Transcript: KunstlerCast: S-Town


The following is a transcript of a bonus episode of the KunstlerCast released on May 31, 2017. In this installment, KunstlerCast creator and former host Duncan Crary reunites on the mic with James Howard Kunstler five years after their final episode together for a special conversation about the podcast sensation S-Town. This is a nearly verbatim transcript with only the slightest edits to remove verbal ticks and redundant utterances. 

[Intro music]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER (as host): Hello and welcome to this bonus edition of the KunstlerCast. Some time ago the folks who bring you This American Life produced a strange (seven) part podcast called S-Town, short for Shittown, which was based on the misadventures of a character named John B. McLemore. It wasn’t brought to my attention until some time after the series was produced and it was out, but as it happens I had a correspondence and quite a few telephone conversations with the subject of that podcast: John B McLemore, who lived in a town called Woodstock, Alabama and who unfortunately committed suicide before the recording of that series was over. My web site manager and old podcasts sidekick Duncan Crary thought listeners might be interested in some background about John B McLemore and how he got in touch with me and the kind of things we talked about. So without further ado here’s Duncan Crary and me talking about S-Town.

DUNCAN CRARY:  Jim it’s great to see ya down here in Troy.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: It was a long journey from the deep north but I got here — my reindeer are parked out in front of the office building, here.

DUNCAN CRARY: I was listening to a podcast the other day and it’s becoming, like, an Internet phenomenon. And I had to talk to you about it. It’s called S-Town.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yes. And we know what that means.

DUNCAN CRARY: The — it’s produced by This American Life. And it’s sort of like an offshoot of Serial and This American Life. The subject is John McLemore, John B. McLemore. He is a Southern eccentric who refers to his hometown as “Shit Town.” So that’s where they got the title of the show. But before we get into this conversation, though, Jim I do need to warn your listeners, this conversation will include many spoilers.


DUNCAN CRARY: So if anyone out there, you know — if you haven’t listened to S-town yet I highly recommend it. But listen to it before you hear what Jim and I are (crosstalk) going to talk about.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Do you remember the name of the correspondent who actually did it?

DUNCAN CRARY: OK so the correspondent who produced the show is Brian Reed. And if anyone — if you want to find it folks listening just go to or you can search for it in iTunes. So Jim the reason why I want to talk to you as soon as I started listening to this show I recognized the main subject, he was using a lot of your phraseology, like I could tell that he’d been reading your work. OK so let me just play a couple a couple of clips, like here’s this one right here:

[ Audio clip: S-Town Ch. II ]

JOHN B. McLEMORE: I’m trying to think of a snappy comeback to that

BRIAN REED: ‘Cause what is it if not progress?

JOHN B. McLEMORE: Oh Lord, it’s just a clusterfuck of sorrow.

BRIAN REED: A clusterfuck of sorrow.

[End Clip]

DUNCAN CRARY:Clusterfuck Nation” is the title of your blog, of course. You didn’t coin the term, but we’re just getting started. Check out the language in this next clip:

[ Audio Clip: S-Town Ch. III ]

BRIAN REED: On Sunday night. He wrote me as he was listening telling me how disgusted he was with the police abuses I was reporting about, how our country wasn’t worth defending. How he would let his mother lay over and die before he called his local police. And then he sent me an email titled collapse list which is the email that I saw come in. [/end clip]

DUNCAN CRARY: OK so right there “a country not worth defending.” That’s what you said in your TED talk.


DUNCAN CRARY: I mean that’s one of the, like, oft quoted lines from your TED talk, is:

[Audio clip: TED2004: “The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs”]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: We have about 38,000 places that are not worth caring about in the United States today when we have enough of them, we’re going to have a nation that’s not worth defending. And I want you to think about that when you think about those young men and women who are over in places like Iraq spilling their blood in the sand. And ask yourself what is their last thought of home. I hope it’s not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store ‘cause that’s not good enough for Americans… to be spilling their blood for. We need better places in this country. (crowd applause) [/end clip]

DUNCAN CRARY: This clip right here kind of sums up your Geography of Nowhere, suburban sprawl, built environment commentary …

[Audio Clip: S-Town Ch. I]

BRIAN REED: Later, John will take me on a tour of Bibb County, and this worldview will be on full display. He’ll rattle off a constant stream of grievances as we go. Historic buildings are being demolished overnight. Dollar Generals and Wal-marts are popping up in their stead, serving a populace that is getting fatter and more tattooed by the day.

[/end clip]

DUNCAN CRARY: That last little bit about tattoos, this is a big part of the John B. McLemore story… his obsession with tattoos.

[Audio Clip: S-Town Ch. II]

BRIAN REED: John’s motivation was especially bewildering to Bubba, because John had made it clear almost every time he came in the shop how deeply he despised tattoos.

BUBBA: If you got a tattoo on you, he’d tell you you wasn’t shit. You’re a low life. You shouldn’t have that on you.

[/end clip]

KunstlerTattoosEyesore2008DUNCAN CRARY: He’s telling everyone in town how horrible tattoos are and of course you originally wrote an “Eyesore of the Month” about a tattoo parlor on Main Street in Saratoga Springs.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Oh well I was also inveighing against the tattooed savages that we see every day, you know, in the gym and elsewhere.

