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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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Lyrics to Live By Keys to self-help – notes for a better life

IT’S often said that the best ideas are the simplest. And this is certainly the case with the idea behind Lyrics to Live By. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that the idea behind the book is so simple it’s absolutely brilliant.

So what’s the idea, what makes it so simple and why is it literally a stroke of pure genius?

The idea’s so simple because it relates to something that we probably do every time we hear a song – and that’s to sing along to it and wonder what some of the lyrics actually mean.

This basic query about the meaning of the lyrics can also generate many other questions. For instance, how did the song come about, how long did it take to write, what is the writing process and what’s the idea behind the song? Why use the particular set of lyrics that appear? How personal is the song – and does it contain any hidden or subliminal messages?

With this in mind, the publisher of Lyrics to Live By has asked Tim Bragg to interpret the lyrics of a dozen songs. Ten songs were provided by the publisher whilst Tim chose Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away and one of his own compositions, Some Answers.

LyricstoLiveByAdamazonuk

For those who don’t know, Tim Bragg is a multi-instrumentalist and a writer of songs, novels and short stories. Indeed, he has several albums and books to his name. He also has a deep interest in English and green politics and is the founder of English Green – https://www.facebook.com/groups/167522623276444/?ref=br_rs – which describes itself as ‘a group interested in ecology and its relationship with all aspects of human activity. How we co-exist with the flora and fauna and how we conduct ourselves in an ecologically healthy manner and how we achieve a spiritual and material well-being are of particular interest’.

Tim is also a really deep thinker – he describes himself as “the eternal outsider” and has been described as “a provocative intellectual renegade”. He is also interested in issues relating to free speech and English culture, previously describing Stratford-upon-Avon as his “spiritual home”.

In his Foreword, Bragg sets the scene by highlighting the importance of music:

‘But we are drawn to particular songs and musicians who seem to speak to us. They really do help guide us through life and come to our aid when most needed. At our lowest, a song can be played over and over, and this repetition seems to heal. When we are blue a blues song seems to do the trick. And the very personal nature of a song makes it effective for our own personal situation – bad/good or otherwise. I am thankful to the musicians who wrote songs that helped me through difficult times: the end of a love affair … for instance’.

I’m sure we’ve all wondered, why certain lyrics have the ability to strike a chord deep inside us. Indeed, every reader could probably suggest the lyrics of several songs which have really touched them – almost in a spiritual way. To me, it simply illustrates the beauty and power of song. However, has it always been like this – and will it be like this forever?

The lyrics Tim comments on are really varied – they include those from Hey Jude, Stairway to Heaven, Wicked Game and Big Yellow Taxi. The musical genres covered are also fairly broad. Writers include Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

I’m not going to give you any details of what he makes of any of the lyrics (and I know that this is extremely strange for a review!) as I want to encourage readers of Lyrics to Live by to really think for themselves. That’s because we live in a world where all sorts of information is readily accessible and Wikipedia is king. Such easy access to information is very much a double-edged sword. On the positive side it enables folks to learn about more-or-less anything under the sun. On the negative side, I fear that many folks are – or have – lost the ability to question information and think for themselves.

Earlier I mentioned that Tim is a very deep thinker, and this is certainly borne out in how he interprets the lyrics. I must admit that I’d often sing along to a song and spend a few minutes contemplating what the lyrics mean. But to actually sit down and to probably spend hours really analysing the lyrics is probably an art form in itself!

This is the first time I’ve read an examination of lyrics to such a high level. Indeed, Tim noted that the process was ‘almost as if meditating’. I really do think that most people will be in awe of (or even shocked at) the depth of thinking employed here. Whether you agree with Tim is open to debate. However, it would really be interesting to know what readers think of his in-depth interpretations.

Lyrics to Live by also poses many questions in itself. I’m not too sure if this was the original intention or simply a by-product of the subject matter?

For instance, I’d particularly like to know how and why the particular songs – and more importantly, the individual lyrics – were chosen by the publisher? I also wondered if there was any sort of thread linking the artists? I presume they must mean something to the publisher, but what? Are they in some way personal, or do they contain any hidden or subliminal messages? Indeed, does Tim’s interpretation of the lyrics match those of the publisher, or are they wildly different? Furthermore, I found it interesting that Tim looked at the lyrics of one of his own songs – I wonder if this was therapeutic in any way?

The Foreword mentions Tim’s admiration for Phil Lynott and Van Morrison, who ‘have certainly helped me through my life’s journey’. Yet neither of them feature in the book. This got me wondering what artists would any of us choose to analyse– and why?

A couple of other things also came to mind whilst reviewing the book:

Firstly, Tim Bragg is a multi-instrumentalist and is comfortable with different genres of music. With this in mind, I presume that a Heavy Metal singer would be more at home looking at the lyrics of a Heavy Metal song. The same would presumably go for a Folk musician with Folk lyrics. However, what would happen if you gave the Heavy Metal and Folk singer the lyrics to a Country and Western song? Would the change of genre completely throw them – or would they both apply the same thought process, successfully analyse the lyrics and manage to overcome the change in musical style?

Secondly, this review has thrown up many unique and interesting ideas and questions. They all lend themselves to a series of books looking at various lyrics and their meanings. I’d love to read the thoughts of other artists – and, in particular, independent artists – in the very near future. Here’s hoping that the first follow-up book is at the planning stage already.

Reviewed by John Field

Lyrics to Live By is available as a Paperback or E-book from all Amazon stores

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Locke’s Political Thought and the Oceans Pirates, Slaves, and Sailors

lockeandtheoceans

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Sarah Pemberton, PhD., examines John Locke’s political thought on the laws and freedom of the oceans by examining the Two Treatises of Government. Locke argued that the seas were collectively owned by all humans and governed by universal natural laws that prohibited piracy. His Two Treatises provided insight on international and maritime law. In this book; Pemberton analyses Locke’s political thought in an absorbing weave which draws together the Treatises along with Locke’s unpublished writings and other intriguing archival finds.

John Locke was born in 1632 near the port of Bristol. During his ‘Shaftesbury’ period (1666-1683), he was employed by Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury. A radical proponent of religious freedom, individual liberty and conscience, he believed power should be controlled and used to secure national interests. He was politically conservative, economically mercantilist, and morally authoritarian. He was a puritan with a modern and empirical vision. He was a member of the Board of Trade in England in the 1690s. Shaftebury is considered by some to be the founder of liberalism.

Locke’s Two Treatises are said to have been written at the pinnacle of his political philosophy. The Treatises contain his theory of government, power, property, trust, and rights. He wanted to build an empire on both land and sea. He proposed an anti-piracy treaty between Europe’s largest maritime players. He advocated English piracy laws and supported the idea of deploying the Navy against pirates. His ideas on piracy were consistent with natural law theory developed in the Two Treatises.

There has been much debate about when Locke’s two treatises were originally written. Published in 1689, they were possibly, written earlier. Considered an apology for the Glorious Revolution, British historian Peter Laslett, feels the writings date back to 1679. This lapse in time would have allowed Locke to amend the original, giving it the appearance of an apology, rather than a prescription for revolt, which could have caused him contention at the time.

