Who in Hell is John
An Interview With the World's Most Controversial Author
Note: This 'interview' was prepared some 10 years ago, and thus covers the events of Birdman's life only up to that time. It is lengthy, and may tell the reader more than he wishes to know, but it is posted here on the occasion of the brief appearance of Birdman's bio in the Wikipedia, written by stalwart reader and contributor Mike E. We say 'brief', because the article was apparently taken down shortly after it was put up (Did the Foreskinners take time off from spray-painting their sin-agogs to remove it?) Perhaps it is just as well, as we understand that the Wiki editor is unfriendly to White Liberationists, and the bio was a bit sparse on information anyway.
BACKGROUND: John Bryant is an internationally-recognized philosopher and logician, whose scholarly articles have appeared in major professional journals in the United States and several foreign countries. He is also author of over 30 books, many of which have been highly praised by some of the world's most distinguished men, but which are so controversial that it has been necessary for Mr Bryant's own firm, Socratic Press, to bring them out. Mr. Bryant's undergraduate work was done at Antioch College and American University, where he received his B.A. in mathematics in 1968; and he did graduate work in the philosophy of logic at the Union Graduate School, Yellow Springs Ohio. Altho the bulk of his scholarly publications has been in the field of logic, where he is credited with developing the concept of relative modal logic, his scholarly efforts also include works in systems philosophy, education, etymology and other fields. In addition, Mr. Bryant has been deeply involved with the philosophy of the extended family movement, and this involvement won him local media recognition several years ago for founding and directing an innovative extended family program at the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia. Mr. Bryant is a computer buff, a pigeon fancier, a cartoonist, a columnist, an award-winning poet, a successful futures trader, a member of the legendary high-IQ organization Mensa, and is listed in Who's Who in the World and other prestigious volumes. In the in-depth interview that follows, Mr. Bryant tells the inside story of his books, and discusses some of the great and not-so-great men and women who have participated in this still-unfolding drama.
Q. What is so controversial about the things you write?
A. Ever since childhood I have been preoccupied with things which are forbidden, taboo, or suppressed -- particularly including either things one is not supposed to know about, or else things one is not supposed to talk about even when one knows about them. My belief has always been that knowledge is better than ignorance, and speech better than silence, no matter how much pain is caused by it, since in the long run ignorance and silence will be far more painful. The significance of all this to my writing is that I say the kinds of things either that others are afraid to say, or else that they don't know to say because the information has been suppressed. And this, of course, makes a hell of a lot of people furious, because most people favor suppression of at least some forms of information. The Left, for example, wants to suppress information about race, gender and ethnicity -- at least when it impacts negatively on the Left's favorite groups; the Right wants to suppress sexual information and information which impacts negatively on religion; the Jews want to suppress any information questioning the Orthodox Jewish Version of the Holocaust; the medical establishment wants to suppress information about natural medicine and nutritional therapy; and so on and on. In general, we can say that people want to suppress anything which hurts their egos, their friends or their pocketbooks, and that means there's a hell of a lot of information that at least some people would like to suppress. But in spite of the hostility which so many people have to various kinds of information and their desire to suppress it, the fact remains that the most interesting information is often precisely that which people desire to suppress. So while it may take a certain courage to read my books, the reward is that they are some of the most interesting ones you can find.
Q. What are the major subjects you write about?
A. While I have always been interested in the controversial, the forbidden, the outre, and so forth, it remains a fact that, until I was in my 40s, I never wrote much that was particularly controversial. Instead, I spent my time on philosophical problems, particularly paradoxes, the philosophy of natural language, and what might be called the "big questions" of philosophy -- the meaning of life, the nature of mind and its relation to machines and the physical world, and so forth -- to which the major work of my career -- Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy -- is devoted. In 1987, however, I published Mortal Words -- a book so controversial I had to publish it myself -- and ever since that time controversy has been gushing forth from my pen at an astonishing rate. I have now published 30 books, plus innumerable articles, pamphlets, poems and cartoons, and there is no end in sight. The major stimulus to all this writing has been the increasing oppressiveness of liberalism -- political correctness, group politics, reverse discrimination, feminism and all the rest of the odious apparatus of liberal totalitarian do-goodism. One thing which I have found particularly appalling is the liberals' claim of moral uprightness for some of the most morally-perverted schemes imaginable, and their accusations of immorality against principled opponents of their schemes. As anyone who reads my books will see, I'm not just angry about these things -- I'm furious. What I -- and most other people -- believe in is meritocracy, ie, that rewards should be allocated on the basis of merit, and not on the basis of race or any other group characteristic. But liberals, with all their affirmative action, quotas, anti-discrimination laws, victimology and the like, have not only scuttled meritocracy, but have set group against group, race against race and sex against sex, with the result that everyone is unhappy, the melting pot is now boiling, and the country is far worse off than when "racism" and all the rest of the liberal bugaboos were in full flower.
Q. Your "politically incorrect" books include one each on women, blacks and Jews, and a fourth which covers gays, Indians, the handicapped and others. Don't you feel the people in these groups will see your books as an attack on them?
A. One of the more pernicious aspects of liberalism is that it has made it impossible to say anything negative about certain groups, primarily those mentioned above, without the risk of being labeled with one of the liberal smear-terms: Racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic, handicappist, ageist, etc. But groups -- or individual members of groups -- are like anything else in this world -- they have faults which need to be open to discussion. And while it is true that many fine things could be said about all of these groups, my books concentrate on the negative aspects. This, I might add, is not because I am "against" these groups or their members, but simply because I am making criticisms which desperately need to be made. Of course I will be misunderstood on this point, but I am sufficiently angry at all the liberal suppression of criticism to not really give a damn.
Q. Have you been attacked for your political incorrectness?
I have been attacked in print by feminists, gays and Jews. For example, I published an article in Health Freedom News, one of the major alternative health magazines, in which I said something about gays which was not really even critical, and yet the magazine received two angry letters, one of which threatened to "report me to the ACLU". As another example, when I criticized feminism in DM News, the major organ of the direct mail industry, I was attacked by an entire page full of letters from feminists. As for Jews, I should preface my remarks by saying that Jews are probably the best-organized of any group in America -- the Anti-Defamation League has a $30-million annual budget, for example -- as well as the biggest sacred cow, with the result that any time you say something in a public forum that even sounds like criticism of Jews you are instantly assailed from all sides by a screaming mob yelling "Antisemite!" I should know -- it happened to me over one of the essays in my book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jews ... when it was published in my regular column in the local Mensa magazine -- Mensa is the international high-IQ society you've probably heard of. In fact, the incident occurred about the time another Mensan received national media attention for publishing an article critical of Jews in the local Los Angeles Mensa magazine. I guess St Pete just isn't important enuf to rate national coverage.
Q. Are you saying that the Jews and the others didn't have a right to protest?
A. No. What I am saying -- particularly in the case of Jews -- is that their actions were not designed to answer criticism, but rather to suppress it. That might not be unethical in a strict sense, but there is something very sinister about it, and it will help you to understand what I mean if you realize that, thanks to international Jewry, it is illegal in most Western nations to question the Orthodox Jewish Version of the Holocaust. But even if all this were not so, the fact that Jews are so mightily organized against criticism is a self-made insult which suggests that they are too thin-skinned to take criticism. Furthermore, Jewish reaction to criticism usually involves the equating of criticism to hatred, which is simply wrong. And even worse than this, the accusation of "antisemitism" implies that hatred of Jews is immoral, which is again wrong: hatred is something that happens or not as a result of life experience -- one does not choose to hate. Perhaps the Jews would have fewer people hating them if they stopped generating hatred by trying to suppress criticism. Everyone needs criticism, and the Jews are no different in this respect from anyone else. One other thing I would like to say on the matter of Jews -- tho my remarks also apply in a general way to other groups -- is that paternalistic Jewish organizations such as the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center depend for contributions on playing upon ordinary Jews' fears of antisemitism, and this is the most likely explanation of why -- as Laird Wilcox has documented in his Hoaxer Report -- there have been so many incidents of supposed antisemitism which have been faked by Jews themselves, and why real incidents are often blown all out of proportion to their real significance. It should also be pointed out that Jewish organizations spend a lot of time trying to suppress the questioning of the Orthodox Jewish Version of the Holocaust for much the same reason: As the Jews say, "There's no business like Shoah business" -- Shoah is the Hebrew word for Holocaust -- and when revisionist historians start to raise significant questions about this particular event, it threatens the Steven Spielbergs and the rest of the Hollywood nazi movie industry, plus the Holocaust Memorial Museums and all the other businesses which depend on people's belief in the Orthodox Jewish Version.