DUNCAN CRARY: Right, And then you and I —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: That was a theme.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah and then you… So first it was an Eyesore of the Month, then you mentioned it in your blog then you and I did a whole podcast episode about it…

[Audio Clip: KunstlerCast #24:Tattoos ] [Transcript ]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: You know it’s historically been the domain of cannibals whores and sailors. So it’s disappointing to see it on Main Street. You know, I really started to develop an attitude — a bad attitude — about tattoos since I have been going to a particular gym in town and there are all these you know muscle heads there and weight trainer guys who have — are covered with tattoos and there are more and more of them every week including many females. And some of the tattoos I’m seeing these days are just so alarming there like guys have flames tattooed coming up their necks. You know. I saw this one kid on the street actually in front of the tattoo parlor on our main drag and he had a dotted line tattooed on his neck with a pair of scissors tattooed on one end and the words “cut here” tattooed on the other end. And it was just sickening to see that, you know, a young man had such a desperate and depraved view of his own value that he thought that — he was advertising someone to cut his head off. He was just — you know, it was appalling. So I, you know, I think we — again, this is an attempt for the marginal to invade the center and I’m all for keeping the marginal on the margins.

[/End clip]

DUNCAN CRARY: You broke the Internet for a week with your rant on tattoos. OK, but clearly that sank through into this man’s worldview.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: This southern eccentric gentleman.

DUNCAN CRARY: So it’s a — it’s a sad situation, though. You find out in Episode II that McLemore committed suicide by drinking cyanide.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah which he had used — well, it’s a long story and you’ll find out if you do listen to S-Town that he was kind of a genius repairer of antique clocks and, you know, he’s a renowned expert the world over and people used to send him very complex jobs which sometimes involved re-plating of gold components. And he had a very primitive set up in his home for re-plating gold using cyanide as a catalyst. And so he did keep the stuff around.

DUNCAN CRARY: So you find out an Episode II that he committed suicide but then the show goes on because there’s so much more to learn about this man and —


DUNCAN CRARY: And his town. OK he’s very concerned with all the issues that you write about: climate change, economic collapse —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Fossil fuel depletion. You know, the whole scene.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. The entire thing. And you find out in the final episode, they read a snippet of his manifesto, or basically his suicide note.


DUNCAN CRARY: And it mentions you. And it mentions Christopher Hitchens and it mentions John —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: John Michael Greer, another blogger.

DUNCAN CRARY: And it mentions —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Heinberg, Richard Heinberg.

DUNCAN CRARY: And it mentions Richard Heinberg, yeah, among a few other authors. So clearly clearly he’s been reading —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah he was reading the literature of economic collapse.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. So I called you to tell you about this and then you sort of recognized the whole sign off, the S-Town thing, Shit Town. And it turns out you had been corresponding with him. So can you tell us —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And talking to him. Yeah, and I was totally unaware that there was this podcast about S-Town. And I just didn’t know it.

I actually didn’t know that the guy had passed away and in fact, in a synchronous sort of way I had just been wondering in the previous few days whatever happened to him and why I hadn’t heard from him anymore.

So yeah pretty weird.

DUNCAN CRARY: Tell me a little bit more about this because you did inform your blog readers you had a little note at the end of one of your posts about this. But I want to hear a little bit more about your interactions with him so … you told me you’d found, like, only one email of his that you still have in your possession.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah I had — unfortunately, I had cleaned out my Mac Mail archives a few months earlier in an attempt to sort of streamline my computer. I hadn’t heard from him in a while and I didn’t know what happened to him and, you know, I mean he was an interesting character but I didn’t think he was going to burst forth in the ether of Internet reportage. So I deleted his emails. I found one in a different folder for some reason because he sometimes used different email signatures.

In any case, yeah, so I heard from John B McLemore of Woodstock, Alabama for the first time somewhere around 2010, maybe, something like that, or 2009 — I’m not really sure. He sent me e-mails, and they were interesting e-mails. You know, they were obviously from somebody who was a fairly erudite person who was interested in the things I’d been writing about in The Long Emergency and subsequently the book Too Much Magic, which I was just then developing. I finished that in 2011 and (it) didn’t come out until 2012. We had this correspondence and then he started calling me.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And he was a particularly interesting guy. First of all he had this very flamboyant mode of presentation. You know, he was like a character out of Tennessee Williams meets Bizarro World. You know, he was flamboyantly Southern and he sort of played up on it. And I enjoyed talking to him.

And, you know, we would mostly talk at first about world issues and economic issues and markets and commodities and oil and natural gas and, you know, all this stuff that I was writing about. But eventually he started talking to me about the town itself that he was living in and how he called it “Shit Town.” And how everything in it was busted, rusted, shot up, broken, deformed, messed up, ruined. You know, in some way that everything including the human personalities and families and relations in the town were all in some kind of terrible condition. And it all seemed kind of emblematic of the ruined condition of the fly over heartland of America that ended up voting for Trump, right?

So it was certainly an interesting relationship. I do correspond with a number of people. A few of them are outright cranks and, you know, I try to minimize those relationships. And there’s kind of a gradient of people who are dead serious or interesting or, you know, real healthy, psychologically healthy people going across the spectrum to the people who are obviously psychologically in trouble.

