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Don’t Call Me Ishmael!

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My Brush with an Environmental Ideologue

Cover - Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

On September 1, 2010, a private citizen named James Jay Lee walked into the Discovery Channel office building in Silver Spring, MD, and held three people hostage at gunpoint for four hours, until he was shot to death by police.  Reports say that he had had many previous contacts with the company, and had been arrested for causing a disruption during a protest in 2008.

Further reports describe the gunman as being heavily influenced by Al Gore’s documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the “Ishmael” series of books by Daniel Quinn.  The following describes an encounter by letter the present writer had with Daniel Quinn in 1999.

The ad was for a “Researcher” — an unnamed Houston-area author looking for someone to provide research material for an upcoming work. Answering the ad, I received a reply from the author identifying himself and explaining his purpose.

I had only casually heard mention of Daniel Quinn, associated with his most famous book, Ishmael. Doing some research of my own on the Internet, I discovered that Quinn has a cult following of people enthused by the environmentalist ideas illustrated in his novels.

Ishmael is a surrealistic story of a man who is taken in tutelage by a large ape of great age, named Ishmael. Communicating with the man telepathically, Ishmael teaches the man all that mankind has done wrong through the ages, and how they must change in order to survive the coming crises of overpopulation. Men are of two types, he says:  (1) Takers, who use capitalism and the Biblical concept of “subduing the earth” as a justification for the rape of nature; and (2) Leavers, who honor nature and operate within its rhythms, taking only what they need.

By most accounts, Ishmael is a bad novel, with an unlikely plot (a Socratic dialogue, really), cardboard characters, mind-numbing repetitiveness, and according to Kirkus Reviews (1991), “wild generalities and smug self-assurance.” However, with certain readers his ideas appear to strike a chord, producing a mind-changing revelation — hence the cult following. Moreover, Ted Turner granted Quinn a half-million-dollar prize for the book, apparently over strong objections from Turner’s panel of judges.

Another of Quinn’s novels, The Story of B, is said to be his best, in a literary sense. A fictional Catholic order, pledged to uncover the Antichrist, sends a member to investigate a guru-type known as “B.” The investigator, jaded by religion himself, listens to B’s environmental teachings and is converted. Quinn’s point:   “religions based on animism versus those based on salvation” (Booklist, 1996). Animism (worship of nature) is friendlier to the environment that Judeo-Christianity, it would seem.

A former postulant under Thomas Merton in the Trappist Order, Quinn “details his rejection of organized religion and his personal rediscovery of what he says is humankind’s first and only universal religion” (review) in his memoir, Providence.

A reader writes of The Story of B, “What can I say about a book that single handedly renders every major world religion impotent . . . . The author also outlines how, when and where western culture developed its catastrophic method of ‘subduing’ the earth and its inhabitants” (

Quinn has done all this without actually offering documentation for his assertions. Instead, he has used the novel form to illustrate his ideas — an approach that is unfortunately commonplace in both entertainment and politics these days — changing minds through feelings, not facts. His new work, according to the classified ad, is an attempt to “prove” his assertions about western culture, using quotations from influential historical figures.

© 1999, 2010 Paul A. Hughes. Originally published in Pneumatikos INSIGHT newsletter, July 1999, archived at

From Daniel Quinn’s Web site:

“For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation.”


Written by biblequestion

September 2, 2010 at 4:12 PM

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