in defense of ishmael and my ishmael

(First off, I want to say that in absolutely no way do I condone the actions of James Lee yesterday. At all.)

("Ishmael" cover from, "My Ishmael" cover from

Matt Yglesias points to this review of Ishmael and concludes “This Ishmael book is apparently really bad, as well as nutjob-inspiring.” Leaving aside the fact that the gunman’s manifesto refers to My Ishmael rather than Ishmael (more on why that distinction is actually relevant in this case below), that is one of the weakest book reviews I have ever read. Its main (and only) arguments: “The Socratic dialogue that Quinn uses makes the book too long, and the main character asks stupid questions.”

I happen to be one of those people who really enjoyed Ishmael and My Ishmael (though by The Story of B I thought that Quinn had kind of run the idea into the ground), and I think that the Socratic dialogue that Quinn uses is actually very well done and contributed significantly to an understanding of his point. Quinn’s point in Ishmael (expanded upon in My Ishmael) is that our entire culture takes as a given that the agricultural revolution was a good thing for the species and the planet, but maybe that is not the case. If that claim makes you think “wait, what?”, you’re not alone. The assumption that the evolution of humankind away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was beneficial is almost universal, and any holdout cultures that don’t practice “totalitarian agriculture”, as Quinn calls it, are considered backwards and primitive.

This huge departure from the conventional wisdom is precisely the reason that Quinn’s use of the Socratic method is justified and even necessary, and why his use of a “dopey naif” as the student is merited. Maybe I’m just not as smart as the book reviewer at Grist, who found himself thinking “Ask him this! Don’t let him get away with that!”, but when I read Ishmael (as a high-schooler) these were completely new thoughts to me. Though I have parted ways with Quinn’s philosophy to a certain extent since reading his books about 10 years ago, Ishmael and My Ishmael were the first books I ever read that made me sit back and look critically at the assumptions underlying my beliefs, and it was precisely because Quinn spent the time teasing out those assumptions from his dopey naif in a way that brought the reader along that I was able to do that. So to dismiss Ishmael so casually because it uses a Socratic method, especially without actually addressing the issues that it raises, does a disservice to a book that, whether or not you agree with its thesis, has some interesting and (in my mind) important things to say.

There’s also the difference between Ishmael and My Ishmael, which, while subtle, seems to me to have played an important part in yesterday’s events. While My Ishmael is a companion book to (and supposedly happens contemporaneously with) Ishmael, the points of the two books, as I recall them, were somewhat different. Ishmael lays out the idea that maybe this assumption that totalitarian agriculture is a good thing is based on false premises, where My Ishmael follows on that but focuses on the cultural narratives and institutions that perpetuate that assumption. In attacking the Discovery Channel headquarters yesterday, Lee seems to have been responding (in a despicable fashion) to his perception that the Discovery Channel and its affiliated networks were playing a key part in promoting the narrative that Quinn asks us to question.

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One Response to in defense of ishmael and my ishmael

  1. Nicholas Kramer says:

    I’d be curious to read in what ways and why you’ve parted from Quinn’s philosophy – maybe for a future post?

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