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keep taking the tablets

The following article is Chapter Four of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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“Psychiatry could be, or some psychiatrists are, on the side of transcendence, of genuine freedom, and of true human growth. But psychiatry can so easily be a technique of brainwashing, of inducing behaviour that is adjusted, by (preferably) non-injurious torture. In the best places, where straitjackets are abolished, doors are unlocked, leucotomies largely forgone, these can be replaced by more subtle lobotomies and tranquillizers that place the bars of Bedlam and the locked doors inside the patient.”  

— R. D. Laing in a later preface to The Divided Self. 1

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A few notes of caution before proceeding:

From this point onwards I shall use the words ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ interchangeable and to denote mental illness of different kinds in an entirely general and overarching way. Beyond the shorthand, I have adopted this approach for two principle reasons. Given the nature of the field and on the basis of historical precedent, technical labels tend to be transitory and superseded, and so traditional and non-technical language avoids our need to grapple with the elaborate definitions found in medical directories of psychiatry (more later), while taking this approach also keeps clear of the euphemism treadmill. Moreover, the older terms have simplicity which, if used with sensitivity, bestow weight on the day-to-day misery of mental illness and dignify its suffering. R. D. Laing, who spent a lifetime treating patients with the most severe schizophrenia, unflinching talked about ‘madness’. A flawed genius, I return to Laing in the final section of the chapter.

The second point I wish to highlight is that illnesses associated with the workings of the mind, will sadly, but in all likelihood, remain a cause for social prejudice and discrimination. In part this is due to the detrimental effect mental illness has on interpersonal relationships. And since ‘the person’ – whatever this entity can be said to fully represent – is presupposed to exist in a kind of one-to-one equivalence to the mind, it is basically taken for granted not only that someone’s behaviour correlates to unseen mental activity, but that it is an expression of a person’s character. Indeed, person, mind and behaviour are usually apprehended as a sort of coessential three-in-one.

All forms of suffering are difficult to face, of course, for loved ones as for the patient; however our degree of separation becomes heightened once someone’s personality is significantly altered through illness. I contend however that beyond these often practical concerns, there are further barriers that lie in the way of our full acceptance of mental illness, ones automatically instilled by everyday attitudes and opinions that may cause us to register a greater shock when faced with the sufferings of an unsound mind; some features of the disease not just directly clashing with expectations of acceptable human behaviour, but threatening on occasion to fundamental notions of what it means to be human.

For these reasons mental illness tends to isolate its victims. Those who in all likelihood are suffering profound existential detachment becoming further detached from ordinary human contact. In extreme circumstances, mental illness makes its victims appear as monstrosities – the freaks who ordinary folks once visited asylums simply to gawp at when it only cost a shilling to see “the beasts” rave at Bedlam, as London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital was once known. 2 Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, the ancient saying goes 3, and it is difficult indeed to conjure up any worse fate than this.

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Before returning to the main issues around mental illness, I wish to briefly consider the changing societal attitudes toward behaviour in general. The ongoing trend for many decades has been for society to become more tolerant of alternative modes of thinking and acting. Indeed, a plethora of interpersonal norms have either lapsed altogether or, are now regarded as old-fashioned and outmoded, with others already in the process of slow abandonment. For successive generations, the youth has looked upon itself as more liberated than its parents’ generation which it then regards, rightly or wrongly, as repressive and rigid.

To cite a rather obvious example, from the 1950s onwards sex has been gradually and almost totally unhitched from marriage and commensurate with this detachment there is more and more permission – indeed encouragement – to be sexual experimental: yesterday’s magnolia has been touched up to include a range of fifty thousand shades of grey! 4 But the zone of the bedroom is perhaps the exception rather than the rule, and outside its liberally sanctioned walls much that was seen as transgressive remains so and in fact continues to be either prohibited by law or else proscribed by customs or just ‘plain common sense’ – thus we are constrained by restrictions sometimes imposed for perfectly sound reasons plus others that lack clear ethical or rational justification.

Arguably indeed, there are as many taboos today as yesterday that inform our oftentimes odd and incoherent relationships to our own bodies and minds. As another illustrative example, most of us have probably heard how the Victorians were so prudish that they would conceal the nakedness of their piano legs behind little skirts of modesty (in fact an urban myth), when it is surely more scandalous (at least by today’s standards) that over the counter at the local apothecary drugs including laudanum (tincture of opium) were freely available to all.

It seems indeed that just as we loosened restraints on sexuality, new anxieties began to spring up concerning our relationship with our bodies as such. Suddenly perhaps we had more to measure up to, especially once all the bright young (and rather scantily-clad) things began to parade themselves indecorously if alluringly throughout our daily lives: ubiquitous in movies, on TV, billboards, and in magazines and newspapers. The most intriguing aspect of this hypersexualisation, however, is that modern society has simultaneously remained prudish in many other regards, most curiously in the case of public nudity; an ‘indecency’ that goes completely unrecognised within so-called primitive societies.

In parallel with these changes, our own culture, which increasingly fixates on youthfulness, has simultaneously fallen into the habit of marginalising old age and death. Not that death, as often presumed, now represents our final unuttered taboo, because arguably more shunned even than death is madness, and presumably because its spectre remains so uniquely terrifying to us.

The overarching point is that no society, however permissive, is ever well-disposed toward individuals who fail to measure up to established norms. The rule is perfectly straightforward in fact: in every society and throughout historical times, social deviants are prone to be ostracised. And as a rule, this applies whether one’s behavioural aberrance is a matter of personal choice or not.

I conjecture, moreover, that our abhorrence of madness is actually informed by the very biological classification of our species and sub-species: Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The wise, wise man! By which we discreetly imply (in our determinedly positivist account) the rational, rational man! Thus, to “lose your mind”, as we often say colloquially, involves the loss of the singular vital faculty – dare I say our ‘essential’ faculty? – The very thing that taxonomically defines us.

Of course, we are trespassing on hugely controversial territory and into areas I am (by profession) totally unqualified to enter. This must be conceded, whilst nevertheless, I do have privileged access when it comes to entering and exploring the field, as do you. Because we all have insider knowledge and deeply vested interest when it comes to comprehending the intricate activities of human consciousness, while no-one has the superhuman immunity that ensures perfect mental health – indeed, most people quietly experience episodes, whether passing or more prolonged, when our minds may go a little wonky.

Lastly then, my real purpose is not to dwell on what madness may be, but, arguably more importantly, to consider the consequences of being treated as mad; and in both senses of ‘treated’. So let’s just slip into these white coats. Ready…? Now to begin some informal examination of this rather delicate matter that is of such immediate and absolutely central importance.

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I        Sorting the sheep from the goats

“Not all who rave are divinely inspired” – Morris Raphael Cohen

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“The sole difference between myself and a madman is the fact that I am not mad!” said Salvador Dalí. 5 Dalí, with his dangerous flare for showmanship, was keen to impress upon his audience the exceptionally deranged quality of his genius, yet this well-known quip appeals in part because genius and madness are already romantically entwined, especially in the popular imagination.

Genius equates to madness presumably because both elude ordinary forms of thinking, and thus, a rather banal accountancy goes: genius appears as madness when it is anything but. Alternatively, however, and as Dali intimates, genius truly is a form of madness, at least for some. The artistic visionary in particular draws inspiration, if not upon literal hallucinatory visions – as the poet William Blake did – then from the upwelling of deep and uncertain psychological forces within.

Fascinated by the half-light and the liminal, impelled upon occasion to peer into the abyss, the genius in extreme cases, will indeed tread close to the verge of madness. Yet, most geniuses have not gone mad, nor does genius seem especially vulnerable or susceptible to such self-destructive forces. Even amongst greatest artists, exceptions prove to be the rule – the manic depression of Vincent van Gogh, the profound melancholia of Robert Schumann, the self-destructive alcoholism of Jackson Pollack (and it is noteworthy that van Gogh had a taste for the more deadly alcoholic beverage absinthe), the severe neurosis of Edvard Munch (another excessive drinker), and the depression and tragic suicide of Sylvia Plath. There is nothing however to suggest that Shakespeare or Bach were anything other than entirely sane, or that Mozart, Goethe and Beethoven suffered from frailties or maladies of any lasting psychological kind. The same goes for such modern masters as Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, and Mahler – though Mahler did consult Sigmund Freud once for advice on a marital crisis shortly before he died. I could go on and on listing countless sane individuals who excelled in the field of the arts or in other disciplines – indeed Salvador Dalí was another: madness for Dalí being primarily an affectation, as cultured and considered as his trademark moustache, rather than a debilitating affliction.

The problem with all romanticised notions of insanity, especially when upholding insanity as the more honest and thus valid conception of an insane world, is twofold. Not only does it detract from the terrible suffering of those victims most truly lost to the world, but also, and vitally, it mistakes madness for freedom. And there is still a further step. Since madness appears to be a natural manifestation, the most extreme of romanticists have more fervently contended that rather than delusionary, such alternative awareness is no less valid, indeed more valid, than more normalised and thus artificial states of domesticated consciousness. This is a wonderfully tempting fancy for all of us who’ve ever had concerns over a loosening “grip on reality”. Consider, for instance, the following syllogistic fallacy: all geniuses are mad, I’m mad ergo…

But this again is a very lazy method for cancelling madness, in which unpleasant reality is cheaply dismissed basically out of arithmetic convenience, and the two negatives – the horrors of the world and the terrors of the mind – are determined to add to zero. It simply isn’t good enough to say that madness doesn’t exist, or that madness does exist but it is natural and thus wholesome, or even that madness is really just sanity in disguise. That said, and albeit in a more inspirational way, Dalí is speaking for most of us. For the greatest barrier keeping many of us outside the padded cell is that, like him, “we are not mad”.

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If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them? The question is neither capricious nor itself insane.

So begins a paper published by the journal Science in January 1973 and written by David L. Rosenhan, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. The “Rosenhan experiment”, as it is now known, had in fact involved two related studies, the first of which was certainly one of the most daring ever conducted in the social sciences.

Rosenhan would send seven mentally healthy volunteers, with himself making eight, on a mission to be admitted as patients within the American psychiatric system. These eight courageous ‘pseudopatients’ soon after arrived at the doors of selected hospitals with instructions to say only that they were hearing a voice which pronounced these three words: “empty”, “hollow” and, most memorably, “thud”. If admitted the volunteers were then further instructed to act completely normally and say that had had no recurrence of those original symptoms. 6

What transpired came as a surprise, not least to Rosenhan himself. Firstly, although none of the volunteers had any prior history of mental illness and none were exhibiting behaviour that could be deemed seriously pathological in any way – Rosenhan having ensured that “[t]he choice of these symptoms was also determined by the absence of a single report of existential psychoses in the literature” – every one of his ‘pseudopatients’ were admitted and so became real patients. More alarmingly, and as each quickly realised, they had landed themselves in a seemingly intractable catch-22 situation: for how does anyone prove their sanity, once certified insane?

