What If We’re Wrong?: An Animated Video Challenges Our Most Deeply Held Beliefs–With the Help of a Ludwig Wittgenstein Thought Experiment

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked us to imagine a rope stretched around the earth at the equator (and imagine the earth as a perfect sphere). Were we to add one more yard to the rope, then stretch it out taut again, would anyone be able to notice the difference? Most of us will intuit that it couldn’t possibly be so, a yard would disappear in the immensity of the Earth’s circumference.

Some geometry and algebra show, in fact, that the rope would hover about 6 inches off the ground, becoming a hazardous tripwire spanning the globe. The video above from the Center for Public Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz begins with this odd thought experiment and ends with a call to action: to apply more skepticism to our political positions.




If we can be so wrong about a problem with a mathematical proof, we’re asked, “how should an open-minded honest person regard her own certainty in areas where there are often no proofs, like politics, philosophy, ethics, or aesthetics? Maybe we should be a lot less confident in our beliefs. After all, we might be wrong more than we realize.” Maybe so. But it seems there’s some slippery use of terminology here.

In any case, the short video is not, we should point out, a representation of Wittgenstein’s thought, only a riff on his imagining a rope around the world. What did Wittgenstein himself have to say about skepticism and certainty? It's complicated. Attempting to characterize his thought in brief might be an impossible task. He can seem like a highly contradictory thinker, refuting the ideas in his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, for example.

But perhaps it is more so the case—as A.C. Grayling writes of another posthumously published Wittgenstein collection, On Certainty—that the stages of the enigmatic thinker’s career were each “a collection of provisional notes, recording a journey not an arrival.” He had begun in the Tractatus by considering philosophy “a spurious enterprise.” Most famously, Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," sweeping away with one lofty gesture all metaphysics and abstract speculation.

In On Certainty, he appears to finally accept philosophy’s “legitimacy.” Any conflict with his earlier positions does not trouble him at all. Wittgenstein attempts to refute skepticism, returning to the image of a “world picture” that recurs again and again in his work, building his case with aphorisms like “I have a world picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting.” Drawing on the foundationalism of G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein deploys rhetoric that sounds downright fundamentalist:

If I say 'we assume that the earth has existed for many years past' (or something similar), then of course it sounds strange that we should assume such a thing. But in the entire system of our language-games it belongs to the foundations. The assumption, one might say, forms the basis of action, and therefore, naturally, of thought.

Isn't the question this: 'What if you had to change your opinion even on these most fundamental things?' And to that the answer seems to me to be: 'You don't have to change. That is just what their being "fundamental" is.'

This does not sound like a person likely to ever change their mind about what one might call their “strongly-held beliefs." Wittgenstein constructs another view at the very same time. His second argument “is not comfortably consistent with—perhaps, indeed, undermines” the first. While defending certainty, he argues for “relativism… the view that truth and knowledge are not absolute or invariable, but dependent upon viewpoint, circumstances or historical conditions.”

Our thoughts about the world, or our "world-picture,” writes Wittgenstein, “might be part of a kind of mythology…. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift.” Our beliefs change as the “language-game” changes. We put on new discursive clothing, contingent on our present circumstances. “The difficulty,” writes the philosopher, with almost a hint of sympathy, “is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.”

Neither of these positions—that we are justified in believing “fundamental,” self-evident propositions because they’re fundamental; or that we change our beliefs because of a change in relative “language-games”—fit neatly with the idea that we should try to be less certain and more open to changing our minds. Nor is any reference in Wittgenstein likely to help resolve our political disagreements.

We may find it a comfort, or a deeply unsettling proposition, that certain beliefs might be anchored more deeply than proof or skepticism can reach. Or as Wittgenstein put it: “And now if I were to say ‘It is my unshakeable conviction that etc.,’ this means in the present case too that I have not consciously arrived at the conviction by following a particular line of thought, but that it is anchored in all my questions and answers, so anchored that I cannot touch it.” Yet, perhaps it is the case that we share more of these convictions than we know.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

When Boris Pasternak Won–and Then the Soviets Forced Him to Decline–the Nobel Prize (1958)

Behind the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature, there are stories upon stories, some as juicy as those in the work of winners like William Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez—and some just as devastating to the parties involved. Last year’s award was postponed after sexual assault allegations lead to several members to resigning. (There will be two prizes awarded for 2019.) The charges needed to be aired, but if you’re looking for details about how the secretive committee selects the nominees and winners, you’ll have to wait a while.