DUNCAN CRARY: So where did McLemore fall on that spectrum?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I would put him about three quarters of the way up towards the disturbed section.

But he — you know, he was coherent enough and he was interesting enough because he told me so much about his town and his situation. He actually talked to me as much about his home situation and his falling-apart house and his taking care of his elderly mother. And the way things tended is that, I started to try to suggest to him “Well, you know, maybe you should move away from this terrible place if it’s so awful.

If it’s if it’s ruining your life.” You know, and I said that with the full recognition that people’s home places are very important to them even if they have an extremely destructive neurotic relationship with their home place and all the people in it. They don’t give those things up easily.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And you know I talked to him about — you know, I suggested that there were other parts of the country that he could go to, if he, you know, if Shit Town was too much for him and —

DUNCAN CRARY: Like where? Where’d you suggest?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well I mean everything from, you know, Montpelier, Vermont to, you know, to Ouray, Colorado. You know, there are small towns all over America that are much more civilized than the place that he lived in.

DUNCAN CRARY: According to him, though, too right because —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Of course. I mean this is — you know, to some extent when you develop that kind of weird correspondence and relationship over the phone with a stranger, you’re buying into their fantasy of whatever they’re telling you about their life.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And, you sort of have to accept it at face value. Now, in my own defense, I did not get so involved with this guy’s life that it took more than 20 minutes every two weeks for me to talk to him and I mean I didn’t — I wasn’t suffering. I understood that he was suffering. But I didn’t get hyper-involved with him. I just understood that he was an unhappy person of—with some talent and some brains who lived a distance from me in a terrible place.

DUNCAN CRARY: Now, you say like your conversations only lasted 20 minutes because the one thing that Brian Reed mentions in the show is that you know no one had, like, a short conversation.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No, yeah — I said 20 minutes, but you know some of them might have gone for an hour and 10 minutes and some of them might have gone for ten minutes. You know there are a lot of people who call me out of the blue and I’m in motion a lot. You know, I got a lot to do so you know sometimes I have to tell them that I just got to go you know I got things I got to do so. So it wasn’t it wasn’t such a big deal to me. But I was interested in the guy. I sympathized with him. There was an awful lot I didn’t know about him — A lot of the relationships that subsequently were unearthed by Brian on the podcast.

He did confess to me that he was a homosexual but he didn’t tell me anything about his homosexual activities. And he did talk a lot about thinking about killing himself. And, I’m very attuned to relationship rackets that people construct and I recognized that as a possible racket, you know, just a way for him to hook me into, you know, caretaking him psychologically and I really didn’t see that as my role. So I attempted to kind of minimize that. And I just didn’t really buy into it too heavily. I know I suggested to him that it might not be a good idea and that there might be reasons for him to keep on living.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, did he ment— like, I don’t think the show even gets into why did he want to kill himself, though? What —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, no it does get into some elements of it. But a lot of it has to do with the chemicals that he was keeping around. And I think what Brian ascertained, or at least what he tried to put out as a kind of a hypothesis, was that John McLemore had been using these gold plating chemicals, including a lot of mercury, for many years and that he might have been suffering from mercury poisoning, which you know would make a person somewhat psychotic and delusional. And that’s what accounted for his strange thinking, for John’s thought problems and eventually for you know the way the thought is the father of the deed, thought problems may lead to behavior problems. And obviously they led to a pretty bad one with him: he killed himself.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah, I mean, in the show they surmise or some people guessed that he had, like, Mad Hatter’s disease.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. Because back in the 19th century the people who made hats in Britain especially used all kinds of heavy metals and Mercury in particular to process the furs that were felted and then turned into certain shapes. And so The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland is modeled on the kind of occupational disease.

DUNCAN CRARY: OK but was it also, though — So that might have amplified his feelings—

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: However, you know I got to say that yeah they might have amplified his feelings but on the whole he came off as fairly lucid. You know, he didn’t seem like that much of a crazy person other than the fact that he sometimes talked about killing himself. And frankly, you know, I drew the conclusion that he felt like killing himself because he was deeply unhappy so that you know there was some logic to what he was doing and that’s probably why I tried to get across the possibility of the idea that: You don’t necessarily have to be this unhappy. You can move to a place that doesn’t make you so unhappy. So —

DUNCAN CRARY: OK. But here’s what I wanted to speak to you specifically about today. So, I don’t know — over 200 episodes ago, I think it was show number 70 [correction: KunstlerCast #71: Doomers | Transcript ], we did a topic called “Doomers.” You and I talked about “doomers” and this whole “Doomer” label.