If you say that you are fine, then who is to decide whether or not your expressed feelings of wellness are not delusional? It was certainly not lost on Rosenhan that this is a position all psychiatric patients inevitably find themselves in. In the event, it would take the eight ‘pseudopatients’ almost three weeks on average (19 days to be precise, and in one instance 52 days) to convince the doctors that they were sane enough to be discharged. But it didn’t end there, because all but one were finally discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission”, and as Rosenhan notes:

The label “in remission” should in no way be dismissed as a formality, for at no time during any hospitalization had any question been raised about any pseudopatient’s simulation. Nor are there any indications in the hospital records that the pseudopatient’s status was suspect. Rather, the evidence is strong that, once labeled schizophrenic, the pseudopatient was stuck with that label. If the pseudopatient was to be discharged, he must naturally be “in remission”; but he was not sane, nor, in the institution’s view, had he ever been sane. 7

For a second experiment, Rosenhan then cleverly turned the tables. With results from his first test released, he now challenged a different research and teaching hospital where staff fervently denied that they would have made comparable errors, telling them that over the period of three months he would send an undisclosed number of new ‘pseudopatients’ and it was up to them to determine which patients were the imposters. Instead Rosenhan sent no one:

Judgments were obtained on 193 patients who were admitted for psychiatric treatment. All staff who had had sustained contact with or primary responsibility for the patient – attendants, nurses, psychiatrists, physicians, and psychologists – were asked to make judgments. Forty-one patients were alleged, with high confidence, to be pseudopatients by at least one member of the staff. Twenty-three were considered suspect by at least one psychiatrist. Nineteen were suspected by one psychiatrist and one other staff member. Actually, no genuine pseudopatient (at least from my group) presented himself during this period. 8

Rosenhan provocatively although accurately titled his paper “On being sane in insane places”. The results of his study had not only undermined the credibility of the entire psychiatric establishment, but his main conclusion that “we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals”, touched on a far bigger issue. For aside from challenging existing methods of diagnosis, and calling into question the treatment and stigmatisation of mental illness – in view of what he described in the paper as “the stickiness of psychodiagnostic labels” 9 – the results of his study more fundamentally (and thus controversially) cast doubt on how psychological ‘normality’ can ever be differentiated decisively from ‘abnormality’ in all instances? Buried within his paper, Rosenhan posits:

… there is enormous overlap in the behaviors of the sane and the insane. The sane are not “sane” all of the time. We lose our tempers “for no good reason.” We are occasionally depressed or anxious, again for no good reason. And we may find it difficult to get along with one or another person –  again for no reason that we can specify. Similarly, the insane are not always insane.

So the ‘sane’ are not always ‘sane’ and the ‘insane’ are not always ‘insane’, although Rosenhan never leaps to the erroneous conclusion (as others have and do) that there is no essential difference between sanity and insanity. He simply responds to the uncomfortable facts as revealed by his studies and implores other professionals who are involved in care and treatment of psychiatric patients to be extra vigilant. Indeed, he opens his paper as follows:

To raise questions regarding normality and abnormality is in no way to question the fact that some behaviors are deviant or odd. Murder is deviant. So, too, are hallucinations. Nor does raising such questions deny the existence of the personal anguish that is often associated with “mental illness.” Anxiety and depression exist. Psychological suffering exists. But normality and abnormality, sanity and insanity, and the diagnoses that flow from them may be less substantive than many believe them to be.

So though his albeit small experiment had objectively undermined the credibility of both the academic discipline and clinical practice of psychiatry, his conclusions remained circumspect (no doubt he wished to tread carefully), with the closing remarks to his paper as follows:

I and the other pseudopatients in the psychiatric setting had distinctly negative reactions. We do not pretend to describe the subjective experiences of true patients. Theirs may be different from ours, particularly with the passage of time and the necessary process of adaptation to one’s environment. But we can and do speak to the relatively more objective indices of treatment within the hospital. It could be a mistake, and a very unfortunate one, to consider that what happened to us derived from malice or stupidity on the part of the staff. Quite the contrary, our overwhelming impression of them was of people who really cared, who were committed and who were uncommonly intelligent. Where they failed, as they sometimes did painfully, it would be more accurate to attribute those failures to the environment in which they, too, found themselves than to personal callousness. Their perceptions and behaviors were controlled by the situation, rather than being motivated by a malicious disposition. In a more benign environment, one that was less attached to global diagnosis, their behaviors and judgments might have been more benign and effective. 10

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Before pursuing this matter by delving into deeper complexities, I would like to reframe the central concept almost algebraically. In this regard I am taking the approach of the stereotypical physicist in the joke, who when asked how milk production on a diary farm might be optimised, sets out his solution to the problem as follows: “Okay – so let’s consider a spherical cow…” 11

By applying this spherical cow approach to psychiatry, I have produced the following three crude equivalences, which are listed below (each accompanied by brief explanatory notes).

#1. Insanity = abnormality

Normality, a social construct [from etymological root ‘right-angled’], implies conventionality, conformity and being in good relation to the orthodoxy [from orthos ‘straight or right’] such that a person is adjudged sane when they appear to be well-balanced, rational, and functional.

#2. Insanity = unhealthiness

Health, a medical consideration [from root ‘whole’] indicates a lack of pathology and in this case emphasises something akin to good mental hygiene. ‘Health’ in the sense of mental health will correspond to low levels of stress and anxiety; high self-awareness and self-assuredness; to happiness and well-being.

And lastly,

#3. Insanity = psychological maladjustment to reality [from late Latin realis ‘relating to things’], with emphasis here placed on authenticity and realism as opposed to fantasy and delusion.

There is, of course, a good measure of crossover between these three pseudo-identities. For instance, if you are ‘normal’ (i.e., adjusted to society) then you have a greater likelihood of being ‘happy’ than if you are at variance. Moreover, if you’re well-adjusted socially, society as a whole will likely attest to you being ‘well adjusted’ in a broader psychological sense, because ‘reality’ is always to some extent socially construed. Imagine, for instance, being suddenly transported to the caste ossified and demon-haunted worlds of the Late Middle Ages; would the people determined sane today be thought sane as they disembarked from our imagined time machine, and would they stay sane for long? 12

I have included this rather crude and uncertain section in order to highlight how appearances of ‘madness’ and ‘sanity’ can often be coloured by alternative societal interpretations. As we venture forward, keep this in mind too: societal influences that shape and inform the prevailing notions of ‘normality’, ‘reality’ and even ‘happiness’ are more often latent than manifest.

“Happiness”: the story of a rodent’s unrelenting quest for happiness and fulfilment by Steve Cutts.

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Did you ever stride warily over the cracks in the pavement? Have you crossed your fingers, or counted magpies, or stepped around a ladder, or perhaps ‘touched wood’ to ward off some inadvertently tempted fate? Most of us have. Are we mad? Not really, just a little delusional perhaps. Though does superstition itself contain the kernel of madness?

What if that compulsion to step across the cracks becomes so tremendous that the pavement exists as a seething patchwork of uncertain hazards? Or if we really, really feel the urge to touch the wooden object over and over until our contact is quite perfect and precise. When the itch is so irresistible and the desire to scratch quite unbearable, this otherwise silly superstition embroils the sufferer (today diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD) in extended rituals that must be fastidiously completed; a debilitating affliction in which everyday routine becomes a torment as life grinds nearly to a halt, the paralysed victim reduced to going round and round interminably in the completely pointless loops of their own devising: life reduced to a barmy and infuriating assault course that is nearly impossible to complete.

As a child, to entertain yourself, did you ever look out for familiar shapes within the amorphous vapour of clouds or the random folds of a curtain? Doubtless you looked up into the night sky to admire the ‘Man in the Moon’, or if you are Chinese, then to spot the rabbit. Both are wrong, and right – connecting the dots being a marvellous human capacity that allows us to be creators extraordinaire. Yet the same aptitude holds the capacity to drive us literally crazy. How about those monsters at the back of your wardrobe or lurking in wait under the bed… and did the devil live around the U-bend of the toilet ready to leap out and catch you if you failed to escape before the flush had ended? It is fun to indulge in such fantasies. Everyone loves a ghost story.

Not that reconstructing faces or other solid forms where none exist involves hallucinating in the truest sense. However, these games, or harmless tics of pattern recognition – which psychologists call pareidolia – do involve our latent faculty for hallucinations – a faculty that is more fully expressed in dreams or just as we are falling asleep and during waking; images technically described as hypnagogic and hypnopomptic respectively. Some of us also hear imaginary things: and not only “things that go bump in the night”, but occasionally things that go bang upon waking (or on the brink of sleeping). This highly disconcerting experience even has the technical name “exploding head syndrome” – just to let you know, in case you ever suffer from it. Alongside still more frightening and otherworldly apparitions (the worst ones are usually associated with sleep paralysis) auditory hallucinations happen to billions of perfectly sober and otherwise sane individuals.

In fact, it is now known that about one percent of people with no diagnosed mental health problem hear voices on a regular basis – this happens to be approximately equivalent to the number of people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia (and it is important to note here that while not all schizophrenics hear voices, nor is schizophrenia the single mental illness in which hearing voices is a symptom). Within the general population, still more of us have fleeting episodes of hearing voices, while very nearly everyone will at some time experience the auditory hallucination of voices on the brink of sleep and waking.

Of course in a different though related sense, we all hear voices: the familiar inner voice that speaks softly as we think, as we read and perhaps as we console ourselves. And how many of us articulate that voice by talking to ourselves from time to time? As young children between the ages of two to eight we all would have done so. Then sometimes as we literally speak our minds, we also find ourselves listening attentively to what we ourselves just said aloud in these unaccompanied chinwags; although catching yourself fully in the act as an adult can often come as a bit of a shock – but a shock to whom exactly? So are we mad to talk to ourselves… or as the joke would have it, just seeking a more intelligent conversation!

In talking to ourselves we immediately stumble upon a remarkable and unexpected division in consciousness too. One—self becomes two selves. The ‘I’ as subjective knower abruptly perceiving a ‘me’ as a separate entity – perhaps this known ‘me’ perceived by the knower ‘I’ is deemed worthy of respect (but perhaps not, the knower can decide!) Curiously this is not just a mind becoming vividly aware of its existence as a manifestation (modern science would say ‘epiphenomenon’, as if this is an adequate explanation) of the brain-body (and such consciousness of the material self is strange enough), but the mind becoming literally self-aware and this self-awareness having endlessly self-reflecting origins, since if ‘I’ begin to think about ‘me’ then there can now exist a further ‘I’ which is suddenly aware of both the original knower and the already known. Fuller contemplation of this expanding hall of mirrors where the self also dwells is very possibly a road to madness: yet this habit of divorcing ‘I’ from ‘me’ is a remarkably familiar one. As usual, our language also gives us away: we “catch ourselves” in the act, afterwards commenting “I can’t believe I did it!” But what if our apprehension of the one—self becomes more broken still, and our sense of being can only be perceived as if refracted through shattered glass: the splintered fragments of the anticipated ‘me’ (whatever this is) appearing horrifically other?

Perhaps we’ve even had intimations of a feeling that we are entirely disconnected from every other part of the universe, and as such, then felt profoundly and existentially cast adrift with no recall of who we are. Such altered states of detachment are known in psychology as ‘dissociation’ and are not uncommon, especially to those with any appetite for ‘recreational substances’. Even alcohol is known to sometimes elicit temporary dissociation. And if these are representative of some of our everyday brushes with madness, then what of our more extended nocturnal lapses into full-blown irrationality: the hallucinations we call dreams and nightmares, and those altogether more febrile deliriums that occasionally take hold when we are physically ill?

