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Writer Jon Ronson wants to find out where 'things fell apart' with our culture wars

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There's a famous line of poetry by William Butler Yeats that reads, things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Well, the writer Jon Ronson called his new podcast "Things Fell Apart" because in each episode, he goes back in time to a starting point in the culture wars, from abortion to critical race theory.


JON RONSON: I was curious to learn how things fell apart, and so I went back in history to find the origin stories, the pebbles thrown in the pond creating the ripples.

SHAPIRO: Take the episode about books in schools. Ronson introduces us to a church minister's wife in West Virginia named Alice Moore. In the 1970s, she noticed that new titles were being added to school reading lists.

RONSON: When Alice found out about this new curriculum, she demanded that she would read every single book.


ALICE MOORE: I had all 325 books delivered to my house, and I started reading them.

SHAPIRO: There's this great moment in the episode where you talk with her about a poem that she found offensive, and then you tracked down the man who wrote the poem.

RONSON: Right. One of the passages that she would cite a lot back then was this poem, which she said was unambiguously terrible.


MOORE: The page says, every day, people started making love on the bus. And the world has still not come to an end, but in a way, it has.

RONSON: But as she was reading the poem to me, I started to think, I've got a feeling this poet feels the same way she does about spontaneous orgies breaking out on buses. And I said that to her, and she said, of course not. You know, that's not true. And I tracked down the poet, Roger McGough.


ROGER MCGOUGH: The end of the poem is saying, well, you can't really just give way to your feelings without consequences, really. So it's a moral tale, really, for me.

RONSON: So that last line really is you and Alice agreeing.

MCGOUGH: Well, yeah, yeah, very much so.

SHAPIRO: What did Alice say when you brought that information back to her?

RONSON: Well, she was very charming about it and said, I must thank Roger McGough 50 years later for helping me bring the message of how terrible licentious behavior is (laughter) to the people of West Virginia. But, of course, what's really interesting is that Alice didn't really care about the intention.

SHAPIRO: She is such a compelling character. She's delightful to listen to. She has this kind of infectious laugh. And also, her views are what some would consider to be extreme.


MOORE: Well, the Bible says there are angels in heaven, and there is not a book in existence today that can be more firmly relied upon than the Bible.

SHAPIRO: Did you find yourself liking this woman in spite, perhaps, of what she represented?

RONSON: Oh, she's very charming. And, you know, my - I was telling somebody yesterday - my base level is liking people. It's kind of a good baseline to be curious as opposed to prejudging somebody.

SHAPIRO: At one point, you refer to the bleak world of the unambiguous, which struck me because most of these fights seem so deeply entrenched in the world of black and white. It's surprising how you managed to find so much nuance and color, even - especially in the characters at the heart of these debates.

RONSON: Yeah, absolutely. People are complicated with gray areas. We're a mess. And I think that's a very positive way of telling stories - to remember that human beings are a complicated mess.

SHAPIRO: There's one episode that is an outlier in this series because it's less a story of conflict and more a story of reaching across battle lines in the culture wars. The televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker had a man named Steve Pieters on her show, and he was living with AIDS.


TAMMY FAYE BAKKER: Have you found this to be true that people want to stay away and they're afraid to come up to you in the same room or breathe the same air you breathe?

STEVE PIETERS: Yes, Tammy. That happens. I was asked not to use the bathroom in one person's home. I remember going to a party once where every time I finished my soft drink, the host...

SHAPIRO: So if we're identifying the pebbles that create ripples, these were really positive ripples. Why did you want to include this story in the series?

RONSON: This turned out to be the - maybe the standout episode. I've had so many messages from people who told me that they were listening in their car and they had to stop their car because they were crying so hard listening to the story. This is a story about connection. It's about warring factions, the Christian right and AIDS activists in the 1980s, coming together and listening to each other. And the result was wonderful. That - the ripples of that interview are just extraordinary in terms of bringing together those two factions at a time when Tammy Faye's peer group like Jerry Falwell were convincing Ronald Reagan to not say the word AIDS, which he didn't for four years.

SHAPIRO: I was familiar with this Tammy Faye Bakker interview, but I did not realize that Steve Pieters survived and, in fact, outlived her. It was incredible to hear him speaking about this today.


PIETERS: In the following few months after the interview, I got very, very sick once again. I went blind, and I wasted away to nothing. I was just a skeleton with skin. And everybody thought once again that I was dying. And she had sent me this album that was called "Don't Give Up (On The Brink Of A Miracle)" with the song, (singing) don't give up - on the brink of a miracle.

RONSON: Steve Pieters is maybe the most extraordinary person I've interviewed in 35 years of being a journalist. It's a miracle that he went on this TV show, and the two of them were so brilliant that they did so much good. They connected so much. You know, after the interview ended, somebody phoned the studio and said that her son had AIDS. And she always thought that her son was going to go to hell, but now she knew that her son was going to go to heaven when he died.

So that was the impact in the evangelical world that this interview had. And unbelievably, Steve is still alive and doing fantastically well. He sings in the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus. He's incredibly ebullient, just exudes light and goodness. And so it's a miracle on top of a miracle, this story.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This podcast focuses on how culture wars start. In your research, did you gain any insight into how they end?

RONSON: Well, the Tammy Faye-Steve Pieters story is a beautiful example of that. I mean, one could argue that in the West, given how gay marriage is legal in however many countries - 28, 30 countries - that war has pretty much been decisively won, at least in the West. And it was things like Steve Pieters going on Tammy's show, showing the human face, showing that you can be a Christian and be gay, showing that AIDS - people with AIDS didn't need to be feared.

Tammy was crying and saying to Steve, if I could put my arm around you and hug you - because this was done over satellite, this interview - I would. And isn't it terrible that as Christians we're scared of putting our arms around people and telling them that we care? So wars end when people connect and listen to each other and are curious about each other instead of instantly judgmental and people care.

SHAPIRO: Jon Ronson's new podcast for the BBC is called "Things Fell Apart." It's been so good to talk with you about it. Thank you.

RONSON: Oh, it's been a joy. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN SONG, "TIWAYYEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.