“The Swedish Academy keeps all information about nominations and selections for the prestigious award secret for 50 years,” writes Allison Flood at The Guardian. Newly unsealed documents from the Academy have shone light on Jean-Paul Sartre’s rejection of the prize in 1964, and the shunning of Samuel Beckett in 1968 by committee chairman Anders Österling, who found his work too nihilistic (Beckett won the following year), and of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita Österling declared “immoral.”




Perhaps the saddest of Nobel stories has taken on even more vivid detail, not only through newly opened files of the Nobel Prize committee, but also recently declassified CIA documents that show how the agency used Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago as a propaganda tool (handing out hasty re-translations into Russian to Soviet visitors at the World’s Fair). In October 1958, the author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He had, as The Guardian reported in October of that year, intended to “accept it in person in Stockholm next month.” He may have had little reason to think he could not do so.

Despite his role as a perpetual thorn in the side of the Soviet government, and their attempts to suppress his work and refusal to allow Doctor Zhivago to be published, the repressive regime mostly gave Pasternak his relative freedom, even after the novel was smuggled abroad, translated, and released to an international readership. Whether or not the Nobel committee chose him as an anti-Communist statement, as some have alleged, made no difference to his reputation around the world as a penetrating realist in the great Russian novelistic tradition.

The award might have been perceived as a validation of Russian letters, but the Soviets saw it as a threat. They had “raged” against Doctor Zhivago and its "anti-Marxist" passages, “but that only increased its popularity,” writes Ben Panko at Smithsonian. Pasternak had already been “repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize” and the “worldwide buzz around his new book pushed him to the top of the list in 1958.” Upon learning of the win, he sent a telegram to the committee that read, in part, “Thankful, glad, proud, confused.”

Days later, as The Guardian wrote, Pasternak decided to decline the award “without having consulted even his friends.” He sent a short telegram to the Swedish Academy reading:

Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure. - Pasternak.

The author’s “decision” was not as abrupt as it might have seemed. In the days after his win, a storm raged, as he put it. Even before the declassified trove of information, readers around the world could follow the story, “which had more twists and turns than a Cold War-era spy novel,” Tina Jordan writes at The New York Times. It played out in the papers “with one front-page story after another.” Pasternak angered the Soviets by expressing his “delight” at winning the prize in an interview. He was denounced in Soviet newspapers, called by a Pravda editor a “malevolent Philistine” and “libeler,” and his book described as “low-grade reactionary hackwork.”

Pasternak faced exile in the days after he gave up the prize and issued a forced public apology in Pravda on November 6. The Academy held the ceremony in his absence and placed his award in trust “in case he may some day have a chance to accept them,” the Times reported. Pasternak had hoped to be reinstated to the Soviet Writer’s Union, which had expelled him, and had hoped that his novel would be published in his own country and language in his lifetime.

Neither of these things occurred. The events surrounding the Nobel broke him. His health began to fail and he died two years later in 1960. Pasternak’s son Yevgeny describes in moving detail seeing his father the night after he turned down the Nobel. “I couldn’t recognize my father when I saw him that evening. Pale, lifeless face, tired painful eyes, and only speaking about the same thing: ‘Now it all doesn’t matter, I declined the Prize.’” Doctor Zhivago was published in the Soviet Union in 1988. “The following year,” notes Panko, “Yevgeny was allowed to go to Oslo and retrieve his father’s denied prize.”

Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? That could include  Doctor Zhivago. Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

When American Financiers and Business Leaders Plotted to Overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and Install a Fascist Government in the U.S. (1933)

Economist and columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote about a current nominee for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors who called cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland “armpits of America” to laughs from an audience of business leaders. This same nominee has made headlines for saying “capitalism is a lot more important than democracy” and calling the 16th Amendment establishing the income tax the “most evil” law passed in the 20th century.

As crude as the comments are, many wealthy people who make decisions of consequence in the U.S. do not seem like “big believers in democracy,” as the nominee put it. It’s messy and inconvenient for those who would prefer not to answer to an elected government. The same attitudes were shared by right-wing bankers, business leaders, and conservative politicians during the worst economic crisis the country has seen.

Despite the failure of laissez-faire financial capitalism after the crash of 1929, financiers, economists, and politicians refused to admit their principles might have been very badly flawed. But in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected, “the economy was staggering, unemployment was rampant and a banking crisis threatened the entire monetary system,” writes NPR, in a description of the Great Depression that reads as drily understated.