These are the reflections of Charles Dickens, after one of his night walks brought on by insomnia led him to nocturnal contemplation of Bethlehem Hospital:

Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming? Are not all of us outside this hospital, who dream, more or less in the condition of those inside it, every night of our lives? Are we not nightly persuaded, as they daily are, that we associate preposterously with kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and notabilities of all sorts? Do we not nightly jumble events and personages and times and places, as these do daily? Are we not sometimes troubled by our own sleeping inconsistencies, and do we not vexedly try to account for them or excuse them, just as these do sometimes in respect of their waking delusions? Said an afflicted man to me, when I was last in a hospital like this, “Sir, I can frequently fly.” I was half ashamed to reflect that so could I by night. Said a woman to me on the same occasion, “Queen Victoria frequently comes to dine with me, and her Majesty and I dine off peaches and maccaroni in our night-gowns, and his Royal Highness the Prince Consort does us the honour to make a third on horseback in a Field-Marshal`s uniform.” Could I refrain from reddening with consciousness when I remembered the amazing royal parties I myself had given (at night), the unaccountable viands I had put on table, and my extraordinary manner of conducting myself on those distinguished occasions? I wonder that the great master who knew everything, when he called Sleep the death of each day’s life, did not call Dreams the insanity of each day`s sanity. 13

Meanwhile, obsessing over trifling matters is a regular human compulsion. The cap is off the toothpaste. The sink is full of dishes. That’s another tin gone mouldy in the fridge… during times when our moods are most fraught, seething with dull anger and impatient to explode at the slightest provocation, it is the fridge, sink, and the toothpaste that fills our head with troubles. Presumably again there is a limit beyond which such everyday obsessing becomes pathological. Indeed, I dare to suggest that obsessing over mundanities may be a kind of displacement activity: another distraction from the greatest unknown we all face – our certain endpoint with its dread finality. For we may, without lack of justification, dread our entire future; and with it the whole world outside our door: just as we may with due reason, based on past experiences, panic at the prospect of every encounter.

But whereas normal levels of fear act as a helpful defence mechanism and a necessary hindrance, the overbearing anxiety of the neurotic comes to stand in full opposition to life. Likewise, although indignation can be righteous and rage too is warranted on occasions, a constantly seething ill temper that seldom settles is corrosive to all concerned. In short, once acute anxiety and intense irritability worsen in severity and manifest as part of a chronic condition, life is irredeemably spoiled; in still greater severity, anxiety and anger will likely be attributed to symptoms of a psychiatric condition. The threshold to mental illness is once again crossed, but whereabouts was the crossing point?

Each of us has doubtless succumbed to moments of madness, and not just momentary lapses of reason, but perhaps entered into more extended periods when we have been caught up in obsessive and incoherent patterns of thought and behaviour. Loops of loopiness. Moreover, the majority of us will have had occasions of suicidal ideation, which again remain unspoken in part because they signal a psychological frailty that may point to a deeper pathology, or be mistaken as such. Because madness is not really such a faraway and foreign country, and even the sanest among of us (so far as this can be judged), are from time to time permitted entry at its gates.

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II       Conspiracies against the laity

“That a dictator could, if he so desired, make use of these drugs for political purposes is obvious. He could ensure himself against political unrest by changing the chemistry of his subjects’ brains and so making them content with their servile condition. He could use tranquillizers to calm the excited, stimulants to arouse enthusiasm in the indifferent, halluciants to distract the attention of the wretched from their miseries. But how, it may be asked, will the dictator get his subjects to take the pills that will make them think, feel and behave in the ways he finds desirable? In all probabil­ity it will be enough merely to make the pills available.”

— Aldous Huxley 14

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In earlier chapters I have discussed how science is soon out of its depth when it comes to understanding the mind and states of consciousness because the province of science is restricted to phenomena that not only can be observed and unambiguously categorised, but thereafter measured with known precision and modelled to an extent that is reliably predictive. Of course, hidden within that statement is an awful lot of maths, however, use of maths is not the issue here, measurement is.

For measurement becomes scientifically applicable once and only once there is a clear demarcation between the quantities we wish to measure. Length and breadth are easy to separate; time and space, likewise. The same case applies to many physical properties – all of the quantities that physicists and chemists take for granted in fact.

When we come to psychology and psychiatry we are likewise retrained. Brain-states are measurable and so we investigate these and then attempt to map our findings back onto sense-impressions, memories and moods. For instance, if we locate a region of the brain where these sense-impressions, memories and moods can be stimulated then we can begin the partial mapping of conscious experience onto brain-states. But we still have not analysed consciousness itself. Nor do we know how the brain-states permit volition – the choice of whether to move, and how and where to move, or, just as importantly, the freedom to think new thoughts. In short, how does our brain actually produce our states of minds, our personalities, and the entity we each call I? As neurologist Oliver Sacks noted in his book A Leg to Stand On in which he drew on his personal experience of a freak mountaineering accident to consider the physical basis of personal identity:

Neuropsychology, like classical neurology aims to be entirely objective, and its great power, its advances, come from just this. But a living creature, and especially a human being, is first and last active – a subject, not an object. It is precisely the subject, the living ‘I’, which is being excluded. Neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche – it excludes the experiencing, active, living ‘I’ 15

We as yet have no grounds whatsoever to suppose that science will ever be able to objectively observe and measure states of consciousness. In fact, what would that actually entail? For we do not have even the slightest inkling what consciousness is, or, far more astonishingly, as yet understand how consciousness is routinely and reversibly switched off with use of general anaesthetics, even though general anaesthetics have been widely and effectively used in surgery for over a century and a half.

Moreover, having acknowledged its non-measureability, it is seen as permissible by some scientists to casually relegate consciousness to the status of an epiphenomenon. That is, science takes the singular certainty of our everyday existence and declines from taking any serious interest in its actual reality; in the most extreme case, proclaiming that it is purely illusory… Now think about that for a second: how can you have the ‘illusion of consciousness’? For what vehicle other than a conscious one can support or generate any kind of illusion at all? Although language permits us frame the idea, inherently it is self-contradictory, and proclaiming the illusoriness of consciousness is akin to deciding on the insubstantiality of substance or the unwetness of water.

South African psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist Mark Solms, who has devoted his career to reconnecting these scientific disciplines, here makes a persuasive case built upon studies of brain damaged patients that the source of consciousness cannot lie within the higher level cortex, as has been generally supposed, but instead involves mechanisms operating within the brain stem:

Furthermore, the literal root to our modern terms ‘psychology’, ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘psychiatry’ is a derivative of the Greek word ‘psyche’ with its origins in ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, and yet each of the disciplines have altogether abandoned this view in order to bring a strictly biomedical approach to questions of mind. No longer divorced from the brain, mind is thus presumed to be nothing more or less than outputs of brain function, and so the task of today’s clinicians becomes one of managing these outputs by means of physical or chemical adjustments. To these ends, the origins and causes of mental illness are often presumed to be fully intelligible and detectable in abnormalities of brain physiology and most specifically in brain chemistry – this is something I will discuss in greater detail.

Taking such a deeply biochemical approach to mental illness also leads inexorably to questions of genetics since there is no doubt that genes do predispose every person to certain illnesses, and so, with regards to the issue at hand, we might envisage some kind of psychological equivalent to the physical immune system. There is indeed no controversy in saying that the individual propensity to suffering mental illness varies, or that, if you prefer, we inherit differing levels of psychological immunity. Some people are simply more resilient than the average, and others less so and this difference in propensity – one’s ‘psychological immune system’ – is to some extent innate to us.

Of course, if genetic propensity was the primary determinant for rates of mental illness then within any given gene pool we ought to expect a steady level in the rates for diagnosis given that variations within any gene pool change comparatively slowly and over multiple generations. Evidently genetics alone cannot therefore explain any kind of sudden and dramatic rise in incidence of health problems, whether mental or otherwise. One note of caution here: the newer field of epigenetics may yet have something to add to this discussion.

But psyche, to return to the main point, is not a purely biological phenomenon determined solely by genetics, and other wholly material factors such as diet, levels of physical activity and so forth. For one thing, mind has an inherent and irreducible social component and this is the reason solitary confinement or similar forms of deprivation of social stimulus are exceedingly cruel forms of punishment. Taking the still more extreme step of subjecting a victim to the fullest sensory deprivation becomes a terrifying form of torture and one that rapidly induces psychological breakdown. All of this is well-established and yet still the scientific tendency is treat minds just as highly sophisticated programmes running on the wetware of our brains. But the wetware unlike the hardware and software of this computer in front of me possesses both subjectivity and agency. Put another way around: the brain isn’t the conscious agent; you are. And it is equally true to say, as the great theoretical physicist Max Planck elegantly pointed out, that consciousness is absolutely foundational:

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness. 16

Planck is precisely right to say we cannot get behind consciousness. And by everything he quite literally means everything including of course the brain, although unfortunately we are very much in the bad habit of forgetting this glaring fact.

With developments in neurology and biochemistry, science becomes ever more accomplished at measuring and, again with increasing refinement, is able to alter brain function, and in doing so, to alter states of consciousness. Yet even while a scientist or doctor is manoeuvring a patient’s mind, he remains deeply ignorant of how the change is achieved, and it is worth bearing in mind that methods for alteration of states of consciousness have been known and practiced throughout all cultures long before the advent of science.

To offer a hopefully useful analogy, when tackling problems of consciousness, our best scientists remain in the position of a motorist who lacks mechanical understanding. The steering wheel changes direction and two of pedals make the car go faster or slower – yet another pedal does something more peculiar again that we needn’t dwell on here! Of course, our imaginary driver is able to use all these controls to manoeuvre the car – increasingly well with practice. Added to which he is free to lift the bonnet and look underneath, however, without essential knowledge of engineering or physics, it provides no eye-opening additional insights. Although such an analogy breaks down (if you’ll pardon my pun), as every analogy here must, because as Planck says, when it comes to consciousness all our understanding of the world, all concepts, are contingent on it, including in this instance, the concept of mechanisms.

For these reasons we might quite reasonably ask which factors the psychiatrist ought to invest greater faith in: definite quantities or indefinite qualities? Measureable changes in electrical activity or a patient’s reports of mood swings? Rates of blood flow or recognisable expressions of anxiety? Levels of dopamine or the unmistakeable signs of the patient’s sadness and cheerfulness?

More philosophically, we might wonder deeply into what awareness is. How do we navigate the myriad nooks and crannies of the world that our minds (in a very real sense) reconstruct – our perceptions being projections informed by sensory inputs and produced to give the appearance of external reality – in order to inquire into the nature of both the world and the organs of perception and cognition when the precursory nature of awareness somehow remains tantalisingly beyond all reconstruction? When confronted by these questions science is struck dumb – it is dumbfounded. Obviously, so too is psychiatry.

Mathematician and Quantum Physicist Roger Penrose has devoted a great deal of time thinking about the nature of consciousness and in his best-selling book The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) he explained why science is wrong in presuming it is a purely computational process. In conversation with AI researcher Lex Fridman, here Penrose again stresses our lack of basic scientific understanding of consciousness and proffers his own tentative ideas about where we might begin looking and, in particular, how investigating the causal mechanisms underlying general anaesthetics looks a profitable place to begin:

*

In the early 1960s, tired of signing his name on the skin of naked women, transforming them instantly into living sculptures (and what’s not to like about that?), avant-garde Italian artist, Piero Manzoni turned his hand instead to canning his own excrement and selling his tins to galleries. In May 2007, a single tin of Manzoni’s faeces was sold at Sotheby’s for more than £100,000; more recently in Milan another tin of his crap fetched close to a quarter of a million! It would be madness, of course, to pay anything at all for bona fide excrement (and it remains uncertain whether Manzoni’s labels reliably informed his customers of their literal contents), was it not for the fact that other customers were queuing up and happy to pay as much or more. Indeed, if anyone can ever be said to have had the Midas touch, then surely it was Manzoni; just a flick of his wrist miraculously elevating anything at all to the canonised ranks of high art – literally turning shit into gold.

