Journal of the

"Ontology on the go!"

An Interview with Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll has been a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for 15 years (15 arduous years of five columns a week). In his own words, he is an "unexpected veteran of cyberspace; husband, father and model citizen; physical coward; purveyor of fine Treasure Hunts; dedicated hiker; his classic good looks are highlighted by his wry grin and modest demeanor." A collection of his columns, , Near Life Experiences, was published in 1993. He is also cohost of the media and sports conferences on the WELL. He gave editors Sutton and Mayerson this interview in February of 2004.

Laurel Sutton: You write three columns a week (down from five) plus occasional pieces for the Chronicle. What do you read or watch to keep up with current affairs? Daily newspapers, online columnists, magazines? Do you read any comic strips daily?

Jon Carroll: I read the Chronicle and the New York Times, plus the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and other stuff as I hear about interesting articles. The only regular "news" TV I watch is the Daily Show, although I'll occasionally be captured by something CSPAN. I like Survivor a lot, but that's probably not relevant. Online, I read Altercation, Daily KOS, the Note, Riverbend, WorldChanging and whatever links seem choice. I read Boondocks.

LS: What fiction are you currently reading?

JC: Just finished the His Dark Materials trilogy. Other recent fiction Love Trouble, Gun With Occasional Music, Wonder Boys, The Murder Room. The best book overall I've read this year is Master of the Senate by Robert Caro - just astonishing.

LS: Do you consider yourself a writer or a journalist? What is the distinction?

JC: Hey, it's your question; I dunno what the distinction is. But I'm not patient enough to be a good journalist, so I'm probably a writer. Or a waiter disguised as a writer.

LS: Which writers should be required reading for other writers? Which humor writers set the standard?

JC: Mark Twain set the standard; the rest is just ornamentation. I like S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Veronica Geng, Lynda Barry, Ian Frazier, Robert Benchley. Roy Blount - I am probably leaving out a lot of people.

Ginger Mayerson: What are you most proud of in your career so far?

JC: Remaining employed continuously for 22 years.

LS: In your writing, it's obvious how much care you put into choosing the correct word or turn of phrase, and you're constantly playing with language in an intelligent, informed way. Why is there so much bad and sloppy writing getting published? Is it really worse now, or are we just more aware of it?

JC: Yes, I am intelligent and informed; good of you to notice. I think Sturgeon's Law applies here - 90 per cent of everything is crap. So I doubt there's been much of a change. I do think that op ed writing has taken a huge nosedive - it's all didactic crap, mostly by academics or think tank people or "experts." They don't care about prose, and it shows.

LS: You are a self-professed agnostic. What place does religion have in our lives? Can you be moral without belief in God?

JC: Of course you can be moral without a belief in God - hell, you can be moral without a belief in morals. What I like best about religion is the ritual - we have gotten away from understanding the importance of ritual on connecting us with the great mysteries. I spent my 60th birthday sitting in a graveyard in an Indian village in Mexico, for midnight to dawn, watching the Day of the Dead rituals. It was extremely moving, partly because no one was telling me how to feel or what to think. This Christmas, for the first time ever, we hung lights on our house - not because we believe in Christmas, but because we believe in lights.

LS: Why is the current administration so hell-bent on Christianizing the world? It has very little to do with Christ.

JC: The current administration is pandering to the religious right.

LS: Are there any themes or topics that you feel you cannot explore in your column? How much control (or censorship) does the Chronicle exert over your writing?

JC: The Chronicle exerts no censorship. It's quite lovely that way. I have to avoid libeling people and typing dirty words, of course. I try not to write about things I know nothing about. Also, there are areas of my personal life I choose not to write about, mostly for the reasons of other people's privacy. I sorta lost claim to my own privacy 20 years ago. I'm not sure that was a good idea.

LS: What did you have for breakfast this morning?

JC: Complete brand cereal with sliced bananas.


GM: Do you have any idea what GW Bush's appeal is?

JC: I think some people perceive him as friendly, sincere and upright. It's not an image that would mean a lot of me - I like cranky, smart, imaginative politicians myself - but I understand that other people might. The image is a lie, of course, but images often are.

LS: Is John Ashcroft really Caligula?

JC: Didn't Caligula have a lot of fun at orgies and stuff? (A journalist would look that up). I can't imagine John Ashcroft having fun at orgy, or having fun at all. I think Caligula also drank to excess. Probably a more interesting guy than Ashcroft.

GM: If John Ashcroft could be Caligula for a day, what's the first thing he'd do?

JC: Change his toga.

GM: How much abuse, including what kinds of violent threats, are you getting for your dead on the money critiques of the Bush administration?