Q. While you say that the oppressiveness of liberalism was a major spur to your writing the Mortal Words volumes, there are only a few of these volumes which you categorize as "politically incorrect". What about all the rest?
A. First let me explain that I have written five full volumes of Mortal Words, but only one of these -- the first -- has been published under its original title, The Mortal Words of JBR Yant and Other Irritations. The remainder of the volumes I have put out in 20-some-odd other volumes as the Mortal Words Special Topics Series, where each book is devoted to a single topic, and where I have included other of my writings besides those from the Mortal Words volumes in order to round them out. Now the simplest and most unadorned way to describe the Mortal Words volumes is to say that they are works of philosophy that masquerade as humor. More specifically, they are collections of the witty, penetrating quotations of a cantankerous, Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde-character of my own creation named J.B.R. Yant. But there are lots of so-called quotation books that have been published, so the question that arises is, How does Mortal Words stand out from the crowd? The answer has three parts -- quality, quantity and controversy. As to quality, this of course is something which the reader must judge; but as the reader can see from the reviews which the first volume has received, I believe that few would find it lacking. As to the matter of quantity, let me begin with the question, How much quotable material could you come up with from even the most quotable of authors? The answer, I venture to say, is no more than a handful of pages -- witness, for example, the space allotted in any book of quotations to the most widely-quoted author of the English language, Shakespeare. In comparison to the meager output of Shakespeare, however, the quotable statements of Yant comprise at least 5 large volumes -- or more than 20 lesser ones, depending on which version you want to count. In fact, with only a couple of exceptions, there is simply no author, whether historical or contemporary, who has created that much quotable material. Now as to controversy, it is this feature which most distinguishes the Mortal Words volumes from the rest of the quotable crowd. Controversy, of course, is nothing new; but the Mortal Words volumes are in a class by themselves as a result of the earlier-noted fact that they are not bounded by the taboos, mythology, and comfortable falsehoods that are so common outside of its covers. I hasten to add, however, that the controversial nature of the Mortal Words volumes has little or nothing to do with four- letter words -- there are a few, of course, but they are largely invisible. It is the ideas that get people stirred up. To quote my 1988 catalog, Mortal Words says not merely what others are afraid of saying, but what they are afraid of thinking. The main thing Mortal Words is good for is in opening people's eyes to hundreds of new and surprising notions that they will never encounter anywhere else. It's an entertaining book, yes, but it is an absolute gold- mine of new ideas. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that you'll never see the world the same after you've read Mortal Words.
Q. In view of your "political incorrectness" and criticisms of liberals, does this mean you are a conservative?
A. Mortal Words treats liberals and conservatives equally -- it gives each of them both barrels right in the seat of the pants. If I seem to come down on liberals harder, it is only because I used to consider myself one. But what I discovered after much painful experience is that liberals -- or at least the hard-core ones -- are just as bigoted, just as ignorant, and just as obnoxious as the worst conservatives, tho in a different way. Liberals may have more compassion, but all they have done is to exchange one set of social problems for another. If you have to put me in a philosophical pigeonhole, call me a libertarian.
Q. What's a libertarian?
A. Libertarianism is basically a philosophy of freedom -- freedom from the conservatives telling us what to read and what to do with our bodies, and freedom from the liberals telling us what we have to pay our maid and what schools we have to send our kids to. As the first volume of Mortal Words puts it, "A libertarian is someone who wants the government out of our bedrooms, our medicine cabinets, and our pocketbooks." I give a complete explanation of libertarianism in What the Establishment Doesn't Want You to Know About Government and Politics. In my youth I was somewhat attracted to the political left, a tendency which was accentuated by my sojourn at Antioch College (now University) which was famous for its leftist bias, tho in fact most of the students were apolitical. One student who was most definitely not apolitical, however, was a girl whom I dated briefly, Jane Adams, later to become a co- founder of the notorious leftist Students for a Democratic Society. Though she was possessed of an extremely sweet disposition, I have never met anyone who was as narrowminded and opinionated as she; and it was my contact with her that first alerted me to the fact that not all leftists wear halos. It is important to emphasize that my later libertarianism did not actually represent any change in my underlying philosophy, but rather a change in the philosophical instruments with which I sought to oppose tyranny and promote human freedom. To be more specific, the leftism of my youth was fundamentally a reaction to what I saw as the tyrannical power of the established order, which I supposed to be held primarily by a power elite of the rich and well-born, and especially those associated with big business. Later I came to realize that the threat of tyranny comes not nearly so much from big business as it comes from big government; and for this reason I became a card-carrying libertarian and a contributor to the literature of this small but vocal minority. In reality, of course, the threat of tyranny emanates from any concentration of power, whether private or governmental; and it is just as much a pipe dream to suppose -- as many rightists and libertarians do -- that big business is benign and big government bad, as it is to suppose -- as do the leftists -- that the situation is precisely the opposite. Instead, I think, the most that the lovers of human freedom can hope for is that the various groups will counterbalance each other so that none will be able to achieve a monopoly of power.
Q. How does libertarianism fit into the liberal-conservative dichotomy?
A. It doesn't. One of the most interesting things about libertarianism is that it makes clear the inadequacy of customary political distinctions, and specifically that the most important political distinction is the degree to which people favor or oppose freedom. Especially interesting is the degree to which people favor or oppose the free flow of information: Liberals, for example, favor freedom of sexual information but oppose freedom of information about such things as racial differences, while conservatives are exactly the opposite. Libertarians, of course, generally favor an absolutely free flow.
Q. Getting back to Mortal Words, isn't humor and philosophy a rather odd mix?
A. Not at all, for in many cases, humor is the most effective method for shattering false beliefs. Arguments are directed to man's rational faculty, but the basis of many beliefs is emotional rather than rational, and humor is the best method for destroying false emotion-based beliefs. Of course there are problems -- you can make people furious by making fun of their foolishness, for if foolishness gets ripped out by the claws of a joke rather than merely cut away by the razor of logic, it produces more pain, and thus arouses more anger. In fact, most humor is a pretty serious affair -- every joke has to have a butt, and if one of your cherished prejudices happens to be that butt, then it's no laughing matter. As I said about Mortal Words in my 1988 catalog, "Truth hurts, especially if it's funny." The problem I encounter with Mortal Words is that a great many people seem to prefer comfortable falsehoods to the often- uncomfortable truth. Philosophy is a search for truth, and in that sense Mortal Words is no joke. Perhaps the best expression of my philosophy of humor is a two-paragraph squib from Volume 2 of Mortal Words. It was written in response to some literature I received from Joel Goodman, who runs the "laugh-your-troubles- away" Saratoga Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York. I'd like to quote it here, not only because it is such a lucid statement of my philosophy, but also because it gives some idea of what Mortal Words contains, in spite of the fact that this piece is much longer than most of the entries:
"Humor has a dark as well as a light side; for when it comes to humor, to have fun is often -- if not principally -- to make fun of. Unfortunately, however, those philosophers of humor who besplatter us with such anodyne phrases as "A laugh a day keeps the doctor away" and "Humor is the shortest distance between two people" [Goodman's phrases] seem unaware of humor's dark side, and appear to not recognize that the primary wellspring of humor is anger, hatred and other negative emotions. Of course, such philosophers are quite right to say that humor possesses a roborant effect; for besides the physical stimulation and the anti-phlegmatic effect upon the alveoli which laughter produces, humor is clearly a way of creating a silk purse of enjoyment out of a sow's ear of rage against the stupidity and irrationality of the world. But it is nevertheless absurd for such goody- to-laugh philosophers to peddle the notion that humor is nothing more than a friendly wink and smile, an upbeat outlook, and a harmless nostrum which can be used like chewing gum or Tums. Humor is like a powder keg -- used carefully and appropriately, it can be welcome indeed; but used any other way it can blow up in one's face. Perhaps that is why it is said that only about a third of the population has a sense of humor -- it is they who have successfully made fun of the other two-thirds, and those other two-thirds are not amused. "The above discussion raises another matter, however: Should the dark side of humor -- much like the Prince of Darkness -- be suppressed? To listen to the goody-to-laugh philosophers, it would be hard not to draw that conclusion: All their up-beatness would seem to entail that the down- beatness of negative humor should be verboten. Actually, however, such philosophers are not really against using negative humor -- it is just that they are careful to make sure that no significant part of their audience happens to be an object of their verbal lampoons. This is all very well, of course, when audiences maintain a certain uniform quality, since this makes it easy for joke-tellers to make the we-they distinction in their jokes so as to insure that few if any of the audience falls into the 'they' category. But when it comes to really funny jokes -- which are inevitably on forbidden subjects (such as women, racial or ethnic groups) that often overlap the "we" category -- the joke-teller must enter this territory at considerable personal risk: The reactions are likely to be ones such as "reprehensible", "immoral", "sexist" and "racist", which were just a few of the terms that were used to describe the first Mortal Words. What people say by such remarks, however, is, It's OK to make fun of some things, but I or my friends can't take a joke. Needless to say, this is blatant inequality, which is particularly ironic when coming from those who make an avocation out of promoting equality by yelling "sexism" or "racism". But in reality the joke is on them, not only because they think humor should be divided along racial and ethnic lines, but also -- and most importantly -- because they have an inability to laugh at what is really funny, especially themselves. Should this be called banal retentiveness?"