DUNCAN CRARY: And kind of so-called Doomer culture of studying about peak oil and scary things — climate change and economic collapse, and then a lot of people go online and then they share their thoughts with each other. And it can get really scary and depressing. These are not, these aren’t fun topics.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No although, you know, I have to add that I was not depressed by them. First of all they were ideas that had been rattling around my head for decades before I wrote The Long Emergency. There are all kinds of intimations of it in The Geography of Nowhere which was published in 1993. And a lot of it really has to do not with just the potential for destruction in the way we live or our economy but the fact that we’re dwelling in this kind of awful machine of a civilization and culture which some people really feel needs to sort of stop. You need to, in the phrase of Mario Savio the orator of the Berkeley campus back in the 60s who started the Free Speech Movement, you know, sometimes the machine that you’re caught up in is so odious that you just have to stop it. And I think there are a lot of people who feel that way about this whirling diabolical machine of modernity that’s just crushing the human race.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. And if anyone listening, if you haven’t heard the old shows look up “Doomers” it’s number [71]. Jim, you make this reference in that show to, like, the way New York City used to feel when you were a kid after a rain.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No, after — I think after a blizzard. Yeah the fact that how delightful, wonderful, and clarifying it felt when everything just sort of stopped.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: You know when the giant mechanical maw of Manhattan just ground to a halt and you were in a state of stillness for once, and it was such a wonderful magic moment. So, I think a lot of what is often labeled as Doomerism or the Doomer psychology is a wish to get to some kind of civilizational serenity or stillness that, you know, where you don’t feel like you’re assaulted and bedeviled and beset all the time by all this stuff. You know, by everything from the phone ringing to the idiocies of robot business transactions.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. So that — you see that longing… It’s like longing for a reset almost.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, yeah. And that’s why I called it that in my books. I’m convinced that we are headed for a reset of the terms of civilization. And I think an awful lot of people would feel that they would like that, that they would like to be in a civilization that wasn’t so cruel and oppressive to them and I don’t even mean in the crudest political terms. I mean in the sense of all the everyday crap that we’re burdened by.

DUNCAN CRARY: I was going through your — all of your blog posts and your iTunes reviews. I was looking for —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: That’s more than I do because I never read that shit.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, you read some of it, but not, you —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I read the comments on the blog. That’s all.

DUNCAN CRARY: Right. Well what I was doing is I was scouring the Internet for comments by John McLemore.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Oh. I wouldn’t even know how to do that.

DUNCAN CRARY: He would write under his real name, but he would also write under screen names and other things. And I was looking for comments on your blog. I actually didn’t find too many because I don’t know when he started following your online activities. But nevertheless here’s what I did come across. This is not John B. McLemore by the way, I can verify that. This is a review of your podcast in the iTunes store. It was posted on Dec. 23, 2014 and it’s by a person using the handle “Marlowinc.” I don’t know if that’s like a reference to Marlow from the Joseph —


DUNCAN CRARY: The Joseph Conrad writings. Yeah.


DUNCAN CRARY: Anyway the title is “My back-handed review” and this person gave you four stars out of five. Not bad. All right:


I always like to read & hear what JK has to write & say, but MAN can his stuff be frickin' depressing! And his guests just add fuel to the flames of hopelessness. The one I just heard with John Greer made me want to put a bullet in my head! Every time I think of myself as well-informed, versed —even hardened—to the inevitable decay of our culture & society, along comes the things I hear on this podcast. Thanks for the bleak and meaningless future of existence, guys! I believe I have my cyanide capsules ready. Greer’s chuckling about our downward spiral into a savage, barbaric culture made me physically ill. I'm no defender about the current global situation. I'm not naive about the uncertain years ahead, but give us a morsel of optimism to chew on here! Even if it's meek and minuscule. Geez! Is there a reasonable alternative? A Robert E. Howard nightmare realm of  “Only the strong survive” is unacceptable. If  “living by the sword” is the only option, I'm gonna go commit hari kari right now. Thanks for cheering me up! Looking forward to the next podcast! (Gunshot. Thud.)

I always like to read & hear what JK has to write & say, but MAN can his stuff be frickin’ depressing! And his guests just add fuel to the flames of hopelessness. The one I just heard with John Greer made me want to put a bullet in my head! Every time I think of myself as well-informed, versed —even hardened—to the inevitable decay of our culture & society, along comes the things I hear on this podcast. Thanks for the bleak and meaningless future of existence, guys! I believe I have my cyanide capsules ready. Greer’s chuckling about our downward spiral into a savage, barbaric culture made me physically ill. I’m no defender about the current global situation. I’m not naive about the uncertain years ahead, but give us a morsel of optimism to chew on here! Even if it’s meek and minuscule. Geez! Is there a reasonable alternative? A Robert E. Howard nightmare realm of “Only the strong survive” is unacceptable. If “living by the sword” is the only option, I’m gonna go commit hari kari right now. Thanks for cheering me up! Looking forward to the next podcast! (Gunshot. Thud.)

I mean, so now, the person has a sense of humor. Also, I looked it up, I found a blog out there that’s still being published by Marlowinc, so…

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, just for the record, this Marlow person seems to have overlooked the fact that I spent about seven years writing four novels under the World Made By Hand banner. And that, you know, a lot of the point of those novels was to depict the aftermath of an economic collapse in a way that would make people feel OK and hopeful about whatever reset we moved into. So I feel a little bit like I’m being falsely accused of being a merchant of doom when in fact, both in my artistic life and my personal life, I’m not at all without hope and cheer. It’s just … I think that what this guy said represents what a lot of people really secretly feel, which is: it’s not so much about the world changing or moving on. It’s about their grief about losing the techno industrial paradigm. And I kind of believe that we are going to leave that behind but I don’t feel bad about what that represents. I’m not — I don’t feel hopeless and bereft and depressed about that. But I don’t really see that we’re going to be able to continue living in though in the way that we have and it’s as simple as that.

