Delusions of Normality: An interview with J.P. Harpignies

written by Anjula May 31, 2009

What do we mean when we say someone or something is normal?
All of us compare ourselves to others and wonder how we fit in, and if we are “normal”

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In his new book, Delusions of Normality: Sanity, Drugs, Sex, Money and Beliefs in America, J. P. Harpignies marshals considerable evidence to persuasively argue that we Americans are collectively far less mentally stable, far more corruptible or financially irrational, far druggier, far more covert and kinkier in our sex lives and far zanier in our beliefs than we generally admit, and that a great many of the unspoken assumptions that underlie our media’s discourse are seriously at odds with the reality of people’s lives and ideas.

Harpignies has written and edited a number of independently published books, covering everything from biotech to psychedelics to “political ecology.”  His latest, offers a bracing but entertaining look at some of the darker corners of American life, providing a corrective lens to our rose-colored myopia about how we really are.  It offers compelling evidence that we are collectively far less sane, far more corruptible, and far ‘druggier’, kinkier and zanier than we generally admit.
Harpignies demonstrated that we are all freaks, and that deviancy is, in fact, the norm.

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About J.P. Harpingnies: The author, a radical student activist in the anti Vietnam War movement in his youth in the 1960s and early 1970s, studied at “Science Po” (The Institute of Political Science) in Paris in 1968, and at CCNY and Columbia University (where his professors included such figures as the great historian Eric Foner, the provocative anthropologist Marvin Harris, and film critic and “auteur theorist” Andrew Sarris).

A longtime grassroots environmental activist, J.P. has a long history of organizing conferences and lecture series on a wide range of topics and of serving as a consultant to several non-profit organizations.  His deepest and longest professional relationship (20 years) is in his role as associate producer of the annual Bioneers conference , the largest and most diverse independent eco-themed conclave in the U.S.  He also served as a program director at the New York Open Center, the largest urban holistic learning institution in the nation, in the early 90s and continues to advise the Center and to edit its catalogue.  He also co-founded the Eco-Metropolis conference, held in New York in 2004 and 2005.

A writer and editor, and former teacher of writing in the CUNY system, J.P. is the autholr of three books: Double Helix Hubris, an early (1996/1997) look at the potential risks of unmonitored genetic manipulation; 2004’s Political Ecosystems, an exhortation to left and eco activists to engage in far more sophisticated political thinking; and, most recently, Delusions of Normality. He also edited Visionary Plant Consciousness, a collection of talks and essays by some of the world’s leading specialists in the use of sacred, consciousness-altering plants, and was associate editor of the two first Bioneers books: Ecological Medicine, which delves into the links between human and environmental health, and Nature’s Operating Instructions, a collection about cutting edge, “nature based” (“biomimic”) solution to environmental problems.  J.P. also taught taijiquan in Brooklyn, NY, for 24 years.

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LM: You studied @ “Science Po” in Paris in 1968.  Do you think that the events of the times influenced your philosophy?

JP: The events and the whole atmosphere of the mid and late 1960s totally shaped my life because I was a restless teenager and I got completely caught up in the excitement of the political and cultural turmoil and desperately wanted to participate.  The core attitudes and outlooks I adopted at that formative age stayed with me for life, though of course they mellowed and mutated somewhat with the years.

But my stay in Paris was a bit of a disappointment because I had spent my whole life till then in the States and I was heavily into acid rock and American hippie utopianism, as well as into anarcho-left, anti racist, anti Vietnam War politics, and I found the French leftists at the time extremely cerebral and obsessed with doctrinal differences (Maoists, Trotskyites, mainstream communists, etc, etc.).  I liked the Cohn-Bendit wing of the movement, but even they seemed really “straight” to me.  Young Americans in the counter-culture were at the time a wilder and looser, more relaxed and zanier tribe than their Euro counterparts, and I found the vibe in the U.S. more appealing. Almost no one in Paris was into psychedelics at that time, for example.

I was also a bit depressed because I had left a girlfriend back in the States and I started to drink too much and smoke too much hash.  In retrospect, I did absorb a fair amount of political science sophistication I had previously lacked (mostly in the streets and cafes, more than at Science Po), but I was glad to drop out and head back to New York.

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LM: When you came back to the states, what were the most apparent divergences between the two continents?  Did you feel disconnected from, (for lack of more graphic lingo), what I will call “the American dream”?

JP: That difference between the Cartesian French mindset and a less sophisticated but more wildly experimental American utopian pragmatism was the most noticeable difference, and as a wild young kid I was, as I mentioned, far more comfortable with the latter. The period for me was completely about rebellion against every aspect of the established order, so it wasn’t a question of whether I was alienated from the “American dream” but rather that I was more comfortable in the form the rebellion took in the U.S. than in Europe at that time.

