Archive for Books

Counter Culture Interview with Blake Nelson

blakenelsonwithpatrickharrington

Patrick Harrington with Blake Nelson in Edinburgh

Blake Nelson, an American author of adult and young people’s literature, grew up in Portland, Oregon, USA and continues to live in the area. He attended Wesleyan and New York University. Nelson began his career writing short humor pieces for Details magazine in the mid-’90s. These articles, with titles including “How to Date a Feminist” and “How to Live on $3600 a year”, explored the slacker West Coast lifestyle. He has authored many acclaimed novels; the first novel GIRL, was serialized in SASSY magazine and since published in eight foreign countries, before being made into a film starring Selma Blaire and Portia De Rossi. His 2011 novel Recovery Road was adapted by Disney into a TV drama of the same name, premiering on January 2016 on ABC Family. Paranoid Park, a book about skateboarders in Portland, won the prestigious International Grinzane Literary Award (Italy) and was made into a film by Gus Van Sant, which won a special 60th Anniversary prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. The film featured a few of Portland’s old school skate punk legends including Chester and Jay Smay. Blake’s “The Prince of Venice Beach” was short-listed for the 2015 Edgar Award.

Nelson’s latest adult novel The Red Pill (2019) describes how a liberal advertising exec is slowly sucked into alt-right circles after accepting dating advice from his truck driving brother-in-law, Rob.

On a visit to Edinburgh Blake kindly gave an interview to Counter Culture Editor, Patrick Harrington.

 

Counter Culture: First let me thank you Blake for giving Counter Culture this interview. Can I begin by asking you what does the title of your book The Red Pill mean?

Blake Nelson: To become “red pilled” means to be awoken to the true reality around you. It came from The Matrix movie and then it passed into popular culture and it’s very popular with young men on the manosphere and nowadays in political circles. In terms of dating, to be ‘red-pilled’ is to understand that meeting women is kind of a brutal animalistic situation, as opposed to the normie sanitized version of it, where the man is courteous and respectful and the woman is coy and demure. Once you’ve been red pilled you understand that women like bad boys, and jerks, and guys with status or fame. All your worst fears are unfortunately true. It’s a painful lesson in reality. But you’re better off understanding how things really work than living in a fantasy world. And then it’s the same in politics. The realities of politics are harsh. But to survive you better be aware of them.

Counter Culture: What made you interested in that theme?

Blake Nelson: I write young adult books and I was interested in how young men were reacting to the current feminization of American society and ideas like toxic masculinity and male privilege and a general atmosphere that is pretty openly anti-male. Like if you’re sixteen, what do you think of all that? Does it affect you in any way? And so, people kept telling me to go on the manosphere, on the internet, that the answers to my questions might be there. And so I did that and at first, I was finding pickup websites. But then I found websites that were more philosophical about the state of the gender conflict. Then I gradually found political websites that eventually led to alt-right territory. So that’s the same Journey that the guy in the book goes through.

Counter Culture: Did you realize that tackling this subject even in the form of a novel would be so controversial?

Blake Nelson: I did think it would be. American media is so radically Left at this point, theredpillany kind of investigation of this type of material would cause problems. So, I knew it’d be controversial. I’ve done things like that before and I felt like I could handle it and I felt like my representation of the country at that particular moment, like 2016, 2017, was measured enough and balanced enough that nobody could really fault me. Nobody could say I was attacking anyone unreasonably. I was just showing what it was like, and hopefully showing both sides of the coin. But I felt like yeah sure, of course, Leftists will freak out. And they did.

Counter Culture: Your book references Powell’s Books, which is something of a Portland institution. Wasn’t there some kind of protest at your book signing there? Tell me about that.

Blake Nelson: Yeah, that was embarrassing for them actually. They did this big protest. Mostly because of the title of the book. None of them read it. But like if all you know about the red pill is “incels” and “alpha males”, then, of course, the feminists are going to have a problem with it. I noticed that for the protesters one of the big things was consent. Several signs mentioned consent. So they were very worried that young men who were being red-pilled were being taught how to rape women. Of course, the red pill idea is trying to teach young guys how to get women to want to have sex with them. Which is consent. So it was funny that they were so off base. Literally none of them read the book. But in the end, the climate in a place like Portland Oregon, which is an insanely progressive city they don’t care what’s in the book. They saw the title and they attacked. They accused me of being a racist, homophobe, transphobic. They handed out flyers. It was amazing. I knew I might be called these things but when you actually get accused of being a racist in public, in a big public situation, at a bookstore that I used to work at, you know, it stung. It feels weird and I wasn’t quite ready for it. It’s like fame, nobody’s ever ready to be famous.

Counter Culture: Or ready to be infamous.

Blake Nelson: No.

Counter Culture: I noticed that one of the reviews on Goodreads was from a staff member at Powell’s Books who had taken the trouble to read the book to see what the fuss was about. She was of the opinion that there wasn’t really anything that bad in the book and it was quite balanced and that people had misunderstood it. Do you think they’ve kind of missed the point of what you were trying to do?

Blake Nelson: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think they miss the point of what anybody on the right is trying to do. They literally can’t imagine any perspective but their own. I met that woman, by the way, the woman who defended me at the bookstore. She said, “I don’t like your politics but I did buy your book and it is totally fine.” She was very nice, and I tried to talk to her more, to thank her for defending me but she just turned and left.

Counter Culture: Do you understand why there’s so much emotion against the whole pick up scene and the red pill philosophy? Not just women but some men in the sense that they see it as highly manipulative and as a way of getting around consent by using language and approaches drawn from psychology to try to manipulate people and get what they want. And that does seem to be part of what’s in the pickup culture. Do you understand? I’m not saying the book is like it, but do you understand to a certain extent the reaction, why people are so emotional about that.

Blake Nelson: Yes, I do. I think that they are right in that it is an attempt to be manipulative. But to me the whole realm of trying to manipulate people with language and sales techniques or subliminal advertising, all that stuff, that’s interesting but I don’t really care. None of that stuff is going to get you a real relationship. But if younger guys want to sit around and talk about good opening lines or whatever, it is their right. That’s what interests me. Why is this little corner of the internet the only place where men can even discuss any of this? What happened to the normal ways that men communicate this information? And why does it have to be this huge secret? Feminism has encroached so much on masculine space that men are forced to do this on the internet and I just feel you know, that feminism has overreached its influence on our society. Young guys, teenagers, should feel comfortable talking about dates and what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, and not have to be embarrassed or guilt-shamed or whatever. Women talk about men and men should be allowed to talk about women.

Counter Culture: Why do you think the codes and language in personal relationships are becoming so politicized? What do you think’s causing that? Why is it happening at this point in time?