Incidentally, I wrote a letter to Goodman, quoting the above piece, and offering him a free copy of Mortal Words in exchange for his comments, but I never heard from him. Perhaps my letter put him in a bad humor.
Q. Have there been others like you who have mixed humor and philosophy?
A. Not very many. It has only been in the last few decades that society has been open enough for anyone to dare to say the kinds of things I say in the Mortal Words volumes without serious fear of lynch mobs. Of course, the Salman Rushdie affair demonstrates clearly that authors such as myself are still well-advised to carry concealed weapons -- which you can do in Florida, happily. The best-known authors whose work mixes humor and philosophy are H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, Lenny Bruce, and Philip Wylie. Bruce and Wylie, however, didn't have much in the way of material of the Mortal Words "quotation" format, i.e., simultaneously short and memorable; while neither Mencken nor Bierce had a lot of quotable material -- or at least not a lot I would want to quote. The plain fact of the matter is that, in terms of sheer quantity of quotable material, Bierce has one volume while I have more than 20 and counting; and the rest of the crew has but a few pages among them. As to quality, I have to confess to the prejudice of believing that what I have written is mostly better, and that the quantity of my best material overwhelms the quantity of the best material of all the others mentioned. There are two other contemporary authors I should mention, however -- L.A. Rollins and Ashleigh Brilliant, both of whom I have corresponded with. Rollins, whose book Lucifer's Lexicon came out the same year as Mortal Words, models his work on Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, and in my opinion is better than Bierce -- tho perhaps not quite as good as Mortal Words, if you'll forgive my prejudice. As to Brilliant, he does not write the rough type of stuff that Rollins, I and the others write -- his material tends to be a bit of the New Age combined with a touch of the drug culture (He used to call his quotations "Pot Shots"), and in any event is squishy enough to be acceptable to the love- and-peacey liberals and the little old ladies.
Q. What about Fran Lebowitz?
A. Fran Lebowitz has been put forward by the media as a fons et origo of clever quips. Having sampled her work, however, my reaction is that she is distinguished only by being undistinguished. Of course, we live in a world in which Calvin Trillin, Erma Bombeck, Charles Schultz and Garry Trudeau are considered great humorists, and in comparison to them perhaps she is. But in comparison to Yant she is at best a mere footnote. I once read an interview with Lebowitz which was sprinkled with supposedly-clever quotations from her Metropolitan Life, and I remember being flabbergasted that any writer could be celebrated for such a performance -- and this was long before Mortal Words even existed. One of Lebowitz' statements sticks in my mind because I have seen it quoted more than once: "I don't believe in God -- I believe in cashmere." I do find this statement humorous, but only for the reason that the weakness of its humor makes it laughable.
Q. So you're jealous of Lebowitz' success?
A. I don't think jealousy is quite the right word. Let's just say that I am appalled by the fact that her book could make it to best-seller status, while a book which is far superior to hers gets ignored by the major media. Maybe I'm prejudiced, but all I can say is, Read and compare.
Q. I understand you had some amusing interaction with Ashleigh Brilliant.
A. I sent Brilliant a copy of Mortal Words in exchange for his promise to give me his comments. When he wrote me with his reaction, he did so on one of his postcards -- all his sayings appear on postcards with accompanying illustrations -- and by the time the card arrived there was only about half of it left, because Brilliant doesn't use heavy enough paper to allow his cards to survive the Post Office's sorting machinery. So anyway I wrote him and sent his postcard back, since I couldn't make out his message, and since I thought he would want to know about the paper problem. And I also pointed out to him that, by copyrighting all his postcards individually -- something he makes a big thing about in his books [which consist mostly of reproductions of his cards] because he was the first to do it -- he had cost himself an enormous amount in unnecessary copyright fees -- more than $40,000 -- since all he really needed to do was to publish a catalog of his postcards and then have just the catalog alone copyrighted at a mere cost of $10. I can only assume that my remarks made him apoplectic, for I haven't heard from him since. There are, however, two things for which I should give him credit: First, for inspiring me to create Mortal Words Birds postcards [See illustrations in 1988 catalog], and second, for prompting J.B.R. Yant to make one of his immortal remarks: "The greatest inspiration comes from seeing a good thing done poorly." (Sorry, Ash.)
Q. What is the origin of the birds you use in your postcards and cartoons?
A. The "Mortal Words Birds" were actually invented by my wife, who started drawing them many years ago to depict -- and make fun of -- the wildlife we often encountered, other people, and -- inevitably -- yours truly. I loved them, and now they are well on their way to becoming an institution. There are two national-circulation magazines that regularly publish my cartoons, and others that have published them occasionally.
Q. Have you tried syndicating a newspaper column based on Mortal Words?
A. Right after the book was published I started to run a column in a local newspaper, but I had a disagreement with the editor after the column's first appearance, so I dropped it. Then awhile back I offered a Mortal Words column to Hustler magazine -- not perhaps an ideal choice in terms of literary merit, but one which I felt could be of mutual advantage. At any rate, Hustler did not make a response to my offer, but the copy of Mortal Words I sent them apparently made a hit with someone in their hierarchy, for Hustler used material from Mortal Words on the cover of the very next issue [August 1989], and in a subsequent issue where they put Yant's words in the mouth of the centerfold ["It's not masturbating that will drive you crazy -- it's not masturbating."]. In a way I'm flattered, but if they like my stuff so well, it would be nice to have a little credit.
Q. At the time you published the first Mortal Words volume, you also published two other books -- The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered and Success in Marriage -- GUARANTEED!!!. In your advertising literature you made some pretty strong claims for these books -- claims which are pretty much summarized by their titles. Do you think this made you look like a charlatan or otherwise hurt the acceptance of the books?
A. Perhaps, but it's impossible to tell. The fact is that the titles are honest, and this is borne out by the reactions of reviewers. In fact, when I sought out reviews, I went directly to the people whom I felt would be the most critical -- other philosophers and the members of the internationally-known skeptics' organization CSICOP. Furthermore, the way I invited people to review my books was to send them an ad with my "unbelievable" claims. And the fact is that I got good reviews in most cases -- not from newspaper hacks, but from some of the world's best and most skeptical minds. It is true, of course, that a lot of potential reviewers turned down my offer, many of these turn-downs undoubtedly being motivated by the sort of narrow-mindedness which simply would not take the trouble to check an "unbelievable" claim, even when it was handed them on a silver platter. I remember in particular the refusal I received from B.F. Skinner, the well-known Harvard psychologist -- it seemed clear to me from his letter that he was struggling with himself -- that there was part of him that wanted to accept my offer -- but he just couldn't bring himself to do it because of what I was claiming. If there was ever a clear case of prejudice -- pre-judging without seeing -- then the reactions of Skinner and the others who declined my books was it. But in spite of the turn- downs, quite a few experts did accept my offer, and of those who finally gave me their comments, the results were very gratifying -- The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered was reviewed favorably by 75% of 23 reviewers, and Success in Marriage -- GUARANTEED!!! was reviewed favorably by 60% of 18 reviewers -- results, I might add, which were comparable to those for Mortal Words, which was reviewed favorably by 70% of 26 reviewers. I should add that I had absolutely no prior personal acquaintance with any of these reviewers, meaning that their reviews -- unlike many in the publishing industry -- were not tainted by reviewers' personal or financial obligations to the publishers. So I think my strong claims -- and my titles -- are more than justified.