All that changed when the energy of the “60s” dissipated and a long period of reaction began. The mid 70s were for me a very depressing period (disco music, cynicism, etc: the only bright spot was the emergence of a very politically conscious music-Reggae; which I got into heavily: a small group of us followed the Wailers around for a while before they were globally famous and even got to hang out a tiny bit with Bob, but that’s a whole other story).  The wave we had been riding had disappeared, and quite a few of us became painfully disillusioned. I got into hard drugs, but fortunately managed (unlike several peers who succumbed) to pull back from the brink, and I plugged into another wave, the interest in alternative health, Eastern esoteric traditions, etc, which was less wildly exciting than “the Revolution” but did nurture me back to health and brought me to a more centered perspective.

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LM: Do such differences remain or did globalization totally blur those dissimilitudes?  And if any, which still remain?

JP: Later in life I began to revisit my European roots and I found much to appreciate in the “old continent’s” philosophical and literary traditions and its sophistication. I now really value my “bi-culturalism.”  And Europe changed a lot too, so that the differences between the two cultures, while still pronounced, lessened, or the differences took new forms. In many ways the U.S. today feels more politically, culturally and socially static and “stuck” than much of Europe.  The architecture and urban planning in Europe are vastly more daring than here these days, for example.  I was in Barcelona recently, and it seemed more dynamic and edgy and culturally interesting than New York does at the moment.  There’s been a bit of a role reversal, in that the U.S. feels like the one that is decaying and aging and too timid to face reality these days, but it’s dangerous to generalize, and the terrain continually shifts in this hyper-accelerated, globalized world.

The main reason I prefer living in the States turns out to have much less to do with culture than with nature.  I am an urban creature, but I love to go deep into the woods and mountains as often as possible, and North America has far more vital wilderness left than Europe.  I am at heart a nature Romantic. I find nothing as exhilarating and rejuvenating as a waterfall deep in the woods away from other humans.  Europe’s cities are now, by and large, far saner and more livable than ours, but the “old continent”  has, due to its long history of human settlement and dense population, almost no real, vital wildlands.  That’s one reason I am so passionate about wanting to preserve and restore as much wild land as possible here.  A totally tame landscape deadens the soul.

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LM: Can you talk to our readers/viewers about  the Bioneers Conference  and some of the other causes you are actively involved with?

JP: The Bioneers Conference is a big, annual eco-related gathering, but it’s very diverse and multi-faceted and addresses a broad range of issues and fields and brings together very different groups that wouldn’t normally be exposed to each other’s work (environmental and social justice activists, organic farmers, scientists, alternative media, green entrepreneurs, educators, public servants, political and religious figures, indigenous leaders, architects, designers, artists, etc).  It highlights some of the most interesting, leading-edge work being done in many of those areas, and emphasizes creative approaches and solutions to some of our most challenging problems.

It’s held every October in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, but there are at last count some 20 or so other “satellite” conferences that take place simultaneously around the country, and the Bioneers organization produces a syndicated radio series, a line of books, and other specific initiatives besides putting on the conference.  I have been involved with Bioneers for about 20 years, since its inception.  Its founder, Kenny Ausubel, is an old friend from the late 60s: we were both radical student activists working together at that time. (for more about Bioneers: www.bioneers.org)

I have also produced a number of other events and conferences here in New York, many in cooperation with the New York Open Center with which I have a long affiliation. Most of these have related to environmental issues, such as the Eco-Metropolis Conference, but others have dealt with other topics, such as “alternative” healing modalities, or with shamanism and sacred plant traditions, other domains of interest to me.  I was the first to sponsor an event with Terence McKenna on the East Coast back in 90 or 91, for example.  I also have a long involvement with campaigns to raise questions about the risks of genetic modification in both plants, animals and people, and to advocate a far deeper conversation about the implications of these technologies and far better regulation.  One group I have worked with informally on human genetic technologies in recent years is the Center for Genetics and Society.

LM: What place do Spirituality and Holistic Living hold in your life?

JP: I got very interested in alternative healing modalities in the mid to late 70s as I was then quite sick because I had been so self-destructive in my wild youth and conventional medicine had been totally unhelpful.  This led me to the exploration of Eastern esoteric disciplines and philosophies and then to the wider landscape of global esoteric spirituality.  I went through a period of very intense immersion and study of this domain for a decade or so.  Certain Taoist meditative and health/martial practices became a permanent part of my life, and I wound up teaching T’ai Chi for nearly 25 years as a sideline.  I did eventually become a little more skeptical vis a vis esoteric philosophies, and, even though I think there is a tremendous amount of wisdom to be gleaned from this body of knowledge, it’s very easy to get lost in it or to approach it in a simple-minded way.