Blake Nelson: I grew up out west and when I went to college, I was shocked by the degree to which feminism and liberalism and leftism completely dominated every subject. You couldn’t even take an ancient history class without hearing feminist complaints. If you took an art class. If you took an English class. There was this constant critique by the feminists. And I feel like the university was encouraging it. And the professors. There was a consensus, this is how it’s going to be. I didn’t know why they were doing it. I mean at first, feminism made sense. Like after World War II America was pretty traumatized and people just wanted things to be very normal and conservative and patriarchal. But after about twenty years of that, with the technology advancing and America being so prosperous, things had to change. And so there was a natural women’s liberation movement which was you know, they had the time and money to do other things besides be a homemaker. And there was a natural Civil Rights Movement too. It was time to open up society and let things breath. I think a lot of that stuff was completely legitimate but what happened was those tendencies were promoted to such a degree that thirty years later they’ve been corrupted and they’re dividing the country. They’re pitting men and women against each other to the point of seriously damaging our society. There’s always a natural tension between the genders. Of course, there is, in all societies they have this. But that’s been weaponized to a point that nobody wants to get married. It’s created the low birth rate that’s caused all these other problems. So many single women I know are unhappy. They’ve been told to follow their dreams and get that powerful job. But ninety-five percent of them aren’t going to get that powerful job, and what kind of dream is that anyway? Being a corporate asshole, is better than raising a family? But many believe it. And they do it. And it does not lead them to a good place.

Counter Culture: Obviously there’s a huge market for the pick-up material which shows there’s a need for it in some ways. Do you think that? There’s a lot of confusion going on that ultimately will lead to people discussing the proper power divisions in society between men and women and how men and women can relate to one another and get on. Do you see this as just a temporary period where there’s disruption of the normal?

Blake Nelson: well, first of all, I think that the pickup scene is really a lower level of culture that I don’t consider to be terribly important. It’s like when I was a kid, in the back of the comic book, it showed a cartoon of a skinny kid getting bullied and then he goes home, and lifts weights, and then he beats up the bully. To me, that’s what the pickup scene seems like. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just for people that are at the bottom of the social competence scale. I feel bad for guys who really struggle just talking to girls and I feel like helping them in any way, is a good thing, you want guys like that to someday get it together enough to have a girlfriend, or fall in love, and get to experience those things. But in terms of what’s going on now with feminism, we’re in a really bad spot. I feel like this is a critical mass we’re getting to. A lot of people think that Generation Z will react against this and become very traditional. But what if they don’t, and it just keeps going as it is? You know bad blood between the sexes, no trust, no responsibility, single moms, broken homes, fatherless boys … it’s just not healthy.

Counter Culture: Can I just play Devil’s Advocate here? You reference the 1950s and I’ve had a discussion before with people in America who see the 50s as a golden era because there was economic prosperity but obviously, the 50s for some people were not necessarily that good and you reference also returning to a kind of traditional way of looking at things. Is that what we should be aiming at? Or do you think we should be recognizing that things in the past weren’t always good for everyone, particularly women who had very little control over their finances. Their autonomy was quite limited. Should we be aiming to return to that kind of patriarchal view or should we be both rejecting the interpretations of feminism that are anti-men, but saying we want to create something new? We don’t want to return to the past. We don’t necessarily want what’s being offered now, but we wanna create something that is beyond both.

Blake Nelson: My guess would be that you would eventually end up with some sort of blend. You’d get a new version of traditionalism that would have all sorts of new aspects to it, that maybe we can’t really imagine right now. That’s why it’s good that there’s always a new generation because these kids Generation Z, the Zoomers, I can’t imagine that they could look at my generation and see something that they would want in terms of how they’re going to live their lives. Just the amount of anger and resentment and defiance that permeates things now. And the level that it’s promoted in sitcoms and everywhere in the media. They pound on this in the media: men are oppressing you, men are taking advantage of you. Constantly sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction, nobody should be happy. They never stop. Women have to resist and fight and defy men at every turn. Are young people going to choose that? I hope not. But I guess they will if the media can control them. I do know some people who have resisted it. I know some women who became mothers and they are sometimes the rebels of their social groups. I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college and she’s very talented, and in the publishing world, and she was on the track to be a literary person at the highest levels of that world. But something happened to her, she was sort of miserable for a time and then she ended up having a couple kids and now she is incredibly happy and she doesn’t work very much, if at all, because the kids are still infants, but I’m sure when the time comes that she can go back into that world, if she wants. And I’m sure she will contribute but the idea that she won’t be at the very top because she stopped to have kids. Well, who cares? Why do you have to be at the very top? And what happens at the very top anyway? People stab each other in the back. Let the men do that.

Counter Culture: I’m a union representative. So I’m aware that if for instance, women take a break from their career in order to bring up children it can adversely affect them economically in terms of their pension. It’s difficult to go back in at the same level. Society really doesn’t support women in that way. I’d say that our society doesn’t seem to be geared towards supporting the family unit. I can quite understand why a lot of women will be worried about concentrating on their family under the kind of system that we’ve got.

Blake Nelson: Well that’s why you need marriage. That’s why you need people to trust in the institution of marriage. Right now, we tell women not to trust it. We put it into their minds when they’re in college that they have to be independent, they have to have their own jobs, their own apartments. They graduate and we distract them with all these options, grad school, travel, interning, working at a non-profit. We get them right on that career track. We feed them right into the consumer machine. Then they get into their late twenties, they’re paying those bills, paying off those student loans. And all the while, feminism is telling them they can’t trust men. They’re going to rape you or drug you at the bar, and when you get older they‘ll use you and leave you and they won’t marry you. You’ll end up destitute with your single child. This theme of you can’t trust men is incredibly damaging. Don’t trust your co-workers, don’t trust your boss, don’t trust your own father. It’s the best way to destroy a woman. Make her distrust all the people she will be dependent on for her entire life. And yes, she will be dependent on men. Women are dependent on men for certain things. Just like men are dependent on women to keep their genes going, to bring life into the world, to give them children. That’s how the whole thing works.

Counter Culture: The Martin character, in your book, is difficult to figure out because he seems quite diffident or uncertain. He doesn’t seem to be particularly passionate about his decisions. How far do you think he reflects the sort of strata of men these days? He doesn’t seem to know what he wants.

Blake Nelson: Yeah, I think he’s very typical. As a character, I made that decision early on. This guy believed all the stuff he heard in college. He is trying to be a feminist himself, an ally. Not like to a ridiculous degree, but just how most guys do. He’s a Gen Xer, forty, so he also has a little of that old fashioned chivalry-idea going too. He thinks being a good, decent person will get him, women. Being a solid guy. But those qualities don’t seem to be valued by anyone in present society, least of all women. It’s like nothing he does feels right. It’s like he’s superfluous like women really don’t have any need for him at all.

Counter Culture: Don’t you think with people who are less socially adept, they find it particularly difficult to know what to do? I’ll give you an example. I mean, we had a controversy recently about our prime minister 20 years ago when he was a journalist touching another (female) journalists thigh under the table, and this was big news in Britain Whether it’s true or not, I mean if it is true, it would seem a bit crude and socially inept to take that approach. A lot of people would know whether someone’s interested in them through visual cues and body language, eye contact and so forth. They wouldn’t need to be as crude as to use that approach. People don’t know how to pick up on that sort of thing are at a disadvantage and bewildered, confused and wondering what they did wrong. They’re looking around like Martin trying to understand what it is they should be doing.

Blake Nelson: Yes. Definitely. I think there’s a lot of people like that. On the other hand, once you’re in a relationship a lot of this stuff just goes away. We’re mostly talking about trying to start a relationship and often men really struggle with that. The question is, does the culture help us or hurt us as we try. Because when a culture wants you to be paired up, you most likely will be. And when it wants to keep you apart as ours does, just look at the growing numbers of single people, then it will influence you in that direction too.