Q. What are the significance of these percentages? Would someone be justified in saying, "Well, you could have done a lot better -- and if your books were really good, you should have"?
A. First of all, let me say that if there had been a significant divergence between the "unbelievable" claims of my ads and what my books actually contained, I would never have received the kinds of favorable reviewer comments which I in fact did receive -- instead, the reviewers would simply have dismissed me as a liar and let it go at that. So I think it may be surmised that most of them thought I made good on those claims. Second, my books put forth a lot of new and unusual ideas -- things that have never been proposed before. And everyone knows how difficult it is to get new ideas accepted -- forgive me if I fail to recite the entire history of the human race in order to prove this point. But all this means that even if I had received, say, only 30% favorable reviews, this would still have been an extremely favorable response, simply because of people's natural reluctance to accept new ideas. So while it is literally true that I could have done better, the actual significance of the reviews is far greater than what the numbers say.
Q. I understand that there were a substantial number of people who agreed to review your books but did not keep their promise. Do you think this means they had a negative reaction?
A. That probably explains some cases, but I don't think it correctly explains most, particularly because of the fact that I literally begged these people to send me their reviews, whether negative or not. Other explanations which are both possible and likely are work pressure, laziness, professional jealousy -- especially when it involves an important discovery by an "outsider" -- and fear of endorsing something that seems too outre. The latter possibility is especially important, not merely because of the fear that supporting something outside the mainstream may leave one professionally tainted, but also because of the fact that even an "expert" may simply be unable to "believe his eyes" in evaluating radical claims until he encounters another expert opinion which will confirm his own, the problem being that most people -- including many "experts" -- are often so insecure that they will not risk passing judgment on an "incredible" claim until they know that they will not be supporting a minority opinion. To give you an example of the kind of problem I encountered with reviewers, I should recount that with Most Powerful Idea I obtained the promise of 33 professional philosophers to review it, most of them specialists in ethics. Yet after many queries and reminders, I obtained only 14 reviews -- just slightly more than 40%! Here we have specialists in ethics, the very people whom you would expect to be rigorously diligent in keeping their promises, and yet almost 60% of them did not!
Q. Perhaps it would be enlightening to know how many professional philosophers gave Most Powerful Idea favorable reviews.
A. Six favorable, four unfavorable, and four mugwumps.
Q. What about reader opinions?
A. Since all my books are sold with an unlimited-time return privilege, the best way to judge reader opinion is to note that very few of my books have ever been returned. To be more specific, mail-order people say that for most merchandise, a return of 2% to 3% is average, and 10% is high. Returns for my books have been about 1% except for a 10% return rate for one ad for Most Powerful Idea which was placed in a periodical with a large percentage of religious readers. Even though I stated in the ad that I was not a religious believer, I got a lot of nut mail -- and returns -- from religious people who apparently thought I should be just like them. The point I am trying to make is that my trouble is not with people being disappointed with my books, because in most cases they aren't -- the problem is in convincing people to try my books in the first place.
Q. Your strongest claims seem to be for Most Powerful Idea. Can you tell us about it?
A. Let me begin by stating that I am an atheist, that is, I do not believe in God or any other type of theological entity. Now having said that, let me ask you the following question: Why has Christianity survived and prospered for almost two thousand years? The answer is simple, but too shocking for most atheists to admit: Christianity has survived and prospered because it has met the evolutionary test of "survival of the fittest". Or to put it another way, Christianity has survived because it has promoted the survival of those who "employ" it. But what this means is that there is something very powerful about Christianity -- something which -- as I show in my book -- has nothing to do with God or theology. One of the most important accomplishments of Most Powerful Idea is to scientifically demonstrate the nature of this power, and to show how an ordinary person -- whether Christian or atheist -- can put it to use. The way I go about my demonstration is to use the tools of systems theory, and particularly feedback-loop analysis -- an approach which has never been employed in philosophy before, and one which is enormously profitable in terms of the insights which it yields. In addition, Most Powerful Idea relies significantly on a path-breaking earlier development of mine, which was first described in a paper I published in a major academic journal, The Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, in 1980. I think you can see from what I have just said that Most Powerful Idea is both scientific and logical in the best sense. I hasten to add, however, that it, like all my books, is written in simple language which any reader of average intelligence should have no trouble in following.
Q. Is what you label "the most powerful idea ever discovered" actually Christianity?
A. What I call "the most powerful idea ever discovered" is not Christianity, although it is something from which Christian behavioral principles may be derived. Accordingly, while my book may be viewed in some sense as promoting Christian behavioral principles, it is actually the principle behind these principles which I am advancing. I also might add that -- at least in my humble opinion -- my idea is a completely original one, although the claim of originality was questioned by some of the philosophers who reviewed it. The problem is that there is no way to determine the question of originality in any objective way. For example, one would be justified in saying that Einstein's theory of relativity wasn't "really" original, since all Einstein did was to change one assumption of Newtonian mechanics (that time is absolute), add some tensor calculus (which had already been developed), do a few simple mathematical manipulations, and Voila!, E=mc2 (I know -- I worked out the equations in college physics). In fact, the question of originality reminds me of the old saying which goes, "First they tell you you're wrong; then they tell you you're right, but it's not important; and finally, they tell you it's important, but they've known it all along." Maybe I've skipped the first two stages with Most Powerful Idea.
Q. Is Most Powerful Idea intended for Christians, or atheists, or both?
A. I would hope that both Christians and atheists would be receptive to it, but the fact that I am an atheist is going to offend some Christians, and the fact that I am defending something about Christianity is going to offend some atheists. I do think, however, that my book will be better- received among atheists than Christians, for the simple reason that Christianity is an actual philosophy, while atheism is more of a vacuum waiting for a philosophy to come along and fill it, that is, it is easier to fill a vacuum than to dislodge a pre-existing philosophy. But whatever the case, I look on myself as someone who has found a bridge between these two apparently-irreconcilable points of view, and I am trying to use that bridge to bring people together. I often think of myself as a sort of missionary -- someone who is trying to bring to the world the "good news" - - which is the literal meaning of gospel -- of the philosophical convergence of Christianity and atheism.
Q. Do you argue in favor of atheism in Most Powerful Idea?
A. No, but if you want some arguments, I suggest you try my article in Religion, Science and Superstition entitled "Four Indisputable Proofs that God Does Not Exist".
Q. Besides Most Powerful Idea, you have also made a lot of seemingly- unbelievable claims for Success in Marriage -- GUARANTEED!!!/The Secret of Making Friends -- And KEEPING Them. Can you tell us about it?
A. Success in Marriage consists primarily of a set of easily-followed mechanical formulas for getting your marriage out of trouble if it's in trouble, and keeping it out if it's not. More specifically, Success in Marriage describes how, with little or no risk, a couple can achieve a state of completely open and intimate communication -- something which is rarely achieved in even the best relationships, but something which my wife and I have achieved by using the methods I describe. In fact, I attribute the success of my 30 year marriage almost completely to these methods. Now the reaction which many people will have to the idea of open communication is to say that it is impossible -- that it is too risky, that they couldn't stand it, that their mate would never respond, and so forth. The only problem is that they are wrong. And not only are they wrong, but in saying that open communication is impossible, they are condemning both themselves and their mate to a marriage which will probably be a lot less happy than it might otherwise be. My book will show them why they are wrong, and in particular it will show them how -- as I mentioned above -- open communication can be achieved almost risk-free. There's no catch. It can be done easily and quickly, even under the worst of circumstances -- in the case of infidelity, for example -- provided only that both partners still want to be together and are willing to follow my simple rules. This is not pop psychology. It works. Period.
Q. It seems to me that the idea of intimacy would frighten many people -- and especially women -- for at least two reasons: First, because intimacy would require the discharge of hostility that has built up in an already- troubled marriage, and second, because intimacy would imply the revealing of things -- such as an affair -- which might increase hostile feelings.
