Friday A/V Club

Karl Hess: From Republican Speechwriter to New Left Radical to Libertarian Homesteader

Friday A/V Club: Daniel Tucker discusses his documentary Local Control: Karl Hess in the World of Ideas—and we also screen the movie itself.


Karl Hess was a journalist, activist, speechwriter, and welder whose work managed to foreshadow both the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street, sometimes simultaneously. As he grew disillusioned with even the militant forms of politics and started putting more faith in the idea of popular access to tools, he also foreshadowed the age of makerspaces and the internet. Forty years ago, a short documentary about him—Karl Hess: Toward Liberty—won an Academy Award. Now he is the subject of another movie, Daniel Tucker's hour-long Local Control: Karl Hess in the World of Ideas.

Hess's career began in the 1940s, when the teenaged high-school dropout lied about his age to get an entry-level journalism job in Washington, D.C. He soon found himself not just rising in the ranks of the reporting world—he was an editor at Newsweek back when that meant something—but joining the grungy edges of the 1950s anti-Communist movement. (Among other activities, he helped run guns to a non-Marxist group of rebels in Batista-era Cuba.) By the early 1960s, he had a hand in both the respectable side of the right (he helped compose two GOP platforms and wrote speeches for Richard Nixon) and the less respectable parts (he wrote speeches for Joseph McCarthy too). He played a central role in Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964, among other things composing the first draft of the address that declared "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice"—though that particular line was penned by someone else.

And then, in the aftermath of the Goldwater campaign, Hess turned sharply against the Vietnam War. He decided that the individualist spirit that originally drew him to the right was found in more plentiful supply in the counterculture and the New Left. He declared himself an anarchist, condemned corporate hierarchies, joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Industrial Workers of the World, and started ghostwriting for the Black Panthers instead of Barry Goldwater. Or maybe I should say he wrote for the Panthers as well as for Goldwater. In the midst of this left turn, Goldwater hired Hess again during his Senate campaign in 1968, which is how America's leading conservative came to give a speech that declared he had "much in common with the anarchist wing of SDS."

At the peak of his New Left period, the man who once had worked with Joe McCarthy was praising a platform published by the Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam. In 1972, when Benjamin Spock ran for president on a radical third-party ticket, Hess was his shadow secretary of education—which helps explain why a party challenging George McGovern from the left had a platform that opposed compulsory schooling and endorsed vouchers.

As Hess's revolutionary ardor faded, his countercultural tendencies did not. He became deeply interested in Whole Earth Catalog–style ideas about appropriate technology and empowering everyday people with access to tools. He got involved in an elaborate experiment—in some ways very practical-minded, in some ways utopian—to make D.C.'s Adams-Morgan neighborhood a self-sufficient district that grows tomatoes on its roofs and raises fish in vast indoor tanks. (He discussed that effort in his 1979 book Community Technology.) He then moved to West Virginia, where he became a homesteader and something of a survivalist.

In his final decade and a half—he died in 1994—Hess remained a fan of greenish human-scale technologies but also became enthusiastic about the new world of home computers and cyberspace. His politics drifted back toward free-market libertarianism, though he maintained his interest in worker-run enterprises and in ecology. (His ecological interests went back decades: Even in the '50s, alongside his anti-Communist activities, he wrote about the environmental damage done by big dam projects.) By this point, Hess had developed a deep-seated distrust for abstract ideologies. The first step toward establishing a better world, he argued, was to be a good neighbor.

That just scratches the surface of a wild life, which also included a parallel career as a welder, an attempt to live by barter after the Internal Revenue Service imposed a 100 percent lien on his earnings, and a mid-'60s Ayn Rand phase. It's impossible to cover the whole story in a 60-minute documentary, and Tucker wisely takes a different approach. The movie is impressionistic, kaleidoscopic, and never entirely linear; it circles Hess's life, follows several strands of his influence, and never pretends to be a simple story wrapped up with a bow.

Tucker, 36, teaches at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Local Control is his second feature-length film, following 2015's Future Perfect: Time Capsules in Reagan Country. His Hess documentary made its debut at Chicago's Nightingale Cinema in November 2018; it can now be seen for free online, and I've embedded it below. After that, scroll down to read a conversation I had with Tucker in early March.