Still, Roosevelt’s election went too far for his opponents (and not far enough for progressives to his left). West Virginia Republican Senator Henry Hatfield wrote to a colleague, in a series of evergreen expressions, characterizing FDR’s historic First Hundred Days as “despotism”:

This is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.

Wall Street agreed, except for all that stuff about the Constitution and the welfare of the ordinary American.

In what became known as the “Business Plot” (or the “Wall Street Putsch”)—a group of bankers and business leaders allegedly created a conspiracy to overthrow the president and install a dictator friendly to their interests. The conspirators included investment banker and future Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. Bush), bond salesman Gerald MacGuire, and Bill Doyle commander of the Massachusetts American Legion.

The plot was famously exposed by Major General Smedley D. Butler, who testified under oath about his knowledge of a plan to form an organization of 500,000 veterans who could take over the functions of government, as you can see Butler himself say in the 1935 newsreel footage above. The members of the Business Plot believed Butler would lead this irregular force in a coup. He had previously been “an influential figure in the so-called Bonus Army,” writes Matt Davis at Big Think, “a group of 43,000 marchers—among them many World War I veterans—who were camped at Washington to demand the early payment of the veteran’s bonus promised to them.”

Butler’s willingness to challenge the government did not make him sympathetic to a coup. He heard the conspirators out, then turned them in. But his allegations were immediately dismissed by The New York Times, who wrote that the story was a “gigantic hoax,” “perfect moonshine!,” “a fantasy,” and “a publicity stunt.” A congressional investigation corroborated Smedley’s claims, to an extent. The conspirators may have had weapons, violent intent, and millions of dollars. But no one was ever prosecuted. Many, like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, waved the coup attempt away as “a cocktail putsch.”

The same attitudes that let the conspirators suffer no consequences, and let them go on to serve in high office, also seemed to drive their way of thinking. Roosevelt could be brought to see reason, they believed. Since his class interests aligned with theirs, he would see that fascism best served those interests. Sally Denton, investigative reporter and author of a book about the multiple plots against FDR (The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right), explains in an interview with All Things Considered:

They thought that they could convince Roosevelt, because he was of their, the patrician class, they thought that they could convince Roosevelt to relinquish power to basically a fascist, military-type government.

What MacGuire proposed was more corporatist than militarist in appearance, at least, notes Davis. The President could remain as a figurehead, but “the real power of the government would be held in the hands of a Secretary of General Affairs, who would be in effect a dictator," but whose job description, as MacGuire put it, was “a sort of super secretary.”

As for Butler, not only did he call the plot treason, but he also came to feel considerable regret for his service as “a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers,” as he later wrote in his essay “War is a Racket,” published in the socialist magazine Common Sense. “I was a racketeer,” he confessed, “a gangster for capitalism.” In exposing the plot, he decided to side with the flawed, but functional democracy of our own country over the will of capitalists bent on holding power by any means.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Does “Machiavellian” Really Mean?: An Animated Lesson

The word Machiavellian has come to invariably refer to an “unscrupulous schemer for whom the ends justify the means,” notes the animated TED-Ed video above, a description of characters “we love to hate” in fiction past and present. The adjective has even become enshrined in psychological literature as one third of the “dark triad” that also features narcissism and psychopathy, personalities often mistaken for the Machiavellian type.

The term's “lasting notoriety comes from a brief political essay known as The Prince," written by Renaissance Italian writer and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli and "framed as advice to current and future monarchs." The Prince and its author have acquired such a fearsome reputation that they seem to stand alone, like the work of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who likewise lent their names to the psychology of power. But Machiavelli's book is part of “an entire tradition of works known as ‘mirrors for princes’ going back to antiquity.”




Machiavelli innovated on the tradition by casting fuzzy abstractions like justice and virtuousness aside to focus solely on virtù, the classical Italian word derived from the Latin virtus (manhood), which had little to do with ethics and everything to do with strength, bravery, and other warlike traits. Though thinkers in the tradition of Aristotle argued for centuries that civic and moral virtue may be synonymous, for Machiavelli they most certainly were not, it seems. “Throughout [The Prince] Machiavelli appears entirely unconcerned with morality except insofar as it’s helpful or harmful to maintaining power.”