A. The problem with hostility, anger and similar emotions in marriage is that they often get suppressed until they finally emerge as an emotional blow-up. What must be done, therefore, is to have a way of releasing or discharging these emotions in a way that prevents their build-up, and also in a way in which a minimum of conflict will be produced at the time of their release. Not to worry -- Success in Marriage has this matter fully covered.
Q. You have stated in your ads that you advise that Most Powerful Idea and Success in Marriage be read together. Why?
A. For two reasons. First, because Most Powerful Idea has a lot to say about interpersonal relations, a matter which obviously has a bearing on marriage. And second, because Most Powerful Idea discusses the man-woman relationship in depth -- especially as it relates to the matter of power -- and this is a crucial topic for complete understanding of the dynamics of a marital relationship.
Q. Can you describe Bryant's Law and Other Broadsides?
A. This big book -- at 384 pages, more than 50% larger than the first volume of Mortal Words -- is so jam-packed with goodies that there is no easy way to summarize the contents. All I can really do is to titillate you by listing a few of the essays: "Bryant's Law and the Bryant-Parkinson Trilex", "The Case Against Halloween", "Does 'Prejudice' Exist", "The Funny Thing About Stereotype Humor", "Totalitarian World Government: Why Is It Inevitable?", "Systems Theory, Survival and the Back-to-Nature Movement", "Female Problems: A Libertarian Solution", "Liberalism, Conservatism, and Related Labels: What Do They Mean?", "AIDS, Game Theory, and the Cost of Compassion", "Eleven Common Myths About Diet and Dieting", "The Male G- Spot", "Adult-Child Sex: What's Wrong With It?", "Tennis and Superstition", "A New Perspective on Cheating", "Why I Should Get the Nobel Prize: Resolving the Allais Paradox", "A New Look at the Gambler's Paradox", "Ten Things You MUST Know to Achieve Success", and "To Buy or Not to Buy: That Is the Question, or, Rental Versus Purchase: A Cost Analysis." This list constitutes only a small number of the many articles in the book, approximately a third of which has been previously published.
Q. Is Bryant's Law controversial like Mortal Words?
A. Let me begin by saying that one of the essays in Bryant's Law got me expelled from graduate school, and another got me 'reported' to the American Civil Liberties Union. If you are looking for controversy, you won't be disappointed.
Q. What is Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy about?
A. Systems Theory was my first book, altho it was not actually published till 1991. Its purpose is to formulate a general philosophical world-view -- to answer what might be called the "big questions" of philosophy. There are two basic perspectives in approaching philosophy -- the spiritual/mystical/tender-minded and the scientific/mechanistic/tough- minded. Taking the latter perspective, I argue in Part I that it is a logical consequence of the scientific view to regard man as a machine, given an appropriate definition of the term machine; and from this point of departure it is explained in Part II -- by means of systems theory -- that the most important seemingly-non-mechanistic characteristics of the world - - consciousness, free will, parapsychological phenomena, pain and pleasure, humor, sex, thinking, religion, Godel's theorem, and many others -- are merely the products of mechanism. In Part III I extend this analysis to social philosophy -- particularly as applied to utility theory, punishment, economic phenomena, and socialism -- in order to round out the mechanistic viewpoint and to demonstrate the fruitfulness of systems theory when applied to a wide range of philosophical problems. Now in saying what I have just said, I will almost certainly have given a misleading impression of my work to some readers: Although it might be concluded from the description above that Systems Theory puts forth a world-view which rejects "spiritual" reality, in fact what it does is to argue that the "spiritual" -- to whatever extent it is real -- is merely a perfectly natural part of that wonderful mechanism which we call the universe. In short, therefore, Systems Theory is an attempt to bridge the gap between the presumably-irreconcilable world-views of science and spirituality -- a gap which I attempt to bridge in a somewhat different way in The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered.
Q. I understand that there is quite a long story behind Systems Theory. Could you tell us about it?
A. The story of Systems Theory is really the story of my getting interested in philosophy, which became a passion with me during my first week at Antioch College, as a result of reading some philosophical pamphlets given to me by Arthur Morgan, a former President of Antioch, whom I heard speak at one of the orientation sessions for new students. It is a curious coincidence that Arthur Morgan should have played an important role in my life, because he also played an important role in my father's life -- after Franklin Roosevelt appointed Morgan head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Morgan brought my father and a bunch of other "young Turks" from the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission down to Knoxville as TVA executives. That's where my mother and father met -- my mother came to my father's office one day trying to sell him some insurance, which he didn't buy, but he did ask her for a date. The rest is his-and-her-story. But returning to the original subject, I began working on a manuscript as a result of Morgan's pamphlets which, after more than ten years of effort, became what I then called Cybernetics and Scientific Philosophy. This book was based on concepts developed in W. Ross Ashby's Introduction to Cybernetics and Design for a Brain. At the time of completing the manuscript I was living in San Francisco, so I decided to take it over to Michael Scriven at the University of California at Berkeley, because he had been a contributor to a symposium which I had used in the course of my writing. Scriven, however, suggested that I show it to his colleague Hubert Dreyfus, who was just then finishing a book -- What Computers Can't Do -- on a thesis related to, but diametrically opposed to, my own. Dreyfus nevertheless seemed favorably impressed with the manuscript -- we had lunch together on campus after he had read it -- and I remember that the first thing he said to me was to ask me when I was going to publish it -- sweet words for a then-unknown like me, especially coming from a philosophical opponent. Another thing I remember about the encounter is that Dreyfus had to go to the bank after our meal, so I accompanied him, and while we were walking back we met his brother, to whom Dreyfus gave a wad of cash. I remarked to him in a humorous tone that it looked like a drug payoff, which was all the funnier in light of the fact that several years later Dreyfus got his name all over the Bay Area papers as a result of being arrested for marijuana possession. But getting back to my manuscript, I eventually sent it off to Terry Bynum, the editor of Metaphilosophy, who had taught the only course in philosophy I had ever taken at college -- actually, the course was on the philosophy of logic, and it was this course that got me interested in the area that turned out to be my specialty. Anyway, Terry suggested that I send it to Ervin Laszlo, who was then editing two series of books on what he was calling systems theory, and Terry thought my book would fit this category. The upshot of all this was that Laszlo tentatively accepted my book for the series he was editing for George Braziller, provided that I recast my work in the vein of his systems theory as opposed to Ashby's cybernetics. Accordingly, I went through the manuscript and substituted "systems theory" for "cybernetics" and added a few sympathetic references to the work of Laszlo and his friend Bertalanffy; but that apparently was not enough for Laszlo, so he placed my work in another series he was editing for Gordon & Breach. There it languished on a long waiting list until G & B filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, at which point they cut most of their philosophy titles, including mine. The present version is one which has been updated with a large number of notes which I have made through the intervening years, but except for a couple of chapters, the new version is not greatly different from the 1973 edition. I believe it reflects very favorably on the book that it was good enough to last this length of time and still be received by reviewers as le dernier cri. In fact, events since 1973 have done a great deal to confirm the basic correctness of the book, and it may now actually be able to get a better hearing than it would have in 1973 because it will not appear to be so "far out". In reference to the systems theory/cybernetics distinction, I am sorry to say that Laszlo's brand of systems theory always impressed me as being much ado about nothing, and this opinion has been shared by others. Some people would probably say it was wrong for me to adopt the systems theory name for my own approach under those circumstances, but the fact is that getting things accomplished in the world requires compromises, and getting my book accepted for publication with a major publisher was a big break for me, and one I simply could not afford to pass up. Furthermore, since the term systems theory is now imbedded in the literature, it would be awkward for me to assume a new nomenclature at this point. But whatever I may think of Laszlo's approach, I shall be forever grateful for the break he gave me, and of course I must acknowledge his acute intelligence in recognizing the importance of my book.
Q. Can you give a short definition of systems theory, as you interpret it?
A. The essence of systems theory, as I use the term in describing my own work, is reflecting upon the behavior and final state of a system as it comes to -- or maintains -- equilibrium. This sounds very simple, but it is extremely rich in the useful observations which it can yield. As Bennett W. Goodspeed pointed out in The Tao Jones Averages: A Guide to Whole Brained Investing [NY: E.P. Dutton, 1983, p. 86]: "In hindsight, the most ingenious discoveries display an embarrassing degree of simplicity. As biologist Thomas Huxley said when he read about Darwin's new theory, 'How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that.'" The reason for this is that great truths by their very nature have a simplicity about them, since the nature of a great truth is to forge an organizing and simplifying bond between a large number of complex and seemingly-unrelated observations.