But then the art world is an arena that excels in perversity and so pointing out its bourgeois pretensions and self-indulgent stupidities has itself become a cheap pursuit, while to the initiated it simply marks me out as another unenlightened philistine. What is blindingly obvious to the rest of us has instead become undetectable to the connoisseur, the banality obscured by fashion and their own self-gratification. In an era that is exceptionally cynical and commercial, it comes as no surprise therefore to find the art world reflecting and extolling works of commensurate cynicism and degeneracy. What is more interesting, however, is this contemporary notion that art has finally become anything done by an artist: for we might reasonably ask, does this same approach to validation apply across other disciplines too? For instance, if scientists collectively decide to believe in a particular method or theory, does this automatically make their shared belief somehow ‘scientific’? I pose this as a serious question.

What is more important here is to understand and recognise how all intellectual fields face a similar risk of losing sight of what is inherently valuable, becoming seduced by collective self-deception and wrapped up in matters of collective self-importance. Peer pressure. Groupthink. The bandwagon effect. If you’ve never seen the footage before then I highly recommend watching Solomon Asch’s ‘conformity experiments’ in which test subjects were found to consistently and repeatedly defer to false opinion and in blatant contradiction to what they could see perfectly clearly and right in front their own eyes. 17

In short, most people will “go along to get along” and this maxim applies across all levels of society and in all spheres of activities including the sciences. Moreover, it is very seldom the case that any scientific paradigm changes because its opponents are suddenly won over by a novel framework of ideas due to its intrinsic elegance or power, but rather as Max Planck put it most bluntly (at least as it usually paraphrased): “Science progresses one funeral at a time”. 18

These problems are additionally compounded by reification: the mistaking of abstractions for solid aspects of reality; of confusing the map with the territory. Related to this is something William James once described as the “Psychologist’s fallacy”:

The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence. 19

There are actually three ways of interpreting James’ statement here and each of these is equally applicable. The first and most general cautions against mistaking one’s personal perception and interpretation of an event as a perfectly accurate account – this strictly applies to all fields of objective research. The next is that it is easy to mistake another person’s experience and falsely imagine it is identical to your own. This ‘confusion of standpoints’ can cause you to believe you know why someone did what they did believing they are motivated in just the same way you are. Then finally, there is an error that applies in situations whenever you are involved in studying another person’s mental state (for whatever reason and not necessarily in a clinical setting) and you suppose that the subject is likewise critically aware of their own thoughts and actions. This is called ‘attribution of reflectiveness’ and it may occur for instance if you come across someone blocking your way once you then presume that they are fully aware of the obstruction they have caused to your progress and are obviously being inconsiderate.

Besides the issues of groupthink and the fallacies outlined above, there is a related difficulty that arises whenever you are constrained by any systems of classification, and given how incredibly useful categories are (especially in the sciences), this is again hard to avoid. Whenever a system comes to be defined and accepted, the tendency will always be for adherents to look for and find examples that fit and support it; and if this means cherry-picking the facts then so be it. Within no time an entire discipline can spring up this way, as was the case of phrenology (a subject I shall come back to in a later chapter).

*

George Bernard Shaw nattily remarked that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”. In the same spirit, we might extend his concern adding that such conspiracies will tend to feign understanding, disguise ambiguity and perpetuate fallacies. The quip itself comes from Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma, and was most pointedly aimed toward the medical profession. But then in defence of doctors, medicine as a discipline is arguably the science most plagued by vagueness; a nearly intractable problem given how symptoms of so many diseases can be easily muddled just because of their inherent similarities. Consider, for instance, the thousand and one ailments that all have “flu-like symptoms”.

In turn, patients are equally prone to vagueness when giving accounts of their own symptoms, in part because symptoms are often rather difficult to describe – just how do you distinguish the various feelings of pain, for instance. To make matters worse, human biology is already fiendishly complex. Textbooks provide only textbook examples: they show ideal anatomy, while real anatomies are seldom ideal and it is a surprisingly common occurrence for actual patients to have organs with structures or locations that are very markedly different.

The unavoidable outcome of all this uncertainty and peculiarity is that medical professionals do not understand nearly half so much as those without medical training are given to believe – and, importantly, choose to believe. Because, as patients, not only do we seek clear diagnoses, but we look to medicine for sure-fire remedies, all of which encourages an inclusion in medical nomenclature of elaborate – and preferably Latinised labels – for the full gamut of our daily complaints. A complete taxonomy that catalogues and accounts for every combination of symptoms and one or two half-glimpsed maladies. All of which brings us to the consideration of ‘syndromes’ and ‘disorders’.

When your doctor diagnoses abc-itis, then presuming the diagnosis is a correct one, it is very certain that you have inflammation of your abc. Diagnoses of thousands of complaints and diseases are absolutely clear-cut like this. However, if told you are suffering from xyz syndrome, it may mean instead that you are presenting a cluster of symptoms which are recognised to occur in a specific combination; a grouping that crops up often enough to have acquired its label ‘xyz syndrome’, rather than a disease with a well-established or single underlying cause. In short, the term ‘syndrome’ will sometimes hide a lot more than it reveals.

Whenever patterns of symptoms have been rolled together and labelled for the sake of convenience under a single catch-all name, here is the shorthand for saying we recognise the signs, and though can’t tell you the cause and as yet remain unable to recommend a cure, we are working on it! And if the shorthand was unavailable, then instead the clinician would have to shrug their shoulders and usher you away, which, given how patients usually have a strong preference for receiving (at the very least) a name for the cause of their suffering, this more customary exchange allows both parties to leave the consultation far happier. We are often content therefore to indulge our medical (and other experts) in maintaining many of these Shavian “conspiracies” against us.

Returning to consider psychiatry, it is necessary to appreciate that all but the rarest of psychiatric diagnoses fall under the category of ‘disorders’ rather than diseases – and that the underlying aetiology in many cases is not just unknown but more or less unconsidered. It follows that historically, the development of diagnosis and treatments has very often had recourse to little more than educated hunches and trial-and-error testing on (all-too often) unwilling patients.

As former National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director, Thomas Insel, pointed out:

“While DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment. Patients with mental disorders deserve better.” 20

*

Psychiatrist: Have you ever heard of the old saying “a rolling stone gathers no moss?”

Patient: Yeah.

Psychiatrist: Does that mean something to you?

Patient: Uh… it’s the same as “don’t wash your dirty underwear in public.”

Psychiatrist: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Patient: [smiling] I’m smarter than him, ain’t I? [laughs] Well, that sort of has always meant, is, uh, it’s hard for something to grow on something that’s moving.

If you’ve seen the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 21 then you may recognise the dialogue above. It comes when the central protagonist Randle McMurphy (brilliantly cast as the young Jack Nicholson) is subjected to a follow-up evaluation carried out by a team of three psychiatrists trying to determine whether or not he is fit enough to be discharged.

Released only a couple of years after Rosenhan and his ‘pseudopatients’ had sneaked under the diagnostic radar, and like Rosenhan and his associates, but for reasons which we need not go into, in the film McMurphy is an apparently sane inmate plunged into an infuriating and intractable catch-22 situation.

Now the question posed to McMurphy appears an odd one, yet questions of precisely this kind, commonly based around well known proverbs, were once regularly used for such diagnostic purposes. Just as with the better known Rorschach inkblot test, there is no single ‘correct’ answer, but there were built-in ways a patient might fail such an examination. In this case, responses considered too literal were taken as evidence of pathology on the grounds that they show an inability for the patient to think in ways other than concretely. Simply re-expressing the proverb in order to precisely account for how a rolling rock is an inhospitable environment for vegetation is therefore an ill-advised response.

Indeed, McMurphy’s second answer conclusively fails the test, whereas his first stab at saying something deliberately obtuse merely confuses the three doctors. Of course, in the film it is McMurphy’s deeply rebellious nature and truculent behaviour, rather than the results of tests of this sort that ultimately seal his fate – and again there is no need for details here, but merely to add that whilst the ramifications of Rosenhan’s experiment challenged opinions within academic and professional circles, the multiple Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, reached out to a far wider audience and helped to change the public perception of how we care for the mentally ill. Moreover, Rosenhan’s criticisms had been restrained, whereas the film – like the book – went straight for the jugular.

Author of the book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Ken Kesey, was involved with the film adaptation, but for a variety of reasons including a dispute over royalties, he left barely two weeks into production and has since claimed not to have watched the final version. Embedded below is a short interview with Kesey talking about the main characters and interspersed with relevant clips:

In the wake of Rosenhan’s experiment (1972) and Kesey’s fictional portrayal of life inside the asylum (published in 1962, released as a film in 1975), the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement (a term coined by one of its most prominent advocates, South African psychiatrist David Cooper in 1967) soon began to gain political traction. With the legitimacy of mainstream psychiatry subject to sustained attack and very concept of mental illness suddenly coming under scrutiny, in the midst of this crisis, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) made a decision to release its new manual: a fully updated directory that would authoritatively categorise and thus authenticate all forms of ‘mental disorder’.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – soon after known as ‘the bible of psychiatry’ – is now in its fifth edition, DSM-V, and with each updated edition it has become an ever weightier tome, expanding at a faster rate than almost any other technical manual in history. And this snowballing really started in 1968 when the revised second edition introduced an additional seventy-six ‘disorders’, thereby expanding the original 1952 catalogue by more than 70 percent. When revised again in 1980, the DSM-III added a further 83 diagnostic categories; its list growing from 182 (DSM-II) to 265 (DSM-III) – this represents a 150 percent increase on the original. Although less conspicuously, the same trend continued when DSM-IV was released in 1994, which catalogues a total of 410 disorders – almost a three-fold increase on the original.

James Davies is a Reader in Social Anthropology and Mental Health at the University of Roehampton, a psychotherapist, and co-founder of the Council for Evidence Based Psychiatry. In trying to understand how the present manual had come to be constructed he decided to speak to the many of authors directly, and so in May 2012 he took a trip to Princeton. There he was welcomed by Dr Robert Spitzer who had chaired the core team of nine people who put together the seminal third edition of the DSM, which amongst other things established the modern diagnostic system still broadly in operation. It was this edition of the manual that had introduced such household-name disorders as Borderline Personality Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For these reasons, Spitzer is widely regarded as the most influential psychiatrist of the last century.