In his first Treatise, he rebuts Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Patriarcha’s main premise embraced the divine right of Kings. Filmer’s theory is a diktat that “all government is an absolute monarchy: since Adam was an absolute monarch, all princes since his time should also be absolute monarchs.” Filmer did not believe that man was born free, nor should they be governed by consent, as the masses do not possess the intellectual wherewithal to elect their leaders. Pemberton discusses this in her examination of Locke’s political theories.

Filmer claimed that man was not born into freedom, and a father, like a Monarchy; possessed unlimited rights over men’s lives, however Locke refuted this idea as unjustified. He argued against Fillmer’s attempts to provide a theoretical basis for patriarchy and examined his assumptions for logical cohesion. Taking issue with his ideas, Locke countered the theory of divine rule. He argued that Adam’s creation alone did not presume sovereignty over anything. Locke felt that rights must be established and argued that man is a governor in habit; potentiality did not imply actuality – he wrote, “A very pretty way of being a Governor without Government, a Father without Children, and a King without Subjects”. He argued against Divine rule, then outlined, in his second Treatise his justification of consensual government.

Locke’s Treatises are consistent with his later work on the board of Trade. There, he advocated forced migration and forced labour for English convicts. He felt forced labour was consistent with theories on penal slavery for the period and he discussed these in the Two Treatises. Pemberton feels Locke’s theories were intended to justify the current practice during the period. She sees a tension between his arguments in the Treatises with policies of forced naval service, which Locke, as a member of the Board of Trade, supported. Locke had a good relationship with King William and was very involved with colonial and trade policy during this period. His theories guided English government policies in the arenas of slavery and piracy, and he was influenced by Grotius’ Mare Liberum; whose central argument was based on freedom of the seas.

Locke’s theories of law and freedom on the seas also influenced his vision of English National Identity.

Locke was a colonial thinker, devoting much attention to the settlement and governance of the colonies. He was in the minority of political thinkers active in the practical aspects of business promotion and administration of overseas settlements, due to his position on the Board of Trade. Locke suggested that Europe come to a formal agreement on how to deal with international maritime law about piracy in his second Treatise. The international piracy agreement would be known as the Power of War and Peace, Leagues and Alliances and all the Transactions with all Persons and Communities outside the Commonwealth.

Locke considered the grandfather of liberalism; in the standard histories of philosophy, was also an exemplar of empiricism. His position on the Board of Trade had a bearing on his philosophies in the Treatises, just as Grotius’s writings on Natural Law came from his defence of the Dutch East India Company’s maritime activities. He argued freedom of trade across the oceans in The Free Sea (1609). Locke understood Grotius’s position well.

Locke acknowledged extractable resources such as fish and ambergris produced by the ocean could be acquired as the property of man. He glossed over that fact that these resources might be finite and risk extinction due to over-extraction. Conservation efforts such as with fisheries would have been consistent with Locke’s concerns about acquisition of private property. His theory of property had concerns. Starting with the premise that potential productivity of natural resources derived from human labour and not in the inherent value of the resource itself. He ignored the finite nature of natural resources, and he underestimated the value that eco-systems could provide. Overly concerned with human contribution, he completely ignored resource depletion. Furthermore, he criticized Native practices of land use, feeling they did not use the land productively enough, he felt that sustainable fishing wasted resources and again, ignoring resource depletion he emphasized man’s contribution and focused on over-productivity. His Treatises provide a systematic political theory of the seas and did not feel oceans could be considered ‘appropriated’ because they cannot be managed or improved in the same way that land can be improved.

Pemberton relates that Locke first addressed piracy in an unpublished manuscript called Pyracy which now resides in the Bodleian library. In this manuscript, he ambitiously proposed extending England’s existing piracy law to the colonies and extending protection of European trade to those involved in the Treaty of Ryswick and urged them to reach a formal international agreement on the piracy issue. Described as Power of War and Peace, Leagues and Alliances and all the Transactions of all persons and communities outside the Commonwealth, he wished to create a coordinated approach to piracy, to extend these laws across the World’s oceans. Unfortunately, he missed the issues of jurisdiction under Admiralty law. Like a good Loyalist, he felt that these laws could be extended to the colonies thereby preventing colonials from exercising autonomy on this issue. Locke’s contribution to piracy was consistent with his ideas on natural rights and the rule of law under the Two Treatises.

Locke had theories on penal slavery which stemmed from his position as a member of the Board of Trade and his work on piracy. This resulted in him advocating expanding English legal and naval power at sea and reducing political autonomy in the American colonies, which gave rise to tension between liberty and empire. He felt that penal slavery, including the English convicts, was justified. Those who broke natural law give up their rights and they should be punished proportionately, which he felt would deter future crimes and allow for making victim reparations. He argued attacking someone’s liberty was equivalent to murder and felt that participants in an unjust war broke natural law and should be legitimately enslaved or killed.

A practice England had already been taking part in for quite some time. The colonists including many so called ‘free’ subjects co-existed with those sent there under forced labour (penal) and forced migration. Pemberton relates that between 1600 and 1800 more than a million Europeans migrated to America and the Caribbean and up to a third of these immigrants were transported convicts or indentured servants, or bonded slaves, due to the cost of transportation across the Atlantic. Some came during this time by choice, but they forced many. After his death, his political philosophy in turn impacted on ideas leading to the Age of Enlightenment. It related to the development of separation of Church and State in the American Constitution. Pemberton takes us on an interesting journey, dissecting the Treatises, adding social and political context so we understand the period and why Locke was formulating the theories he was, his influences, along with other possible economic and political factors which may have played a part in the formation of his ideas.

Reviewed by Rosdaughr

 

Further reading recommendations on Locke:Tully, J., Rediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights’.
An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts. 1993.
Arneil, B., John Locke and America: Defence of English Colonialism. 1996.
Farr J., ‘Locke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery’, Political Theory. 2008.
Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford, 2006).

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­Who I am

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whoareyou

The following article first appeared as the ‘Foreword’ for:

Who Are You: Philosophy, Physics, and Eastern Mysticism (Paperback – January 5, 2018): Chandran Tattvaraj

It is re-published here with the author’s consent. The original title was ‘Who I am’ and we have reverted to that here.

Who I Am

How long have we been questioning who and what we are; where we’ve come from and where we’re going? Perhaps throughout our existence we have questioned the very notion of ‘self’. Ideas of this self are there to read in Eastern religious and philosophical writing, and in the West, was philosophically enshrined with Descartes: I think therefore I am. But long, long before Descartes, religious philosophers had contemplated the nature of the ‘self’ and within the self – the ‘soul’…that there was (is) something intrinsic to us that also seems to be apart from ‘us’ – a part and apart simultaneously.