Counter Culture: You do get the impression there’s a kind of bitterness on the part of a lot of the people writing and thinking about these issues.

Blake Nelson: I think people are bitter about it. People in my age group. The younger guys talk about stoicism a lot. They worry about the bitterness infecting them. Which makes sense. When I was first reading this manosphere stuff, it really brought home how bad it is for them. What a mess they’ve been born into. When else in history did the society seem so intent on destroying itself? At least at the level of family and relationships. And these young guys, they still want to do the classic male things. They want to meet a girl and start a family and be the provider, the dad, the hero. Which is now considered patriarchal and evil. What I saw was young men saying, “I want to live a good life, just tell me how to do it.” But nobody can tell them because everything is so upside down. Most of these young men want real relationships, and to be of service to their community or society or whatever. This sense of service was really strong. I was so shocked when I started reading this stuff because I have been indoctrinated too. That men are bad, and just want sex and don’t care about anything. That’s how I was during a lot of my younger life. But the guys on the manosphere do care. Here were these young guys saying, “I’m young. I’m full of life. I’m ready to go. But every direction I go in is perceived as bad. I want to do something good. I want to do what I’m supposed to do.”

Counter Culture: I’m surprised that there aren’t more books written for young men by women, books about dating.

Blake Nelson: Well there’s a lot of books like that and they’re really bad and it’s one of the strange phenomenons of the genders that women are not good at putting themselves in the shoes of men while men are often quite good at putting themselves in the place of women. My whole career was based on one book I wrote in the voice of a teenage girl and everybody was so amazed that I could understand a teenage girl, but I contend that men, in general, are very good at imagining life from a women’s perspective, but women seem to have a tin ear when it comes to the opposite. I don’t really know why that is. And when women write books about how men should act during courtship, they always go down the road of respect women, believe women, be kind, be a good listener, while the pickup guys contend that in fact women like assholes overall. And that nice guys finish last. So who knows?

Counter Culture: The book itself deals with a controversial subject. But when I read it I found it more observational than pushing a particular line or telling people what to think. I thought it was just observing the characters and the difficulties the central character is having. The controversy could be beneficial in that it will get people talking about these kinds of issues more. Do you think that by giving interviews and talking about your motives for writing the book you will get a different kind of debate going in certain areas?

Blake Nelson: Normally I don’t go crazy with the publicity. With my other books, I would think of what were the best couple places to publicize the book and do those and that’s it. Even in some of my book contracts, they force you to give them two weeks or four weeks where you will do any publicity they can dig up. With this book, I couldn’t get any publicity anywhere. I have my kind of dependable people that I call up when I have a new book, you know, could you write a little something? But nobody wanted to touch this book.

Counter Culture: People were shying away from the controversy?

Blake Nelson: They don’t want to get involved. They’re afraid. Why risk getting put on a list, or being the person who gave attention to the racist, sexist, homophobic book? It’s been a sad thing to see. This is an industry I’ve been in my whole life. It’s a very grim atmosphere in the United States. This is a novel we’re talking about. It’s not a book about politics. It’s a novel about dating. And it’s funny. But in a way, I understand people hesitating. When I was doing the final drafts, I thought, do I really want to make trouble for myself by doing this? But I felt like I had to do it. It’s my duty as a writer, as a cultural commentator. It’s my job. I made money during the easy times and I had a nice life, now it’s harder times, so what am I going to do, quit?

Counter Culture: After the Trump presidential victory there was a kind of denial on the part of the Democrats as to why they had lost and there didn’t seem to be very deep thinking about that. I see that in a lot of things in American politics. They seem to not want to understand the strengths of the opposition and not want to understand what might attract people to those candidates and what the problems are that those people are trying to answer. In the case of dating, there’s clearly something going on there. There’s a big demand for this kind of advice as people turn to gurus and say, you know, what am I meant to do. There doesn’t seem to be an attempt to understand that except in a dismissive or pejorative way. No one’s really analyzing what’s going on here and are we partly contributing to this or creating this? And so I guess one would hope that a book like this would create debate and that people would move beyond mere condemnation to trying to understand what’s going on.

Blake Nelson: Yeah, but in the United States there’s no effort to understand the other side.

Counter Culture: I suppose I’ll draw hope from that lady at the Bookshop who did actually bother to read the book and make up her own mind. I guess I would hope that there would be more people like her. I mean obviously, it’s a story, it’s a novel. It should be judged by is it a good story or a bad story? Is it interesting? Right? Does it have something to speak to us about? What does it tell us about the times we live in?

Blake Nelson: Yeah, I was trying to do something like that. I’m conservative myself politically, but I’ve spent my whole life in the realm of New York media, which is of course 90% Leftist. So when Trump got elected my Facebook feed which was all these writers and publishing people became a continuous stream of questions about who voted for Trump. Who are these monsters? Where did they come from? How can we stop them? And when I wrote the book I thought this is perfect. There’s this big question that everyone is asking and I have the answer. And I meant this in a sincere way. Who voted for Trump? I can answer that question. Because I grew up in that world, in semi-rural America. I know those people. I am one of those people. And here’s this novel, explaining it in a nice, calm way. No rants.  No diatribes. I’m just going to gently show you how Trump got elected, or how a Trump supporter might be formed. But no it turns out they don’t care about that. They just want Trump gone. And all his supporters erased from the country. Which wouldn’t leave you much of a country.

Counter Culture: If they refuse to even think about it, they might soon be asking the question: how did he get re-elected? Well, thanks very much Blake for that fascinating interview. That’s great.

You can read our review of  The Red Pill here.

Blake Nelson Bibliography

  • Girl, Simon & Schuster, 1994 (reissue 2007,2016)
  • Exile, Scribners, 1997 User, Versus Press, 2001
  • The New Rules of High School, Penguin, 2003
  • Rock Star Superstar, Penguin, 2005
  • Prom Anonymous, Penguin, 2006
  • Gender Blender, Random House, 2006
  • Paranoid Park, Penguin, 2006
  • They Came From Below, Tor Books, 2007
  • Destroy All Cars, Scholastic Books, 2009
  • Recovery Road, Scholastic Books, 2011
  • Dream School (GIRL #2),
  • Figment, 2011
  • The Prince of Venice Beach, Little Brown, 2014
  • The City Wants You Alone (GIRL #3), Amazon Kindle, 2015
  • Boy, Simon & Schuster, 2017
  • Phoebe Will Destroy You, Simon & Schuster, 2018
  • The Red Pill, Bombardier Books, 2019

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The Red Pill

theredpill

A controversial new work from Blake Nelson

Blake Nelson’s latest adult novel The Red Pill (2019) describes how a liberal advertising exec is slowly sucked into alt-right circles after accepting dating advice from his truck driving brother-in-law, Rob. Martin Harris, newly divorced at 40, is an advertising exec with roots in New York. However, hapless Martin has been out of the dating scene for a while and now has trouble meeting women in the current feminist ‘me too’ climate. Martin fumbles about the dating pool and when Tinder fails, he cautiously accepts advice from his Trump-supporting brother-in-law, Rob.  Martin is unconvinced by these ‘go-for-it’ dating strategies, however, he soon finds that his dating life is improving as he starts to utilize the techniques set out by Pick-up Artists in the ‘manosphere.’  Martin thrilled in his new successes, soon finds that Trump’s astounding victory in the elections is putting a damper on his newly found dating successes. The Red Pill addresses the chasm between feminism and the sexual revolution of the past.