I have come to feel that as many people are hurt by these ideas as are helped.  The whole “guru” issue is a difficult facet of many of these subcultures.  The whole area of esoteric spirituality is a very tricky realm in general, and this is too complicated a conversation to delve into here.  I’d just say that I think the uncritical adoption of any belief system can be problematic, whether it’s Marxism, anarchism or Dadaism or Buddhism or Taoism or whatever, and most people who become interested in these worldviews tend to, at least initially, adopt them wholesale as a form of salvation and as a mark of their identity.  It’s hard to accept complexity and paradox and to admit one’s uncertainties and yet still live a committed, engaged life, but if you want to be a mature, sophisticated adult, it’s what you have to do.  I hope to write about all this some day before I die, but I need a few more years to reflect on the topic.

The holistic health perspective marked me profoundly and permanently.  I eat as much organic food as I can. I try to live a balanced, centered life (with occasional excess to avoid an excess of moderation….).  Holistic living and eco-awareness are so deeply embedded in me at this point that I don’t really think about them.  We all have to accept a great deal of contradiction and imperfection in our lives, but it feels good to me to live as much as possible in accordance with my deepest convictions.  I don’t own a car, try to waste as little as possible, etc, but it doesn’t feel like asceticism at all: it feels deeply natural.  Of course, it’s easy to be frugal when you have very little money.  So you could define my lifestyle as both voluntary and involuntary simplicity.  And I try not to be fanatical or judgmental about other people’s habits.

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LM: Like a sizable majority of Americans, you dabbled with drugs over the years.  Did your experiences with consciousness-altering substances change your vision of society? And if so, do you regret what you came to discover?

JP: I did a lot of drugs (far too many) from my late adolescence to my mid to late-ish twenties.  Now I crave lucidity and vitality above all, so none of them interest me anymore, except psychedelics, which I place in a totally different category.  The psychedelic experience was a major shaper of my worldview.  My ecological awareness, while not created by that experience, was certainly radically heightened by it.  I felt a visceral craving for green and wild places and a powerful revulsion at paved over landscapes. It also heightened my impatience with the trivial and superficial and made me focus on the deepest essence of people and situations.  Those things have stayed with me.

I regret that I did too many drugs when I was too young and didn’t know enough about what I was doing.  The most interesting drugs are good at temporarily dissolving rigid ego structures, but if your ego is not yet fully formed, that’s probably not a good idea.  And I had many bad experiences as well as a few ecstatic and revelatory ones.  I have since learned much more about how other cultures have long used mind-altering plants, but it’s harder to engage with these substances as the body ages.  Also, no matter how much one knows and how much preparation one has, these are still unpredictable, trickster energies.  I think they are fascinating, and I think much more serious research of all types should be done with them, but I personally think they are not designed for most people and they should only be used sparingly and carefully even by those few who are equipped to handle them.  They can be deeply healing in some situations for some people, and they can be, in the most experienced hands, an occasionally authentic form of knowledge acquisition, but in general they are certainly not cure-alls or magical potions that can lead to ultimate truth or to solving social problems.
Note: for an interesting discussion on the risks and rewards of psychedelics, I recommend an essay online at : www.erowid.org

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LM: In the beginning of the book’s conclusion you stated “A reasonable, impartial outsider coud easily come to the conclusion that ours is an extremely mentally unhealthy society” What  brought you to this direct/blunt conclusion?

JP: I have felt ever since early adolescence that the “normal” world into which I was born seemed insane.  The psychedelic experience only heightened that feeling.  Traffic jams, suburbs, air pollution, suits and ties, high heeled shoes, 9 to 5 jobs, office cubicles, toxic chemicals on foods, factory farms, bourgeois propriety, Christmas shopping, greeting cards, cheesy pop music, buying and selling “futures,” immense inequalities of wealth, hunger and homelessness amid opulence, high school proms, the “art market,” etc., etc–it all seemed nuts to me, and it still does.

Aldous Huxley once pointed out we are small pack primates trying to live in hive or anthill equivalents, like social insects.  The sheer scale and speed of our society seems guaranteed to lead to a lot of derangement as a “side-effect.”  Though, to be fair, I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of the past.  The Middle Ages or Victorian England or the Assyrian Empire or the reign of the Mongol Khans, to cite only a few random examples, had plenty of craziness of all kinds, and our level of education and nutrition and longevity are, for most of us in the industrialized world at least, far better than in earlier generations.  Hunting and gathering bands may offer the sanest context for humans but we can’t live that way with our numbers.  Still we could do better than what we’ve got.