Davies began his interview by asking Spitzer what was the rationale behind his significant expansion in number of disorders in the DSM-III edition and Spitzer told him:

“The disorders we included weren’t really new to the field. They were mainly diagnoses that clinicians used in practice but which weren’t recognised by the DSM or the ICD.” 22

Davies then pressed further and asked how many of these disorders had been discovered in a biological sense. In reply Spitzer reminded him that “there are only a handful of mental disorders… known to have a clear biological cause” adding that these organic disorders like epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s are “few and far between”; conceding that no biological markers have been identified for any of the remaining disorders in DSM. With this established, Davies then asked how the DSM taskforce did determine which new disorders to include. Spitzer explained:

“I guess our general principle was that if a large enough number of clinicians felt that a diagnostic concept was important in their work, then we were likely to add it as a new category. That was essentially it. It became a question of how much consensus there was to recognise and include a particular disorder.” 23

Davies also spoke to Dr Theodore Millon, another of the leading lights on Spitzer’s taskforce, to ask more about the construction of their manual. Millon told him:

“There was little systematic research, and much of the research that existed was really a hodgepodge – scattered, inconsistent, and ambiguous. I think the majority of us recognised that the amount of good, solid science upon which we were making our decisions was pretty modest.” 24

Afterwards, Davies had put Millon’s points directly to Spitzer, who responded:

“Well it’s true that for many of the disorders that were added, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of research, and certainly there wasn’t research on the particular way that we defined these disorders… It is certainly true that the amount of research validating data on most psychiatric disorders is very limited indeed.”

Adding that:

“There are very few disorders whose definition was a result of specific research data.” 25

On the basis of Spitzer’s surprising admissions, Davies than tracked down other members of the same DSM team. For instance, he spoke on the phone to Professor Donald Klein, another leader on the taskforce, who said:

“We thrashed it out basically. We had a three-hour argument… If people [at the meeting] were still undecided the matter would be eventually decided by a vote.” 26

And Davies finally decided to check what he was hearing from these members by looking through the minutes of taskforce meetings which are still held in the archives, discovering that voting did indeed take place to make such determinations. Renee Garfinkel, a psychologist who participated in two DSM advisory subcommittees, told Davies more bluntly:

“You must understand what I saw happening in these committees wasn’t scientific – it more resembled a group of friends trying to decide where they want to go for dinner.”

She then cited the following concrete example of how one meeting had proceeded:

“As the conversation went on, to my great astonishment one Taskforce member suddenly piped up, ‘Oh no, no, we can’t include that behaviour as a symptom, because I do that!’ And so it was decided that that behaviour would not be included because, presumably, if someone on the Taskforce does it, it must be perfectly normal.” 27

Although comprised of a rather small team, DSM-III has had far-flung and long-lasting influence on psychiatry. Spitzer told Davies:

“Our team was certainly not typical of the psychiatry community, and that was one of the major arguments against DSM-III: it allowed a small group with a particular viewpoint to take over psychiatry and change it in a fundamental way.

“What did I think of that charge? Well, it was absolutely true! It was a revolution, that’s what it was. We took over because we had the power.” 28

In any case, reliance upon a single definitive and encyclopaedic work of this kind presents a great many hazards. As Allen Frances, the former chairman of the psychiatry department at Duke University School of Medicine who led the taskforce that produced DSM-IV has publicly admitted:

At its annual meeting this week [in May 2012], the American Psychiatric Association did two wonderful things: it rejected one reckless proposal that would have exposed nonpsychotic children to unnecessary and dangerous antipsychotic medication and another that would have turned the existential worries and sadness of everyday life into an alleged mental disorder.

But the association is still proceeding with other suggestions that could potentially expand the boundaries of psychiatry to define as mentally ill tens of millions of people now considered normal.

In the same op-ed published by the New York Times, Frances continued:

Until now, the American Psychiatric Association seemed the entity best equipped to monitor the diagnostic system. Unfortunately, this is no longer true. D.S.M.-5 promises to be a disaster — even after the changes approved this week, it will introduce many new and unproven diagnoses that will medicalize normality and result in a glut of unnecessary and harmful drug prescription. The association has been largely deaf to the widespread criticism of D.S.M.-5, stubbornly refusing to subject the proposals to independent scientific review.

Many critics assume unfairly that D.S.M.-5 is shilling for drug companies. This is not true. The mistakes are rather the result of an intellectual conflict of interest; experts always overvalue their pet area and want to expand its purview, until the point that everyday problems come to be mislabeled as mental disorders. Arrogance, secretiveness, passive governance and administrative disorganization have also played a role.

New diagnoses in psychiatry can be far more dangerous than new drugs. 29

In an earlier interview speaking with Wired magazine, Frances – credited as “the guy who wrote the book on mental illness” – made an even more startling confession, telling Gary Greenberg, who is himself a practicing psychotherapist:

“[T]here is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it… these concepts are virtually impossible to define precisely with bright lines at the boundaries.” 30

*

The entry of psychiatry into the province of science is a comparatively recent one. Indeed, in the ancient world and times prior to the Enlightenment, some severe forms of mental illness would most likely have appeared the work of demons. And if a person was believed to be possessed, then religious protocols, informed by the opinion that their soul was in existential peril and without intervention would suffer eternal damnation, called for extremely drastic measures.

Indeed, the very word psychiatry derives (as mentioned above) from the Greek psukhē for ‘breath, life, soul’ (Psyche also the Greek goddess of the Soul), though in accordance to the strict biomedical model of mind, psychiatry today takes no interest in these ‘spiritual’ matters. Nevertheless, the interventions of psychiatry to save a person’s mind have often been as drastic, and if anything crueller, than those inflicted throughout prior ages. The dark arts of exorcism or trepanning superseded and upgraded by the aid of technological means: the unfortunate victims, at first, subjected to induced convulsions by the administration of an overdose of insulin, then more latterly by means of high voltage electric shocks passed between the temples (electroconvulsive therapy or ECT). Still more invasive treatments were also introduced throughout the twentieth century that excised a patient’s demons by means of irreversible surgical mutilation.

When we retrace the short but terrible history of psychiatry, it is rather easy to overlook how many of these barbaric pseudoscientific treatments were once lauded as state-of-the-art. As recently as 1949, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz actually shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his invention of a routine procedure for carrying out lobotomies; his original procedure refined by Moniz’s mentor, American neurologist Walter Freeman, who used an ice-pick hammered through the eye socket to sever the frontal lobes. Such horrific procedures were frequently performed without anaesthetic and led to the destruction of the minds – although I am tempted to say souls – of tens of thousands of people; the majority of whom were women (also predominant amongst victims were homosexuals). This use of so-called ‘psychosurgery’ was phased out gradually but lobotomies continued to be performed into the 1970s and even later. 31

Today it is also an open, if dirty, secret that throughout modern times, psychiatry has played a pivotal role in the coercion of political opponents of the state. Many authoritarian regimes – the former Soviet Union the most frequently cited – operating their mental health systems as a highly efficient means for cracking down on dissidents (who more or less by definition failed to think ‘normally’). The abuse of psychiatry by western governments is less known, however, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA carried out a whole range of experiments under Sidney Gottleib’s MKUltra mind control programme.

One of the MKUltra researchers was Ewan Cameron, the then-President of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), who went so far as to attempt to entirely erase his patients’ existing memories by means of massive doses of psychotropics and ECT in attempts to reprogram the victim’s psyche from scratch. Decades later, some the survivors won financial rewards as compensation for their part in this secret regime of state-sponsored torture. 32 Moreover, this very close collaboration between military intelligence services and the APA has continued and during the “War on Terror” a number of ‘operational psychologists’ are now known to have worked on CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture programme. 33

Of course, state coercion is not always to control political enemies. Minorities who have suffered discrimination for different reasons have likewise fallen victim to psychiatric abuse. In fact, prior to 1973, when homosexuality was designated a disease and placed on the list of ‘mental disorders’ according to the DSM ‘bible’, otherwise healthy gay men were forcibly subjected to treatments involving aversion ‘therapies’ that included electric shock to the genitals and nausea-inducing drugs administered simultaneously with the presentation of homoerotic stimuli. In the Anthony Burgess novel Clockwork Orange (1962) this was called “the Ludovico Technique”.

Thus historically, the insane subject – i.e., anyone who is diagnosed as mentally ill – has been uniquely deprived their basic human rights. Downgraded in social status and transformed de facto into a kind of second class human. Even today, when clinical procedures are kinder, patients are routinely subjected to many involuntary treatments including the long-term administration of powerful drugs and ECT.

*

Leaving aside the moral questions, this terrible history also casts a shadow over the whole science underpinning these treatments. What do we really know about the efficacy of ECT today that we didn’t know in the middle of the last century?

Or consider the now familiar labelling of drugs as ‘antipsychotic’ and ‘antidepressant’: terms that are wholly misleading and deeply unscientific, since the implication is that these are antidotes are much like antibiotics, acting to cure specific disease by targeting the underlying pathology. But this is entirely false, and the reason it is misleading can be best understood by once again reviewing the history of psychiatry.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that none of the first generation of psychiatric drugs was ever developed for the purpose either of alleviating neurological dysfunction or enhancing brain activity. Chlorpromazine (CPZ) – marketed under the brand names Thorazine and Largactil – the earliest of these ‘antipsychotics’ had previously been administered as an antihistamine to relieve shock in patients undergoing surgery, although it was in fact derived from a family of drugs called phenothiazines originally used as antimalarials and to combat parasitic worm infestations. 34

It had been noticed, however, that many of the patients who received Thorazine would afterwards manifest mood changes and in particular experience a deadening in their emotional response to the external world while otherwise retaining full consciousness. In short, the drug happened to reproduce the effects observed in patients who underwent a surgical lobotomy (which in 1950 was still considered a highly effective treatment for psychosis of course).

On the other hand, ‘antidepressants’ emerged as a by-product of research into tuberculosis, after it was noticed that some patients in the trials became more roused following their medication. Only in the aftermath of studies carried during in the 1960s, did science finally begin to understand how these pharmaceuticals were having direct effects within the brains of patients, and specifically on processes involving, respectively, the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. In patients suffering psychosis there was found to be an excess of the former, whereas those suffering depression showed an apparent deficit of the latter. The conclusion followed that the drugs must have been acting to correct an existing imbalance, very much as insulin does in the case of diabetes.

So the conclusions from these early studies were drawn wholly from understanding the mechanism of action of the drugs. Since the antipsychotics were found to block dopamine receptors, the hypothesis formed that the condition of psychosis must be due to an excess of dopamine activity; likewise, since antidepressants held serotonin longer in the synaptic cleft (the space that separates and forms a junction between neurons) boosting the activity, it followed that depression was a result of low serotonin activity. However, this reasoning turns out to be inherently flawed, and as subsequent research had quickly revealed, actual differences in brain chemistry detected in patients were a feature not of the underlying pathology associated with their disorder, but instead a direct effect of the medications used to treat them. Indeed for decades, clued-up pharmacologists and many psychiatric practitioners have regarded the theory of ‘chemical imbalance’ not as a scientific model, but nothing more than a metaphor: a means of explaining the use of the treatment to patients as well as an encouragement.