When I was a child I was fascinated by two mirrors placed near opposite each other in the family’s bathroom. The reflected images disappeared into infinity and thus timelessness. Maybe this triggered in my developing mind an idea of eternity…and an idea of an alternative reality – for I could see many ‘me’s seemingly projected into the future and into a kind of reflected past. As I recall now I can see/feel myself wishing to step into those multiple ‘other worlds’. Ten years later or so, on one of the few occasions I took LSD, I was aware of passages within the space, the air, surrounding me…Had I the wherewithal, I could have turned into these passages, or corridors and entered a world normally hidden from (or by) my ‘normal’ perception.

In medieval time in England it was thought there was a powerful connection between things and the names of those things. That everything naturally had a name that was somehow bestowed and fixed. The bond between this name and the thing was irrevocable. Now we think: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But we live in and are trapped by our language and thought. The self and our idea of who we are comes to fruition along with understanding both the concept of self-hood and our gradual understanding of our-selves – a paradox from birth that develops and changes through time. We physically and mentally grow into ‘being’. We slowly join the unfolding narrative of the world. As unfolding selves we receive and are affected by the scientific, cultural, religious, fairy-tale narratives of the ‘main characters’. They tell us who we are, what to do, how to behave and what to think. We are seeds scattered into the ground…healthy or rocky.

We are born into a world that seems locked into time and space…a concrete world of ‘reality’. And we are given the ability to perceive this world through our senses in a consensual manner. But is there an ‘out there’ a ‘world’ that exists extraneously to our mind’s perception? Our brain collapses the ‘out there’ (the waves and particles of light photons) into the world we live in and deem ‘real’. Of course in one sense it is so very real…run a blade across your skin and you’ll feel pain and see blood flowing. But the mind that perceives and ‘holds’ our thoughts…the thoughts that perceive the world we grow into has no definite location (there are areas of the brain that correspond to certain elements of the mind…but under given circumstances these can be changed and/or re-routed) – and further, the thoughts themselves have no location or indeed space. You cannot grasp a thought and though it may re-appear as a memory in the ‘future’ its existence feels completely ‘out of time’. Yes we seem to experience the passing of time (and we can look into a mirror or view old photographs to verify this) but that too is seemingly an illusion. But. Let me state, this illusion and all that the brain creates is a necessity for us to exist in this illusory world. No wonder we have constantly asked those enduring questions and the shortest and the most effective and relevant being: Why?

What kind of trick has been played upon us frail humans…and even beyond this trick there being dealt a false trump card – a card that has given us the desire and need to discover who and what we are and where we are, where we are going and ultimately if we were created by some unknown supreme being. We frail humans given cards of nobility and poetry but also fear and violence. Each is dealt his hand…by chance, by providence, through DNA?

I think therefore I am – yet I am aware that I am thinking – therefore I am ‘we’ – both the thinker and the observer. And because I think in English: I think therefore I am English and all that I am aware of through this inherited language. And everything I think comes from where? I think therefore it is I that think. Or: I think unbidden thoughts therefore I am me and something ‘other’? We seem to be a paradox. That’s the nature of the trick.

When we dream – who is it that dreams? Who is it in the dreams? Who creates the dreams and sets the play in motion?

For many people it is enough to live and die – to work and play…some struggle some seem gifted by ‘fate’. Some folk give their lives to ideas and some are tortured and killed for having these, or indeed contrary, ideas. That is how strongly we are caught in our language, in our being. O I truly admire those who have died and suffered in the name of beauty or truth or spirit. But how odd it all seems too. That some men should dictate to others how they might feel, think, believe, say, write and act. When nothing is, indeed, quite how we think it is. The ancient Eastern religions understood this and now modern ‘cutting-edge’ science seems to be verifying these ancient beliefs. There’s more to us perhaps than even we thought.

If this life is a trick, a game…whose rules are we playing to? Is there a reason for us to be here. What is our true nature. There is the argument that we are ‘one’ (non-dual) and that we exist without time and matter. An idea that we are drops of the ocean or fragments of a hologram – all belonging and connected to the whole. In this sense we have been tricked into an earthly state of division and unique personality. When I talk with people about this there comes the idea of ‘re-birth’ (reincarnation) and that our mission, if you will, is to ‘escape’ from captivity of the flesh. That our essence is something beyond and eventually apart from who we are (or who we think we are). On the one hand I see the logic and even justice to this and on the other hand I see cruelty and lack of justice. Most of us are destined to relate as the ‘I’ – and we create our life story correspondingly. The idea of re-birth seems to be the loss of each personality (but maintenance of the ‘spirit’). Who we are is annihilated – and yet some part of ‘us’ carries on. Is this the ‘divine spark’ the droplet of the divine ocean. But if there is no connection between that droplet and my perception of ‘me’ – why would/should I care? Are ‘we’ but fading dreams of another?

How cruel to birth us into this material world with senses to experience it – and to feel its love, hate, warmth, cold, benevolence and cruelty and yet also be locked within a ‘secret’. This secret being that we are NOT truly part of this earth and that we must – through lifetimes of repeated existence – find a way off and out of this material plane! Were I the playwright of such a play I might congratulate myself on its playful and clever conceit. But discovering one is but a fictional character with no life beyond the page…well…I might feel somewhat misused. Especially as my appearance on the stage is so brief and apparently futile.

My father used to say to me: There is only one thing worse than dying for ever and that is living for ever. Here is the great conundrum. This conundrum seems rarely to be challenged. Is there any connection between this earthly existence (the test) and the existence ‘as one’ (connected to all and everything and perhaps The Godhead) beyond time, space and matter? There certainly seems much credible (and incredible!) evidence for existence beyond this life but the nature of that also seems poorly transmitted. It maybe that we enter a lighter consensual reality, amidst others we relate to…a more spiritual place (for some) but dark and heavy for others…who perhaps maintain much of their earthly existence. Maybe we’re being given spurious information as but yet a further test?

The nearest I get to understanding another life beyond the mystical glances sometimes obtained in the beauty of nature…or through music or a piece of sublime literature or art is within my dreamscapes. In dreams it seems as if there is a natural narrative…everything ‘makes sense’…it is us and we comprehend our seemingly natural environment. It’s only on waking that our dreams might seem very strange. And then they begin to fade despite our best efforts to resurrect them or keep the narrative going. It’s like reading a story and the last few pages have been ripped out. Dreams make sense even when nonsense. It really is another reality. It is REAL or as real as this reality. Only waking from a dream does it seem odd or different. Of course there are those who can hop in and out of dream-states and even travel beyond into the astral realms. Or somewhere. Another avenue of reality? A place where our conscious mind (and/or spirit) goes on death? Do dreams offer an insight into the connection between this world and the ‘other’?