DUNCAN CRARY: So do you have a message out there for people who are discovering The Long Emergency and they’re reading Heinberg and they’re reading John Michael (Greer)—

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, if they’re feeling hopeless, there’s a reason I wrote those four World Made By Hand books. You know, it occupied a considerable part of my lifetime. And I recommend they read them. And they’ll get a picture of a world that has changed, in which not everything is changed for the worse. There are a lot of compensations for living in a world without commuting and a world without — where you have nothing but canned entertainment to fill your idle hours. There’s a lot in there and it was presented that way for a purpose, so that people would feel a little more courageous about entering that new paradigm when the current one kind of loses its mojo.

DUNCAN CRARY: I have two more questions before we wrap this up, Jim. I gotta talk to you about the tattoos again in this. So you have this whole famous take on tattoos.


DUNCAN CRARY: And it seems like John B. McLemore, absorbed that into his worldview.


DUNCAN CRARY: And then all of a sudden…

[ Audio Clip: S-Town Ch. II ]

BRIAN REED: So as shocking as it was to me when John lifted up his shirt to show me all his tattoos, it was far more shocking to Bubba when John strolled in one day at the age of 47 and asked him to start putting them there.

BUBBA: I thought he was going to commit suicide. You know, that’s what I thought in my mind.


BUBBA: This is something you’re completely against. You think fucking failures have tattoos, you know what I’m saying? Why in the fuck would you just start tattooing your whole upper body like that, you know what I mean? And around your neck — pistons. Tattooing pistons on him, you know? Redneck-ass tattoos, you know?

[/End clip]

DUNCAN CRARY: He’s going and getting himself covered completely in tattoos.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, he wasn’t covered completely but he got a lot of tattoos in places that people weren’t likely to see them when he was wearing clothing.

DUNCAN CRARY: Right now in the —.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: But you know there are a bunch of characters in the S-Town podcast whose lives revolve around a tattoo parlor. And, you know, they’re a bunch of kind of, you know, Southern redneck Yahoo types and John B McLemore was very involved with them emotionally. One of them in particular who was kind of a lost soul young man who he apparently wanted to save or rescue. Which of course is very ironic because John B. McLemore himself was very much in need of being rescued. But anyway one of the things that he apparently did was that he hung out in the tattoo shop with these guys and got himself tattooed. Now Brian Reed’s interpretation of that, if I remember correctly, was that he might have done that just so that he could spend more time with these guys and make them feel like he was one of them. Which he obviously wasn’t.

DUNCAN CRARY: And also, though, even they surmised that he was trying to pay — he wanted to pay the guy who ran the parlor to basically give him money without giving him a handout.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Give him business. You know, this was the guy’s business. He was a kind of a pathetic character in a pathetic economy in a pathetic region of the country.

DUNCAN CRARY: And John somehow had money — nobody knows exactly how much — because he was un-banked. So, he might have had gold buried all over his land from his watch —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And of course a big part of the S-Town podcast is this treasure hunt that occurs after his death and all kinds of people are going around his property. You know, he lived on this — he was what they call land poor. He came from a fairly well-to-do old family who had run through all their money and they had nothing left but the property. And one of the things that he talked about to me a lot was the fact that he could never sell his property because of the terrible condition of the town that surrounded him and how awful, what an awful place it was and nobody would want to live there and nobody would want to buy this, you know, old Southern mansion that he lived in on what had been some kind of a farm or maybe a plantation even 150 years ago.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. But getting back to the tattoos, so yeah there was that, he might have had money … But he was also getting, like, really painful nipple tattoos and it seemed to be —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No, rings. Nipple rings, piercings.

DUNCAN CRARY: And then I thought were — it seemed painful whatever, whatever. I like, I don’t have any ink or any piercings but it’s whatever it seemed to be a —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, look he was a psychologically unwell person so you know God knows what might have motivated him to subject himself to pain. Look, there are an awful lot of people out there who do that now and the only conclusion I can draw is that they lead painful lives and maybe they feel that they have to express that themselves and contribute to their own pain. I really don’t know. There’s some kind of a dynamic there. I haven’t thought a whole lot about it maybe if I did I’d come to a better conclusion.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well I would just, I don’t know. Obviously, you don’t have the answers. I remember — three years ago I deliberately got rid of my car, so I live a car-free lifestyle. And I’ve always been kind of anti-automobile dependency. But I remember I was in Los Angeles, like 10 years ago, and they gave me like a convertible Mustang for the car rental and I went nuts. I just was driving over these like environmentally sensitive — .

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Fun fun fun til Daddy takes a T-bird away. That’s Los Angeles.

DUNCAN CRARY: But I just swung to the complete opposite end, you know.


DUNCAN CRARY: So it just seemed wild that this guy was kind of repeating your thoughts on tattoos and then suddenly got himself all tatted up.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well I mean one conclusion you could draw is that it has an awful lot to do with self-hatred. You know, that he became the thing that he publicly reviled.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well that seems to happen. That’s not like —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: He’s a little bit like a character out of a Thomas Harris novel, the guy who wrote Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. After hearing about his death, frankly I was less surprised that they didn’t find buried gold and more surprised that they didn’t find some teenagers buried in his basement. A grim thought, perhaps.