This is what Ronald W. Pies, Editor-in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times, wrote a decade ago about the ‘theory of chemical imbalance’:

“I am not one who easily loses his temper, but I confess to experiencing markedly increased limbic activity whenever I hear someone proclaim, “Psychiatrists think all mental disorders are due to a chemical imbalance!” In the past 30 years, I don’t believe I have ever heard a knowledgeable, well-trained psychiatrist make such a preposterous claim, except perhaps to mock it. On the other hand, the “chemical imbalance” trope has been tossed around a great deal by opponents of psychiatry, who mendaciously attribute the phrase to psychiatrists themselves. And, yes—the “chemical imbalance” image has been vigorously promoted by some pharmaceutical companies, often to the detriment of our patients’ understanding. In truth, the “chemical imbalance” notion was always a kind of urban legend – never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” 35

David Cohen is Professor of Social Welfare and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at UCLA Luskin. His research looks at psychoactive drugs (prescribed, licit, and illicit) and their desirable and undesirable effects as socio-cultural phenomena “constructed” through language, policy, attitudes, and social interactions. Here he explains how psychiatry has painted itself into a corner and became unable to look for treatments for mental illness that lie outside the biomedical model, which treats all conditions of depression, anxiety and psychosis as brain disorders:

Today we have become habituated to the routine ‘medication’ of our youth with children as young as six years old being administered tranquilisers relabelled as ‘antidepressants’ and ‘antipsychotics’ that are intended ‘to cure’ dysfunctions like “oppositional defiant disorder”. These considerations bring us to the broader issue of what constitutes ‘mental health’, and by extension, what it is to be ‘normal’.

Moreover, it hardly needs saying that increased diagnosis and prescription of medication of every variety is demanded by the profit motive of pharmaceutical industry, so for now, I wish merely to add that we have no demonstrable proof that the identified rise in mental illness is wholly attributable to a commensurate rise in mental illness rather than an artefact bound up with the medicalisation of the human condition. However, given that mental health is expressly bound up with, and to a great extent defined by a person’s feelings of wellness, attempts to downgrade or dismiss patient testimony or to overrule personal accounts of psychological distress, declaring some parts of it illusory, are not only callous but another kind of category mistake. Whatever terminology we apply it is evident that more people than ever are suffering forms of psychological distress. I shall consider this at greater length in the final section.

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Before continuing, I would like to introduce a genuinely serendipitous finding – a newspaper clipping torn out by someone I have never met, and left inside the cover of a second-hand book for reasons I shall never know. I cannot even reference this item because I have no idea in which newspaper it was originally printed, and so will simply label it Exhibit A (the author’s name is also redacted out of courtesy):

“Someone close to me has been smoking cannabis for many years,” the author tells us, adding “That person has never worked and lives in a state of euphoria.”

From these preliminary remarks it is actually hard to tell whether the writer is issuing a caution or an endorsement for pot smoking – or at least it would be hard to tell, were it not for our informed social prejudices, and since the presumed social norm is that work is always good and drugs (meaning illegal ones) unconditionally bad. Suppose, however, this surmised state of euphoria had been ascribed to quite different causes. Let’s say, for example, that the person in question was in love, or that s/he’d found God, or alternatively that s/he had been proscribed a legally sanctioned medicine lifting them from a prior state of depression and anxiety, and this lasting euphoria was the outcome. Would this not be a good thing?

But the next part of the letter is perhaps the most interesting part. It begins: “People on cannabis lose touch with reality. They cannot relate to normal life because they are in a perpetual state of relaxation, and doing everyday tasks or even getting up in the morning is a big deal. They drift from day to day.”

At this point, I ought to make a personal confession. The person described here is me – not me in all actuality, but another me, another drifter. It is me and a considerable number of my closest friends, who have spent a great many years smoking pot and “losing touch with reality”. Doubtless, it will describe the lives of some of the people who happen to read this too. Personally, I gave up smoking pot years ago for health reasons, and I do not advise others to follow my lead either way. Undeniably, there is some truth within the letter, but there is also a great deal of misunderstanding.

Do pot smokers live in realms of make-believe? Do we care about nothing? Interestingly, we could just as easily ask the same question of those proscribed SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants like Prozac, and all of the other legally sanctioned mind-altering substances. Leaving aside social acceptance, which surely owes much to the profit motive, what other distinction can we make here once we dismiss the false hypothesis of redressing chemical imbalance?

Of course, none of us ever knows what might otherwise have been had they not done such and such. The road not taken is forever unknown. The only fair question therefore must involve regret, and I confess that I do not regret my decision to smoke pot, nor do I know any friends who have told me they regret their own choice in this regard. The important point I wish to emphasise is that legal determinations do not automatically establish what is to our better health and well-being, and nor do they determine what is right and wrong in a moral sense. Indeed, who dares to tell another adult how they ought to think, and equally who dares to say how one may or may not alter their consciousness by whatever means they see fit? If we are not entirely free to think as we choose, then as creatures so fully submerged in our thoughts, we can hardly be said to free at all.

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Here is David Cohen again, discussing how psychiatric drugs are no different in kind from many street drugs:

David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has closely studied the range of harms that legal and illegal drugs can do to individuals and society. On the basis of his findings, he has reached the perhaps surprising conclusion that policy should begin with an end to the criminalisation of all drug use and possession. In March 2021 he was interviewed by Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar:

Comedian Bill Hicks also his own opinions on why some drugs are taxed when others are banned [warning: very strong language and opinions!]:

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III      Driven crazy?

“[P]eople who experience themselves as automata, as robots, as bits of machinery, or even as animals… are rightly regarded as crazy. Yet why do we not regard a theory that seeks to transmute persons into automata or animals as equally crazy?”

— R. D. Laing 36

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Type the words ‘mental health crisis’ into any search engine and you will find more than a million pages with links to reports from Australia, Canada, Europe and America all presenting stark evidence that the Western world is in the grip of what in other contexts would certainly be called a pandemic: a plague of disease that is horribly debilitating, too often fatal, and affecting nearly one in ten of our population: men and women, children and the old alike. According to the latest surveys in any given week in England, 1 in 6 people (15%) report experiencing some kind of mental health problem. In just twenty years (1993 to 2014) the number of people experiencing mental health problems went up by 20%, while the number reporting severe mental health symptoms in any given week has risen from 7% in 1993 to over 9% in 2014. 37 Indeed, this issue has now become such a grave one that it receives serious attention in political debates. Still more positively, ways to deal with it are today widely discussed, and the stigma associated with mental illness is at last aired and challenged across the mainstream. But one question very seldom addressed is this: what has generated so much suffering and distress in the first place? What is the cause of this now admitted mental health crisis?

Since the issue is obviously an extremely complex one, I propose that we break it down into three parts that can be abbreviated as three A’s: access, accountancy and aetiology. The most simplistic assumption we could make would be that our current crisis is a consequence of just one of these three factors. So, for instance, if the rise in case numbers is a purely matter of easier access to treatment, then it follows from our presumption that there is no underlying increase but that sufferers of mental health problems are simply more able and willing to seek professional help. If true then ‘the crisis’ has always existed but previously the greatest number simply suffered in silence.

Alternatively, we might presume that the rise is a perceived one and its origin is entirely due to changes in accountancy, in which instance states of mind that in the past were undifferentiated from the norm have gradually been medicalised as I have discussed above. Whereas improved access to care is a laudable good, by contrast, if accountancy is to blame, then society is increasingly in the business of treating the sane as if they were sick. Reclassifying normality as abnormality would mean psychiatry has helped create the illusion of an epidemic, although it is important to understand that it does not follow that the suffering itself is illusory, only that our tendency is to see that suffering as psychiatric in nature.

Alternatively again, we might instead conclude that the rise in cases is real and unrelated to either ease of access or what has been described as “the medicalisation of misery”. In this case, we are necessarily drawn into the matter of aetiology and must extend the investigation to search for underlying external causes – causes that to some degree can be found to account for a genuine rise in mental illness.

Certainly these aren’t mutually exclusive considerations, but are these three A’s exhaustive? Broadly considered yes, however, a breakdown of this kind has indistinct fuzzy edges and all that is certain is a combination, or potentially even a synergy, operates between the three. Indeed, given that mental health is expressly bound up with and unavoidably defined by feelings of wellness, no psychiatric diagnosis can ever be scientifically objective in the strictest sense. Setting aside therefore the matter of access to better healthcare, which all else being equal, is wholly positive, my considerations in the remainder of this chapter are to disentangle the other strands.

In one sense the mental health crisis is undeniably real. More and more people are suffering forms of psychological distress and in no way do I mean to suggest otherwise. There is an urgent need therefore to get to the bottom of what is causing this crisis.

Johann Hari is a journalist who spent many years investigating the causes of depression, the reasons why the West is seeing such a rise in incidence, and how we might find better alternatives to treat this epidemic. It isn’t caused by a chemical imbalance in our brains, he notes at the outset, but crucially by changes in the way we are living:

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The evidence of a connection between what happens in childhood and the effects on later behaviour is very strong indeed. This is unsurprising of course. It is perhaps self-evident that mental illness grows out of trauma and hunger, which are the bitter fruits of abuse, neglect and abandonment, both physical and psychological. But to explain the ongoing rise (affecting adults as much as children) we would be hard pressed to attribute much cause to changes in parenting styles given how the rise is so steep with a 20% increase over just two decades – very definitely not if Philip Larkin is to be believed. 38

To be frank, parents have always “fucked you up”, as for that matter have our siblings, our peers, and undoubtedly, many of our fucked-up teachers. Of course, one significant change during recent decades is that parents spend more time working, thus leaving children with childminders or, if money is tight, with the keys to an empty house. Studies again unsurprisingly show that latchkey kids are more susceptible to behavioural problems.

A related issue affecting early development is the omnipresence of new technologies. Once the pacifier was television, but this single room distraction has been slowly superseded by the introduction of computer games, iphones, etc. There is a widespread dependency on these types of electronic devices, and so without any immediate control group, the psychological damage caused by habitually engaging in such virtual interactions will be extremely difficult to gauge.

Of course, television has been used as an infant pacifier ever since I can remember. No doubt it once pacified me too. But television itself has been radically transformed. It has become louder, brighter, more intense due to faster and slicker editing, and it is surely reasonable to presume, since the sole purpose is to grab attention and transfix its audience, more and more intoxicating. Viewing TV today is a fundamentally altered experience compared to viewing it decades ago. Could any of this be having a knock-on effect with regards to attention span, cognitive skills, or, more importantly, our sense of self? This is a highly complex issue that I shall not delve into here – in the addendum I do however consider the psychological and societal impacts of advertising (I also dedicate a later chapter to the role advertising plays in our society).

What is known for certain is this: that other than in exceptional instances when the origin of severe mental illness can be directly traced to an underlying physical disease (syphilis is perhaps the best known example), the usual trigger for mental health problems is found to be either sudden or prolonged trauma – very often although not exclusively childhood trauma – and the development of the vast majority of mental disorders occurs therefore as a pathological but defensive response to trauma.

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Following Freud, causes of mental illness came to be thought buried deep within the patient’s unconscious. For this reason, Freud and the psychoanalysts pioneered their ‘talking cure’: conversational techniques that probed deep into the psyche. Various schools arose. They inquired into dreams, biography, sexuality, family relations or even spirituality, feeling down for the roots of their patent’s distress. With the psychical wound discovered, it might now be cleansed and disinfected by means of further introspection. Healing came about as nature then took its course. Here the patient plays a central role in their own treatment.

R. D. Laing dignified his patients in another way. Refraining from excessive presumptions built on the unsteady and evolving theories of the unconscious – the Oedipal Complex, Penis Envy, and other fabulous chimera detected by Freud and his followers – Laing gave his patients the common respect the rest of us outside the padded walls of the asylum receive from our peers. No matter how superficially crazy, he adjudged every patient’s account of his or her lived experience as entirely valid in the existential sense as he would the truthful account of any sane human being, including his own. This exceedingly hazardous (some might say reckless) approach to a patent’s illness did, however, produce remarkable outcomes – at least to begin with – as many of those he treated were speedily recovered and declared fit enough to return home.