Q. What are the major advances, if any, that Systems Theory makes?
A. There are a substantial number of major philosophical advances made by Systems Theory. First and foremost is the Fundamental Theorem of Utility Theory of Chapter 13, which unites classical and egoistic utility theory, and thereby solves one of the most troublesome problems of philosophy. Other major advances are the systems-theoretic analysis of religion in Chapter 3, the novel theory of consciousness in Chapter 5, the discussion of antinomies and Godel's theorem in Chapter 7, the theory of mental functioning in chapter 9, the theories of positive pleasure and Buildup- Release in chapter 10, and the theory of free will/determinism and its applications in chapters 11 and 18. But perhaps the greatest advance of all is to demonstrate in general the ability to fruitfully apply systems theory to the problems of philosophy -- something, incidentally, which I have continued to do thruout my philosophical career. For examples of what I have done, the reader should check the collection of articles on systems theory appearing in Bryant's Law.
Q. Besides the use of systems theory, what makes your books so different from those of other philosophers?
A. One of the biggest difficulties with philosophy nowadays is that its technical problems have made philosophers lose sight of what philosophy is all about, namely, how to live. While I certainly have been involved with technical problems, my work has always been addressed to the "big questions". Another way in which my work differs from that of other philosophers is that I believe I possess a better grasp of technical issues that impact on philosophy -- as reflected, for example, in my use of systems theory. In fact, I began my career in philosophy by majoring in mathematics, because I knew that a mastery of this subject would allow me access to almost any literature, and because I knew -- even at that early stage in my career -- that academic philosophy was a stultified morass that no intelligent person would want to get near. In retrospect I can see that my choice was a very good one, for it allowed me to discover philosophical tools of greatest usefulness, but unknown to most others in my field.
Q. I understand there are several Nobel prizewinners you have tangled with.
A. The first Nobelist I tangled with was William Shockley, and the series of letters I wrote him is reproduced in my book on Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Blacks ... . What happened is that I got him to make some embarrassing admissions, with the result that he refused to permit publication of his side of the correspondence. Another Nobelist I tangled with was Ronald H Coase, and my letter to him is reproduced in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Philosophy and Philosophers .... Another case of tangling with a Nobelist involved my article on the Allais paradox in Bryant's Law, which is based on a presumably definitive account in the journal Science, and lays pretty heavily into the 1988 Nobel laureate in Economics, Maurice Allais. When I sent him a copy of this article, Allais responded by sending me a copy of an article entitled "Allais Paradox" which he published in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics [Macmillan, 1987, v. 1, pp. 80-2]. Altho no correspondence save his card was enclosed with the article, he was apparently suggesting that my piece was somehow wrong without bothering to say how; and the fact that he required a return receipt suggested that he considers his article definitive on the point. In fact, however, the article is definitive only in showing that writers who have reached a certain level of academic prominence are permitted to publish anything whatsoever, no matter how muddled or illogical, provided only that they give it a footnote. It may turn out that, after studying the article's lengthy bibliography, I will conclude that Prof. Allais is right and I am wrong, but I doubt it; and if by sending me his article he is saying that I must not publish a preliminary result, then I reply that all results are preliminary, and the final ones will appear only on Judgment Day. I am happy to say, however, that not all my encounters with Nobelists have been negative, for two of them -- Milton Friedman and Kenneth J Arrow -- have had nice things to say about my work.
Q. I understand that you have also tangled with the local newspaper in St Petersburg.
A. The St Petersburg Times has actually been a great source of inspiration to me -- in the space of about two years I have written 162 letters to the paper or its denizens, comprising perhaps 117,000 words, usually with the view of expressing my contempt for its liberal positions; and these letters -- besides being scattered thru the Mortal Words volumes -- have been collected by themselves into the book Nasty Letter-Bombs. But while it has been great fun to vent my anger at these folks, the Times has never deigned to print even a single letter of mine, which I think shows a lot about either the narrow-mindedness of the Times' staff or else the excellence of the case which I have made in my letters. And speaking of excellence, it is interesting to point out that, at one point in the middle of my letter- writing campaign, I sent a certified letter challenging the editor of the paper, Andrew Barnes, to a thousand-dollar bet that he could not successfully deny -- as determined by a lie detector test -- that I was one of the best writers he had ever seen, with my paying him $1000 plus expenses for the test if I lost, and with him paying me $1000 plus expenses if he won, plus giving me a columnist's job. I don't suppose I have to tell you that he wouldn't take the bet. A second interesting feature of my letter-writing campaign is that I originally used to just write to the paper itself with a copy of my letter sent to the person to whose article I was responding, with the result that, basically, there was no response of any kind, except that one of the columnists wrote me once -- somewhat plaintively -- and another one spent half of one of his columns attacking -- not any of my ideas, mind you -- but rather my "vanity" for the fact that I have a list of my books, Who's Who listings and other accomplishments on my stationery. But a year or so after I began my letter-writing campaign I changed my tactics and began sending copies of each letter to about 8 or 10 different people at the paper -- some of these being "enemies" and some being people who seemed neutral or friendly, where the names of all recipients were placed on each letter, and where the idea was to embarrass the hell out of the person I was criticizing in front of his colleagues. The result of this latter tactic was subtle but clear -- the Times' liberalism has largely withered away, if I may steal a phrase from the communist vocabulary. And lest you think that this was merely wishful thinking on my part, the Times actually printed a reader letter in January of 1995 which congratulated it for getting rid of its revolting left/liberal bias.
Q. To whom are your books primarily directed?
A. The people who seem to be most receptive to my books are those who are looking for new explanations and new ideas -- in a word, those who do not feel themselves bound by convention. I could call such people unconventional, but that does not quite convey my meaning. Certainly humanists and atheists fit into this category. But I don't consider my books directed toward such individuals -- rather they are directed to intelligent people who are flexible enough to investigate a different point of view. I would especially hope that Christians would be receptive to Most Powerful Idea. In fact, I might point out that the entertainer Steve Allen bought a copy of this latter book, and apparently it influenced him, because he gave a speech at the 1988 International Humanist Conference in Buffalo not long after he received it, and a striking aspect of his speech was to put forward the idea that humanism and Christianity are not incompatible. I would like to think that my book was responsible for his saying this, though of course I don't know.
Q. Is there any one theme or shared purpose that unifies your books?
A. In a general sense, you might say that my books are designed to bring philosophical enlightenment, often with the specific intention of showing how to live better and more productively. But besides this, there is a leitmotif which runs through every one of my books -- the importance of the freedom of information. Many people, of course, regard freedom of information as bad, and most of the rest regard it as a desirable but more- or-less dispensable luxury. In fact, however, freedom of information is absolutely crucial to the success of human social organization. This point is made in Most Powerful Idea by the discussion of the Fundamental Theorem of Ethical Theory and the Synanon game; in Success in Marriage it is made by emphasizing the importance of completely open communication between married partners; in Bryant's Law it is made -- among other places -- in discussing "Totalitarian World Government"; in Systems Theory it is made in discussing the Fundamental Theorem of Utility Theory; and in the Mortal Words volumes it is made by practicing freedom -- thereby showing not only that it can be done, but also -- by the content of what is said -- how important it is.
Q. What is your primary motivation for writing -- fame or fortune?
A. You might say that my primary motivation is to bring my ideas to others -- to teach them some revolutionary concepts which they will find both enlightening and useful. I have no objection to fame and fortune -- they can be helpful to me in my work, and they are a measure of how well I am doing -- but neither fame nor fortune interests me as an end in itself.
Q. Do you see yourself as having some special mission or purpose?
A. I think almost everyone has a feeling of being special -- which, I might add, is an excellent argument in favor of the proposition that nobody is. To take an example, although many people believe that Jesus was unique in his claim of messiahship, in fact it is very common for people to consider themselves messiahs, the most visible contemporary claimant being the Rev. Moon. In the days of Jesus, of course, the messiah-complex was not recognized -- if Jesus came to save the world in the present day he would probably just be put in a psycho ward -- or in prison, like Moon was. As a personal anecdote on this subject, I used to play tennis with a fellow -- a Jew, no less -- who believed himself to be Jesus, tho he was more openminded than most by believing -- as some Eastern religions do -- that "being Jesus" is common if not universal. Now in spite of the fact that I am an atheist, I too have experienced the feeling of "being Jesus". I don't dwell on the matter -- in fact, I rarely think about it, and when I do, I imagine that it is much the same feeling that ordinary men have when they "feel the call" to go into the ministry. But whatever it is, it is a feeling that I share with many religious people, and it acts to give my life a direction that it would not otherwise have. In particular, I think of my ideas as having the potential of "saving the world", and I direct my life accordingly. But whatever influence this may have on me, at least it makes me especially appreciate the comedian Lily Tomlin's remark that when a person talks to God he's normal, but when God talks to him, he's nuts.
