While reading Brian Whitney’s Subversive: Interviews with Radicals, I had this recurring image of all 52 of the book’s subjects seated at a large banquet table, perhaps gathered for a formal dinner.
I suspect if this conclave were actually arranged, however, only about 37 would make it out alive.
Of those who didn’t survive, probably one or two would be eaten, a couple would be beaten to death by literally every other person in the room, and at least one more would die from the stress of it all.
Of the survivors, several likely would be willing to chew off their own arms to escape the mad company they’d found themselves in; and the remaining 30 or so would be locked into fervent battle royale-style debate that would make for some damn good entertainment. I imagine it would be hard to follow, however, as the Black Panthers screamed at white supremacists, murderers argued with the Raëlians, heroin addicts jonesing for a fix screamed at everyone, flat earthers insulted the sungazer, and– who am I kidding? The sungazer would have been the first to be eaten.
It would have made for a good story.
But it would have been sensationalistic and wildly sadistic. And that is not the tone of Whitney’s unique assemblage of … um … idiosyncratic subjects.
Subversive is a collection of unbiased interviews with 52 radicals, activists, deviants, misanthropes and average Joes who happen to be wired a little differently than the rest of us.
“Why would I want to talk to a pedophile?”
The unexpected surprise at the core of Subversive is Whitney’s calm, rational handling of his subjects. From The Cannibal Cop to the animal rights activist, Whitney comes at each completely free of judgment and then steps out of the way to give the interviewee a platform upon which to state his or her position.
Subversive takes a quiet tone, which is an interesting approach to such controversial figures. As an author, Whitney has the discipline to let the characters speak for themselves and leave it to the reader to interpret their words. Yes, they are all radicals, liars, crackpots or worse, but Whitney deftly avoids drifting into the easy trap of labeling them or injecting his personal feelings into the narrative.
While some may argue that such potentially misguided, deluded and/or clinically insane souls shouldn’t be given a platform to spread their propaganda, that misses the whole point of the collection. Many of us would surely disagree with the flatearther, the white supremacist or the fetish pornographer, but how many have had the opportunity to talk to each?
“Why would I want to talk to a pedophile?” That’s a valid question. But on the other hand, anyone who’s ever pondered the human condition would find the included explanations and stories from all of the book’s myriad subjects completely fascinating.
The further I read into the book, the more I began to realize how this approach of listening without interruption and hearing without judgment is sorely missing in modern discourse.
Whitney is clearly not preaching one belief over another or using the book as a platform to espouse a personal agenda. He is simply lettings its subjects tell their own stories.
Reading through Subversive, it is clear that each interview was conducted in writing, rather than in person. The questions are short, to the point, and open-ended. The answers are (for the most part) coherent, lengthy, and specific — even on the most controversial issues. Each respondent seems to have taken time to clearly state their points. This format is crucial to the success of the book, as it prevents the author or his subjects from venturing into tangential conversations that veer from each person’s core message.
It is worth noting that despite Whitney’s best efforts, a couple of the subjects were difficult to pin down and came across as the rambling lunatics they likely are … but kudos to Whitney for letting them do their thing.
We don’t exactly walk away from the book with sympathy for most of its subjects, but we do get a notion of what makes them tick.
The book isn’t for the faint of heart or the quick to judge, but for Socratic observers or even simple voyeurs, Subversive is a fascinating read. While few would be comfortable in face-to-face dialogue with many of the book’s subjects, the collection of interviews here gives us a rare peek into the thoughts and ideals of those who see the world differently than we do.
I’m not sure what it says about me, but many of the people in the book argued their points so well that I found myself at times saying, “Yeah … I could see that.” (I’m looking at you, Alfred Webre, former Yale professor who opened my eyes to exopolitics and the influence of multi-dimensional, time-traveling extraterrestrial beings and their influence in human affairs.)
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