The work became infamous after its author’s death. Catholics and Protestants both blamed Machiavelli for the others' excesses during the bloody European religious wars. Shakespeare coined Machiavel “to denote an amoral opportunist.” The line to contemporary usage is more or less direct. But is The Prince really “a manual for tyranny”? The book, after all, recommends committing atrocities of all kinds, oppressing minorities, and generally terrifying the populace as a means of quelling dissent. Keeping up the appearance of benevolence might smooth things over, Machiavelli advises, unless it doesn’t. Then the ruler must do whatever it takes. The guiding principle here is that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Was Machiavelli an “unsentimental realist”? A Renaissance Kissinger, so to speak, who saw the greater good in political hegemony no matter what the cost? Or was he a neo-classical philosopher hearkening back to antiquity? He “never seems to have considered himself a philosopher,” writes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—“indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point.” Or at least he seemed to have rejected the Christian-influenced humanism of his day. Nonetheless, “Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy,” not least because “philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas.”

Of the many who engaged with Machiavelli, Isaiah Berlin saw him as reclaiming ancient Greek values of the state over the individual. But there’s more to the story, and it includes Machiavelli’s political biography as a defender of republican government and a political prisoner of those who overthrew it. On one reading, The Prince becomes a “scathing description” of how power actually operates behind its various masks; a guide not for princes but for ordinary citizens to grasp the ruler's actions for what they are truly designed to do: maintain power, purely for its own sake, by any means necessary.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

It’s Official: The “Nones”– People Who Profess No Religion–Are Now as Big as Catholics & Evangelicals in the United States

The usual irregularities and shenanigans notwithstanding, the voting patterns of the U.S. electorate may undergo a sea change in the coming decades as the numbers of people who identify as non-religious continue to rise. One of the biggest demographic stories of the last few decades, the rise of the “nones” has been interpreted as a threat and as an inevitable reckoning for corrupt and scandal-ridden institutions driving millions of people out of churches across the country.

Politics and social issues are hardly the only reasons, though they poll second in list from a 2017 Pew survey. At number one is “I question a lot of religious teachings," at number three, the slightly more vague “I don’t like religious organizations.” It's maybe a surprise that nonbelief in God appears all the way at number four. Which speaks to an important point.




Not all of those exiting the pews have renounced their faith or converted to another, but huge numbers have joined the ranks of those who claim “no religion” in survey and polling data. Their numbers are now equivalent to Catholics and evangelicals, the two religious groups most in decline behind mainline Protestant churches. Political scientist Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University is not surprised. “It’s been a constant steady increase for 20 years now,” he says, pointing to data from a General Social Survey visualized in the graph above.

The last decade has seen the sharpest upturn yet, with "nones" now estimated at 23.1 percent of the population. If this rise—and subsequent plateaus and declines in the major religious groups surveyed (and the batch of non-Judeo-Christian “Other Faith”s dismissively lumped together)—continues, the shift could be dramatic. In 2014, 78% of the unaffiliated, according to Pew polling, were raised in and walked away from a religion. The shift in identity among young people tends to correlate with a shift in politics.

The "rising tide of religiously unaffiliated voters," writes Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service, is "a group that a 2016 PRRI analysis found skews young and liberal." It's one that might offset the oversized influence of white evangelicals, who now make up 26% of the electorate and 22.5% of the population.

Any such conclusions should be drawn with several caveats. “Evangelicals punch way above their weight,” says Burge. “They turn out a bunch at the ballot box. That’s largely a function of the fact that they’re white and they’re old.” And, he might have added, many are in less economically precarious straits than their children and grandchildren, more susceptible to mass media messaging, and less prone, by design, to finding their vote suppressed. A 2016 PRRI report noted that “religiously unaffiliated Americans do not vote in the same percentages as evangelicals, and are often underrepresented at the polls.”

Additionally, and most importantly to point out any time these numbers come up: “the nones” is an entirely overdetermined category full of people who agree on little, but they're not signing up for any church committees any time soon for a handful of loosely-related reasons. If herding atheists, only one part of this group, is like herding cats, trying to corral 23% of the population without any shared creed or specific ideology is corralling an even less predictable menagerie. We need to know far more about what people affirm, as well as what they deny, if we want a clearer picture of where the country’s politics—if not its government or policies—might be headed.

via Kottke

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Does Democracy Demand the Tolerance of the Intolerant? Karl Popper’s Paradox

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Does Democracy Demand the Tolerance of the Intolerant? Karl Popper’s Paradox

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In the past few years, when far-right nationalists are banned from social media, violent extremists face boycotts, or institutions refuse to give a platform to racists, a faux-outraged moan has gone up: “So much for the tolerant left!” “So much for liberal tolerance!” The complaint became so hackneyed it turned into an already-hackneyed meme. It’s a wonder anyone thinks this line has any rhetorical force. The equation of tolerance with acquiescence, passivity, or a total lack of boundaries is a reductio ad absurdum that denudes the word of meaning. One can only laugh at unserious characterizations that do such violence to reason.