These days we can slip into virtual reality. A time seems fast approaching when being in virtual reality might be as common as falling asleep and dreaming. Though we might become masters of our movement in VR land it is not a ‘consensual reality’ but rather a reality created by both humans and machines. I can imagine all sorts of wonderful experiences and the most frightening too. In a future world, grossly over-populated we might enter VR to see, smell and experience nature. But who knows what might have been designed to roam through those lands too. VR certainly can but make us consider what THIS reality is. Like self-induced other realities it will be ‘real’ at the time of experiencing. The mind can be fooled and sometimes quite easily. And the mind can be manipulated too. If we create a VR that transforms the human experience are we creating a VR within a VR. If we can create effective virtual reality who’s to say THIS life isn’t a ‘virtual reality’!

Were we created in God’s (or The Great Creator’s) image? If so – what a disappointment we must have been and still are. I immediately think of us the ‘sons and daughters of God’ creating our own reflections – ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and Robots. Here again the whole notion of consciousness might be forced vehemently into our collective consciousness. The idea – say – that consciousness is received by humans (and not self-created) seems interesting in that the future might see robots obtain their own consciousness. If the reaction to this is – never!…well, that would mean that only the human organic brain (or an animal’s?) can tune into radiating, and yet personal, consciousness. Consciousness is also said to be whole (oneness) but if we receive consciousness we do so in personalised packages. Are we bundled up and packaged pre-birth? If it is the will of the sender that determines who and/or what receives consciousness then why not robots? At the moment robots are fairly ‘primitive’ and yet there has already been a case of robots creating their own language. If humans did come from apes and were subsequently to receive the consciousness we have now – then why not highly sophisticated robots? Of course all this is but scratching the surface. But as an aside there have been experiments with humans where simple choices have been offered (left/right on/off) and their brain reactions monitored. These experiments seem to show quite large gaps between the brain deciding what to do and consciousness deciding what to do! In other words our consciousness (decisions seemingly made in the ‘present’) lagged behind the actual brain decision by seconds. This would mean our ‘present’ is in an eternal ‘past’. Not only that of course but it would suggest all is mapped out and we’re here just for the ride…though we have been tricked (once again) into thinking we are masters of our own fate. Maybe robots of the future though highly evolved will always lag behind their programming? Maybe robots will feel tricked.

If we are beyond time, space and matter (the soul nature) then again we have been tricked into believing we have a beginning and an end. And yet the beginning is hazy and comes together through our perception of time and self and unfolds in retrospection. Most of our perception of ourselves is retrospective. There is also the sense of deja vu (or deja vecu) that haunts us…Do we re-live our life over and over – and if so for what purpose? The world we live in seems to have constant birth and rebirth – as in Nature. Yet we and our surroundings SEEM to be eternal. Others may die (like a leaf/flower/cow/dog or even fellow human) but surely not us. The Sun will one day burn out but can we (do we) perceive of Earth’s ending? And the universe in which we live perhaps has no boundaries and ‘just is’. Like puppets we gaze up into the sky at night, our strings lost into the blackness…Our helplessness and lack of understanding is full of pathos. Why were we tricked so?

What is the antidote to our existence in this world that both is and isn’t? For me it is the art and act of creation. If all was created by The Great Creator – the original creative act – then being creative is truly a spark of godliness. Life can be cold, hard and cruel but we have shown throughout our time on this earth that we can rise above hardship and persecution, above torture and even walk to the gallows with our heads held high. There is something in us that is greater than ourselves.
My own philosophy of life and death draws on the ideas and communications of others (both alive, dead and perhaps beyond the ‘veil’). At death our consciousness/spirit travels on and alights at another place of consensual reality. In this place we flock together with like minds – some others are drawn to the heavy earthly states – some are light and finely tuned. Thus we begin the next stage of our journey. Perhaps this journey involves the ‘release of ourselves’ – the ‘release of attachments’…though we continue to learn we also learn to give up. Gradually we will indeed become ‘one’ – leaving the unique self behind. By becoming ‘one’ we will no longer be aware of time, space or matter…we will no longer fear the loss of ourselves and loved ones…as we will be melded into a greater and all-encompassing love. As I write these words I feel panic…I am attached to the poetic in this life and the connection to others. But being melded with love and being ‘one’ will not – I trust – mean the loss of anyone or anything but rather the gaining of a higher connection and higher ‘love’. Poets, mystics, philosophers, religious thinkers and perhaps even each one of us has at rare times had an in-sight into the greater-ness that we are normally so unaware of. Maybe we’ll get to comprehend the ‘Great Trick’ that has been played on us – maybe we’ll laugh out loud and understand the very true nature of who we are and what we are for. In the meantime we can but dream…we’ll continue viewing the stars above and continue making enquiry. And we’ll continue asking: Who am I?

I hope and trust you will enjoy the essays that follow…and that you might step back from this stage for a while and view from the wings…view the actors so caught up emotionally in the play. Maybe you’ll catch a glance of the playwright him/her/it self viewing from the balcony and maybe you’ll catch a wry smile on that playwright’s face. After all, the playwright knows the trick that’s been played all along. And we are but the stuff that dreams are made on.

Tim Bragg (copyright 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition

rightreturnsPaperback: 138 pages
Publisher: Arktos Media Ltd (1 Oct. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1910524492
ISBN-13: 978-1910524497

Let’s start with what I like about this book! Counter Culture has for years stressed the importance of metapolitics. For those not familiar with the term The Real Right defines it as:

“the process of disseminating and anchoring a particular set of cultural ideas, attitudes, and values in a society, which eventually leads to deeper political change.
This work need not – and perhaps should not – be linked to a particular party or programme. The point is ultimately to redefine the conditions under which politics is conceived”.

The ‘Metapolitical Dictionary’ toward the back of the book also defines metapolitics:

“Metapolitics is about spreading ideas, attitudes and values in a society, with the long-term goal of effecting a deeper political change.”

The authour, Daniel Friberg, acknowledges that the Philospher who first expressed this concept was the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Like me Daniel Friberg cites the influence of his Prison Notebooks (Quaderni del carcere) on his thinking.

One of the key concepts dealt with in the Notebooks is that of cultural hegemony. Gramsci questioned the classical Marxist concept of base/superstructure. For classical Marxists the base comprising the forces and relations of production—employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations determined society’s other relationships and ideas, which represent its superstructure. Gramsci split Marx’s superstructure into two elements: political society and civil society. Political society is the organized force of society (the police, courts and military for example) while civil society is the consensus-creating element of society that contributes to hegemony. Political society dominates directly and with force whilst Civil Society relies on persuasion and dominates culturally. Gramsci emphasised that attaining cultural hegemony came before the establishment of political power.

There is a clear and concise explanation of the view expressed in the Notebooks in the Return of the Real Right:

“In this work Gramsci claimed that the State was not limited to its political apparatus. In fact it works in tandem with the so-called civil apparatus. In other words every political power structure is reinforced by a civil concensus, which is the social and psychological support given by the masses. This support expresses itself in the assumptions which underlie their culture, worldview and customs. In order for any politcal ideology to maintain its grip on power, it must support itself by establishing and disseminating these cultural assumptions amongst the masses.” (p.22)

The ‘New Right’ on the Continent have drawn inspiration from this theory. Here in the UK some Nationalists in the 80s became aware of these ideas through both the original work of Gramsci and in translations of New Right thinking provided by The Scorpion, a magazine edited by Michael Walker.