DUNCAN CRARY: That’s a little harsh.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: But, you know, there you have it.

DUNCAN CRARY: So Jim final question about all this. Because this was such a big Internet sensation, I mean this podcast broke all sorts of records. I mean people really consumed the story. Is there — do you feel like there’s something you wish you had said or was there something further you would have said to him?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Not really. You know, I was quite sympathetic with him. I made an effort to be a good listener. I gave him the feedback that I could. I didn’t not try to tell him anything that might be helpful. I didn’t go overboard on it. I did what I could. And, you know, you can’t save everybody especially people who don’t live anywhere near you and, you know, who are just, you know, connected by some thread of electronics.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, but it is — being an author and then being a podcaster, I mean, it’s kind of a — it’s an intimate interaction with strangers.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah and I did what I could to have a relationship with a reader at a distance and I had no idea that he’d killed himself. You know … he didn’t talk about it so much, he didn’t talk about suicide so much that I concluded that he was going to do it at any moment. You know, he never sounded desperate about it. He was actually rather jocular about it. That’s how it rolled. And I’m sorry to hear that. He had other options and those were the choices that poor John B McLemore made.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: May he rest in peace.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. Well I’ve been thinking that, so the 258 podcast episodes that you and I did together — which, you were working out some of your thoughts on Too Much Magic while you and I were doing the show for five years.

I kind of feel like, so that …. those years on the podcast and then the podcast book that I put out, based on it, that’s kind of the prequel to S-town.

So if anyone’s really interested in learning more about this character John B. McLemore you can kind of get into his head a little bit more if you —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, he’s not in those podcasts, but it might serve as a background to, you know, the kind of thoughts and issues that he may have been immersed in.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah because we even we had Heinberg on the show, we had Greer… we had the other authors on it. So I’m not trying — that sounds a little more morbid than I want it to be. It’s not like if you listen to the show you’ll end up drawing the same conclusion.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: But the S-Town story is a morbid story. But, you know, let’s face it we’re living in a kind of a morbid culture and that’s the sad hard truth of the matter. I personally try to remain, you know, cheerful and un-morbid and lead an upright life and but I can’t behave for all the other people in my country.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. Well I mean, I certainly feel you know a lot has changed in this small city that I live in, in the last 10 years .

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, we’re recording in Troy New York.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. And I feel a lot happier now that our downtown is more healthy. There’s more activity there’s more people, you know, striving for a future .

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, a more normal transactional social life right.

DUNCAN CRARY: Right. Whereas, you know, 15 years ago when I moved here people were telling me I was crazy and there were a lot of people really depressed about this place and they felt like it was a Shit City.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well one of the things that that says is that people actually have to do things to make things better. You know, you can’t just think about stuff there’s a big difference between thinking about stuff and stewing about stuff and actually making things happen. And you know I’ve been convinced my whole adult life that the most crucial thing for a person who is feeling bad in one way or another about their situation is to take action and to learn the difference between between thought and action.

And you know taking care of business is what you got to do.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, Jim thanks a lot for yakkin’ with me, I enjoyed —

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Hey it was fun getting back to the old motif here. Despite some of the technical difficulties we had because it’s been such a long time since we put the headphones on.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. Listeners don’t know but I couldn’t remember how to put any of the equipment together and I couldn’t get any of the software working.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: OK Duncan Well let’s wrap up some mugs and T-shirts and send them out to our Patreon people.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yep. You betcha. All right thanks a lot, Jim.



Transcript: KunstlerCast #29: Tattoos and the American Costume


Violent Clowns, Oversized Babies and Other Nonconformists Just Like You

The following is a transcript of KunstlerCast #29, released Aug. 28, 2008. In this conversation, James Howard Kunstler addresses the proliferation of tattoos on the American main street. He thinks the fierce looking tattoos on young Americas are actually a sign of how deeply insecure we are as a nation. They’re also a form of “non-conformist-just-like-you” consumerism. Jim also takes on the hip hop costuming that has invaded the mainstream and has made young men look like oversized babies and violent clowns.

Note: This is a nearly verbatim transcript with only the slightest edits to remove verbal ticks and redundant utterances.

[intro music]

DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’re listening to the KunstlerCast, a weekly conversation about the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl, featuring James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand. I’m Duncan Crary, today’s topic: tattoos and the American costume.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well Jim I’m back and it is good to see you again.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Nice to be here, Duncan.

DUNCAN CRARY: The most popular thread so far in our discussion forum is titled “Kunstler’s hatred of tattoos.” So let’s get in this topic here. What is going on? You wrote a blog post where you mentioned tattoos.

KunstlerTattoosEyesore2008JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No actually I did one of my recent “eyesore of the month” features on my website about the tattoo parlor downtown.

DUNCAN CRARY: All right.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And I did it actually to illustrate an urban design issue and not necessarily to illustrate a tattoo issue but I made some disparaging remarks about tattoos. This is another activity that really belongs in the margins not on main street and that it was disappointing to see on main street. It’s historically been the domain of cannibals, whores and sailors. So it is disappointing to see it on main street.

I really started to develop an attitude, a bad attitude about tattoos since I have been going to a particular gym in town. Of the two venues in town where you can go do a workout in the middle of the winter this is the one that happens to be on my side of town so I go there rather than drive five miles to the YMCA which is diametrically as far away as in my town as you can go and still be in that same town.

