NewCo Shift
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NewCo Shift

Barlow’s Turn of Phrase

JPB was a conjurer, a convener, a cipher and an empath

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Barlow died this week and since hearing of it, 24 hours ago, I’ve struggled with what to do. Then I got a note this morning from the fellow managing his “BarlowFriendz” email list, informing thousands of us of Barlow’s death. Of course, most of us already knew, but getting a missive from that listserv was like a bolt from the grave — I half expected a post-mortem manifesto from the man, and god knows our world needs one. Instead it was a sad and perfunctory announcement of his passing from the fellow JPB had entrusted to manage his email list.

But you know how you think you’ve gotten over someone, but then something reminds you of how deep that person is entangled with your own sense of self, and you fall apart? Seeing a note from BarlowFriendz was like that for me. I realized a few things: First, I hadn’t gotten a note from Barlow in a while, I knew he’d been sick, but most of the news I had heard was pretty good, all things considered (he called his situation late in life “medical incarceration.”) He had taken on the American way of death, and so far, he seemed to be winning. Till now. Second, I realized how much I loved his occasional missives, filled as they were with Cassady-like calls to action (Dancemobs! BarlowFrenzys! Bikemobs!) and lucid outbursts of pure poetry. And third, I wondered if we’d lose all that wonderful prose (we won’t, I’m assured).

Conjured from pure ASCII and links, BarlowFriendz was a mainline into Barlow’s headspace, always with the same opening caveat, always with peripatetic list of where the man would be in “meatspace” at any given time, always with a link or two and a perfectly chosen quote at the end. More often than not they were a call to action, and that action usually involved parties, but parties with a purpose. Wherever JPB would show up, well, that was an occasion for revelry, and I attended as many as I could —they’d blossom overnight in places like Marin County, or New York, or LA — or Australia, France, Asia. The saddest one was at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, California just a year and a half ago, where pals celebrated his life at a benefit to pay for his medical bills.

I read all of Barlow’s notes, because Barlow fascinated me, and because I felt lucky to be be included in his circle of friends. Along with Louis Rossetto and Kevin Kelly, I was Barlow’s editor for five years — from the start of Wired through 1997. I had no business being anyone’s editor, young as I was, though I bent to the work with enthusiasm. Barlow’s words were frustrating as hell to wrestle to the ground, they refused to conform to standard rules of logic. Hell, the guy’s email signature was “John Perry Barlow, Cognitive Dissident.” As Kevin Kelly so aptly noted, Barlow lived in duality, in contradictions, though he kept one value pure: He was an unmitigated, intentional optimist.

So I asked Barlow’s friend and archivist if I could read through his listserv and remember the man through his words. I also re-read his writings at Wired, you can too, right here.

Here are some of my favorite Barlowisms from early writings on the BarlowFriendz listserv…

A prescient, immediate and urgent warning about overreacting to 9/11:

> Within a few hours, we will see beginning the most vigorous efforts
> to end what remains of freedom in America. Those of who are willing
> to sacrifice a little - largely illusory - safety in order to
> maintain our faith in the original ideals of America will have to
> fight for those ideals just as vigorously.
...> Don't let the terrorists or (their natural allies) the fascists win.
> Remember that the goal of terrorism is to create increasingly
> paralytic totalitarianism in the government it attacks. Don't give
> them the satisfaction.
>
> Fear nothing. Live free.
>
> And, please, let us try to forgive those who have committed these
> appalling crimes. If we hate them, we will become them.

Writing in 2004 about the resurgence of cocaine in the New York scene:

I was in a club the other night that was full as a tick with beautiful-looking people pharmaceutically disabled from beholding one another's beauty.
...cocaine is a Republican drug. It makes its users self-obsessed, aggressive, and greedy. It plays hell with one's sense
of consequence. It's generally preferred by people who have more
money than humanity.

Barlow called the Bush administration’s approach to narcotics enforcement “The War on Some Drugs.” He had an astounding gift for turning a phrase. Well, of course he did, he wrote the lyrics for many of the Dead’s most beautiful songs. But for us early Internet folk, it was sweet validation to have such a bard amongst us. How could we be on the wrong path if Barlow was a fellow traveler?

Barlow loved parties, and Barlow’s friends loved that he loved parties. Here he is talking about one he organized in LA at a friend’s house (with all of one week’s notice):

More to the point, she has a place in Playa del Rey which, aside from  being a bit out of the way, is a perfect zone for a BarlowFrenzy. It  has plenty of parking, easy-going neighbors, a huge courtyard where the smokers can work on their suicides, and many little nooks and crannies for conversation or whatever.
...

As usual, the party is on you. We're not going to feed you, get you
drunk, or get you high. That you'll each have to attend to in your
own special way. Also, just to be nice, you might want to bring
enough of whatever you're drinking and eating to provide for a friend or two. BarlowFrenzies are one of those gift economies you've been hearing so much about.

In a note urging his friends to join him in a dance mob protest at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York:

One thrown bottle could result in days of riveting television, during which Bush would have plenty of opportunity to pretend,convincingly to some, that he was Gary Cooper.