However, Laing’s successes seldom lasted long, and predictably within a just few months, more than half would drift back into his care. Witnessing this cyclical pattern of decline had an interesting effect on Laing, for it caused him to reach a new and shocking conclusion. With no less conviction than before, he let it be known that social relationships, and especially ones within families, were the major triggers of his patients’ relapse. This was an audacious diagnosis which, unsurprisingly, met with general hostility, as the accused – not only the families but society as a whole – felt immediately affronted by the charge that they were fons et origo of the patient’s sickness.

Undaunted, Laing took his ideas to their logical extreme. He allowed his patients to play out their madness to the full, believing that for a lasting cure the condition must be allowed to run its course – and who can honestly say if and when madness is fully cured? Unconstrained by the boundaries of orthodox medicine, Laing and his fellow therapists would enter perilously into the worlds of their patients. Laing himself, by all accounts, went somewhat bonkers in the process, which is hardly surprising, since whatever madness is, it is most certainly contagious (and after all, this in a nutshell is really Laing’s central point). 39

As his conduct became morally questionable – sexual affairs with his patients creating troubles within his own family – his professional reputation was understandably tarnished and alongside this reputational decline, his ideas went out of fashion. In spite of this, Laing’s legacy persists in important ways. The more dignified respect for sufferers of mental illness (who even today are sadly denied full human rights equivalence) owes a great deal to Laing’s daring intellectual courage and integrity. On the other hand, the true and lasting value of Laing’s work has been both forgotten and dismissed. For when he tells us that insanity is “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world” 40, then given the rise of today’s ‘mental health crisis’, our mental health professionals and society more broadly needs to listen up.

In a world that’s ever slicker, faster, and as human contact becomes more distant and superficial, increasingly artificial indeed, the modern self (perhaps that should read ‘postmodern’) becomes more atomised and systematised than in Laing’s time (Laing died three decades ago). Cajoled to sacrifice ever more individuality for the sake of conformity, convenience, security and status; our given raison d’etre is to engorge our material well-being, either for its own pleasure or, more egotistically, with shows of conspicuous consumption. We are, as T.S. Eliot put it so elegantly, “distracted from distraction by distraction/ filled with fancies and empty of meaning”. 41

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“The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.” 42

These are the grim observations of William James, another pioneer of the field of psychology, who is here trying to get to grips with “the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness”. James’ vocabulary is remarkably direct and unambiguous, so allow me to very briefly skim the thesis of what he saw as the underlying cause of madness, sticking closely to his original terminology wherever possible.

Their “morbid-minded way”, James reluctantly concedes, should not be too readily dismissed. “With their grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears, and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery…” it may appear to the “healthy-minded” as “unmanly and diseased”, but, on the other hand, “living simply in the light of good”, although “splendid as long as it will work”, involves us in a partial denial of reality which “breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes”. Furthermore, says James:

“… there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

With the advent of modern comforts and our immersive condition of historically unprecedented safety and security it can appear that those of born in the wealthiest regions of the world have little reason to grumble, certainly when compared to the conditions of previous generations. Indeed for anyone in Britain born into the working class or above, the famous words of Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that “we’ve never had it so good” do mostly still apply. Studies have shown, of course, that social equality is far more closely correlated to overall levels of happiness than absolute levels of wealth 43, but no less apparent is the more straightforward fact that having become materially satisfied, what we might call ‘psychological immiseration’ is more widespread than ever.

With material wants met we are left to tread a vertiginous tightrope that has been called ‘happychondria’: that perpetual and single-minded pursuit of happiness per se that makes us achingly self-aware of shortcomings in this narrow regard. And feelings of an ‘unbearable lightness of being’ become all the lighter once our striving to be happy burgeons into an all-consuming monomaniacal fixation, since happiness is insufficient to ground us and make us feel real. Worse still, as James explains, perpetual happiness is absolutely unattainable due to the inevitable travails of life, and given most people’s tangential urge to negotiate life’s experiences authentically. Or putting matters the other way around, since most people inevitably fail to attain the levels of happiness socially demanded, such non-stop pursuit of happiness (and by ‘pursuit’ here I mean ‘chasing’ rather than ‘activity’ or ‘recreation’ 44) inevitably will have adverse effects and very likely result in neurosis and feelings of moroseness. The etymological root of our word ‘happiness’ is revealing in this regard: ‘hap’ meaning luck or good fortune. Dormant in the language a vestigial memory that happiness is a gift bestowed, rather than a treasure seized.

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Unable to function for long or to endure everyday states of consciousness, a growing number of people are now turning either to legally prohibited narcotics or proscribed and medically endorsed opiates: drugs that lift the clouds of emptiness, or else, numb the user to the tawdriness of everyday reality. These pills offer a surrogate escape when it can no longer be supplied by the local shopping mall, or, and always more persuasively, by TV and similar distractions online – both places where our big pharmaceutical companies go to enhance their profits by continuously pushing more of their psychoactive wares.

To a great extent, these powerful industries, whether through lobbying or via alternative means of self-promotion, have gradually reshaped psychiatry itself. The patient who was once central to their own treatment has been made peripheral once again, as the psychiatrist gets on with mending their mental apparatus. And by ‘mending’ it is better to read ‘made happier’, or else, ‘made normal’, and thus subjected to a transformation which is centred on societal functioning, but that may or may not be life enhancing in a fuller and more meaningful sense. So does it finally matter if society becomes ‘happier’ and people are better able to cope due only to a widespread use of pharmaceuticals? And does it matter if children as young as six are proscribed a daily dose of mind-altering drugs just to fit in and get by? 45

What if anguish and sorrow are vital parts to an authentic experience of life, and, as a good friend and poet once put it: “woe is part of the worship”? To rebut sorrow and utterly disregard the origins of distress seems to me irredeemably Panglossian, which is surely no less life-denying than its counter opposite, a fatalistic surrender to misery. Because to be able truly to affirm in capitals – to say “YES” – is finally predicated on our capability to no less defiantly scream “NO”! In the finish it is zombies alone that are unable ever to scream “NO!” and especially once confronted by the reoccurring cruelties and stupidities of this sometimes monstrous world.

Fritjof Capra says that Laing once told him, “Mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, but the mystics swim whereas the schizophrenics drown.” And latent within even the most zombified of people, there must linger, no matter how faintly, an inextinguishable inner presence akin to spirit, to soul; a living force that cannot be fully disabled without untold consequences. It is this inner life that fights on and kicks against the main object it can kick against: those modes of thinking and behaving that the ‘normal world’ sanctions and calls ‘sane’, but which the organism (sometimes correctly) identifies as aspects of an inexplicable, incomprehensible and literally terrifying existential threat.

This is how Laing understood the nature of madness, and Laing was one of the sanest (both under legal and more popular definitions) ever to have stayed so close to its shadow. He studied the mad without ever flinching away; listening on with patient compassion to their plight. He stayed open and survived. In an important sense, he trusted their testimony. If we wish to understand what is happening to us, I believe we ought to trust just one of his findings too. As Laing concludes in the same preface to his book The Divided Self:

“Thus I would wish to emphasize that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities” 46

While on another occasion he wrote still more emphatically:

“From the alienated starting point of our pseudo-sanity, everything is equivocal. Our sanity is not ‘true’ sanity. Their madness is not ‘true’ madness. The madness of our patients is an artefact of the destruction wreaked on them by us and by them on themselves. Let no one suppose that we meet ‘true’ madness any more than that we are truly sane. The madness that we encounter in ‘patients’ is a gross travesty, a mockery, a grotesque caricature of what the natural healing of that estranged integration we call sanity might be. True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality; the emergence of the ‘inner’ archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual reestablishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.” 47

As with death per se, we choose on the whole to remain oblivious to our all-embracing deathly materialist existence, excepting a dwindling minority who our secular society marginalise as deluded and misguided at best, and at worst cranks or fanatics – and there are many religious cranks and fanatics, of course, just as there are no less fanatical anti-religious zealots. Perhaps, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, the rest of us really ought to be screaming. Whether stultified or petrified, inwardly, many are, and that’s where the pills come in.

Laing did not mistake madness for normality, but understood perfectly well that normality can often be madness too. And normality, in turn, after being exposed as madness, has deliberately misunderstood Laing ever since.

Next chapter…

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Addendum: Advertising vs. sanity

The following brief extract is drawn from an article by satirist Hugh Iglarsh based around an interview with activist and award-winning documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne that was published in Counterpunch magazine in October 2020.

HI: What kind of personality does advertising cultivate? How would you describe the ideal consumer or recipient of advertising?

JD: The ideal ad watcher or reader is someone who’s anxious and feels incomplete. Addicts are great consumers because they feel empty and want to believe that something out there, something for sale, can fill them up. Perhaps the ideal consumer is someone suffering from bulimia, because this person will binge and gorge and then purge, thus needing to start the cycle all over again.

HI: Addiction is one of the major themes of your book. How does advertising help foster addiction?

JD: The selling of addictive products is of course a big part of what advertisers do. They study addiction very closely, and they know how addicts think – they literally know what lights up their brains.

Advertisers understand that it is often disconnection in childhood that primes people for addiction. For many traumatized people, the first time they drink or smoke or take drugs may be the very first time they feel okay. Soon they feel they are in a relationship with the alcohol or the cigarette. Addicts aren’t stupid – the stuff they’re taking really does work, at least at first. It numbs the pain, which makes them feel connected to the substance. Eventually the drug or substance turns on them and makes all the problems they’re fleeing from worse.

What struck me about the genius of advertisers is how they exploit themes of tremendous importance to addicts, such as their fear of loneliness and desire for freedom. This is precisely what addiction does to you – it seems to offer you what you need, while actually making you more dependent, more alone. The ads promise freedom and connection, in the form of products that entrap users and weaken relationships. 48

In Chapter Eight, The Unreal Thing, I present my own thoughts on the detrimental impact of advertising on modern culture.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

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1 Extract from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by R. D. Laing, first published 1959/60; “Preface to the Pelican Edition” written September 1964.

2 From an article entitled “Asylum tourism” by Jennifer L. Bazar and Jeremy T. Burman, published in Monitor on Psychology, February 2014, Vol 45, No. 2. https://www.academia.edu/11707191/Asylum_tourism_In_the_19th_century_travelers_visited_asylums_to_admire_the_institutions_architecture_and_grounds

3 Sometimes quoted in Latin as Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat (literally: Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first deprives of reason) or Quem Iuppiter vult perdere, dementat prius (literally: Those whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first deprives of reason) this expression has been used in English literature since at least the 17th century. In the form presented here it first appeared in the Reverend William Anderson Scott’s book Daniel, a Model for Young Men and then later in Longfellow’s poem The Masque of Pandora. Although falsely attributed to Euripides, earlier versions of this phrase do indeed have classical Greek origins.

4 The shift in attitude towards sexual practices as extreme as sadomasochism is a curious one. I take the liberal view that it is right to be fully tolerant of activities that do not injure innocent parties and so do not wish to infringe individual freedoms when they do not violate the freedom of others. Nevertheless, I tend to regard sexual practices such as sadomasochism as perverse, and not because I do not understand them, but because I do. I recognise the urge that twists pleasure and pain together; the same one that mixes up vulnerability with humiliation. The psychological dangers are abundantly clear to me and the fact that our society today actively promotes and normalises S/M is perhaps indicative of a traumatic breakdown in human relations.  It is wonderful that society has overcome so many of its hang-ups, but all taboos aren’t equal. Taboos against inflicting severe pain, even when consensual, do make sense.

