. So he’s profiling people who have gone through these episodes with general empathy for their humanity, but not in a way of “I am scolding anyone who does this to these people.” He also begins the book off with an anecdote wherein he used his power as a media figure to shame someone online. So he’s always amid the problem in this book.
I don’t know what if anything this book ends up saying that’s meaningful beyond posing questions, but that’s the nature of the situation anyway. You can’t stop it from happening once it’s decided to happen.
Like a lot of Jon Ronson books, this work takes a scattershot approach to a topic and explores different ideas, angles, and questions related to it. This podcast looks at the intersection of porn and technology (and sex in wider ways as well). So the main question is: What is the cost of free porn?
And so he approaches this in a couple of different ways. In one episode he looks at the way that a few huge porn aggregators took a bunch of paid porn and put it up for free. Not only did this take money away from the people who work in those films, it worked like so many other things happen when something ends up being free on the internet, there’s a later attempt to put the horse back in the barn, but also how it changes the nature of the creation of that thing. We know how this works in new aggregation of course (ie the total destruction of journalism as we know it?), so seeing some of the same trends function here as well.
Another episode spends time on the question how does the influx of free porn change the relationship between porn and its watchers? Well, that question is more complicated because it sometimes intersects with addiction discussions, but among the differences is that there a more consumerist and immediate relationship that combined with social media also complicates things.
Regardless, like Ronson books, you are asked to think about ideas that you might not otherwise think about and at least think about them a little.
I like the movie Frank, and so when Jon Ronson talks in this personal essay about some of the choices they made in writing the screenplay, to avoid the tropes of biopics — especially that moment where the thing that someone is most well known for is shoehorned into the plot as if all famous people flit through their lives between epiphanies, famous quotes, and well-known events — and instead tell a fictional version of a true story, I understood exactly why I liked it. I generally believe that more or less all stories are fiction. Or more so, the things that make fiction fiction is a combination of content and form, and once you’re telling a story, no matter what the content, one of the natures of “form” involve a conscientious construction of reality in an artificial and editorial way, which even makes true stories similar enough to fiction. A distinction without a difference so to speak.
So in this story, we end up with more of the background and behind the scenes looks at Frank Sidebottom as a character and his creator Chris Sievey as a person. As a piece of personal writing this works in a way that as a biopic it would have been limiting and less interesting.
The effect of this book then is a collection of essays and journalism, but not throughline, except for the distinct voice of the author (and I mean this literally, as I listened to this an audiobook). It’s harder to review without getting into the distinct different stories which offer up a range of topics, but that’s not an issue really. If you enjoy his other books, you’d enjoy this, and if your take on his other books is like mine, that sometimes the connections between the stories are not as strongly formed than the stories themselves, then you might also enjoy this book.