Blake also addresses what it means to be ‘Red Pilled’.  Red Pillers prefer the gritty, painful, ugly truth; and a popular theme with this crowd is the idea that men who want sex should “just go for it” set against a world of resistance and ‘me-too’. The red pill sector tends to be more radically right.

So much for Martin’s clumsy attempts at dating. Martin himself is offended by the blogs as he begins to peruse these for dating techniques. The Red Pill term describes a loose group of political activities with extremist leanings that focus on men’s rights, and this is the world Martin stumbles into. This community feels oppressed by the left-liberal society and sees feminism as a myth. Sat at his desk at work, he quickly turns off the computer and clears the browser history, trying to make sure that all offensive material has been erased. Once he is sure it is clear, he feels he can safely leave the room and heads to the loo to wash the stench off. Martin’s social life then gets thrown a spanner in the works due to the recent conflict between Left-liberal feminism and Trump’s America, and it is this conflict that results in his world view becoming no longer sustainable in his own mind.

Martin falls deeper and deeper into the manosphere where he is making gains sexually by employing their techniques for dating and leans ever further toward right-wing views from this predominantly male blogging community. Juxtaposed with this is the radical left-liberal feminism of the young women, he is attempting to connect with, particularly predominant in a place like hipster Portland. Blake balances this dissonance, against the backdrop of the Trump Presidency, which threw a large proportion of the left feminists and other ultra-liberal groups into full panic mode, depression, anger, and shocked disbelief as they stood on the precipice of this disturbing abyss. It is this split that occurs very much down male/female lines, where the majority of women, angrily stand hand in hand, dead set against Trump’s misogynistic worldview.

While Nelson normally writes in the young adult genre, generally locating these stories in or near Portland, a city he is well acquainted with, this book is more focused on adult themes. It perceptively addresses dating in the current socio and political climate in a society that is very divided. This fiction is based on the hostile socio-political world of Trump vs the ‘Woke,’  which Martin is drawn into and affected by, ultimately to his cost.

You can buy The Red Pill here.

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Channel Islands Occupied – Unique Pictures Of The Nazi Rule 1940-1945

Channel Islands Occupied – Unique Pictures Of The Nazi Rule 1940-1945.  Richard Mayne.  Jarrold & Sons Limited, Norwich, Norfolk, England. 1978.  ISBN 978-0711702448 Card cover.  64 pages.  channelislenazirule

I LOVE READING and I also like to support different charities.  I’m able to combine both of these interests by purchasing books at various charity shops. The books are usually in reasonable nick and are a fraction of their original price.  Therefore, when I came across Channel Islands Occupied in a charity shop a while ago, I was more than happy to pay the princely sum of 50p for it.

Compiled, and with a commentary, by Richard Mayne, it relates to the occupation of the Channel Islands – made up of Alderney, Guernsey, Jersey and Sark, and some smaller islands – by National Socialist Germany during WWII.  At 64 pages, it’s not a huge book.  However, I liked its convenient size – it’s roughly the same as a large postcard so you can keep it in a jacket pocket.  My copy also had reasonably thick cardboard cover which wouldn’t bend too easily.

The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by German Armed Forces (around 20,000 troops held the islands) during WWII and this book is absolutely crammed full of evocative photographs of the period.  Reflecting the history and makeup of the islands themselves, all text and captions are in English and French – indeed, the French title of the book is Les Iles Anglo-Normandes Occupées.

The book is dedicated to ‘the memory of the known five hundred and fifty-seven ‘slave’ workers, mainly Russian and Spanish, who died in these islands between 1942 and 1944.’

Richard Mayne sets the scene in his dramatic Introduction:

‘In 1940 Hitler’s legions swept rapidly and violently through France, and on 12 June the swastika, that hated symbol of Nazi Germany, was flown from public buildings in Paris.  With the fall of the rest of France imminent, the German occupation of the Channel Islands also became inevitable. 

There was voluntary evacuation to Britain of the civilian population of the islands and about 34,500 people departed, leaving a population of some 64,000.  In Alderney, the evacuation was so thorough that only 7 people remained out of a population of 1,432.  At the same time, the British Government demilitarised the islands by withdrawing British troops.  The Jersey Militia subsequently became the 11th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment.  The Guernsey Militia had previously been disbanded to release hundreds of men to volunteer for H.M. forces.’

Channel Islands Occupied is conveniently and effectively set out in chronological order – before, during and after the occupation.  Headings like The calm before the storm, German Command, Fortification, Liberation are all accompanied by a commentary plus many photographs.  However, it’s still possible to dip in and out of it at your leisure – something I did many times.

The full colour cover is striking enough, but the hundred or so fascinating black & white photographs are the highlights of the book.  I’ve read a lot of history books, but I don’t really know too much about the occupation and I’ve never come across any of these photographs before.  They include images of bomb damage, the German military, fortifications, weapons, and the ‘slave’ workers.  Of particular note are photographs of various German proclamations and death warrants.

One photograph is a favourite of mine – it depicts a van belonging to the Jersey Gas Company which has been converted to run on gas.  A massive gas bag sits incongruously on top of the van – it’s truly a bizarre sight as it looks slightly larger than the van itself! – but apparently, there’s enough to fuel the van to cover a distance of 30 miles.

A fairly small photograph also caught my eye.  It depicted the words ‘British Victory Is Certain’ painted over a German language road sign in Jersey.  It made me wonder what the level and type of resistance to the occupation of the Channel Isles was like.  This interests me because I’m sure I’ve come across suggestions that some of the leading lights of island society didn’t exactly go out of their way to oppose the occupation.  I have a vague notion that one of the people who first mentioned this was, ironically, a former member of the British Free Corps, a volunteer unit of the Waffen SS made up of former British PoWs.  Hopefully, I’ll come across the source material again as I believe it’d make an interesting piece for this site.

I’ve wanted to visit the Channel Island for a long time now as a former workmate recommended the area years ago as an ideal holiday destination.  Like me, he was very interested in history – he was also a great fan of the TV programme Bergerac, which starred John Nettles and Louise Jameson, and which was filmed there.  In fact, he was the first person I’d ever come across who would go of his way to visit various TV and film locations – something that seems to be very common these days, given the success of films like Harry Potter and the TV series Game Of Thrones.

Channel Islands Occupied is a great introduction to this little known period of British and German military history.  It has certainly whetted my appetite for more information.  Needless to say, that reading it has deepened the desire to visit as I understand that it’s possible to visit some of the fortifications and associated museums.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that in the not too distant future and obviously produce a follow-up article for Counter Culture.