I wrote this book because I wanted to return to this gut feeling I had in my youth but in an adult fashion.  I wanted to argue calmly, rationally, and hopefully convincingly (with a lot of statistical support), that if one peers a bit more deeply at many aspects of modern life, it’s not nearly as sane or tidy as it looks on the surface.  The statistics about the incredible increase in prescription drug use in the last few years in the U.S. population should, by themselves, be enough to give anyone who is awake a strong sense something is profoundly wrong with our society.

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Mayank Bhatnagar Graphic Reflections.org

LM: Recently, the British public was outraged by the extent of MP expenses and claims, and there now seems to be an extensive purge taking place.  In your estimation, is our system more or less corrupt?  And if it is more, why do you think it is that we are not witnessing the same type of outrage in the US?

JP: I think the U.S. is probably even a bit more corrupt than the UK, but corruption is a universal reality.  One of the main points in my chapter on money is that corruption is not an aberration but actually a pillar, a foundation of our economic system, locally, nationally and globally.  Purges usually only claim a handful of sacrificial lambs, and then after a while, it’s back to business as usual with a slightly different cast of characters.  There is a fair amount of populist rage on both the right and the left in the U.S. about Wall Street bonuses in the light of the bailouts, but the political history of the U.S. in the last 60 to 70 years has made class issues far more taboo than in Europe.  The book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? delves into why Americans often vote for right-wing pro-business candidates against their own economic interests, and one of my earlier books, Political Ecosystems, also contains some discussion about this aspect of American political life that people on the left often find so maddening.  It’s a complicated situation: one has to look at the nation’s history, social make-up, etc.

LM: In your well informed opinion why is it, that by nearly all measures of public health, America does far worse than nearly any other so called “developed country?”

JP: This, like the previous question, points to a socio-cultural and political difference between the U.S. and the other industrialized democracies, in this case regarding social spending and safety nets.  Part of the foundational myth of the U.S. is that it was founded by people escaping government tyranny and/or religious persecution in their lands of origin, so the role of government should be minimal, the role and responsibility of the individual preponderant, and so on.

Also, there was a sort of unwritten agreement between the U.S. and the Europeans and the Japanese after WWII.  The U.S. told their now allies: “You will spend very little on military spending (leave that to us); you will not challenge our global supremacy, and you will support us in the Cold War against the Soviets and Chinese and company. In exchange, you can build extensive welfare states since you won’t be spending much on military budgets.  This will be useful to us because we can point to the prosperity of your populations as compared to that of the communist countries as an indication of the superiority of the market economy and bourgeois democracy, and it will prevent communist parties from gaining power in your countries.  We here in the U.S. will reward some segments of our industrial working class handsomely, but we can afford to keep a poor underclass of non-unionized, unskilled laborers and farm workers and don’t need as extensive a social safety net, so we can spend more on weapons and armies and permit our giant companies to amass enormous wealth and dominate much of the world’s economy.” This led to a system in Europe in which large labor unions, big business interests and government bureaucrats became accustomed to compromising with each other to maintain social stability. U.S. business elites have been far less concerned with overall social peace, far greedier, more arrogant and used to getting what they want.  These American business elites were also willing to manipulate Christian right wing populists for whom they had nothing but contempt to keep conservative pro-business majorities in power to defeat any attempt to raise their taxes or limit their power.

The unwritten agreement between the U.S. and its allies became moot after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the difference between the more extensive welfare state in Europe and the more haphazard one in the U.S. persists.  But both systems are hybrids of market economies and socialism.  It’s just a question of degree, and Europe and Japan’s safety nets are weakening as a result of globalization and aging populations just as there is pressure in the U.S. to broaden social programs here, so the situation is in flux.  Still, clearly, the U.S. health care system totally sucks, and the rhetoric of the American right about the evils of big government is ridiculous but sadly still partially effective.

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LM: Will you please talk to us about the divide we currently face between Science & The Humanities? (In reference to C P Snow or to your last book?)

JP: I think at this point it’s more a question of a broader fragmentation than of the mere divide between those two academic streams that C.P. Snow lamented in the 1950s. The ever-increasing complexity of individual fields from genetics to robotics to neuroscience to biology to law to accounting to management to engineering to building, etc., requires professionals to devote more and more time to just keeping up in their own areas of expertise and so less time to think about broader issues or the larger society.
Furthermore, electronic media, especially the Web, permit people to tunnel into their very specific interests and obsessions and their own social cliques.  While the Web paradoxically makes information of all kinds almost universally accessible, it also contributes to a radical fragmentation of social life into narrower and narrower subcultures. I think the jury is still out because the Web and related electronic media are radically transforming our world in all kinds of ways, many not yet clear.  I can see that the Web is a great help in building some positive communities regionally, nationally and globally, but I worry about the erosion of any tangible, physical sense of a commons, the res publica we should all feel ownership in and want to participate in shaping.