The Real Right Returns looks at the application of metapolitics by the New Right in Sweden. The consideration of the role of the think-tank Motpol (founded in 2006) is fascinating. The book also acknowledges the key role of GRECE.

The Real Right returns takes a positive stance on ethnic pluralism which while emphasising loyalty to the nation advocates good will toward and co-operation with others. It condemns those warmongers who seek to impose values on other peoples.

The authour also recognises the move of the ‘Left’ away from class politics to both the cult of the individual and to an emphasis on particular identity politics.

There is an interesting analysis of the link between this and consumer capitalism.

So far, so good. Where I start to part company with the authour (and to be fair, much of the’New Right’) is the insistence of drawing values and points of orientation from a narrowly ‘traditionalist’ perspective. Perhaps it is inevitable that the starting point of a reaction to the “fragmented and relatavised reality” (p.19) we live in will be to look for the certainties of the past.

In The Real Right returns this is particularly evident in the advice given on gender roles and asides about the ‘LGBT’ lobby. Let me give just one example. Advice is given to men that they should learn self-defence (sparring is rightly emphasised). No such advice is given to women who, in keeping with the ‘traditonalist’ model are pointed to finding a protective male. I have a number of problems with this: protective males aren’t that common (as the authour bemoans); it is seldom a good idea to rely purely on others for protection; why should an ideological leaning trump the need and right of a woman to train for self-defence? Both my Son and Daughter go to self-defence lessons. We live in a wild, wicked world and we need to think about what ‘is’ as well as what ‘ought’ to be.

The Real Right Returns presents the values of the new society, the new hegemony, to be established as fixed, rigid. Of course they aren’t. The study of dialectics might also be something we could draw from Marxism or, earlier, Hegel. Part of the process of creating a new hegemony will be the debate about what shape it will take.

It is unlikely that a simple reversion to past values will provide a solution. In rejecting many of the cultural assumptions of today will we arrive back at yesterday? I don’t think so.

The Real Right Returns throws down a challenge in its assertion of traditionalist norms. Many of our current norms are assumed and we need to think critically about them and alternatives. It will be a shock for some to see these views expressed so well and forcefully but sometimes it is no bad thing to experience a cold shower! It certainly made me think. I was surprised by how far traditonal values resonated with me and also where I didn’t follow them. I have had a similar experience with the advice offered to families by Pope Francis (a man who is less strident, though no less ardent, than Daniel!).

This is a book which deserves to be widely read and considered.

Reviewd by Patrick Harrington

Daniel Friberg, MBA, is CEO of the Swedish mining corporation Wiking Mineral and was a founding member of the Swedish metapolitical think tank, Motpol. He has a long history in the Swedish opposition, and was one of the founders of the publisher Arktos.

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A Spy Among Friends, Philby and the Great Betrayal

philby

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The history of Kim Philby, the KGB agent at the heart of British Intelligence, has often been told before but what makes Ben Macintyre’s book eminently readable is that it approaches the story from a fresh angle. Macintyre seeks to shed light on Philby’s character by examining those closest to him, his friends, family and colleagues in the Intelligence Service all of whom he would ultimately betray.

Central to the story is Nicholas Elliot. Like Philby, he is an ex-public school boy, (Elliot is an Old Etonian and Philby attended Westminster School). Both men live to an extent in the shadow of successful but somewhat remote fathers. Wartime work for the secret services brings them together and the charismatic Philby and Elliot become firm friends. Later in the war when the fledgling United States intelligence service arrived in London looking to learn from its longer established British counterparts, James Jesus Angleton, a figure that was to loom large in the post-war CIA and a staunch Anglophile of American-Mexican parentage who spent much of his early life in England, was also to fall under the spell of the magnetic Philby. By this time Philby had already been in the employ of the Soviet Union for a number of years having been recruited after becoming a communist at Cambridge University and having spent time in the radical political scene of 1930’s Vienna where he was to marry for the first time to an Austrian communist.
After world War Two Philby took up the prime post of the Secret Intelligence Service’s man in Washington and he soon became a star of the social scene around the new Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation with which he liaised in its role as the American domestic counter espionage service. It is widely believed that it was Angleton’s influence that landed him this job and the two men regularly shared boozy lunches at which they discussed confidential matters with Angleton little realising that the information he was sharing with his good friend Philby was being passed on to the Soviet Union’s spymasters.

What might have been Philby’s eventual rise to the top of SIS was brought crashing down by figures from his past. Guy Burgess, an unstable individual who was part of the so-called Cambridge spy ring along with Philby, was posted to America after various drunken escapades in London. Becoming Philby’s house guest he further added to his record of disgraces including upsetting the wife of a CIA counter-intelligence chief at a drink sodden dinner party at the Philbys’ house. Then another Cambridge spy, Donald Maclean in the Foreign Office, was on the verge of being arrested, a development that could have led to the exposure of Philby himself. On learning that the finger of suspicion was pointing at their fellow Soviet agent, Philby and Burgess sought to warn Maclean with Burgess being recalled to London, (whether by accident or design has never been clearly established), and despite Philby’s injunction to Burgess not to defect along with Maclean, the two men disappear together behind the Iron Curtain.

As feared by Philby, the flight of Burgess and Maclean turned the spotlight firmly on him. While no definite proof could be found of his treachery, the circumstantial evidence was considerable. Missions compromised, agents lost, calamities that had befallen western intelligence that in one way or another could be linked to Philby. Under questioning he would admit nothing. His friends such as Elliot and Angleton leapt to his defence and there formed somewhat of a split between MI6 and the spy-catchers of MI5 over the question of Philby’s guilt or innocence, with MI5 being convinced of his guilt but lacking the evidence to prove it. The shadow of suspicion was too much to make his continued employment by SIS tenable and he was forced to leave and eke out a living working for an import-export company while trying to find work in his pre-war field of journalism. Although he was temporarily cut-off from his Soviet controllers, he was receiving aid from those convinced of his innocence and Nicholas Elliot was paying many of Philby’s bills.

The climax of this book comes in January of 1963. By this time Philby has been enjoying something of an upturn of his fortunes having survived near exposure of his espionage, including being named in Parliament as the “Third Man” in the Burgess and Maclean scandal. He is living and working in Beirut as a journalist and is also working as an agent of MI6, although not as an officer. He largely owes this position to the good offices of Nicholas Elliot. It was another figure from his past that was going to bring about his downfall and the chain of events that was to lead to a confrontation in Beirut between Philby and his long-time friend and defender Nicholas Elliot began not too far from that city.