  • Reviewed by John Field

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Review: Tribal Criminal Law and Procedure

tribalcriminallawTribal Criminal Law and Procedure is the second book in a series of comprehensive studies of tribal law in the US. This book examines the complexities of tribal criminal law utilizing tribal statutory law, and case law, weaving into the narrative Native cultural values. The authors discuss histories and practices of tribal justice systems, comparing traditional tribal systems with Anglo-American law, with a focused discussion on the various aspects of jurisdiction. They examine the elements of criminal law and procedure and alternative sentencing vs traditional sanctions. A valuable resource for legal scholars, this book was published in cooperation with the Tribal Law and Policy institute at Turtle Mountain College and the Native Nations Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Comparing Tribal criminal law and American criminal law

Foundations of Traditional law is discussed in Chapter 2 discuss the differences in Native systems. Mainly, that these laws do not come from man, they come from the Creator and are belief-based. Understanding this is critical to understanding the complexities of Tribal law. Traditional Native law based on values, deities, and responsibilities, linked to spiritual beliefs. Belief that the Great Spirit is the Creator and protector, the source of earthly blessings. The Great Spirit is given thanks for all things including preservation of native lives, social privileges, and prosperity. There is also a belief in the Evil-minded who creates monsters and poisonous creatures and plants. Humans stand somewhere in-between and are free to control their own destiny.

The framework stemming from this system of beliefs responds to problem behavior and how the system is focused on personal responsibility rather than prohibited activities; which American law focuses on. Tribal law focuses on how social harm affects the community rather than the harm done to or by a single individual. For instance, the Haudenosaunee Great Law based on beliefs about the Creator defines that a person’s duties and responsibilities are more important than their individual rights and privileges. Indeed, the principles of the League of the Iroquois address a similar idea that a man’s rights and privileges never exceed his duties and responsibilities. (1)

Tribal conceptions of social harm are more broadly interpreted compared to the American legal system. An aspect of social harm within tribes rests on community-based rights or duties, while other tribes might focus more on the individual’s responsibilities. One reason for the focus on community is that traditional laws address the responsibility of each to their family, clan, and tribe, since the strength of these groups, depends on the survival of its members. Decisions come down to whether a community or the individual will respond to the problem.

Behaviors are addressed according to the customs and the beliefs of each Nation and this dictates which entity will perform enforcement functions. The Iroquois Confederacy used social or political entities to resolve wrongdoing; thus, crime was rare with their lives revolving around the clan. The council of clans addressed problem-solving; however, if this did not resolve the issue, it might go to the Nation’s council. Councils were not the only entity enforcing laws. Parents enforced laws regarding disciplining their children. Additionally, Keepers of the Faith could act as censors of the people and possessed the authority to report evil deeds.

The Menominee and other Algonquian developed formal three-party judicial proceedings to prosecute crimes. A mike-suk would act as investigator and prosecutor, while a pipe-holder or sukanahowao, or even a warrior chief might act as a defense attorney. Additionally, a go-between acted as a mediator to negotiate settlements.

Native cultures focus on rehabilitation and restoration of peace and harmony to both the individual and community. One method of restoration might be banishment to protect the community from harm or could include gifts from the individual’s family to restore peace. The main point here is the emphasis is on restoring harmony to the community and not on proving someone’s guilt or innocence.

Some tribes focus on healing the wrongdoer and the Ojibway is one of these. Their point of reference was if they could heal the individual, they could restore him and peace to the community. This way people can forgive the wrongdoing as their notions of blame differs to more Western thought.

The Cheyenne focus as well on restoration and rehabilitation. While banishing a person from the community might restore peace, the individual might be introduced back after rehabilitation. Stigma, used as an enforcement tool, as well as social control, since a community’s ridicule served as a strong deterrent to social harm.

An interesting element to this book is the author’s use of native anecdotes to show an example of how tribal law might have been decided. This book serves as not only a comparative analysis of the differences between Western legal practice and traditional Native applications of the law, but it also gives us more cultural insight into various tribal practices and historic parables used to show an example of thought and practice.

Using American criminal law to control Indian Nations

Conflicts over land and resources led the American legal system (and their Spanish, French and British predecessors) to use criminal law as a tool of destruction against Native peoples. Western criminal justice systems were used to not only outlaw cultural practice and tradition but to punish those who wished to continue practicing their Native spiritual beliefs. Federal officials attempted to control the Native people. Western legal systems imposed their values of punishment to outlaw tribal mechanisms used to address problem behavior within the Tribe. Additionally, Western criminal law was used by the Feds to confine native people to reservations, however, it did not protect them from harm and was rarely used to protect them from the criminal conduct of the settlers, this author states.

The American system of law worked as a method of indirect rule over Native nations, leading to massive distrust of modern criminal justice systems and even to distrust of their own tribal systems in some cases when funded by the Federal government. Culminating in the Office of Indian Affairs, which later became the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the OIA created Courts of Indian Offenses or CFR courts. (Courts of Federal Regulations) and it was this code of regulations that outlawed many cultural practices. At least twenty of these courts still exist today. The Courts of Indian Offenses imposed federal regulations to prohibit misdemeanour offenses, as well as cultural practices that they deemed immoral. The author cites a Congressional report which lists some of these types of offenses from 1892.

This author also references other texts detailing technology used by the OIA for controlling Indian behavior, such as Thomas Biolsi’s “Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.” While this book reviews additional literature on the subject giving anyone with an interest in this topic more resources to investigate for further reading.

Ultimately, federal agents under the BIA wanted federal courts to have jurisdiction over Native people using American laws in criminal cases. A decision made by the US Supreme Court called Ex parte Crow Dog in an 1883 ruling resulted in tribal exclusive criminal jurisdiction over a murder case. This controversial decision brought about the BIA convincing Congress to enact the Major Crimes Act in 1885, which imposed federal criminal jurisdiction on Tribal nations without their consent. For further reading on the Crow Dog case, see Harring’s Crow Dog’s Case (2)

Traditional law today and Traditional criminal jurisdiction

Chapter 4 discusses how traditional tribal values and beliefs have been included in contemporary criminal law. Introducing coercive American law enforcement disrupted tribal governance. This resulted in the Tribes developing their own strong criminal justice system. The biggest challenge is how to incorporate traditional indigenous principles. Many are working to restore traditional practices in a modern context. The author gives many examples throughout this chapter, which makes for interesting reading.

Chapter 5 discusses various types of jurisdiction and goes into detail about different tribal criminal jurisdiction and specific criminal code used by Tribal courts. Chapter 6 discusses in detail traditional criminal jurisdiction.

  • Limitations on Tribal criminal jurisdiction imposed by the US
  • Exercising jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians
  • Criminal jurisdiction as defined by Tribal Courts.
  • Tribal restorative justice

Each chapter contains a section on terms used and suggested further reading which I found very interesting and useful for anyone interested in studying the intricacies of Tribal Law. Jurisdiction is defined in the traditional sense before Europeans settled in America and is detailed with examples from various Tribal Laws. The Haudenosaunee Great Law is referenced as well as Osage practices by the leaders known as the Little Old

Men who developed their laws and decided jurisdiction. The Choctaw Nation developed a constitution in 1860 dividing its government into three branches. The Treaty of 1866 and the Treaty of Separation (1859) which further designated Choctaw law and jurisdiction over other tribes residing within including Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles are discussed in detail. Many tribes had strict geographical boundaries, which they held jurisdiction over. So they did use and practice the concept of jurisdiction, which must have been problematic once the settlers and Federal government decided to impose their on jurisdictions both geographically and legally over the tribes.