Jesse Walker: How did you first learn about Karl Hess?

Daniel Tucker: I was a teenager in the '90s, I was wandering the stacks at the Louisville Free Public Library, and I came across a book called Community Technology that had a picture of a fish and a brick building on the cover. I had no idea who wrote it. I instantly devoured it and found it very curious and interesting. And then I just stored it in the back of my mind.

(Harper & Row)

I went on to do a fair amount of work related to urban agriculture in Chicago, and I wrote a book in 2010 called Farm Together Now that documented activist farmers across the U.S. In the aftermath, I started thinking about some of the kinds of ideological expressions that I was encountering while interviewing farmers across the country. I wanted to dig into the impulse towards localism and self-sufficiency. So I just kind of casually went on the web and came across a book called Neighborhood Power. I saw there's this person named Karl Hess who co-authored this and he worked on the Goldwater campaign. And I thought, "That's so strange. This is such a surprising turn to encounter with this author."

So I did a little digging around and found out, "Oh, that was the guy who wrote the book that I read in high school." And so then I started to piece that together. I was compelled to think of Community Technology as a prehistory to today's urban agriculture movement.

Walker: When did you realize you wanted to make a film about him?

Tucker: Around 2011. Initially, I was having a hard time tracking down material. I didn't want to use too much of the material that had been used in the previous short film that was made in 1980 about him. I reached out to Therese Hess, Karl Hess's widow, and it turned out coincidentally that she was living just three hours north of me. I was living in Chicago at the time, and she was living in southwestern Wisconsin.

She replied very quickly and said, "Hey, why don't you get out here? Karl Jr. is here for the weekend and we'd love to meet you." So I head up there right away, have a great initial connection with them. Do a little bit of shooting, but nothing too in-depth. At that point, she invites me back to basically go through her entire archive of material. And at the same time, Karl Jr. says, "Next week in L.A. I'm going to be speaking at the 200th meeting of the Karl Hess Supper Club." And so I just charge my credit card and hop on a plane and go out there and shoot.

There was great fun in just catching these waves and following these threads. For the first year, it was all in that spirit: me following up on opportunities and seeing where they led. And then I had to step back and say, "What kind of project is this? How am I going to shape this?"

Walker: I felt like we were having a bit of a Karl Hess moment around the time you were starting work on the film, when the Occupy and Tea Party movements were both going strong and in a few places were even meeting to see if there were ways they could work together. This period we're in now feels different to me.

Tucker: It can seem right now that there is a collision taking place on the ideological spectrum, which might have manifested initially in movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. I think that Hess's story helps us to track some of those collisions through to the Trump era, where a much broader range of ideas is on the table and a much more diverse range of people are going to pick them up. But then there is a question of what has not changed—the fundamental impulses towards control over one's intimate surroundings amidst a more complex society. I think that Hess offered me a way to explore that impulse, but with a nod towards a more inclusive coalition.

Walker: On the right, the impulse right now is more nationalist than localist. On the left, there's this move away from Occupy anarchism and toward Bernie Sanders social democracy. What do you think this film speaks to in the current moment of ideological crossovers?

Tucker: A lot of it for me has to do with people's pathways. For instance, does an interest in local food become a pathway to nationalism? Or does it become a pathway into an engagement with other kinds of local issues, either political or ecological? Where does an impulse toward trans rights, which is something that is explored as a thread in the video, lead people to land politically? Of course, there's no simple answer to that—there are gender-nonconforming people that find themselves across the political spectrum—but the person that is tracked in the course of the project [a trans YouTuber named Candi Rose] at the end of the video ends up saying, "Look, there's really nowhere for me to land but on the left."

Walker: She seemed to be in the film partly as someone who was directly influenced by reading Hess's books, but also as someone going through a transition of her own—obviously very different from the sorts of transitions that Hess went through, but it felt resonant.

Tucker: Yeah, absolutely. The transitions that she went through are not the ones that Hess went through. But I think there's a way in which the scale of the body, and one's ability to control one's own body and one's own sense of self, is bound up on a more macro level with a lot of the affiliations that Hess had throughout his career.

Walker: Hess sometimes played up the ways he changed his mind over the years, and sometimes he played up the ways his core values stayed the same. Did he strike you ultimately as a man in transition or as an essentially consistent figure who kept finding himself in different contexts?