Q. What exactly are the problems you have had with advertising your books?
A. The basic problem I had with advertising is that I was prevented from advertising in the markets most likely to be receptive to my books. The first problem I had was with the Weekly World News. It's a pretty hang- loose paper, the rates are good, and their staff artist, Bruce Benjamin, had done my cartooning for the first Mortal Words volume. But then I started getting a lot of static. First they told me I would have to remove some quotations from my Mortal Words ad (I was also purchasing a full-page ad for Success in Marriage). I asked if I could just cover over the offending quotations with a strip that said 'Censored by the Weekly World News'. But that didn't go over too well. Eventually, they just returned all my material saying they wouldn't take my ads. Similar rejections for Mortal Words were received from Environmental Action (a "liberal" magazine), The Spotlight (a "conservative" newspaper where I had previously advertised The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered), the humanist Free Inquiry, the "atheist" Freethought Today and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's American Atheist. In addition, Free Inquiry, Laissez-Faire Books and Cornell University Press all refused to rent me their mailing list for my 1988 catalog. I am not, of course, insensitive to the fact that magazine publishers cannot afford to offend their readers, but even allowing for this I don't think there was any good reason for any of these publications to turn down my ads; and there was certainly no reason for me to be refused the mailing lists, since there is no link between the list owner and the material mailed. But besides the above, the most surprising turn-downs were from three libertarian magazines, Liberty, Oasis, and Reason. I say "surprising" because libertarians are supposedly totally against censorship (Reason's motto is 'Free minds and free markets'.) Reason's case is particularly galling because just a few days before the issue of Reason came out that was supposed to contain my ads (one page for Mortal Words, and one page for The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered), I received a note from their advertising director saying that their publisher, Robert Poole, had rejected my ads. When I called to find out why, he wouldn't take my call. I guess it's nice for a big brave freedom-fighter like Robert Poole to hide behind his secretary's skirts. And it was especially nice for him to make me wait for three months to find out I was getting shafted. And on top of that, he kept the sample copy of my book. Perhaps he is a just a closet admirer, and -- like a good libertarian -- believes he is under no obligation to share his good fortune with others. Another case of advertising refusal which was especially irksome was the case of the humanist magazine Free Inquiry. To explain, you should know that the big cheese there -- and the person responsible for turning down my ad -- is Paul Kurtz, who was also till recently a philosophy professor and has been a prolific author of books on humanist/atheist philosophy, as well as founder of the principal humanist publishing house Prometheus Books and the principal debunkers' journal The Skeptical Inquirer. While my association -- and conflicts -- with Kurtz have a long history, let me make a long story short by noting that almost immediately after I tried to get a full-page ad in Free Inquiry, the magazine dropped all advertising -- including the classified section -- except for ads for their own stuff. So why is Kurtz trying to block my access to the humanist community? My guess is that he realizes that my books -- and particularly Most Powerful Idea -- have succeeded where his books have failed, namely, in providing a rationale for ethical behavior which is based on logic and science rather than theology. In fact, while Kurtz has obviously made a substantial and praiseworthy contribution to organizing American humanists, his books are so totally empty of content that they could never have been published except by a publishing house -- Prometheus Books -- which is under his control. Now there is something important which needs to be realized here. Publishers of newspapers and magazines do not go turning down thousands of dollars in advertising revenue casually. And a man like Robert Poole, the publisher of Reason and probably the best-known advocate of personal liberty in the US, does not turn himself into a hypocrite casually. The point I am trying to make is that to get a publisher to turn down big advertising bucks or to go completely against his publicly-expressed principles takes something enormously powerful. Which is exactly what Mortal Words is. In fact, I don't believe there could be any stronger testament to the power of Mortal Words than the suppression of its advertisements by all these periodicals. The problem, however, is that my book is a sort of "dark" power, like the power of a lethal weapon, rather than like the "white" power of (for example) my booklet The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered. For like a lethal weapon, it can do wonderful things in the right hands, but in the wrong ones it can be devastating. Let me explain all this a little more exactly. As most people know, modern psychology began with Sigmund Freud. What many do not realize, however, is that Freud's basic breakthrough was his discovery of the subconscious mind, and in particular, the power which the subconscious mind possesses. Now the relevance of all this to my book is the following: The Mortal Words volumes constitute a journey into the depths of the subconscious mind. They unsuppress the suppressed. They force the reader to think about things they have never thought about before. They force him to confront his hopes and fears, his failings, his pretenses, his biases, and almost every other part of his personality. They are an excursion only for those who seek to know themselves. Only for those with free and open minds. Only for those who demand to know the truth, at whatever cost to their egos or their cherished beliefs.
Q. What do you see as the main difficulties in winning general acceptance for your books?
A. I've already discussed one -- overcoming people's unwillingness to look at something new because they think the claims are unbelievable. But there are a couple of others. One is expressed by a quote from Mortal Words: "In a totalitarian society, new ideas are suppressed; in a democracy, they are merely ignored to death." What I am trying to say is that new ideas have a very significant disadvantage in competing with old ideas, no matter how good the new ideas are. This disadvantage is basically that, once people get their thinking patterns set, they don't change much -- it usually takes some sort of crisis or collapse to make them rethink their ways. And since these fixed patterns tend to get passed on from generation to generation, it is pretty hard for new ideas to get a fair hearing. And if this weren't bad enough, my own books have an additional disadvantage. Let me put it this way: Suppose you have a book that is just a little ahead of its time, and another book that is way ahead. In such a case the first book is probably going to be a lot more successful than the second, simply because people will have an easier time seeing the first book's validity. So if I am right that my books represent a significant advance, then I can expect them to have a lot more trouble being accepted, and this for the simple reason that they will stretch people's minds more.
But there is a third and more important difficulty which my books face, which can perhaps best be explained by reference to systems theory. To be specific, consider any well-known philosopher and ask yourself why it is that his books so often get read, especially if the stuff he writes is really not that great -- and lots of well-known philosophers fall into that category. The answer is simple, but surprising: He gets read because he gets read, that is, he gets read because he is "established", because people know about him, because if someone isn't familiar with him then they are "ignorant". And the same thing happens in reverse for someone who is unknown: No one knows him, so they figure he is unimportant, so they don't read him, so he remains unknown. What all this means, then, is that -- in the terminology of systems theory -- I am caught in a feedback loop in which I have difficulty becoming accepted because I am not yet accepted; but where -- once I win acceptance -- this acceptance will insure that I continue to be accepted. My struggle is to break out of the first loop and get into the second.
Q. Are your works highly technical, that is, are they difficult for the average reader?
A. There is one thing that almost everyone agrees on about my writing -- it is clear and easy to understand. H.L. Mencken once remarked that the purpose of academic writing was "to stagger sophomores and other professors", but my motivation is completely different from most academic philosophers. In particular, academicians often try to impress their superiors with how "academic" and "learned" they are, whereas my motivation is simply to make people understand me. So with a little effort, the ordinary intelligent reader should have no trouble with even the most technical of my books -- Systems Theory.
Q. Do you think the expense is a stumbling block for a lot of people who might otherwise buy your books?
A. One look at the price list should make clear that my books are dirt- cheap -- most are under $10, and a lot are less than $6. And of course if you buy more than 3 you get a very decent discount on top of the low price. In fact, by selling at such low prices I have doubts about my ability to make a profit, but I want to keep my prices as low as possible in order to get my message to as many people as I can. I should add that the price of a complete set of my books costs no more than a couple of evenings out on the town, and yet the evenings out will soon be forgotten, while my books will continue to give pleasure and enlightenment for years. And of course if you don't like the evening out, you can't get your money back; but if you don't like my books, you can get a refund any time. Needless to say, one of the major purposes of my books is to rectify the sorts of skewed priorities I have just described. The problem is that, as long as these skewed priorities exist, they will make it difficult for me to correct them. How's that for a philosophical paradox -- which also happens to be an example of the application of systems theory?