The concept of toleration has a long and complicated history in moral and political philosophy precisely because of the many problems that arise when the word is used without critical context. In some absurd, 21st century usages, tolerance is even conflated with acceptance, approval, and love. But it has historically meant the opposite—noninterference with something one dislikes or despises. Such noninterference must have limits. As Goethe wrote in 1829, “tolerance should be a temporary attitude only; it must lead to recognition. To tolerate means to insult." Tolerance by nature exists in a state of social tension.




According to virtually every conception of liberal democracy, a free and open society requires tense debate and verbal conflict. Society, the argument goes, is only strengthened by the oft-contentious interplay of differing, even intolerant, points of view. So, when do such views approach the limits of toleration? One of the most well-known paradoxes of tolerance was outlined by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Popper was a non-religious Jew who witnessed the rise of Nazism in the 20s in his hometown of Vienna and fled to England, then in 1937, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was appointed lecturer at Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury). There, he wrote The Open Society, where the famous passage appears in a footnote:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

This last sentence has “been printed on thousands of bumper stickers and fridge magnets,” writes Will Harvie at Stuff. The quote might become almost as ubiquitous as Voltaire’s line about “defending to the death” the right of free speech (words actually penned by English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall). Popper saw how fascism cynically exploited liberal toleration to gain a foothold and incite persecution, violent attacks, and eventually genocide. As he writes in his autobiography, he had seen how "competing parties of the Right were outbidding each other in their hostility towards the Jews.”

Popper’s formulation has been been used across the political spectrum, and sometimes applied in arguments against civil protections for some religious sects who hold intolerant views—a category that includes practitioners of nearly every major faith. But this is misleading. The line for Popper is not the mere existence of exclusionary or intolerant beliefs or philosophies, however reactionary or contemptible, but the open incitement to persecution and violence against others, which should be treated as criminal, he argued, and suppressed, “if necessary," he continues in the footnote, "even by force" if public disapproval is not enough.

By this line of reasoning, vigorous resistance to those who call for and enact racial violence and ethnic cleansing is a necessary defense of a tolerant society. Ignoring or allowing such acts to continue in the name of tolerance leads to the nightmare events Popper escaped in Europe, or to the horrific mass killings at two mosques in Christchurch this month that deliberately echoed Nazi atrocities. There are too many such echoes, from mass murders at synagogues to concentration camps for kidnapped children, all surrounded by an echo chamber of wildly unchecked incitement by state and non-state actors alike.

Popper recognized the inevitability and healthy necessity of social conflict, but he also affirmed the values of cooperation and mutual recognition, without which a liberal democracy cannot survive. Since the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies, his paradox of tolerance has weathered decades of criticism and revision. As John Horgan wrote in an introduction to a 1992 interview with the thinker, two years before his death, “an old joke about Popper” retitles the book “The Open Society by One of its Enemies.”

With less than good humor, critics have derided Popper’s liberalism as dogmatic and itself a fascist ideology that inevitably tends to intolerance against minorities. Question about who gets to decide which views should be suppressed and how are not easy to answer. Popper liked to say he welcomed the criticism, but he refused to tolerate views that reject reason, fact, and argument in order to incite and perpetrate violence and persecution. It’s difficult to imagine any democratic society surviving for long if it decides that, while maybe objectionable, such tolerance is tolerable. The question, “these days,” writes Harvie, is “can a tolerant society survive the internet?”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

William S. Burroughs’ Manifesto for Overthrowing a Corrupt Government with Fake News and Other Prophetic Methods: It’s Now Published for the First Time

The Boy Scouts of America have faced some deserved criticism, undeserved ridicule, and have been cruelly used as props, but I think it’s safe to say that they still bear a pretty wholesome image for a majority of Americans. That was probably no less the case and perhaps a good deal more so in 1969, but the end of the sixties was not by any stretch a simpler time. It was a period, writes Scott McLemee, “when the My Lai Massacre, the Manson Family and the Weather Underground were all in the news.” The Zodiac Killer was on the loose, a general air of bleakness prevailed.