Another issue I discuss in my chapter on beliefs is the large gap in beliefs between a mostly secular and rationalistic scientific and engineering elite that actually shapes our world’s infrastructure and the masses of people, even in the educated classes, who have far more varied and at times whacky religious and other ideas.  This gap has long existed, but it seems more pronounced these days.  Also, our nation’s belief landscape seems very bizarre and unsettled to me, but I get into a very long discussion of that in the book, so if someone is curious about that topic, they should pick up a copy.

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LM: What do want to say to the few (I hope) inevitable critics who see the book as a subversive and treasonous pamphlet designed to sway and sap the perception of the greatest country on earth?

JP: I would love it if there were many critics viciously attacking the book because it would mean it was being widely read.  I’m very used to working in relative obscurity, so I think that’s unfortunately highly unlikely.  I’m of a generation for whom the word “subversive” is a great compliment, and it’s, in fact, the word I had in mind the whole time I was working on the book.  I tried to write it free of jargon so literate people of all political persuasions could engage with it, and I tried to argue cogently without making excessive claims I couldn’t back up.  If I sound reasonable, I figured, and my arguments don’t seem that dramatic at first, they have a chance to penetrate the first line of defense, and then just how radical a critique I am making might sink in.  That was my subversive strategy.  Unfortunately that does require that some numbers of folks actually read it, and that’s, to be realistic, a long shot.

I wouldn’t want to be considered treasonous, though, because I’d hate to be hung or shot.  The idea that any nation is greater than any other or some people better than others seems silly and immature to me, but I do love the landscape of some of North America; I’m fond of some of its music and literature and other cultural production; and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are remarkable documents.  The best of America is very good indeed; the worst is very, very dark.  And I’m a born New Yorker who has almost always been based here, so it’s, for better or worse, home.

LM: Don’t you worry that by cleaning away the fog of illusion of sanity, we might lose our “can do spirit” and reach a hypochondriac critical mass?

JP: I do mention in the book that I realize it’s impossible to live without some illusions and delusions, so, yes there is some risk for individuals and movements and perhaps even nations in being “dis-illusioned” and losing their fire and drive.  Quite a few great visionaries and creators and inventors are megalomaniacs with a distorted sense of reality.  Some psychological studies say only depressives have a realistic sense of how others perceive them.  I don’t have an easy answer to that.  I would just say that when I wear my “social observer” and my “seeker of truth” hats (two hats I feel called to wear on occasion), my job is to describe what I see and to try to analyze it as penetratingly as I can. How useful or unhelpful that turns out to be is not something I can worry about while I’m doing it.

I do think that coming to a collective realization that our society does not live up to the rhetoric our public figures use and that the unspoken assumptions that underlie much of our media’s discourse are dubious would be more useful than harmful.  Our society is in dire need of a lot of repair and transformation, but we won’t be able do a very good job if we’re not facing up to many of the truths about who we are, how we behave and what we think.  Better to know we’re at least somewhat unhinged then to assume we’re totally “sane.”

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LM: Are you normal?

JP: If I were, I would be in a very small minority and therefore statistically abnormal.  Like many of us, I’m fairly humdrum and unconventional in some domains of life and really weird in others.  We’re a funny species, in that we desperately want to fit in and be accepted by our peers, but we also yearn to be exceptional and some how “different.”

That said, I suspect that I’m weirder and less conventional than most people in quite a few domains of life.  I’ve always had a sense of distance or separation from this social order, akin to feeling like an observer/anthropologist/sociologist/psychologist from another galaxy who finds that the people down here are very odd indeed but that I should try to figure them out to the extent it’s possible.  I don’t know if that’s a widespread sensation or a classic form of disassociation (or both).  Some of the ways in which I felt that I was weird worried me when I was younger, but I’ve come to accept myself as a package deal.

2 comments

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2 comments

ah July 1, 2009 at 2:10 pm

A fascinating book by a sensitive, brilliant, ruthlessly rigorous and searching man. We would all be far better off with broad, long term discussions and investigations of the work of J.P. Harpignies.

Gary Marton December 18, 2009 at 12:11 am

JP, You sound the same, but mellower. You sound great! Gary

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