Barlow was about as political as they come. A life long Republican, he broke with his party about the time Bush #2 was elected. His musings on our nation’s failings were epic, and extremely predictive:

Right here, right now, somewhere over the Atlantic, I'm having a 
moment of clarity. I realize the obvious. I realize that, along with
a lot of other people, I have fallen prey to the peculiar American
frailty which has given us so many bad presidents. I refer to our
national tendency to treat presidential elections as though we were
all high-schoolers choosing a Prom King.

Indeed. Here he warns of building trends that have only blossomed since he wrote this 14 years ago:

We got a legion of too-smart-by-half Stepford husbands with flags on 
their lapels, fire in their eyes, and God on their side. We got
pharmaceutical companies designing our health care systems, the
prison-industrial complex designing our sentencing schedules, Exxon
and Enron designing energy policy, Halliburton and the Carlyle Group
and the Center for the New American Century designing foreign policy, Louisiana-Pacific designing forestry policy, and Con-Agra designing agricultural policy. We got the super-rich and multinationals designing tax policy to their personal benefit, creationists designing school curricula, fundamentalists designing scientific research agenda.

On the Iraq war, and a conversation he had with an ex CIA agent (he was always talking to spooks) on the subject:

When I'd run all this down to the mercenary, he still liked his plan 
better. It was cleaner. But he liked mine better than any of the
alternatives he'd heard. It was ironic, as things usually seem these
days. The mercenary and the peacenik agreed on retreat, while the two presidential candidates are too enraptured either by God or good
intentions to do anything but stagger on toward what seemed to us to
be certain catastrophe.

On the political divide in 2004 after Bush’s second victory (achingly familiar…):

At the very least, I need to take the other side seriously. 
Dismissing them as a bunch of homophobic, racist, Bible-waving,
know-nothing troglodytes, however true that may be of a few, only
authorizes them to return the favor. I don't want somebody calling me a dope-smoking, fag-loving, one-worlder weirdo, however true that
might be. We are all masks that God wears, whatever God that is. We
might try to treat one another with according reverence. At least we
might try to listen as though the other side might have a point.I
truly think we all owe one another an apology.
...This will be a tricky four years. In addition to a sense of humor, which should have plenty of dark meat to feast on, we will need cunning, courage, clarity, and, as I say, forgiveness. We will need understanding, perspective, and something that also seems in ready supply at the moment, humility.

And, since victory is to the patient, we will need patience.

But I've been engaged in this stand-off between the 50's and 60's all my adult life. Finally, I see how much we need each other. I hope we all come to see that and give one another a break.

On being pulled off a flight for allegedly bringing drugs onboard:

On the counter lay small quantities of marijuana (for which I have a physician's recommendation), mushrooms, and ketamine that had allegedly been encountered in my suitcase. That the total volume of this prize was significantly more compact than the amount of high explosive necessary to endanger an aircraft, and indeed, insufficient to merit a felony charge on any count, didn't matter to them. They clearly regarded me as a threat to public safety. When I pointed out to the officials that they only had authority to search for threats to the aircraft, one of them, a bug-eyed, crew-cutted troglodyte, declared that, if I had taken any of these substances, then I would have endangered Flight 310. That such an obviously ungifted person was capable of so imaginative a conceptual leap remains a marvel to me.

And again:

Only through  such solitary struggles as this one can we preserve the dreams of Jefferson and Madison through this period of panicked expediency. On September 11, 2001 I sent out a spam to my mailing list in which I warned that "the control freaks will be dining out on this day for the rest of our lives."

I mean to deny them at least one small course in that terrible meal.

Sigh. There’s so much of it. So very much. He called the first decade of this century “The Uh-Ohs.” Marvelous!

This is a weird decade, these Uh-oh's. Shit has 
been happening with a frequency that makes it no
less unpredictable. But, as Winston Churchill
once said, there is nothing so exhilarating as
being shot at and missed. That particular
adrenalin jolt is no less vivid for its increase.
We're halfway through this thrilling stretch of
time. We're going to make it, I think, though I
obviously don't speak for many of the wretched
souls of the Indian Ocean Rim.

On not writing for a while, then writing an impossibly long missive:

You, Dear Ones, worried about me in my virtual absence and I'm 
touched by that. I received many concerned e-mails from folks who
figured that only a severe stroke, spiraling alcoholism, or Trappist
vows could have shut me so completely up. But I'm alright, pretty
much. I've always been something of a psychic canary in the cosmic
coal mine - and thus particularly susceptible to invisible turbulence - and I'm telling you one thing about the present: Surf's up!

and as he began to ponder his own mortality….

For awhile, I've felt  post-digeratum. Now, increasingly, I no longer  feel post-anything. I feel pre-something else. As I say, I've been here before. This is not the first time I've had to cross these turbulent wastes of unknowing (which, I suspect, are where much wisdom lies.) This is not the first time I've waited for the 
mysterious orders that would define my next lifetime within a
lifetime, nor is it the first time they've seemed a bit long in
coming.

There’s just so much. God I miss him already and I grieve for the time I should have spent in his presence. I wasn’t a close friend of his. But he always treated me like I was. I’m going to stop here, keep reading, and invite you to do the same.

RIP, JPB.

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John Battelle

John Battelle

A Founder of The Recount, NewCo, Federated Media, sovrn Holdings, Web 2 Summit, Wired, Industry Standard; writer on Media, Technology, Culture, Business