Chapter 7 defines the limitation of tribal criminal jurisdiction as imposed by the United States, discussing ‘Indian Country’ as defined by Federal Law for the purposes of criminal jurisdiction; the General Crimes Act; the Major Crimes Act; Intrusion of State Jurisdiction in Indian Country: Public Law 280; upholding Tribal sovereignty with the United States v Wheeler435 US 313 (1978); Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe et al 435 US 191 (1978); Duro v Reina 495 US 676 (1990) and the Congressional Duro-Fix.

Chapter 8 discusses jurisdiction over non-US citizens and Treaties as a basis for criminal authority, again using case examples, while Chapter 9 goes over jurisdictions as defined by tribal courts. Chapter 10 leads on from the two preceding chapters by detailing Tribal criminal jurisdiction reform citing The Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act. Since 2006, the Federal law began to address criminal jurisdiction scheme in Indian country and the laws are changing slowly with tribal leaders pressing for inherent sovereignty. Chapter 11 builds on this topic discussing building collaborative bridges between States and Tribal courts. This only covers half of this comprehensive text, which spans 629 pages.

 

(1) Newell, W. B., 1965 Crime and Justice among the Iroquois Nations 47.

(2) Harring, S. L., 1994. Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. 129 – 141.

 

Authors:

Author Sarah Deer is a lawyer and professor of law at William Mitchell College, and a 2014 MacArthur fellow. She advocates in Native American communities and has been credited for her instrumental role in the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act and testified for the passage of the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act. She received her BA and JD from the University of Kansas and is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Carrie E. Garrow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Syracuse University College of Law. She is the Chief Appellate Judge for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Court. Previously she served as the Executive Director for the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance & Citizenship at Syracuse University College of Law.

She received her undergrad degree from Dartmouth College and her law degree from Stanford Law School. She has a Master’s in Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

She has worked as a deputy district attorney for Riverside County in Southern California, and a tribal justice consultant for several non-profit organizations, including the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the Native Nations Institute, and the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.

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Peter, Paula and the Pelican

Peter, Paula and the Pelican.  Brent Cheetham.  Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd, Surrey, England.  ISBN 978-1-78623-019-5  Paperback. 41 pages.  Available from Amazon UK  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Peter-Paula-Pelican-Brent-Cheetham/dp/1786230194/ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_3?crid=25VZW7VKTDDKZ&keywords=brent+cheetham&qid=1552144194&s=gateway&sprefix=brent+cheetham%2Caps%2C179&sr=8-3-fkmrnull

IT’S BEEN a long time since I’ve read a children’s publication.  I’ve never reviewed one before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Therefore, Peter, Paula and the Pelican was a first for me.  If that wasn’t enough, the author is an old mucker of mine, Brent Cheetham!

Published towards the middle of 2016, Peter, Paula and the Pelican is the first of several booklets he has written.  The others include The Rake’s Regression (Nov 2016), Ecstatic Essays (Apr 2017), andCuffley Capers (Aug 2017).

Before delving into any publication I always like to look at both the authors and publishers notes to get an idea of what I’m about to read. Peter, Paula and the Pelican was no exception.  Here I got a hint of thewhimsical nature of the booklet and the sense of humour employed by the author.  We are told that the book is:

‘a romp of a story, combining humour, pathos and nonsense for the edification of the young and the not so young adults who are still young at heart.  The author confirms that he has not yet had a visit from the men in white coats.

The author is aged 60, lives in the village of Cuffley, Hertfordshire, and still is partial to the odd peanut butter sandwich although he says he prefers a nice strong cup of English breakfast tea over a glass of ginger beer’.

Peter, Paula and the Pelican is set in England in 1925 and tells the tale of brother and sister Peter and Paula Brown who live in a cottage in the village of Sleepy Hollow.  Like many children they are getting under their mother’s feet so she sends them out to play.

Making their way to the local woods they come across hole in the bottom of a hedge which in turn leads to a large oak door.  Peter, who is the oldest, is all for opening the door.  Paula, on the other hand, worries in case there are ‘monsters, lions or dragons’ on the other side.  However, Peter notes that the last dragon was “killed years ago by somebody called St. George.”  (I thought that this was a nice way of weaving a little heritage and tradition into the book).

Disaster strikes when the door slams behind them as they become stuck in this ‘strange land’ that boasts two suns in the sky.  However, this is relatively normal compared to the adventure that follows and the characters they meet!

First up is a talking Pelican who informs them that they’re in Back to Front Land.  The only way of getting back home is to see the Prime Minister, Herbert Spencer.  He can gain them an audience with King Lupin the Second so that they get the key to unlock the door.  The King lives ‘in a big house in the big city’ but is unlikely to see the children ‘on account of the Brent.’

So who or what is ‘the Brent’?  In the best traditions of any children’s publication he is some form of ogre.  He ‘is a great big ugly giant, with moles on his face, who goes to the big city every now and again and demands peanut butter sandwiches and often knocks off chimney pots from the roof of the city houses’.

The Pelican has offered to take them to the ‘big house’ and so the adventure begins.  As mentioned earlier they meet some very weird and wonderful characters.  They include talking chickens who are knitting square egg cosies for the square eggs that they lay.  There’s also atractor-driving talking monkey, ‘silly sheep’ who have a problem as they never tell lies, a talking tablecloth, peanut butter mines (for some reason Back to Front Land seems to thrive on peanut butter) and a sign that points in two opposite directions – but to the same location!

Two more amazing characters include an owl who has such bad eyesight he has to wear glasses.  Indeed, this owl defies convention by coming out during the day – yes, you’ve guessed it, he’s a day owl as opposed to a night owl!  There’s also a retired dancing horse called Brian who talks absolute nonsense.  For instance, when asked what are the ingredients to carrot soup he replies ‘carrots and soup of course.’

I laughed at the method of transport that was taken to see the Prime Minister and King Lupin in the ‘big city,’ for Peter and Paula sat on Brian’s back whilst the Pelican perched on his head.  This must have been a sight for sore eyes.  Needless to say, Brian the nonsense horse talked absolute nonsense during the journey.

At last they reach their destination and manage to sort out ‘the Brent’ problem.  I don’t want to go into any detail how they did this – I don’t know if I’m over-thinking this part of the booklet, but I think much of what’s wrong with modern Britain can be explained here.  Read it for yourself and see if you come to the same conclusion.  The only thing I will say is that Paula is the hero of the hour.

I hope I’m not spoiling things by saying that the children make it home ok.  However, they do get some help from the Pelican, ‘the Brent’ and a bi-plane made of wood and canvas!

I must admit I really enjoyed Peter, Paula and the Pelican.  I chuckled to myself as some of what was said (especially by Mrs. Brown) brought back memories from my own childhood, which admittedly wasn’t exactly yesterday.  Typical English eccentricity flows through it – Peanut Butter sandwiches and Ginger Beer feature heavily – and I wondered how Brent (the author as opposed to the ogre!) managed to dream up these characters.   Indeed, where did he get his inspiration from?  It’s also Politically Incorrect in parts and the gender stereotypes would give the Orwellian ’thought police’ many a sleepless night.

The only downside were a few spelling and grammatical errors, which the author has acknowledged.  Hopefully, they’ll be sorted out in any reprint. However, they don’t really spoil this booklet at all and I’d happily recommend it to anyone who reads to their children.

  • Reviewed by John Field.