Tucker: He changed some of his rhetoric over time, but at the end of the day his primary commitments, to individualism and self-sufficiency and local control, were consistent with many of his outward positions throughout, regardless of who he was affiliated with.

My more critical read is that the narrative of exploration and meandering was often more of a self-practiced narrative. And one that had probably more benefit to Hess himself than anyone else. I think that's why a lot of the organizations that he professed to have a deep investment in, like SDS or the Black Panther Party—at the end of the day, he's not seen as some kind of ideological leader or godfather in the same way that he is by the libertarians. But he gained a lot of legitimacy as a bridge-builder through the crafting of that narrative.

That said, he did do it. He did interact with people. He did create more experimental forums and spaces. And he showed up at other people's activities and participated in them. So it's not a falsehood.

His story tells us so much about how our affiliations matter. Who you spend time with, who you give money to, has implications for your interests and ideology and how you're read over time. And not just organizational affiliation. Some of it just has to do with social life. Something I gleaned from spending time with people that knew Hess was that regardless of his affiliations, which sometimes were unknown to people who he was spending time with, he had a deep investment in open and improvisatory social relations. He found friendships with people, and those friendships had an impact on him.

Walker: Was there a phase of his career that was more appealing to you than the others?

Tucker: Community Technology was certainly the point of entry. Then I think the next phase that had a strong interest for me—and is not unrelated to that period—is when he was living in West Virginia, because it seemed like he was able to connect really directly in a service capacity to his neighbors through the literacy program that Therese was deeply involved with. I think that, combined with his really tactile engagement of making things as a welder and a woodworker, was another period that was of interest to me. It's related to the fact that I have an art background, but from my perspective, there is something about having a material engagement with making things that can be a very clear expression, a simple and transparent expression, of one's ideas and preferences and commitments.

Walker: Is there anything in particular that you hated to see hit the cutting room floor?

Tucker: One thing that was particularly difficult was a moment in which someone read a Karl Hess essay at an Occupy protest, and using the open microphone method where everyone repeats what you say. It was great content, but at a certain point I realized there was so much work that would need to go in to contextualize that that I just couldn't hold it in.

Walker: Which essay was it?

Tucker: I could look it up and confirm this for sure, but I want to say that it was that "What Are The Specifics?" essay, which is what then I invited [leftist writer] Raj Patel and [conservative writer] Charles Murray to read in the film itself. I invited almost everyone else to read it as well, but I just ended up using the two of them doing it.

Walker: Could you tell me a bit about your background as a filmmaker?

Tucker: This is my second film. I've made a couple of shorts too.

I started working on this project around 2011 but didn't finish it until 2018. One of the reasons I didn't finish it was that I made another feature-length video essay in the middle of that period, Future Perfect: Time Capsules in Reagan Country. And that was really something that I stumbled across while working on this project. I was trying to get a better context for Goldwater, and I came across this Reagan moment that happened on the stage with Goldwater in '64. Then I just followed the tangent and stumbled across this Reagan video from the primary that he lost to Gerald Ford, where he talks about writing a letter for a time capsule. And that completely derailed my other project, because I got very excited about the possibility that this time capsule might exist, and that became what that project was about. Part of the reason that it took a long time to finish Local Control was that Future Perfect emerged in the middle of it.

I'm looking to do probably a third one in this series that I think will have to do with conflict resolution. And it also is in dialogue with Hess. There's a reference in his autobiography to the idea of "little wars"—that he is not interested in big wars but little wars. And I felt like that resonated a lot with some of the questions that are emerging around community justice, whether those are manifested more on the left end of the spectrum, related to restorative justice that doesn't involve police, or on another end of the spectrum, activities engaged with prepper culture.

That Little Wars project has not begun in terms of video production, but I've done a little bit of writing of the theme of it with a collaborator named Rosten Woo.

Walker: One last question. What do you think of the other Karl Hess documentary?

Tucker: I really liked the other Karl Hess documentary. Partially because I feel like it relieved me of having to do some of that work that they did, because they did it effectively. It was a great resource for me to just know, "OK, I don't have to do all of this. I can have my focus be elsewhere."