Anyway, so I go to this gym and there are all these muscle heads there and weight trainer guys who are covered with tattoos and there are more and more of them every week including many females. And some of the tattoos I am seeing these days are just so alarming. There are like guys who have flames tattooed coming up their necks. You know?

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I saw this one kid on the street actually in front of the tattoo parlor on our main drag and he had a dotted line tattooed on his neck with a pair of scissors tattooed on one end and the words cut here tattooed on the other end. And it was just sickening to see that a young man had such a desperate and depraved view of his own value that he thought that he was advertising someone to cut his head off. It was appalling. So again, I think this is an attempt for the marginal to invade the center and I am all for keeping the marginal on the margins.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, I want to explore this a little more. You did write a blog post after that “eyesore of the month” where you were talking about the people in Waterford, I think, and you mentioned tattoos again…

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, I was returning to the theme.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. But you did touch upon… Americans are scary looking as I think you were saying.


DUNCAN CRARY: We look like fierce warriors…

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I think we are trying to make ourselves more and more scary looking and what it tells me is that we are a very insecure people right now. We’ve got to make ourselves look like characters out of a road warrior movie or make ourselves look like some kind of barbarian culture in order to feel secure and OK about ourselves.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well I think that we have a lot of reasons to be insecure. It is very hard for young people especially more and more to imagine some kind of a plausible career for themselves. There are a lot of things that have been foreclosed to them. There is very little possibility of many of them ever finding blue collar work that will pay them a decent wage. There are a very few jobs that are appealing to a young man. You think a young man wants to be a Wal-Mart associate? No, young men really want to do things that challenge them and they have a lot of testosterone. They have a wish to achieve and to do mighty physical feats and things.

That is one of the reasons that the housing bubble boom was actually a great benefit to young men because there were so many construction jobs available and they were getting paid well and they were able to buy big impressive status-conferring toys like pick up trucks and motorcycles and tools. And so, that period of recent history was very beneficial for young men. Right now, young men are more and more being foreclosed out of any kind of meaningful role in their society. And I think this insecurity is being broadcast now in the way they are presenting themselves to the public.

It is not just the tattoos, another thing that fascinates me is the costuming. The costuming that has come out of hip-hop for example, which features oversized shirts and pants that make you look like your legs are very short, you know?

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: What this tells me is that American grown up men feel like babies and they want to portray themselves like babies. Babies have very large torsos and short legs. So, American young men are dressing up in costumes that make them look like babies and then you add a sideways hat and sneakers that aren’t tied and you really look like an infant.

DUNCAN CRARY: I have noticed fully grown men, I thought they were teenagers because they were dressed like that with a polo shirt that is oversized. And yeah, I thought it was a kid and it was like a 45 year old man.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: The infantilization of young men in our culture is becoming really striking.

DUNCAN CRARY: I have never heard anyone approach the topic that way. I have heard that the baggy jeans and stuff come from prison culture.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I think they did originally but then circulated through the ghetto for about 20 years. But in the ghetto you have a situation where you have children who are being raised in households where men are not present. Why are they not present? Partly because a lot of the fathers are in prison. So you have men who are in prison, you don’t have male role models and you have male children being raised by mothers.

Eventually it has lead to some very strange cultural manifestations. Especially as that programming moves more and more through the whole broad culture, not just the black community but out into the white former working class community where they are suffering terribly from lost incomes and not having any plausible idea of what to do with themselves, what activities to go into, what kind of vocations to go into.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well you have pointed out that hip-hop culture, which… I think you are actually referring to specifically to like the gangster rap music in particular. That kind of music is like a warrior culture behind the message of that music and of course it is being massively consumed by white suburban teenagers.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, I have always maintained, at least for the last 10 to 15 years, that what became mainstream hip-hop was really a warrior culture. But notice that is being kind of masked and concealed behind a uniform of baby clothes…

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: …so that it looks like it’s harmless. But in fact it is, I think, a warrior culture.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well let me just clarify the new ones…

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Look, let me clarify something.


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Young men tend to gravitate to warrior cultures. I think we are hardwired for that as human beings who have only recently emerged from the hunter gatherer stage of development. That is only been about 50,000 years and really only accelerated to where we are at in the last 1000 years. So we are really hardwired to be warriors as males and yet you have a whole generation of warriors who are not being trained to be warriors. They are being trained to be babies, to be helpless, to not know how to do things, to be illiterate, to be not conversant with their own history. That has an affect in your destiny.

What interests me is the indignation that my attitude provokes from the tattooed people and the people wearing the hip-hop clothes, that whole cohort of young people. It’s as though they are saying, “We have a right to present ourselves this way. We like presenting ourselves this way and it makes sense to us to present ourselves this way. So, don’t get down on us for doing it because we have every right to do it and we feel good doing it this way.”

What I would have to say in response to that is, “Yeah, if you are facing a very uncertain destiny and you are very insecure and your society is not giving you much to feel hopeful about and your society is not preparing you for the kind of life that you are going to be facing in your later decades of life: then sure, present yourself as a violent clown.” Because that is what young men in America look like now: violent clowns.