Q. Why should someone buy your books -- as opposed to getting them at the library?
A. I used to say exactly the same thing when I saw an interesting book advertised. But what I discovered is that a lot of the time the libraries never had them -- even big libraries. The reason is simple -- there are more than a hundred books published every day in the United States. With competition like that, it means that most books never get into libraries. And the ones that do are usually those of the big commercial publishers -- librarians regard small presses a lot like cooks regard flies -- always buzzing around, but no good for anything except annoyance. And once a book gets out of print, it's almost impossible to get hold of. But the real reason why people should buy my books is simply because these books are the kind that can be read again and again with both profit and enjoyment. My books aren't going to get out of date like the mass-market junk that forms the bulk of what the major publishers sell.
Q. Why didn't you receive your doctorate?
A. The basic problem was that my doctoral committee -- the two major members of which were Hugh Lacey of Swarthmore College and Joseph Margolis of Temple University -- wouldn't approve my doctoral project, which I had submitted to them in the form of a preliminary paper. But in spite of this, half of this project was published a short time later in a major journal ["The Logic of Relative Modality and the Paradoxes of Deontic Logic", Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Jan. 1980], and constitutes one of my major philosophical achievements. The other half of my thesis ["Relational Analysis: A Unified Theory of Truth-Functional and Relevance Logic"], which will appear as the piece de resistance in my forthcoming book Logical Alternatives: Studies in the Philosophy of Logic and Existence, is a project that I am eager to return to just as soon as I can find time. I might add that, when the Relative Modality paper came out, I sent a copy to Jaakko Hintikka -- who originated the paradox which bears his name -- for the reason that my paper -- among many other things -- resolved his paradox. And guess what his response was? "Keep me on your mailing list." That's all! I resolved the guy's paradox, and he tells me to keep him on his mailing list! Is this world nuts, or what?
Q. You have published all your own books except for Systems Theory. Do you think this impairs your credibility?
A. It is understandable why many people look down on self-publishers, since a good many are just doing it out of vanity. For me, my decision to self- publish came during a period when I had been looking unsuccessfully for some time for a publisher for Mortal Words, and the self-publishing idea came to me specifically as a result of reading a book on the subject which gave me good reason to believe that I really could do it myself and make a decent profit besides. Then, after Mortal Words was underway, I decided to add Most Powerful Idea and Success in Marriage because I thought that a publishing venture would be better off with some diversification, and because I felt that these works were especially salable. It should be noted that, as I was gearing up to publish Mortal Words, I got a call from an agent -- Mrs. Charles Neighbors -- who, after much soul-searching with her husband, had finally decided to take it; but by this time I had already made an emotional commitment to rolling my own, and so I declined. I might add that having an agent working for you means that there is an excellent chance of having a big publisher take on your work; so in this sense I almost certainly could have avoided self-publishing and still have gotten my books into print. But there is more: I had decided that I could afford to self-publish and not be accused of "vanity publishing" because I had already been in print quite a bit. I should mention that earlier in my career I had turned down opportunities with two big-name publishers to bring out Systems Theory on a semi-subsidized basis, because I felt that this could have opened me to the "vanity publishing" charge. For the same reason, I refused a similar offer for a much earlier version of Bryant's Law. But those who condemn self-publishing should keep in mind that there have been a surprising number of literary greats who self-published -- Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Robert Burns, William Blake, Tom Paine, Percy B. Shelley, Lord Byron, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Henry George, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Upton Sinclair, Zane Grey, Carl Sandburg, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Ringer, and of course that legendary collector of quotations himself, John Bartlett. So I figured I would be in good company. And those who condemn self-publishers should also keep in mind that self-publishing is an expression of self-confidence -- a confidence obviously well-placed in the case of the aforementioned literary greats, and a confidence that has been -- and I believe will continue to be -- confirmed by most of those who read my books. And besides, self-publishing has two important positive benefits. First, it permits an author to have complete artistic and financial control of his work -- something that he may lose in an ordinary publishing arrangement, either in the case when the publisher does a hatchet job on the book, or when he lets the book die after an unpromising debut. And second -- and very importantly -- self-publishing permits the author to reap the full financial rewards from his work if he is able to make it successful. And it may also be profitably pointed out that, whether one self-publishes or not, one still must sell himself; and the fact that one does it directly to the reading public rather than to a pig- eyed man with a foul-smelling cigar seems quite irrelevant.
Q. What got you started writing?
A. Part of my motivation in writing is a desire to put together all the information I have gathered and make sense of it, and thus in a sense writing is merely my way of trying to get things straight in my mind. Another motivation is that writing is a way of coping with my anger at an imperfect world, not merely by allowing me to recast the world into "the way things s'pozed to be", but also as a way of kicking up some dust in hopes that someone will make things better. As Celine said, "Writing is an act of excretion", and perhaps that explains as well as anything why I seem so pissed off. But writing is also in my blood, or at least theorizing is. In particular, when my father applied to become a commissioned officer in the Navy in WWII, he was praised in a letter of recommendation as "one of the most brilliant economic theorists to come out of the University of Chicago" where he had worked on his doctorate -- which he never received -- and where he had served as student assistant to the legendary Frank Knight, the founder of the so-called "Chicago school of economics" which has produced several free-market Nobelists, including my friend Milton Friedman. The funny thing about the Navy recommendation, tho, was that the Admiral who was in charge of deciding whether he got the commission reacted to the letter by saying, "What? Theorist! We don't want any theorists in the Navy!" And that's why my father spent the war showing Navy training films in Newport RI.
Q. Does your seeming rebelliousness have anything to do with the fact that you are a Southerner?
A. My mother's side of the family were very much Southerners -- my great- grandfather was a plantation owner and slave-holder, and was a surgeon in the Civil War, and my grandfather inherited and farmed the family holdings till his death in the 1960's at nearly 100 years of age. But I did not live in the South -- or at least not in any place that had what might be considered a Southern heritage -- until I was in second grade; and while I lived in the South from that point until I graduated from high school, and while I spent four years in a Southern military academy [Columbia Military Academy in Columbia TN], the notion of of being a Southerner never really rubbed off on me. In fact, some of my early rebellion was against precisely the things I saw in the South that I did not like -- for example, in 7th grade I made a speech in support of integration, for which some of my classmates called me "jigaboo" -- tho in the fullness of time I have learned to appreciate my Southern heritage and to respect the wisdom and goodness which it represents.
Q. Rebellion is often associated with the young. Do you therefore see your books as appealing more to younger rather than older readers?
A. As the unprejudiced person I like to think I am, I would hope that my books appeal to all ages, but as Yant has remarked, "The only way that new ideas can take root is for the proponents of the old ideas to die off." Of course, it is easy to call Yant cynical, but I recently came across a startling confirmation of Yant's thought in Robert Ardrey's Social Contract. Beginning on p. 127, Ardrey tells the story of several groups of monkeys, each dominated -- as are most monkey groups -- by a "power elite" of elders -- who were regularly fed by scientists in order to make the animals' behavior more easily observable. What was discovered by these scientists is that when certain specialized behaviors highly useful to utilizing the donated food were discovered by younger monkeys, only younger monkeys acquired this new behavior -- that is, the elders learned nothing from the youngsters. Ardrey, of course, was drawing a parallel between human and monkey society -- a reasonable one, not merely because it is confirmed by experience, but because monkeys are very close relatives of man. So if you ask me to whom I think my books will appeal more, I will regretfully have to say the young. But perhaps it is the wrong question to ask whether my books have more appeal to the young than to the old, for my books are intended for the young of all ages, so to speak -- to the openminded, to the genuinely liberated, to the adventurous, to the courageous -- in short, to those who are willing to look at things in a new way. The prudish, the pious, the conventional, the timid -- these will find no quarter in my books.
isn't free! To insure the
continuation of this website and the survival of its creator in
these financially-troubled times, please send donations directly to the Birdman at
PO Box 66683, St Pete Beach FL 33736-6683
"The smallest good deed is worth the grandest intention."
contribute today - buy our books - and spread the word to all
Remember: Your donation = our survival!
* * * Back to the Home Page of John "Birdman" Bryant, the World's Most Controversial Author * * *