While best known for his gonzo reporting on fringe figures and strange subcultures, the starting point for Jon Ronson’s new BBC Radio 4 podcast is society at large.
In Things Fell Apart, he excavates the battlegrounds of the American culture wars to find their origin stories, and explains how, exactly, things fell apart and left the country so fractured and polarised. Abortion, homosexuality, cancel culture, Satanism – he picks the biggest and most violent battles. But the episodes start in such obscure places and take such unexpected turns that each one is a revelatory listen.
Take the first, 1000 Dolls. It starts with an American boy, Frank Schaeffer, growing up in the 1970s among Christian intellectuals in a Swiss mountain retreat and daydreaming of directing Hollywood films, and ends with the shooting of an abortion doctor in Buffalo, New York. The through lines to the present day are easily traced, so most episodes are bleak reminders of the mess these conflicts have generated.
But some episodes strike a note of optimism that is all too rarely felt. Episode three, A Miracle, recalls the time when TV evangelist Tammy Faye Messner invited an openly gay person living with Aids on to her show, despite the scorn of her peers.
It was an inspiring act of courage and compassion that demanded others transcend their bigotry.
According to the series, the culture wars date back to at least the 1970s, when the battle lines were drawn – broadly speaking – between Christian conservatives and progressives.
These are so ingrained now that Ronson pulls off an impressive balancing act. Recognising the danger that covering the culture wars could very easily fuel them, he carefully walks a tightrope over the chasm between left and right. By doing so, he is building a vital bridge.
By Harry Bennett