William S. Burroughs responded to this madness with a counter-madness of his own in "The Revised Boy Scout Manual," “an impassioned yet sometimes incoherent rebuke to ossified political ideologies,” writes Kirkus. We can presume Burroughs meant his instructions for overthrowing corrupt governments to satirically comment on the outdoorsy status quo youth cult. But we can also see the manual taking as its starting point certain values the Scouts champion, at their best: obsessive attention to detail, MacGyver-like ingenuity, and good old American self-reliance.

Want to bring down the government? You can do it yourself… with fake news.




Boing Boing quotes a long passage from the book that shows Burroughs as a comprehensive, if not quite wholesome, Scout advisor, describing how one might use mass media’s methods to disrupt its message, and to transmit messages of your own. We might think he is foreseeing, even recommending, techniques we now see used to a no-longer-shocking degree.

You have an advantage which your opposing player does not have. He must conceal his manipulations. You are under no such necessity. In fact you can advertise the fact that you are writing news in advance and trying to make it happen by techniques which anybody can use.

And that makes you NEWS. And a TV personality as well, if you play it right. 

You construct fake news broadcasts on video camera... And you scramble your fabricated news in with actual news broadcasts.

We might read in Burroughs’ instructions the methods of YouTube propagandists, social media manipulators, and some of the most powerful people in the world. Burroughs does not recommend taking over the media apparatus by seizing its power, but rather using technology to make “cutup video tapes” and ham radio broadcasts featuring documentary media spliced together with fabrications. These “techniques could swamp the mass media with total illusion,” he writes. “It will be seen that the falsifications in syllabic Western languages are in point of fact actual virus mechanisms.”

Burroughs is not simply writing a reference for making fearmongering propaganda. Even when it comes to the subject of fear, he sometimes sounds as if he is revising Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory for his own similarly violent times. “Let us say the message is fear. For this we take all the past fear shots of the subject we can collect or evoke. We cut these in with fear words and pictures, with threats, etc. This is all acted out and would be upsetting enough in any case. Now let’s try it scrambled and see if we get an even stronger effect.”

What would this effect be? One “comparable to post-hypnotic suggestion”? Who is the audience, and would they be, a la Clockwork Orange, a captive one? Did Burroughs see people on street corners screening their cut-up videos, despite the fact that consumer-level video technology did not yet exist? Is this a cinematic experiment, mass media-age occult ritual, compendium of practical magic for insider media adepts?

See what you can make of Burroughs’ "The Revised Boy Scout Manual" (subtitled “an electronic revolution”). The book has been reissued by the Ohio State Press, with an afterword (read it here) by V. Vale, publisher of the legendary, radical magazine RE/Search, who excerpted a part of the “Revised Manual” in the early 1980s and planned to publish it in full before “a personal relationship blowup” put an end to the project.

McLemee titles his review of Burrough’s rediscovered manifesto “Distant Early Warning,” and much of it does indeed sound eerily prophetic. But we should also bear in mind the book is itself a countercultural pastiche, designed to scramble minds for reasons only Burroughs truly knew. He was a “practicing Scientologist at the time” of the book’s composition, “albeit not for much longer,” and he does prescribe use of the e-meter and makes scattered references to L. Ron Hubbard. But as a practitioner of his own precepts, Burroughs would not have written a monograph uncritically promoting one belief system or another. (Well, maybe just the once.) He also quotes Hassan-I Sabbah, discusses Mayan hieroglyphics, and talks General Semantics.

"The Revised Boy Scout Manual" “has elements of libertarian manifesto, paramilitary handbook, revenge fantasy and dark satire,” McLemee writes, “and wherever the line between fiction and nonfiction may be, it’s never clear for long.” In this, Burroughs only scrambles elements already in abundance at the end of the sixties and in the early seventies, during which he revised and recorded the work several times as he transitioned himself out of an organization that maintained total control through mass media. Like Marshall McLuhan, Noam Chomsky and others, he was beginning to see this phenomenon everywhere he looked. Burroughs' most lasting influence may be that, like the late-60s Situationists, he devised a cunning and effective way to turn mass media in on itself, one with perhaps more sinister implications.

via Boing Boing

Related Content:

How William S. Burroughs Embraced, Then Rejected Scientology, Forcing L. Ron Hubbard to Come to Its Defense (1959-1970)

How William S. Burroughs Used the Cut-Up Technique to Shut Down London’s First Espresso Bar (1972)

When William S. Burroughs Appeared on Saturday Night Live: His First TV Appearance (1981)

5 Animations Introduce the Media Theory of Noam Chomsky, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stuart Hall

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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