In 1962 Flora Solomon, an old friend of Philby from university days and who also introduced him to his second wife Aileen, was attending a conference in Israel when she complained to Victor, Lord Rothschild, about Philby: “How is it the Observer uses a man like Kim? Don’t they know he’s a communist?” and went on to relate how Philby had attempted to recruit her as a communist spy in 1935. Lord Rothschild, himself a decorated former British intelligence officer, reported back Solomon’s denunciation of Philby to MI5 and for those still convinced of Philby’s guilt it was the final piece of the puzzle that proved he had an active link with Soviet intelligence. These revelations posed a dilemma for both the British security services and the government. The now Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when Foreign Secretary cleared Philby of being a spy when he was named in Parliament and another spying trial after the George Blake case could seriously harm the government. Could Philby be lured back to London? Should he be kidnapped? Or perhaps assassination would be the solution? All these options were considered and rejected in favour of a good old-fashioned British compromise: Philby would be offered immunity from prosecution in return for a confession that he had spied for the Soviets but that he had not done so since 1949, (the choice of this cut-off point a sop to the Americans so that his period in Washington was somehow espionage free and thus his treason only a matter for the British to deal with), and his full co-operation with MI5. To the consternation of MI5, the man to be sent to Beirut to deal with Philby was not going to be one of their men but Nicholas Elliot of MI6.

Elliot arrived in Beirut in January of 1963 and interviewed Philby in a safe flat in the city. Their conversations were taped although the recordings contain a lot of background noise from the street outside. They duelled in a very civilised way over tea initially but despite Philby trying to call on their old friendship, the game was up and he knew it. Over a four day period he made partial admissions of guilt but also held back on the whole story. After Elliot’s departure Philby set in motion his defection to the Soviet Union. The book concludes with an account of Philby’s less than idyllic later life in Moscow, and a fascinating afterword from John Le Carre in which he recounts his conversations with Nicholas Elliot.
“A Spy Among Friends” is a well-researched and extremely readable book. Ben Macintyre has done an excellent job of portraying the characters and times involved in the Kim Philby story. The bonds of social class and club may seem anachronistic in 2015 but they played a real part in the lives of people in Philby’s era. There are still questions that the reader is left with such as why was Philby not monitored in Beirut after Elliot’s departure? Did the British establishment secretly wish him to defect as a less embarrassing alternative to having to put him on trial? Alas, until the files of the respective security services on both sides of the old Cold War are fully opened we shall not know.

Reviewed by Andrew Hunter

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TRIGGER WARNING

triggerwarning cover

Trigger Warning: [free speech and offensive language]. This review contains strong racial and sexual slurs, discussions of –isms, or hatred of any kind (racism, chauvinism, classism, sexism, body-image shaming)

WHAT you have just read is a ‘Trigger Warning’. Increasingly common, a Trigger Warning is a notice at the start of any piece of writing, or audio or video to warn would-be readers, listeners or viewers that something potentially upsetting or offensive is on its way. The underlying implication seems to be look away, do not read this, or turn off your radio or television set.

This modern innovation has inspired Spiked-online editor Mick Hume to write an impassioned polemic in defence of freedom of speech which he claims is under threat, mainly because many of us don’t want to offend anyone. His new book, Trigger Warning, claims that politeness or fear of causing offence is undermining the hard-won rights of freedom of speech and thought that we like to think are the foundations of our society.

The Islamic gunmen who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo acted not just as the soldiers of an oldish Eastern religion but also as the armed and extremist wing of a thoroughly modern Western creed… a creeping culture of conformism. The cri de Coeur of these crusaders against offensive speech is You-Can’t-Say-That.

The gunmen who shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Copenhagen café just cut out the middleman in order to stop anyone reading the blasphemies in Charlie Hebdo or listening to a debate in Copenhagen on the nature of free speech and blasphemy.

Reverse-Voltaires

Western culture seems to have fallen out with its own core value of free speech. The author brands the crusaders in question as ‘Reverse-Voltaires’. The famous phrase, attributed to the French freethinker had him saying, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Hume’s Reverse-Voltaires in effect say, “I know I’ll detest and be offended by what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it.” They don’t wish to debate or dispute arguments that they find offensive. They would deny the other person’s right to say it in the first instance. The author’s charge is that these Reverse-Voltaires’ personal emotions and feelings come first. They want to be protected from words.

What has happened to the West’s liberal lobby in defence of free speech? They still speak up for oppressed dissidents in other parts of the world but at home, too many professed ‘liberals’ have gone over to the other side and want to restrict the ‘wrong’ kinds of speech. To many, censorship even seems cool.

Under King William III of glorious, pious and immortal memory, the need lapsed in 1695 for a Crown licence to publish anything. The recent Leveson Report called for a new State-sanctioned regulator to police press freedom. Even Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty gave public support for a new Royal Charter to limit press freedom.

Hume notes sadly that the remaining Pythons – who thirty-five years ago fought massive battles against Mary Whitehouse and quite a few Church of England bishops in order that everyone could go to see The Life of Brian – have effectively switched sides and joined a secular crusade for less press freedom. Illiberal liberalism now rules the roost so that black activist Jasper Lee rejoiced in closing down the controversial Exhibit B at the Barbican with the claim that censorship was a blow for free speech.

Today, free speech is attacked in the name of defending rights and freedoms. Even worse, there is now a blurring of the line between public and private spheres so that recently a large number of public figures and celebrities were monstered for thoughts expressed in private phone calls, texts or emails that were leaked, often by former friends or partners. As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine put it, “there is surely only one solution to the alleged scourge of people saying bad things in private – put a telescreen in very home to capture our banter and alert the morality police to the utterance of dark or daft thoughts.” just as was the case in Orwell’s 1984 where people were encouraged to shop colleagues, neighbours and even family members. In 1984, Orwell’s Thought Police didn’t just punish those guilty of thoughtcrime but served to encourage others to practice ‘crimestop’ – the faculty of stopping short before embracing any dangerous thought.

Historical context

Hume puts the importance of freedom of thought and free speech in its historical context in a short outline of free-speech heretics, something we as Dissenters and Non-Conformists know – or ought to know – well. The right to freedom of expression and conscience was not handed down to us as a gift from the gods or from kings and aristocrats as an act of condescending beneficence. It had to be fought for and defended, over and over again.

We have heard a lot about Magna Carta in the past few months, given that its 800th anniversary was recently celebrated in great style. It did have a genuine role against arbitrary state power by establishing the idea that the Crown is not above the law and that free men have certain rights, most notably the right to trial by a jury of their peers. However, the Magna Carta had nothing to say about freedom of speech in a society where serfs were virtually owned body and soul by the lords of the manor.

After William Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476, the Crown sought to control it under a system of licensing. Today’s attempts to muzzle and control the internet are not entirely unprecedented. Nothing could be published without permission of the Star Chamber. Any criticism of the Crown was branded as treason or seditious libel.

One early free-speech martyr was the Greek philosopher, Socrates who, mirroring present-day Britain and America ‘just went too far.’ He was accused of corrupting the morals of Athens youth by saying things that ought not to be said. He replied that even if they went to spare him, he would keep on saying the unsayable and asking forbidden questions. Socrates posed the question; should there be a right to be a heretic?

