The "Ishmael" books are aimed at encouraging radical social change — but their author says hostage-taking is definitely not the change he had in mind.
Daniel Quinn's story of Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla who tries to show humans where they're going wrong, has spawned a popular series of books, an eerie Hollywood movie and a movement that takes a critical look at our global industrial society. Unfortunately, it also spawned an escalating series of threats from James Lee, who resented the Discovery Channel so much that he took company employees hostage today.
The hours-long standoff in Maryland ended when police shot and killed the gunman. Authorities said an explosive device went off when Lee was shot, but the hostages were rescued unharmed.
In the hours leading up to the crisis' bloody conclusion, Quinn reflected on the meaning of "My Ishmael," the book that Lee repeatedly cited as his inspiration. Quinn wondered how that meaning could have been misinterpreted so badly.
"It's hard to imagine how he got from reading this book to his current behavior," Quinn told me via telephone from his Houston home. "It certainly puzzles me."
Quinn was even more disapproving on his website, Ishmael.org. He said Lee's actions gave "a bad name to the very ideas he's trying to put forward. So instead of putting them forward he's putting them back — making them unacceptable."
"My Ishmael" is actually a sequel to Quinn's first book, titled "Ishmael," which lays out his philosophy about slowing human population growth and encouraging innovative solutions to social and environmental problems ... all as seen from a gorilla's point of view.
"It is definitely the view of humanity from a non-human point of view, so that our perceived virtues are not necessarily virtues when they're perceived from the outside," Quinn explained. "The food race is a good example, the race between growing more food and birthing more people. We perceive generally that this race can be won by agriculture, so we cheer when we hear that agriculture has made some advance to support a growing population — whereas in fact the race is unwinnable. It's like the arms race of the '70s and the '80s. ... There's no winning of the arms race. There's no winning of the food race either."
In "My Ishmael," the gorilla explains his perspective to a schoolgirl in a series of dialogues, and urges her (and humanity) to "be inventive, not for machines but for yourselves." He calls for "a million small beginnings, a million great little ideas" that eventually will transform the world.
Lee worked that theme into a series of rants posted to his website and Internet chat rooms. He said the Discovery Channel and its sister TV networks, such as TLC and Discovery Health, had to "have daily television programs at prime-time slots" that were based on the ideas laid out in the book. He also said the networks had to stop airing shows "encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants" and instead broadcast programs encouraging sterilization and infertility.
Lee spoke out against immigration as well, calling it "the exportation of human filth."
Stemming population growth is indeed a theme in Quinn's books, but the author told me the books offered no specific prescriptions for solving the problem. "The solution has to come from a consensus of the majority of the humans in our planet, and say 'Yes, this is what we must do, painful as it will be, to ensure the survival of the race.' ... And it will be painful. There's not going to be any painless solution."
The ascent of 'Ishmael'
Quinn, who turns 75 this month, told me that he began his literary career as a caption writer for an encyclopedia in Chicago, then became an editor, and then turned to writing for educational publications.
"In the early '60s, I began to see that I had some questions about what made sense to us, and what did not make sense to us, and I began to search for answers," he said. "And these searches eventually led me to a point at which I thought I perhaps had grounds for writing a book."
Quinn said he "wrote version after version for 12 years" before finally coming up with the manuscript for "Ishmael" in the late 1980s. At about that same time, media mogul Ted Turner announced a contest for fiction that offered positive solutions to global problems. "Ishmael" was selected from about 2,500 entries submitted worldwide, earning Quinn the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship and a guarantee that the book would be published.
"To everyone's great surprise, it was a success," Quinn said. "At the time, it looked to many people involved that a novel about a thinking gorilla was a most improbable proposition. The novel went on to acclaim in many other countries, publication in many other languages, and it's simply never stopped. It's No. 389 on Amazon today, which is quite remarkable for a book that is 20 years old."
"Ishmael" turned Quinn into a guru of sorts, complete with an appearance on "Oprah." The book inspired readers to set up unofficial fan sites such as The Friends of Ishmael Society, ReadIshmael.com, IshCon and New Tribal Ventures. It also inspired Hollywood to make a 1999 movie titled "Instinct," starring Anthony Hopkins as an anthropologist who joins a troop of Rwandan mountain gorillas and kills two poachers when the troop is attacked. It's left to an ambitious psychologist (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to figure out why the anthropologist turned murderous.
Quinn didn't stop with that first book. "I found that people were getting about 40 percent of what I was saying in 'Ishmael,'" he told me. The first follow-up was "The Story of B," a 1996 novel that presented dialogues between a Roman Catholic priest and a preacher suspected of being the Antichrist. (The preacher is no satanist, but serves instead as an advocate for Quinn's point of view and manages to convert the priest.)
"My Ishmael" came next, in 1997. Then Quinn wrote "Beyond Civilization," a nonfiction work that touts tribalism over globalization.
"Tribal humans were successful on this planet for three million years before our agricultural revolution, and they're no less successful today wherever they manage to survive untouched, but many people in our culture don't want to hear about it," he says in the book.
Quinn told me that "Beyond Civilization" seemed to answer the questions people had about his tribe-centric, post-industrial point of view.
"I was asked many, many times to have some kind of course for people," he recalled. "Finally I relented and decided to have a seminar here in Houston. One prerequisite was that they would have to read 'Beyond Civilization,' the last of the series, in manuscript. What happened was, that answered so many questions for them that they had no questions when they arrived. So the seminar was a bust."
Since "Beyond Civilization," Quinn has written more novels (such as "The Holy") and more inspirational works (such as "Tales of Adam"). But it's the "Ishmael" books that have been foremost in the spotlight, and not always for the right reasons.
Back in 2007, for example, Quinn's novels were mentioned when commentators tried to figure out the meaning of "Ismail-Ax," a phrase that Virginia Tech gunman Seung-hui Cho had written on his arm. Cho also used the name "A. Ishmael" on a package he sent to NBC News before the shootings. (To be fair, the same commentators noted that the references to Ishmael could have been inspired by other writings, ranging from the Bible to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" to a beat poem titled "The Goat Ranchers.")
Today, Quinn is once more facing the fact that some poor soul failed to get the whole message.
"My point has always been that each of us has a circle of influence, and a set of talents, and that I can't give anyone a 12-step program," he told me. "Rather, I just say, start wherever you are, find out what you can do that no one else can do, and proceed from there. And that has been successful. People are inspired, and they're doing things you'd never dream they could do. This James Lee has been inspired, but in a destructive way. He's doing what he can do — which is a crazy stunt. I wish I could understand what he's trying to do, and what he's trying to say. It's hard to connect it with my book."
More about the Discovery hostage drama:
- Police kill Discovery building gunman
- Discovery gunman spoke to NBC News
- Suspect had long protested Discovery programming
- Hostage situation unfolds in real time on Twitter
- Is this a picture of the gunman? We don't know
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