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Stealing History : Art Theft, Looting, and Other Crimes Against our Cultural Heritage

stealinghistoryStealing History : Art Theft, Looting, and Other Crimes Against our Cultural Heritage Colleen Margaret Clarke and Eli Jacob Szydlo

Stealing History concisely addresses an area of criminal justice studies which has historically been inadequately represented, thus filling a void in the literature. Well-sourced, this book is an excellent primary or supplemental text, which as a discourse views art theft as a crime perceived by authorities as less important than other more violent crimes. Art and cultural crime ranks third largest in criminal enterprise worldwide, and, the author of this book attempts to break down why crimes of this nature matter. Furthermore, she delineates which steps law enforcement should consider to prevent it in the future.

Cultural crimes include appropriating objects found in museums and private displays, but also objects which represent cultural identity and national history. Historically, heads of state have looted freely while empire building. Various leaders from Great Britain were guilty of this, as well as, Napoleon, Hitler, and more recently ISIL/ISIS, by systematically destroying cultural sites, churches, collections, both public and private, and looting archaeological digs to eradicate any evidence of a culture they want to absorb and oppress, as well as a means to raise money to support their cause. They use it to destroy the hopes of those who grew up with these cultural artifacts as a part of their history and identity. Soul destroying and very calculated, so that they might assimilate the community into their more extremist world view, it is done to prevent the culture from re-emerging.

UNESCO considers the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, not just a crime, but a war crime. Clarke’s main point is that in order for law enforcement and governments to prevent these types of crime, they must first understand what it is they are fighting. She feels many do not respect the severity of this type of crime and classifying it as an art crime means justice is not accorded to the history, culture, intellect, and scholarly works which are being annihilated.

While the US views these as property crimes, Clarke feels they should rather be viewed as cultural crimes or war crimes, which is how the United Nations perceives them. Stealing History addresses the question of priority. The US is the largest market for illegal and illicit artwork globally; and Clarke appeals for more preventative steps by law enforcement, in addition to instituting better security to meet international standards as a step towards reducing these crimes.

She makes the point that destruction of important buildings and monuments are used to shock us, therefore why doesn’t destruction of art and cultural artifacts elicit the same response? A society’s culture is depicted by its art, and history has chronicled primordial cultures through the discoveries of remnants of more ancient societies. Why then, is more reverence given to archaeology than to art? Clarke relates that it is difficult to separate culture from art, a defining factor in a society’s self-identification.

Clarke discusses how damaging it is to a culture to destroy the provenance of historical artifacts by removing them from where they were found, furthermore, not only are pieces damaged by careless thieves, but they are taken out of context; therefore we lose the history connected to the culture of origination. Looting is fairly common in third world countries, and according to Interpol, hundreds of sites have been looted; between 60 and 90 percent of tombs and other archaeological sites. This, Clarke relates is due to lack of government control, as well as opportunistic looting in war zones and poorer economies where government control might be inhibited.

During WWI and WWII works of art in Europe were stolen by invading forces, including Gustav Klimt’s Woman in Gold which was renamed from the original Adele Bloch-Blauer to hide its origin. Since the onset of the war, targeted families were removed from their homes and anything of value was taken and documented by the German military, done to such a scale that it was impossible to document the extent of it. Van Eyck’s Ghent Alter piece of 1482 was taken twice by Germany; once during WWI, when the Treaty of Versailles forced its return and again in WWII. These painted panels have been targeted at least thirteen times, from theft to destruction to censoring. Prior to WWI the victor of a war could plunder without much recourse, however during this period the international art community began to discuss cultural preservation and its protections during times of war, with a focus on monuments.

Sometimes stolen art is bartered back to its owner as a ransom, fetching a better price than selling on the black market, and evading the chance that the work might be recognized and reported. Ransoming is far safer and more profitable for these thieves. While few cases exist of a thief stealing a piece of art merely to enhance their own personal collection exist, Frenchman Stephane Breitwieser stole 239 pieces of art worth $ 1.4b. Unfortunately, he stored the stash at his mother’s and upon his arrest; she shredded the works with scissors, before grinding them in the garbage disposal. Many thieves damage art in the process of stealing it, while, others duplicate the work and then sell the original. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London actually has a display of such forged works of art, over a 100 such pieces.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the United Nations took an official stance on these types of crimes forming UNESCO and as of 2011; these guidelines for awareness and prevention of cultural crimes have been ratified by up to 190 nations. The fault in this convention is that it is not retroactive and crimes committed before the signing of the convention are exempt.

Clarke covers the following topics: media’s portrayal of art crime; history of art and related crimes; cultural differences between the US and Europe and their effect on art crimes; looting and archeological sites, economic impacts, police demands, scrutiny and the future; security and policing globally; and growth of and prevention of art crime. A concise and interesting read with thoughtful suggestions aimed at prevention of future art and cultural crimes in an evolving world. Clarke writes an interesting chapter on police scrutiny discussing how things have changed since 9/11 with local law enforcement having to respond as the first line of defense against terrorism, and indicating why art crime is so far down the priority list as it is lumped in with property crimes and why logistically, it just cannot be given the attention it deserves. One solution, she writes is to educate local forces on the idea that art crime is generally not local, but global, connected to antiquity theft, fraud and terrorism within international criminal organizations, thereby changing the perceptions of these types of crimes.

Author Colleen Clarke, PhD. has been director of the Law Enforcement Program at MSU, and formerly a police officer at Thunder Bay PD. She has contributed to Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America (Sage, 2013) and The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (Wiley, 2013). She has written for the National Social Science Journal, International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and Law Enforcement Executive FORUM. Co-author Eli J. Szydlo received his background in law enforcement from his undergraduate studies at MSU, and previously studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, encountering the field of art crimes.

Reviewed by Rosdaughr

Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Pages: 176 • 978-1-4422-6079-5 • Hardback • April 2017 • $36.00 • (£24.95)

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Free Will – Sam Harris (Free Press)

freewillbysamharrisThere’s a thought that strikes me in Sam Harris’ book Free Will that there is a kind of ‘fudge’ at the core of his argument. It’s as if he wants his ‘fudge cake’ and to get to eat it! Okay I’m going to demonstrate this, I trust, in this review – but this ‘fudge’ is my main problem with this otherwise very thought-provoking (and short) book.

Harris argues that we haven’t free will. Now, before going on, here’s a summary of where I am on this issue of ‘free will’. In the book he refers to an experiment I was aware of which seems to show the brain making decisions up to a full SEVEN seconds before the conscious mind appears to ‘decide’. That has had me thinking for some time and probably drew me to this book in the first place. I’ve also been looking at consciousness and am half-way through (probably not clever to admit that) Julian Jaynes book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – It’s a fascinating work and has provoked much thought (thus far) on the nature of consciousness.

We certainly do much in our life that is ‘unconscious’. Imagine when we drive a car – most of our actions (once they are learnt) become ‘automatic’ and unconscious. If you were to consciously think about everything you were doing you would most likely crash. We learn one thing, then another – these two learnt actions then become ONE and then we can add another skill and these two can then become ONE etc. When playing the drums, for instance, the four limbs learn their parts in stages. And when playing a new rhythm everything can fall apart when you consciously think about what you are doing. Naturally in learning to drive a car or attempting a new drum rhythm, the amount of conscious effort begins at a greater level and then, gradually, becomes automatic. In certain conditions our conscious mind can be called on (by what/whom?) to ‘take the reins’. I have often gone out in my car and followed – say – a route to a workplace only to consciously realise that I’m not actually going to this place. My conscious mind takes over, manoeuvres the car and puts me back on track. And once I know where I’m going I can continue in an – at the very least – semi-conscious way.