As Hume notes, notions of heresy change as society changes in history. ‘Heresy’ is a label stuck on you by someone else. “From the trial of Socrates to today the big battles have been about the right to go against the grain, dissent from respectable opinion and question the unquestionable.” – in short, the right to be offensive.

In an age when many people dismiss religion as repressive and reactionary, Hume reminds secular readers that William Tyndale whose struggle to publish the Bible in English ended in fiery martyrdom, as well as the other religious heretics, came up against the censorious power of the political authorities. Their demands soon melded into calls for press freedom.

In 1689, after the Glorious Revolution which brought the immortal King Billy to the throne, the Bill of Rights wrote freedom of speech and debate into English law for parliamentarians. The system of Crown licensing for printers and publishers ended in 1695. The philosopher John Locke argued in A Letter Concerning Toleration against the State interfering in matters of conscience or faith but three centuries later, the government is still at it.

Up until the last few decades, liberty of expression and free-speech had widened in the UK. The last prosecution for blasphemous libel was in 1977 when Mary Whitehouse took a private case against Gay News for a poem she didn’t like. The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008. However, Hume argues that this has been replaced by a form of ‘blasphemy-lite’ – the new censorship of ‘hate-speech’.

Proponents of old orthodoxies now find themselves in the dock – often literally. This might make some folk smile a ‘slap-it-into-you’ wry smile but as Hume remarks, heresy-hunting still threatens free-speech even if the person on the receiving end is a bigot. Today, a myriad of unofficial and shifting speech rules and codes apply and woe betides anyone who falls foul of them.

The internet front

In China and Turkey the State authorities are open and honest that they censor opinions that they don’t like. But the internet is today a major front in the silent war on free speech. Here in the West we don’t censor in order to enforce political repression – perish the thought – but to protect the vulnerable against harmful and hateful words.

We hear a lot in the media about internet ‘trolls’ although there is no firm definition of the term. This hasn’t prevented a government minster threatening to quadruple prison sentences for writing words based on a shaky definition of what a troll actually is.

Some people on the internet are really horrible but ‘trolls’ have just as much right to say what somebody else doesn’t like as anyone else. Like everyone else, however, they have no right to be taken seriously. In case anyone was wondering, threats of rape, violence or murder are already illegal, so no new anti-trolling laws are necessary. Not only words, but the context in which they are used should determine the credibility or otherwise of any alleged threat.

The rise of the troll has led to the emergence of professional self-appointed ‘troll-hunters’ who seek to track down and punish these people. One recent tragic case concerned Brenda Leyland who killed herself after she was exposed on television as the women who posted a serious of online accusations against the parents of a missing child.

Another threat to internet free-speech emerged after a 2014 European Court of Justice case on ‘the right to be forgotten’. This led to a pianist demanding that the Washington Post take down a three-year-old critical review of one of his concerts and many others seeking to cast stuff about their past into an Orwellian memory hole.

Universities

Two centuries ago, the poet Percy Shelley was banned from Oxford in 1811 for publishing The Necessity of Atheism. Today, universities are all supposed to be about the search for knowledge, truth and free expression; what Disraeli called, ‘a place of light, of liberty and of learning.’ That’s no longer true in the US or in the UK where often students fight for freedom from speech. Berkley University in 1964 was where students founded the Free Speech Movement. By a twist of irony, students at the same university petitioned to ‘disinvite’ the comedian Bill Maher in order that they might feel safe.

Bizarro World has come alive in many universities so that self-professed liberals or radicals are in the forefront of campus censorship campaigns. In recent cases, people have been told that ‘people who do not have uteruses’ have no say on the abortion debate and various speakers have been banned under widening cowardly and reactionary ‘no platform’ rules. Once it was ‘no platform’ for racists and fascists. Now it is ‘no platform for racists, fascists, Islamic extremists, Islamaphobes, rappers, comedians, Israelis, climate-change deniers, Christians, atheists or UKIP members. Hume says that this would be better phrased as ‘no arguments’ as their proponents refuse to countenance any ideas other than their own.

Hume excoriates the use of ‘Safe Space’ and ‘Free Speech Zones’ in many US universities which restrict opinions to the zone and make them off-limits everywhere else and turn the rule into the exception.

Trigger warning migrated from a therapeutic took to help sufferers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to many books on the university syllabus and even to things like Downton Abbey. This misuse undermines two freedoms; the right to speak or write what you want or the right to read, listen to, or watch what you want.

Football and comedy

Free speech is for (allegedly) fat and (mostly) white, male, working class football fans too.” In recent years, as money has poured into the game, there has been an attempt to ‘socially cleanse’ football terraces of its working class fan base, ostensibly to make the game more acceptable to the middle classes and ethnic minorities and more ‘family friendly’. While the thought appals many folk, a large part of the appeal of the game is winding up supporters of opposing teams by singing offensive songs. In Scotland, this can get you locked up under draconian legislation which is supposed to outlaw sectarianism. People have even been fined for singing God Save the Queen.

Players find themselves hung out to dry too. John Terry from Chelsea Football Club was found not guilty in court of calling another player, Anton Ferdinand of QPR a ‘fucking black cunt’ but nevertheless was sentenced by the English FA to a huge fine of £220,000 and forced to undergo re-education in etiquette and speech codes because of his ‘racism’. He was cleared in court of any offence but treated as guilty anyway on the grounds that he ought to have been some sort of ‘role model’ to young impressionable football fans. In today’s society, role model rules overcome the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Hume mourns the passing of the Jewish-American comedienne Joan Rivers. Loved and hated in equal measure, she never apologised to anyone who claimed to be offended by her acerbic brand of humour. Who, he wonders, will slay all those sacred cows now? The censors once were conservative politicians, policemen and priests. Now protests are led by illiberal liberals in the media, other comedians and activists.

The alternative comedians of the 1980s have created their own alternative comedic conformism. Most recent examples are the comic character ‘Dapper Laughs’, who was killed off by an illiberal liberal lynch mob. Interestingly, the West Belfast Festival, Féile an Phobail, is under pressure from some of the same circles to disinvite the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle because they disapprove of some of his recent material. Nobody, Hume observes, “is against free speech for comedians. Until, that is, they decide somebody has gone too far in offending their own views and hurting their feelings.”

Many opponents of free speech borrow – and distort – an argument first aired by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes in an American court in 1919 that people have no right to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Holmes said that there was no freedom ‘falsely’ to cry fire in a crowded theatre. His ruling against a US socialist activist assumed that Schenk could be punished after the fact for what he wrote in a leaflet against military conscription in wartime. He didn’t try to prevent its publication beforehand as Gordon Brown’s government did with the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he was banned from entering the UK in 2009. That was prior constraint and State censorship of an elected representative.

