I have a fondness for geography, and one of my first tools in trying to understanding people is to understand where they come from. My own life history includes so many different places I've lived that I usually shrug and say "The Northwestern United States" when people ask where I am from. I want to write about two people who are famous for their anti-establishment views: radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and terrorist/manifesto writer Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. My knowledge of both of these people is mostly confined to the public view of them. My geographical research is mostly what I can find from US Census Data and Google Maps. This little biogeographical essay is not to be taken too seriously, but is an attempt to ask the question I asked in What I do not understand about rural resentment, using the lives of two different but related people.
Let us start with Ted Kaczynski, an Easterner from Chicago, Illinois, educated at Harvard University, who later moved to Montana and adopted an anticiv philosophy. (Apparently the philosophical shift was after the move, but it seems that his discontent was growing before moving to Montana). Specifically, Kaczynski lived in Lincoln, Montana, which is a small, isolated town, even by Montana standards. Lincoln is not a city or town, but merely a Census Designated Place. The population of the census designated area is around 1,000 people. Lincoln has a branch of the county library, a grocery store, a Co-op gas station, some taverns, some cafes, a hardware store, and a general aviation airport. It is located in Lewis & Clark County, just west of the continental divide. The county seat of Lewis & Clark County, and the state capital of Montana, Helena, Montana, is on the other side of the continental divide. The pass that one would take to reach it, Rogers Pass, is the site of the lowest recorded temperature in the Lower 48, when it got down to -70F. The closest incorporated city to Lincoln is the smaller Drummond, Montana, population under 400 people, 43 miles away. That is also where you will find the closest national chain business, a Conoco station. Do you want to go shopping for food at a supermarket, instead of a grocery store? That is 67 miles away, in Deer Lodge, Montana. You might want to wait for the roads to be clear of snow before you go on this shopping trip, but that would be futile because it can snow 12 months a year there. There is more superlatives we could use to describe Lincoln, but the picture should be clear: this is a very small, very isolated place where even modern technology has not changed the frontier nature, and where people's accesses to even basic services is tenuous. And the Unabomber lived outside of this, five miles from this small town. In other words, it is clear to me that while not inevitable, it is not unexpected that a person in this situation could think of the whole of modern civilization as something monstrous, foreign and against the natural course of life. If you can go months or even years without seeing a shopping mall, freeway or hospital, the course of modern life might seem alien and threatening. And that is only for the average resident: someone who is living in a one room cabin outside of town is going to have a radically different starting place.
Alex Jones, radio host, lives and works in or near to Austin, Texas. There are many sources on the exact location of his home, although many of them seem to stem from even wilder antisemitic conspiracy theories who believe that Alex Jones himself is a plant. I won't say the exact address or street, but I can describe the neighborhood of Alex Jones. It is about 6 miles from downtown Austin, behind a large bend in Lake Austin. The area around Lake Austin is one of Austin's most expensive neighborhoods. Jones' house lies within a mile of the Austin Country Club, which is probably really expensive, but as a private club, doesn't say its initiation fees. It is also less than a mile to a $20,000 a year boarding school. As well as a similar distance to Davenport Village, a shopping complex with bespoke shops for the wine, cigar, golf and tennis enthusiast. Also in the neighborhood are at least four or five high end beauty spas and hair salons. And a Thai restaurant with the requisite gluten free options. Although it is mostly residential and high end commercial, there are nearby financial firms and boutique software developers. It does have one similarity to Lincoln, Montana: it lacks most of the sprawl of chain businesses that characterizes many American towns. This neighborhood is in the larger environment of Austin, which despite its reputation as a quirky college town is also a large metropolis, and the capital of the second largest state in the nation.
The point is not that Alex Jones is a hypocrite or (as his lawyer would have it,) "a performance artist" who lives amongst the swank elites that he makes a fortune deriding. Not that I think that assessment is untrue, but it isn't my point. What is a problem for me is trying to understand being surrounded totally by the great United States residential bubble, living in the comfort of wide suburban streets, manicured shopping centers, and well-heeled, sedate institutions, and somehow managing to pretend that you are a super cyberspy on the run from a global conspiracy. If the matter was confined to Alex Jones himself, it would only be a curiosity. But the average believer of Alex Jones' special type of propaganda probably comes from a neighborhood similar to his (if less well-heeled). The percentage of Americans living in towns like Lincoln is very small, perhaps 1 or 2% of the population. The average listener of Alex Jones probably lives in a suburb where he drives his too-big car to work every day in an office, tells his kids to study hard to get into a good college, keeps track of orthodontist appointments, worries about the price of gas, gets nagged at by his wife because he forgot to mow the lawn, and likes to get a pint of Ben and Jerry's on Friday night as a guilty pleasure. And at the same time believes that there is an international conspiracy to stop his freedom of expression and that he needs to stockpile guns for the coming Mad Max style apocalypse, which on some level they think they can get through without staining their dockers or missing tee time.
The phrase cognitive dissonance is well known, and perhaps overused. I do not know if there is a phrase for this, "environmental dissonance", where the difference between a person's thoughts and attitudes about the world (That it is a hostile, foreign and mysterious environment) comes into such contrast with how they actually live their life: in a happy bubble of well-manicured suburban office parks, cloned chain retail outlets and polite desk jobs.
Right now I am sitting in my apartment two blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Santiago de Chile, an environment that is some mixture of bewildering and familiar to me. Adjusting to this new environment of old buildings and crowded modern subways and immigrants and street vendors selling cell phone covers and dozens of other things have made me look back at the geography of my own country, of the urban centers and boring suburbs and isolated towns I've lived in, and it has made me realize the situation that I grew up in was never as normal as it seemed, and that the past year, and the mainstreaming of paranoia as a middle-class hobby, has made the social geography of my country just as puzzling as its odd mental turns.