JC: Oh well, most of them have given up. I used to get called a traitor every day, now it's down to one a week or so. I've never had my life seriously threatened, although many people have described places on my body where they'd like to insert a red hot poker. But they were never actually holding a red hot poker.

LS: Do you agree with GB Shaw that "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve"? Do we deserve the current administration?

JC: Well, I don't deserve it, that's for damn sure.

GM: In your opinion, what's the most appalling thing the Bush administration has done in the past 3 or so years? Perhaps you have a top five most appalling Bush administration acts?

JC: Gosh, Mom, do I have to choose? I think probably selling the government to the corporations is probably the most lasting legacy of awfulness he's brought. Or maybe it's the emerging police state. Or, wait, the suspension of habeas corpus. No, how about the gutting of environmental laws? We could be here for hours.

LS: Who will win the next presidential election? Who should win the next presidential election?

JC: John Kerry (will win); Barney Frank (should win).

GM: How does a guy like Rick Santorum become a US Senator in the 21st Century? He seems to be running on the Hate and Anger platform. Are there that many angry voters out there and, if so, why do you think that is?

JC: I think lots of people feel they have lost control of their lives, and they're looking for someone to blame. Usually it's some version of the Other, and so people who find a few convenient Others to blame can get elected.

GM: I feel that we need a Martin Luther King, Jr. to rally us to save ourselves from the Bush administration. Do you think this might be true and, if so, where and how is this person going to come to the forefront? If you think we're never going to see another Dr. King or even the spirit of those times, why is that and is there any cure for it?

JC: Oh, I think we need to wait for the Bush administration to hang itself. The real problem is: What are we going to do with country once we get it back? I hope more people are thinking about that.

People like Martin Luther King are gifts from the cosmos. We had two others in the 20th century, Mandela and Gandhi. That's a pretty good quota. It would sure be nice to have someone else like that, but we can't depend on the cosmos to bail us out. We have to do the work ourselves - that's the bad news.

GM: Due to media consolidation, are we doomed to nothing but rant radio for ever and ever? Do you have any thoughts on why conservative anger radio sells so well nowadays?

JC: I never hear rant radio, so I'm not sure. The only AM radio I listen to is baseball games. As to why it sells: See Rick Santorum, above.

GM: Is there such as thing as liberal hate and fear mongering? Where is the passion in the Left?

JC: We're all capable of hate-mongering; Dr. King would remind us that hating the haters is spiritually destructive. As someone once told me: Pray for your enemies; it drives them crazy. I see a lot of passion on the left, but then I'm a very attractive guy.

GM: What are your thoughts on the California recall and our new Governor?

JC: It happened; now he's there. He's entirely insignificant.

GM: I understand that California is the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world. That being so, why are the state coffers empty and is there a $15B bonds issue on the March ballot? Do you have any thought on how the thinking or greed (or whatever it is) that caused this can be addressed constructively, let alone remedied?

JC: The problem is the taxes are too low. Takes money to run a government. Eventually, just before all the schools close, people will realize that.


LS: What's your favorite movie pre-1970 and why?

JC: "Singing in the Rain," because it makes me smile. I know I should say "The Apu Trilogy" or something.

LS: Which side are you on in the nature vs. nurture debate? What makes some people grow up to be SUV-driving inconsiderate jackasses? What steps did you take to insure this didn't happen to your children? Your children have turned out to be decent adults.

JC: Anyone who has kids knows the answer: It's nature. Nurture isn't even in second place. Parents can of course have a negative impact, in obvious ways, but everything else is cellular. My daughters are amazing adults and I love them without reserve, but that's not because of anything I did. Oh, wait, I made sure they listened to lots of Van Morrison.

GM: Leaving aside that this interview is being conducted via email, do you like the internet or are you just tolerating it because it will not go away?

JC: I LUV the Internet. I've been online since 1987, on the Well before the World Wide Web was even invented. I had a good thing going there for a decade, until everyone figured out where I was getting my column ideas

LS: How many books do you own?

JC: Last time we moved, we had a 120 boxes of books. Figure, what, 15 books to a box; 30 if it's paperbacks. (You do the math, please; I don't want to). And I've probably doubled my collection since then. Way too many. There's a dust issue.

Lightning round

JC: I somehow managed to lose this part of the interview. As far as I remember the questions, the answers are persimmons, the Beatles, oh God my brain just went dead. I'll make up my own answers: Miles Davis, ballet, bathmats, tulips, soy milk, Richard Powers and France.

LS and GM: Those are great answers. Thank you, Mr. Carroll.


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Updated: February 14, 2004