In You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos, published by the consistently awesome Feral House, Arthur writes about our culture’s ridiculous phobias and beliefs that often cause tedium, suffering, and death. Our government and the media use these taboos to lie and mislead by pushing panic for votes and views. By doing so, they thwart our pursuit of happiness. Arthur’s book is not simply a novel exploration of sex and drugs, but also of individuality, liberty, and what things around us mean.
I talked to Robert about excrement, sex, drugs, and death.
This book has been kicking around in different forms for years now. How did you start this process, and how did it find its way to Feral House?
I began writing You Will Die when I was living in an abandoned schoolhouse in south central Pennsylvania after law school in 2001. After years of higher education, I finally had the time to read books that were not assigned. One of the books I read was Peter McWilliams’ Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do about the folly of criminalizing consensual crimes. I started to explore how our “modern” society could be so bizarrely irrational. This led me to the concept of taboos, an area I had previously studied for my senior thesis on Howard Stern’s humor.
I researched, wrote, and illustrated “You Will Die” primarily on the side for the next eight years. I mailed a self-published version of my book to Feral House even before I found an agent because I figured it was one of the only publishers that would touch such a controversial and quirky book. I didn’t hear back for … it must have been years. I later learned Adam Parfrey, Feral House’s owner, had chucked it originally not because of the content but because he thought my illustrations were immature. It probably didn’t help that I bound my first self-published books in cereal box covers.
Mark Frauenfelder, the founder of Boing Boing, was a fan of my cereal box book and ran political cartoons from my blog, Narco Polo, on Boing Boing. He later recommended to Adam that Feral House publish “You Will Die.” At that point, I think Adam actually read it and that is when he contacted me. I vividly remember the first time I spoke to Adam because I was surrounded by chickens in Guatemala.
Feral House dumped my illustrations and went for a more hard-core look. I miss some of those illustrations like the ones of the amazing variety of vaginas and the homosexual sex techniques of manatees, but I’m a fan of memento mori art and the Feral House cover is a great skull image. Clean those teeth because that is all that’s going to be left someday!
Topics that are taboo have always been fascinating to me. The fact that our government and media play a large role in deciding what is okay to talk about has always made me a tad angry. Why do you think it is important to be able to talk openly about some of these things in your book?
A tad angry? It makes me sweat hate lasers. Sometimes I wish the government and media would not talk about tabooed topics at all because when they do, it is often blatantly misleading or downright fiction. Despite that misgiving, it is important to talk about these things because our ignorance causes suffering. It causes death and ruins lives. The carnage caused by taboos is invisible to most Americans because it occurs predominantly among the poor, minorities, and citizens of less-developed countries. Probably the biggest example of the ongoing slaughter is the effects of America’s drug war in Mexico.
A more subtle and unexplored effect of taboos is that Americans don’t realize how extremely prudish and square our Western culture is compared to other cultures and even our own culture in the recent past. Unfortunately, the only celebrity that defends drugs (beyond marijuana) and alternative sex publicly is Charlie Sheen when he is manic, and he doesn’t cite peer-reviewed journals. The citizens in Arabic countries where alcohol is banned probably don’t think they are missing out on alcohol. Their media presents the same skewed and sensationalized view of alcohol that our media does with illegal drugs. Our cultural and legal cages are similar. The beauty of taboos’ social control is that we are not even aware of the cages.
Sex is a complicated issue for many. I recently worked on a book with Rebecca Lord, who has done many different types of sex work. Can you tell me some of the things in your book that touch on sex and the social lies we freely tell ourselves about it?
Imagine what the art of cooking would be like if any exchange of money for food was outlawed and we were brought up to believe that beans and rice were the only appropriate foods. The people who would eat more than beans and rice would do it secretly to avoid being labelled perverted. These kinky eaters would receive mainstream media coverage, but it would most often be as the person who gets killed at the beginning of CSI episodes.
Any area of human interest would be grossly stifled if no commerce was allowed around it. And yet the mainstream media still lives under the puritanical delusion that most people who engage in sex work are slaves of some sort or another. In my book I show how mainstream coverage of the sex industry is dominated and skewed by anti-sex feminist “experts” who believe voluntary sex work does not exist and who produce tons of shoddy junk science, e.g. unrepresentative study samples, to support that thesis. There is a chasm between sex slavery numbers from anti-sex feminist research and from the research of real scientists who study the issue to prevent AIDS.
I find it amusing that some promo material has said that your book “vigorously defends heroin users.” Can you tell me a little of what that means?
Opiates are highly dangerous because of the effects of criminalization. Legalized opiates would be safer than alcohol for numerous reasons. Because of space limitations I will only mention a few:
- Without the additives involved with black-market heroin, the long-term health of heavy users would be remarkably better than alcoholics whose livers are destroyed.
- Opiate addicts can function at relatively high levels unlike alcoholics who are in a constant danger to themselves, e.g. drunk driving.
- The risk of overdose would likely be similar to alcohol under legalization. Under legalization users of heroin would know exactly how much they are taking and opiate antidotes like Narcan would be widely available.
If this sounds crazy, it should be remembered that during prohibition, bootleg alcohol was killing a lot of people. Some people were shooting it up. It was making people permanently blind. (The number of blind bluesmen was not a coincidence.) Can you imagine the sensational romper room blind alcoholics would be for yellow journalism today? This is the same media that blamed cannibalism on “bath salts” with fabricated anecdotal evidence. Sayonara, craft beer.
A comical example of our culture’s bias against opiates occurs in the movie Tombstone. The female opiate addict is portrayed as a sullen invalid, however, the alcoholic protagonists in the movie can stumble out of a saloon after a night of binge drinking and shoot the mustache off a no-good baddie at the other end of main street … while engaging in witty repartee.
You write a lot about shit. Lets hear some more about that here.
One of the many things Americans get wrong about shit, is how we do it. Humans evolved to squat when pooping. We didn’t evolve to sit. Like so many other activities encased in taboo, this causes problems. Hopefully a First Lady or a First Gent will make pooping posture their cause.
In my book I also cover how taboos affect what we learn in history class. One of my favorite examples of that is Hitler’s farting. Growing up I heard a lot of theories of what drove Hitler’s madness. One I never knew until researching for the poop chapter was that Hitler’s quack doctor was shooting and pilling him up with a potpourri of poisons, e.g. strychnine, to help with his “colossal flatulence.” Has this been ignored in many history narratives because it deals with farting? I think it did contribute to the absence.
Raping the Gods. I’m just telling the truth. You are baiting ISIS.