This raises the question, who decides? How can we make an informed decision if we cannot hear what a person has to say? The fire-in-a-theatre argument has generalised from a specific set of circumstances in order to shut down ideas that the offended person doesn’t like and doesn’t want anyone else to hear. Hume offers another quotation from Holmes, made in 1929. “If there is and principle in the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”

Words will always hurt me

We used to recite a wee verse that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Today that has been turned on its head. Recently, Katy Hopkins – a B List attention-seeking celebrity motor-mouth who has re-invented herself as a professional troll – faced a petition to sack her from her Sun column because of ignorant and stupid comments she made about would-be migrants from North Africa drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact there was more outrage and indignation over her shit-stirring article than there was over the actual deaths of would-be migrants.

Hume blames the rise of what he calls identity politics as a major cause of the modern outbreak of thin-skinnedness. When someone identifies with a particular identity group, they become fixed in it and will not accept any challenge to their worldview. It’s not only you-can’t-say-THAT, but YOU-can’t-say-that! The result of this is that we have privatised blasphemy and virtually criminalised criticism. Identity activists consciously and conspicuously go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. They look for something to be offended by. They stifle public debate by their insistence that speech is policed to protect hurt feelings of the few who claim to have been offended.

Taking offence has become the acceptable face of political censorship today. Of course, anyone is entitled to take offence at anything said or written by someone else but taking offence does not give them any right to take away that other person’s freedom of speech.

Hume attributes one ‘-ism’ as the most powerful factor in this outbreak of self-righteous umbrage – narcissism; I feel superior by my sense of outrage and offence at what these dreadful people are saying. It’s an outrage. It upsets me. It shouldn’t be allowed. The 2008 EU ‘hate-speech’ laws were drafted in order to promote tolerance and equality. One EU commissioner admitted that they were actually intended to “preserve social peace and public order” by protecting the “increasing sensitivities” of “certain individuals” who “have reacted violently to criticism of their religion”.

That went well, didn’t it? Hume argues that the hate-speech laws seem to have inflamed things by sanctioning the notion that offensive speech is a crime that ought to be suppressed or outlawed if it upsets someone, so speaking disrespectfully of Mohammed or of other Islamic symbols deserve punishment. By this reckoning, the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff privatised the penalty due for causing such offence. Thomas Jefferson argued that the State should keep out of religious disputes. “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods on no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Today people can be locked up or fined in the UK and Europe for expressing an opinion deemed insulting or offensive to someone else’s religion or identity group. Ask Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, who is awaiting trial for a sermon in which he claimed that Islam was spawned in hell and was of the devil. It looks like the State will be wading into religious disputes in future, if somebody makes a complaint.

Liberals used to campaign for disadvantaged groups to share equality with the rest of us; not special privileges for a self-identified group. Anyone can be and has the right to be offended but not to use that feeling of offence to curtail the rights of the rest of us.

Mind your Ps – Qs – Ns & Ys

Hume recounts a Football Association dinner he attended that was entertained by the black American comedian, Reginald D Hunter, who told amusing stories of how soccer baffled ‘this nigga’. A huge media shitstorm saw Hunter pilloried for racist language and behaviour. The FA’s anti-racism lobby group, Kick it Out now ‘condemns racial slurs, irrespective of context’. According to this idiocy, Hunter calling himself ‘this nigga’ is just as outrageous as a Klansman shouting ‘lynch that nigger’ at him. Fans of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club have similarly found themselves in trouble for calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’.

A similar storm of outrage burst over the head of the award winning actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a January 2015 interview when he referred to ‘coloured actors’. Never mind that he was speaking out against racism. He used a slightly old fashioned term to describe people of colour and was denounced on both sides of the Atlantic for his use of these dreadful words of power. According to the theorists of ‘irrespective of context’ Cumberbatch might as well have gone around whipping slaves and forging new chains for them by reminding their descendants of the bad old days of segregation and slavery. He was forced to make a grovelling apology for his hate-speech.

We are entering a cultural age where people like Hunter, Cumberbatch, the Yid Army or any one of us can be sacked, censured or censored for saying the wrong word, regardless of where they said it or what they meant by it.

Liars and holocaust deniers

Hume describes the recent trend for people who question the dominant view or current orthodoxy to be branded as ‘deniers’. ‘Denier’ is a religious term just as ‘witch’ was in the seventeenth century. To brand someone as a denier alleges a moral failure. That person is not just wrong but has no right to be heard. You don’t debate with deniers; you shut them up or lock them up or burn them. That’s what happened to Michael Servetus who was burnt at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva in 1553. He denied the Trinity. In Scotland, Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh in 1697 for denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ. All questioned the unquestionable and denied the prevailing orthodoxy – the ‘accepted version of truth’. All were regarded as subversive, dangerous and morally debased.

Holocaust denial is now the biggest thoughtcrime in the West. It has become a crime in almost twenty countries in the past two decades since the Holocaust became transformed from a historical event into a pseudo-theological universal symbol of absolute moral evil that must be taught in schools. The best way to deal with such nonsense is not to shut it down by locking up its proponents but to expose its fallacies and errors to the light of day. It”s not as if there’s any shortage of evidence.

Like all heresy hunters, the defenders of orthodoxy don’t just want to silence their opponents but to punish them for their secular blasphemy. Denial is meant to be “a refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion, or to admit it into consciousness.” A ‘denier’ is someone refusing to acknowledge what everyone knows is the undoubted truth, not a sincere doubter but a despicable liar.

Similar terms are now being used to refer to persons who doubt the current orthodoxy on man-made climate change. As the debate is settled and the question closed such doubters should be silenced. This is contrary to the opinion of John Stuart Mill who wrote, “To refuse a hearing to an opinion because they are sure it is false is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. That’s for popes, not scientists.”

Elitists believe that the ‘sheeple’ – ordinary people – need to be protected from the media. Their lack of faith in free speech reflects and reinforces their lack of belief in humanity. Hume argues that this is the main reason why there was an official cover-up of the scandal in Rotherham where gangs of Asian men abused white girls with impunity. The story was not suppressed by the authorities for years because it was false but because it was true. Social workers and officials feared accusations of racism and that community tensions would be inflamed if the full truth came out.

Today those who think of themselves as enlightened often demand less free speech and want to restrict press freedom. The puritans of the past look like open-minded humanists compared with today’s misanthropic illiberal liberals.

The right to free speech is not sectional. It has to apply to everyone – no matter how obnoxious – or it becomes undermined for others. Once media freedom is made out to be a problem the ‘solution’ offered is more state intervention and regulation. Orwell wrote that “A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

The crux of Hume’s argument is that free speech is not the problem but that fear of it is. “Without fighting for the heretical right to offend against society’s consensus views and to question the unquestionable orthodoxies of the age, many of the great political, cultural, scientific or artistic breakthroughs that we now take for granted would have been hard to imagine.”

Reverse-Voltaires claim that we will gain is a safer, more civil society where people will have to respect each other. Hume argues that we are all in danger of losing the meanings of words. Rules and codes shift and narrow the terms of debate as Benedict Cumberbatch learned to his cost. In fact, they close down any chance of debate which prohibits any proper discussion on the important issues of the day.

David Kerr

Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume. William Collins Books ISBN978-0-00-812545-5 £12.99

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