The Media Today

Q&A: John Kaag on American ‘wildness’ and what the Blood family says about the country’s founding

July 3, 2024
British troops fire on Minute Men at the Battle of Lexington. Source: Library of Congress.

On the day that John Kaag, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, moved into his home in Concord, he found a privately published genealogy of the Blood family hidden behind the fireplace. The Bloods were a prominent early American family with a reputation for wildness. Members fought in the British Civil War and stole the English crown jewels; they helped found the colonies but preferred to live outside colony limits (and laws) on what was then the “frontier”; they refused to pay taxes, enslaved people, and displaced and murdered their Indigenous neighbors. One Blood, Thaddeus, fought at Lexington and Concord in 1775. Sixty years later, Thaddeus was the last living militiaman from the battles. Ralph Waldo Emerson interviewed him and enshrined that act of rebellion—accurately or idyllically—as a catalyst of American independence. Blood’s description of the events inspired “the shot heard round the world.” 

Kaag, it turned out, had moved in to Thaddeus Blood’s former home. Kaag’s studies had already introduced him to Perez and Benjamin Blood—who were close friends of the philosophers Henry David Thoreau and William James, respectively—but he had not realized the full extent of the family’s presence through American history. Kaag understands that history to be steeped in the tension between the robust, wild independence cherished as a core tenet of America’s identity and the violence perpetrated by its people. He thought that by telling part of the Bloods’ story, he could investigate the romantic notion of “wildness,” he told me recently, and “show that trespassing, settling, and occupying all coalesced in the American experience.” His resulting book, American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation, came out in May.

Efforts to understand—rather than blindly celebrate—the foundations of the American experiment are not universally valued this Independence Day. State lawmakers are restricting how American history is taught in classrooms; books have been banned in 153 districts across 33 states. The US has always been obsessed with its founding, and nostalgia for a lost notion of America is not new either. (See the acronym: MAGA.) This election year, the tension between fighting for freedom and being wary as to how it’s achieved feels particularly relevant.

Late last month, I spoke with Kaag about how the media can put the news in a philosophical context, whether American ideals are actually conceits, and the “fallacy of salience”—the idea that, often, what is right in front of us is not the most important story. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo credit ©Douglas Merriam John Kaag

KL: Were the Bloods’ connections to philosophers your primary inspiration for writing the book? 

JK: My work in philosophy revealed that Benjamin Blood introduced William James to nitrous oxide and psychedelic trips, and that Perez Blood was this wild recluse out in the woods of Massachusetts where Thoreau would go and find out that “wildness” is the preservation of the world. [Benjamin and Perez Blood] already represented a strain of American freedom and American wildness that’s very dangerous in certain ways—out of the ordinary, and iconoclastic—but also very promising. That characteristic of American wildness was what led me into the book. 

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It turns out that the Bloods represent the two-faced character of America: freedom on the one side—promising—but on the other side, deadly: trespassing and criminal. What I was looking for in these stories of the American Bloods was a picture of the United States and the formation of our own country. I didn’t have to look very far to find a mixture of criminality, iconoclasm, and a rhetoric of freedom and liberty, all mixed together in quintessentially American ways.

Do you think that “wildness” is an ideal or do you think it’s a conceit? 

When it comes to American wildness, the most iconic of the Bloods is Thaddeus Blood—the onetime owner of my house—who was the last living survivor of the Concord fight that we celebrate [as the start of] the American Revolution. The Fourth of July is coming up, and it wouldn’t be unusual to hear “The Concord Hymn” recited at celebrations; it’s this famous poem that Emerson wrote that commemorates the Concord fight, where he cites “the shot heard round the world.” That shot was documented by Thaddeus Blood; Blood’s account gave Emerson the inspiration to write it. If you go back and look carefully at Emerson’s accounts, we see that Thaddeus is very clear that there were no fife and drum that day at the fight—the Americans were scared. In fact, Americans weren’t even Americans—they were British subjects who didn’t want to fight or fire on their fellow Britons. What you see is Emerson being very sensitive about the fact that there was ambivalence at the outset of the revolution because it was an act of trespass, an act of transgression. There was no celebration at that point—it was just a lot of uncertainty. What happens in the years that follow is that our powers of mythology obscure the very human origins of political freedom, which are frightening, tenuous, oftentimes morally questionable. Thaddeus said to Emerson that “the truth of that fight will never be known.” When we look at it now, thinking about our celebrations, we don’t have that sense of mystery anymore. Instead, we just gloss everything over as American freedom-fighting. That nuance and ambivalence around the American experience is necessary. History is not full of exemplars. History is full of fallible, fragile, really messed up people. 

You write about how American ideals fail to apply for all Americans and how often they are used for violence. What advice do you have for the media when they’re assessing real-time examples of ideals not matching actions? 

Stay as close as you can to the actual events and the historical and cultural context in which certain rhetorical moves are made, and be as descriptive as you can be about the circumstances and how they might not jibe with the ideals that are being propounded. That’s one of the keys to really effective narrative nonfiction, history, and journalism: being clear, letting the description carry as much weight as the rhetoric, and allowing the description to show that the rhetoric might be incredibly empty, ironic, or hypocritical. What really good journalists do is they show how the narrative or the mythology or the rhetoric stands apart from the actual consequences of real, flesh-and-blood action. 

You write about a distinction between the freedom from and the freedom to. Can you explain that distinction? 