DUNCAN CRARY: Also, to borrow your language, to me the tattoos — and I know a lot of tattooed people, it’s really common — are kind of an empty gesture to me, to borrow your expression. You know, these empty gestures in America. Because, they are just broadcasting their individuality externally but then in some ways people kind of lock-step with what is hip and cool today. Do you know what I mean? Like having a…

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Sure. It’s like saying, “I’m a nonconformist just like you.”

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] I do notice this with the “emo” culture and the “goth” people and even the Harley Davidson bikers all shop at the same store!

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. They are all basically just bullshit consumer cultures of one kind or another. Tattoos are just another kind of consumer item. It’s just a service that you pay for: it doesn’t make you a better person; it doesn’t make you someone with more knowledge; it doesn’t make you more heroic. It just makes you someone who went and spent $150.00 on a picture that is on your skin.

DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. It’s very permanent and a lot of times those pictures get screwed up. I had a friend in high school who went to get an Irish flag tattooed on his arm and he just rattled off the colors on the flag. So, the guy put them backwards. He didn’t have an Irish flag, he had the Ivory Coast flag. [laughs]


DUNCAN CRARY: It took us a while. We had to get an atlas out to figure out what was wrong with this thing. [laughs]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. Well, he could have had like the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly report tattooed on his ass or something.

DUNCAN CRARY: There is some website dedicated to misspelled tattoos. It’s hilarious. You’re stuck with this thing forever. Jim, what else can we say about tattoos? I want to put this to bed, so let’s put it to bed.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: There’s an interesting element of it that we see in other areas of life. Having become such a televisionized culture and people what you see is an impulse to put a picture on everything. You use yourself as a television to broadcast stories about yourself saying, “I’m a lover. I’m a fighter. I’m a valiant warrior.”

DUNCAN CRARY: Or this “I’ma soja,” but they’ve never been in the Army before.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: “I’m a soldier.” Right. And, we’re so used to having information broadcast all around us in terms of visual images that it’s a way of turning yourself into another kind of TV set. I’m surprised that somebody hasn’t put a tattoo on their neck that says, “Advertise here. This space available.”

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, I think people have auctioned off their foreheads on eBay, right, for advertisements?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Now that you mention it, they have.

DUNCAN CRARY: I had a girlfriend in college who had what she said was a Chinese or Japanese symbol for woman. It was tattooed in an area where I don’t think you need to label yourself a woman there. The other joke is, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what the Chinese symbol is for.” You know, whoever put that on there, it probably means something else. Tramp or something, right? Or whatever. [laughs]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: “Insert disc here.”

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] OK. Anyway, we started by talking about what are Kunstler readers and listeners and fans, what do they care about?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, I’m really impressed with how inflamed the tattooed readership and listenership is out there. It’s interesting. It’s as though they had never stopped to consider what it was that they were saying about this, rather than becoming just another nonconformist like everybody else wearing a tattoo.

To some extent, I can certainly accept the fact that a tattoo can under some circumstances can just be another kind of ornament and I think that within limits there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that when you turn yourself into kind of a grotesque billboard and you start projecting messages like “Kill me now” or “I hate you” or “I’m a vicious thug.” That ends up being a little bit socially unhelpful.

DUNCAN CRARY: Well, we have logos on all of our clothing and stuff, too. I try to avoid it because I don’t want to be a billboard. Pay me if you want me to advertise for Jack Daniels on my chest! [laughs]

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, this is what comes of living in a consumer culture that traffics in logos and pictures and images. You know, we shouldn’t be surprised.

DUNCAN CRARY: By the way, we’ll be unrolling our new Kunstler Cast listener T-shirt line.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Oh, really? Why don’t we have an official tattoo? And an official tattoo-er or tattoo-ist?

DUNCAN CRARY: Listeners, send in your Kuntsler Cast tattoo photographs. We’ll post them on the website.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: That’s a good idea.

DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] We’re all on an intimate level with the things we despise. Anyway Jim, thanks for putting that to bed because it really was an important issue. You know, Kuntsler’s hatred of tattoos.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I’m glad we got that out of the way.

DUNCAN CRARY: Now, we can talk about passenger rail and urban design again. All right, thanks a lot for talking, Jim.


[Recording from Listener Caller Line]

DANIELA: Hi, this is Daniela from Los Angeles. I’m calling about show number 25. The show about Frederick Law Olmsted and City Parks. Jim said that the public doesn’t have a vocabulary for understanding parks. I would like to suggest a book that deals exactly with that subject. It’s by Galen Cranz. He was a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkley. The title is The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America. I am working with a community group that is writing an alternative master plan to protect Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

Griffith Park is the big park in L.A. like Golden Gate Park, or Lincoln Park, or Central Park. We have found the concepts in the book very useful for understanding the park’s unique merits within the city system of parks that grew up subsequently. We can now argue with pro-development people about what the various types of parks that exist are for and what park functions can and should be distributed throughout the city.

[musical interlude]

DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’ve been listening to the Kunstler Cast featuring James Howard Kunstler. To leave a listener comment, call toll free at (866) 924-9499. Send email to You can download episodes of this program, read transcripts, learn about our theme music, join our mailing list and talk about the show on our online discussion forum at I’m your host Duncan Crary, thanks for listening.

[musical interlude]