There  is also the idea – I have read – whereby the brain takes in all the information from the various senses and collates them and then our consciousness presents this stimuli to us as if it were all happening ‘at the same time’ – as the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light etc. Because the brain has had to collect all the data then our conscious perception lags behind the ‘real present’. But what is doing this preparation and selection? How is it being done and where is the interface with our consciousness?

Harris introduces his thoughts on free will with a harrowing example of a brutal (and sexual) attack and murder of a family; only the patriarch surviving. This certainly concentrates the mind! (There is in fact a running motif  regarding crime and how we should deal with criminals.) Following on from this example he writes about popular conceptions of free will that:

Each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past. And that: we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions in the present.

He argues that free will is an illusion and that we do not have the freedom we think we have. That whatever we do is a state of mind we cannot (and could not) change – that it is the sum of many inherent factors. That thoughts and impulses APPEAR in our consciousness and do not originate in it. There is some compelling argument too – can we DECIDE our next mental state? How much control do we have over our thoughts? Do we create thoughts or are they presented to us? Try and think of your next thought!

Harris writes: ‘There is no question that (most if not all) mental events are the product of physical events.’ And were this NOT to be the case then: ‘The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.’ Reflecting on this then, perhaps to have total free will, we need to say we control ‘everything’ – every thought. And, I suppose, to be totally aware of that! And if we have no free will where is this seeming will (idea of free will) coming from – where does our consciousness come from? Some argue that as our brains, our neurophysilogical processes, are deciding things at SOME level, then we have free will – it’s just not what we think of as our conscious ‘real self’. In response Harris writes: ‘As we have begun to see, however, this feeling of freedom comes from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions.’

Now later Harris writes, ‘Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic – in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom.’ Here’s where the fudge comes in, I think. ‘A creative change of inputs to the system – learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention – may radically transform one’s life.’ But can we do that other than in a mechanical pre-determined way? ‘Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).’

Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings?

Recently I went for a walk with my son to a water-mill, now converted to a restaurant. Near-by there’s a weir and where part of the river has been channelled to the former-mill’s water wheels. It was a beautiful afternoon – butterflies flitting between plants settled and floating on the water’s surface; two châteaus close by keep silent watch. We were leaning on a small bridge when I noticed a large ant moving across the wood of the side of this bridge. I pointed to it and said, ‘Stop!’.  Now my conscious mind presented that ant to me, I pointed to it, and said ‘Stop!’ – which I think it didn’t! My son was watching me and we laughed about this. Now, evidently, this innocuous act seemed a conscious decision of my free will. Had it NOT been – then there are a number of things to discuss. Firstly: my son thought he was consciously reacting in the present and with free will (as did I). I deliberately pointed at the ant – that was operating in its own way in this world. I pointed to the ant at one particular point. For me to have decided that beforehand I would have needed to know that the ant would appear and that it would follow a certain path and arrive at a certain point that I could POINT at! Was that moment the sum of all three of our experiences of life? My son’s, to have unconsciously ‘decided’ all previous  moments to arrive at that point; mine the same AND the ant to have appeared and moved across the wood? At this point we could UNRAVEL every moment of our lives (including the ant’s) to track back down every event that brought us to where we were THEN. One pre-determined action following another!

Well, I guess that’s possible – a fait accompli if you will. We all WERE there and I certainly pointed and cried, ‘Stop!’. So in this ‘play out’ of unconscious direction EVERY consciousness is (must be!) part of the great PLAY we find ourselves in. Because if I am not aware I’m going to do something and I interact with someone else (who is also not aware) then we are part of some vast, intricate, script that unfolds, amnd is still unfolding, from the very beginning of time. We are here because of the actions of others.

Yet I could only point to the ant if the ant had been there – that was empirically so. I think Harris would say that no other person could have been in the place and with that mental state that I was in and that I would have been unable to be anywhere else or in any other state. Also – what is tricking our conscious minds to make us think we are doing things of our own volition? Where is the bridge between unintentional decision and apparent consciousness of that decision? When does ‘consciousness’ take over from the deeper decision?

Now the motif I described earlier that runs through this book is the idea of crime, punishment and guilt (or otherwise). We certainly look at crimes differently given our perception of the intentions of the criminals. And if someone has a brain tumour – say – we don’t regard their criminal actions in the same way as someone we believe acts with ‘free will’. And Harris continually argues that we cannot have had any other mental state but that which we had at the time and therefore we need to look at ‘guilt’ differently. He writes that criminals might have: ‘Some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas…’ Looking at this though – how can we introduce a moral definition (‘bad’) to these actions if what he says is true? There cannot be any ‘bad’ – only ‘what is’. Later he argues the idea that human behaviour can be modified by punishment and incentive…I am slightly confused. More cake? Or maybe it’s me!

In the chapter headed ‘Politics’ we get the ‘liberal’ idea that one must be ‘lucky to be able to work.‘ So it’s luck. I’ll get back to that idea. He writes, ‘Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition…’ Luck again? ‘But this does not mean we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change.’ Well he says they can’t change any past actions…and how are they to change? ‘We do not change ourselves…but we continuously influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us.’

Okay – so ‘we’ are influenced by our internal world – but how can we escape that influence or use it through volition. I THINK he is arguing for a kind of change through osmosis. Such that, as we are a product of things we have no control over (including our supposed free will) then our past, set actions, history, biological influences can only be added to. He writes: ‘Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.’ Maybe that could be highlighted or achieved say, for example, by forcing folk to have a good iodine intake, especially those living far away from the sea. The intake would have a subtle influence on their well-being and maybe influence their unconscious actions? An outside force would have an impact on their internal world. But someone would have to decide to do that! And that – one presumes – is also decided for them.

It is the concept of ‘free will’ that gave rise to sin – he argues. And, in this, perhaps he is correct – for Adam and Eve were seemingly given ‘free will’ (and not at the same time!).  Their actions have affected all of us – if we believe so. But God would have known the outcome. If he gave them free will knowing they would act the way they did, and take the fruit from the tree – how free were they?

What if you are controlled by others? Your actions and thought directed by others? Would that be a form of double ‘non-free will’?

Are we Beings experiencing this world from the point of view of our consciousness – with no control…as if we are on a roller-coaster that could take us anywhere it desires? Hold on…sit back…tighten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Are we puppets of a Greater Being? Are we a strand of conscious experience that snakes back to a greater, composite experience? In fact – even without free will – are we living a spiritual life? Are we simply the observers of our life?

I’ll leave you with two quotes from the book, one in the body of the text and the other in the notes.

Harris: ‘The illusion of free will is itself and illusion.’

And in the notes, Schopenhaur’s: ‘Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills.’

And finally – we may/may not have free will, we may/may not be fully conscious – but the life we lead APPEARS as if we have free will and that is the ONLY way we can lead it. Be thankful for whatever life you have – it’s a one and only experience.

Thanks.

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

Tim Bragg is the author of the recently published Lyrics to Live By: Keys to Self-Help, Notes for a Better Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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