The distinction is between what Isaiah Berlin once described as “negative liberty” and “positive liberty.” Negative liberty is a freedom from constraint, like “don’t tread on me.” It’s a don’t impinge on my property, don’t impinge on my rights sort of move—the New Hampshire “live free or die” spirit. In common parlance, that’s what freedom in the United States oftentimes has amounted to. What has been lost is this notion of positive liberty, which tries to come to terms with a freedom to act in particular ways. We often take that for granted because we think, Oh, a freedom to participate in government or freedom to vote; that’s a form of positive liberty. But for many Americans through the course of our history, positive liberty was a real issue; suffrage was not a foregone conclusion for large parts of the population. The opportunity to hold office, to hold property, to be in charge of your reproductive health, or to assemble are all forms of positive liberty. For many people who have positive liberty, negative liberty becomes all they’re really concerned about—Don’t touch my property, don’t touch my bank account, don’t tax me too much, leave me alone—whereas positive liberty is still incredibly important for individuals who want to author their own lives, to govern their own healthcare, or to have the opportunity to engage in creative pursuits. It’s asking a more nuanced question about what our society should provide to its members so that they can explore possibilities, opportunities that were hitherto not available to them. A really interesting question for us today, that the media could take up in a more active fashion, is this notion of positive liberty. 

The media like to refer to themselves as the writers of the first draft of history. How can we, as drafters, identify and clarify philosophical approaches in the day-to-day work of reporting? 

When we’re doing interviews, we often ask about events and the immediate motivations. We don’t ask what are the intellectual, ideological, creative, or artistic backgrounds of these individuals, of these movers and shakers of history—what they’re listening to, what they’re reading, what they’re watching, [their] intellectual pastimes. We talk about intellectual history being this thing of the past, but the fact of the matter is that intellectual history is always present. We’re always embodying ideas and ideologies and frameworks—even if we don’t realize it. Slowing down enough to ask the sort of deep background questions about a subject’s intellectual history is really important. It also gives you a bit of a break. I was just interviewed by a reporter, and he took the time to simply ask, What are you reading today? What do you like to listen to? It creates this space where you get to entertain that we’re not driven by what is most immediate. 

We often confuse what is most important with what is immediate, but this is really a fallacy of salience. What you think about is what’s right in front of you, maybe, but it’s almost a sure thing that what’s in front of you is not what’s most important. Think about the way in which deep histories are not in front of our face at all; they’re varied. These subterranean forces of ideology, national mythology, or habitual inertia are what’s really important. 

What general advice for the media do you have as a philosophy professor? 

Nietzsche says, “We must have the courage for forbidden questions.” We oftentimes think we’re asking forbidden questions when we’re just reciting what everyone else thinks are our forbidden questions. If you’re not really scared, you’re not asking forbidden questions. My students say to me, I can’t even think of forbidden questions. Well, there’s a reason for that—there’s a gag order on…even voicing them to ourselves. Trying to figure out what our sacred cows are and going after them in a real way is both the obligation but also the true triumph of journalism. Being the gadfly, like Socrates was in ancient Athens, seems to be a very meaningful role that the media can play today for our slumbering culture. 

You end the book with the notion of “ever not quite.” Can you explain that? Do you think that idea is still important? 

“Ever not quite” is Benjamin Blood’s expression from a book called The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy. It was the first account of a psychedelic trip in the United States, and the description of “ever not quite” is a real characteristic of human experience—that our lives, until we die, are ever not quite. They are not completed, never fully finished, [there is] always a bit of a residual or remainder that is yet to be discovered, explored, or understood. We want everything to have closure. We forget—both on a very personal but also on a societal level—that the notion of an imperfect union is a gesture to the fact that it is open-ended; that is up to us to participate. It’s up to us to form or shape: we can risk things; we explore it both at our own reward, but also at our own peril. And we can really mess this thing up. Let’s think about our lives, let’s think about the stories that we tell, think about the debates we participate in as ever not quite

Other notable stories:

  • Also yesterday, Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan published a damning profile digging into the background of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the third-party presidential candidate; Hagan reports, among other things, that Kennedy allegedly sexually assaulted a babysitter in the nineties, that he was “fast and loose with the facts” as an environmental lawyer, and that he once posed for a photo with a barbecued dog. In an interview with Sagaar Enjeti later in the day, Kennedy did not directly deny the sexual assault allegation—“I’m not a church boy,” he said; “I have so many skeletons in my closet that if they could all vote, I could run for king of the world”—but he did accuse Vanity Fair of “recycling thirty-year-old stories” and claim that the barbecued animal he posed with was a goat.
  • For The Diplomat, a magazine that covers the Asia-Pacific region, Ali Ahmad Safi interviewed Ayesha Jehangir, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, about a new book in which she makes the case that Pakistan’s media is at “war” with refugees from neighboring Afghanistan. Refugees are portrayed as “enemies of the state, a security threat, burden, or in other stereotypical ways,” Jehangir said. “This situation began in the late 1990s but intensified when Afghan refugees were used as collateral in Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in their ‘war on terror.’… Since then, Afghan refugees have been dragged into someone else’s war and politics.”
  • And Mastodon, the open-source platform that has often been described as a decentralized alternative to X (formerly Twitter), began appending separate bylines to linked articles, allowing users to easily click through to the author’s account in the “fediverse” (a constellation of open-source Web services that CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote about earlier this year). The new feature, Sarah Perez writes for TechCrunch, could encourage more journalists to use Mastodon with the promise of exposure.

Finally, a programming note: we’ll be off tomorrow and Friday for the July 4 holiday. Have a great long weekend. See you Monday.

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Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.