Sarah Byrden, a sex educator and sacred sexuality teacher, says we are simultaneously (without realising it) “being bounced off the walls between pornography and Puritanism”:

5    Salvador Dalí is certainly attributed with a quote along these lines.

6

After calling the hospital for an appointment, the pseudopatient arrived at the admissions office complaining that he had been hearing voices. Asked what the voices said, he replied that they were often unclear, but as far as he could tell they said “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” The voices were unfamiliar and were of the same sex as the pseudopatient. The choice of these symptoms was occasioned by their apparent similarity to existential symptoms. Such symptoms are alleged to arise from painful concerns about the perceived meaninglessness of one’s life. It is as if the hallucinating person were saying, “My life is empty and hollow.” The choice of these symptoms was also determined by the absence of a single report of existential psychoses in the literature.

Beyond alleging the symptoms and falsifying name, vocation, and employment, no further alterations of person, history, or circumstances were made. The significant events of the pseudopatient’s life history were presented as they had actually occurred. Relationships with parents and siblings, with spouse and children, with people at work and in school, consistent with the aforementioned exceptions, were described as they were or had been. Frustrations and upsets were described along with joys and satisfactions. These facts are important to remember. If anything, they strongly biased the subsequent results in favor of detecting insanity, since none of their histories or current behaviors were seriously pathological in any way.

Immediately upon admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudopatient ceased simulating any symptoms of abnormality. In some cases, there was a brief period of mild nervousness and anxiety, since none of the pseudopatients really believed that they would be admitted so easily. Indeed, their shared fear was that they would be immediately exposed as frauds and greatly embarrassed. Moreover, many of them had never visited a psychiatric ward; even those who had, nevertheless had some genuine fears about what might happen to them. Their nervousness, then, was quite appropriate to the novelty of the hospital setting, and it abated rapidly.

Apart from that short-lived nervousness, the pseudopatient behaved on the ward as he “normally” behaved. The pseudopatient spoke to patients and staff as he might ordinarily. Because there is uncommonly little to do on a psychiatric ward, he attempted to engage others in conversation. When asked by staff how he was feeling, he indicated that he was fine, that he no longer experienced symptoms. He responded to instructions from attendants, to calls for medication (which was not swallowed), and to dining-hall instructions. Beyond such activities as were available to him on the admissions ward, he spent his time writing down his observations about the ward, its patients, and the staff. Initially these notes were written “secretly,” but as it soon became clear that no one much cared, they were subsequently written on standard tablets of paper in such public places as the dayroom. No secret was made of these activities.

The pseudopatient, very much as a true psychiatric patient, entered a hospital with no foreknowledge of when he would be discharged. Each was told that he would have to get out by his own devices, essentially by convincing the staff that he was sane. The psychological stresses associated with hospitalization were considerable, and all but one of the pseudopatients desired to be discharged almost immediately after being admitted. They were, therefore, motivated not only to behave sanely, but to be paragons of cooperation. That their behavior was in no way disruptive is confirmed by nursing reports, which have been obtained on most of the patients. These reports uniformly indicate that the patients were “friendly,” “cooperative,” and “exhibited no abnormal indications.”

Extract taken from Rosenhan DL (January 1973) entitled “On being sane in insane places” published in Science 179 (4070): 250–8. http://web.archive.org/web/20041117175255/http://web.cocc.edu/lminorevans/on_being_sane_in_insane_places.htm

7    Ibid.

8    Ibid.

9

A psychiatric label has a life and an influence of its own. Once the impression has been formed that the patient is schizophrenic, the expectation is that he will continue to be schizophrenic. When a sufficient amount of time has passed, during which the patient has done nothing bizarre, he is considered to be in remission and available for discharge. But the label endures beyond discharge, with the unconfirmed expectation that he will behave as a schizophrenic again. Such labels, conferred by mental health professionals, are as influential on the patient as they are on his relatives and friends, and it should not surprise anyone that the diagnosis acts on all of them as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, the patient himself accepts the diagnosis, with all of its surplus meanings and expectations, and behaves accordingly. [Ibid.]

10  Ibid.

11 Physicists – at least all the one I’ve known – whether they’ve heard it before or not (and they generally have heard it before), get the joke immediately; non-physicists, on the other hand, I refer to the old saw that “many a true word is spoken in jest.” For such blunt reductionism certainly does lie at the heart of physics, and indeed of all ‘hard science’; disciplines that are founded upon the simplification of the infinitely complex processes of the natural world. With its especial penchant for ‘elegance’ and parsimoniousness, every physicist is trained through repeated worked examples, and eventually hard-wired to consider the most straightforward and ideal case as the most productive first step in solving every problem: hence the spherical cow. The funny thing is, how often it works!

Consider a Spherical Cow became the title of a book about methods of problem solving using simplified models written by Environmental Scientist John Harte, published in 1988.

In a letter to Science journal published in 1973 the author Steven D. Stellman instead postulated “A Spherical Chicken”. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/182/4119/1296.3

12 The fact that no-one is actually able to answer this question says a lot about time machines – but that’s for a separate discussion!

13    From the essay Night Walks written by Charles Dickens, originally published in the weekly journal All Year Round in 1859, and appearing as Chapter 13 of The Uncommercial  Traveller (1861).

14 From Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited (1958), chapter 8 “Chemical Persuasion”

15 From Oliver Sack’s A Leg to Stand On (1984), chapter VII “Understanding”

16 From an interview in The Observer published January 25, 1931.

17 In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted his first conformity laboratory experiments inviting groups of male college students to participate in a simple “perceptual” task, which involved distinguishing between three lines labelled A,B and C to decide which matched the length of another comparator line on a different card. In reality, all but one of the participants was an actor, and the true focus of the study was how the remaining participant would react to the actors’ behaviour. Each participant was asked in turn to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card and seated such that the real participant always responded last.

In the control group, with no pressure to conform to actors, the error rate on the critical stimuli was less than 1%. In the actor condition also, the majority of participants’ responses remained correct (63.2%), but a sizable minority of responses conformed to the actors’ (incorrect) answer (36.8 percent). The responses revealed strong individual differences: 5% of participants were always swayed by the crowd and only 25% consistently defied majority opinion; the rest conforming on some trials. Overall, 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of the 12 critical trials. In his opinion regarding the study results, Asch put it this way: “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.”

18 This is sometimes called ‘Planck’s Principle’ and it is taken from the following passages drawn from Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie. Mit einem Bildnis und der von Max von Laue gehaltenen Traueransprache. [trans: Scientific Autobiography. With preface and obituary by Max von Laue] Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag (Leipzig 1948), p. 22, in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, (1949), as translated by F. Gaynor, pp. 33–34, 97.

“A new scientific truth does not generally triumph by persuading its opponents and getting them to admit their errors, but rather by its opponents gradually dying out and giving way to a new generation that is raised on it. … An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.”

19 William James, Principles of Psychology volume I. chapter vii. p. 196, 1890.

20    Transforming Diagnosis, a post by former National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director Thomas Insel, published by NIMH on April 29, 2013. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml

21  The film (released 1975) was the adaptation of a novel of the same name written by Ken Kesey and published more than a decade earlier in 1962. Kesey based his story on experiences he had had working late shifts as an orderly at a mental health institution, as well as more personal experiences of using psychodelics.

22 Quote taken from Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good (2012) by James Davies, Chapter 2, “The DSM – a great work of fiction?”

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 From an article entitled “Diagnosing the D.S.M.” written by Allen Francis, published in The New York Times on May 11, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/12/opinion/break-up-the-psychiatric-monopoly.html?_r=1

30 From an article entitled “Inside The Battle To Define Mental Illness” written by Gary Greenberg, published in Wired magazine on December 27, 2010. https://www.wired.com/2010/12/ff_dsmv/

31 Although the practice continued in France into the 1980s, whereas, perhaps surprisingly, it had been banned already on moral grounds by 1950 in the Soviet Union.

32

The Montreal Experiments were carried out on patients suffering from schizophrenia that used sensory deprivation, ECT and drugs (included drug induced coma) combined with “psychic driving” which was an early form of brainwashing involving pre-recorded audio tapes played non-stop for days with up to half a million repetitions altogether. One of Cameron’s victims was Jean Steel, whose daughter Alison (only four and a half at the time of her mother’s treatment) told CBC News in an interview:

“She was never able to really function as a healthy human being because of what they did to her.”

From an article entitled “Federal government quietly compensates daughter of brainwashing experiments victim” written by Elizabeth Thompson, published by CBC News on October 26, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cia-brainwashing-allanmemorial-mentalhealth-1.4373590

Embedded below is an episode from CBC investigative documentary series The Fifth Estate entitled “MK Ultra: CIA mind control program in Canada” that was first broadcast in 1980:

33 An article titled “Rorschach and Awe” written by Katherine Eban, published in Vanity Fair in July 2007 reported that:

A psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession’s 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. […]

Two psychologists in particular played a central role: James Elmer Mitchell, who was attached to the C.I.A. team that eventually arrived in Thailand, and his colleague Bruce Jessen. Neither served on the task force or are A.P.A. members. Both worked in a classified military training program known as SERE—for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape—which trains soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror, according to psychologists and others with direct knowledge of their activities. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including “waterboarding,” at its network of “black sites.” In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.”

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/07/torture200707?printable=true%C2%A4tPage=all

An article titled “The Black Sites” written by Jane Mayer, published in The New Yorker in August 2007 picked up the same story:

The use of psychologists [on the SERE program] was also considered a way for C.I.A. officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture. The former adviser to the intelligence community said, “Clearly, some senior people felt they needed a theory to justify what they were doing. You can’t just say, ‘We want to do what Egypt’s doing.’ When the lawyers asked what their basis was, they could say, ‘We have Ph.D.s who have these theories.’ ” He said that, inside the C.I.A., where a number of scientists work, there was strong internal opposition to the new techniques. “Behavioral scientists said, ‘Don’t even think about this!’ They thought officers could be prosecuted.”

Nevertheless, the SERE experts’ theories were apparently put into practice with Zubaydah’s interrogation. Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” which was so small that he could not stand. According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/the-black-sites

A subsequent Senate Intelligence Committee report from 2014 confirms that:

The CIA used two outside contract psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations. The psychologists’ prior experience was at the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. […]

The contractors developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques and personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using those techniques. The contractors also evaluated whether detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the techniques, even for some detainees they themselves were interrogating or had interrogated. […]

In 2005, the psychologists formed a company to expand their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. The CIA paid the company more than $80 million.

https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/senate-intelligence-committee-study-on-cia-detention-and-interrogation-program

34

“The discovery of phenothiazines, the first family of antipsychotic agents has its origin in the development of the German dye industry, at the end of the 19th century (Graebe, Liebermann, Bernthsen). Up to 1940 they were employed as antiseptics, antihelminthics and antimalarials (Ehrlich, Schulemann, Gilman). Finally, in the context of research on antihistaminic substances in France after World War II (Bovet, Halpern, Ducrot) the chlorpromazine was synthesized at Rhône-Poulenc Laboratories (Charpentier, Courvoisier, Koetschet) in December 1950. Its introduction in anaesthesiology, in the antishock area (lytic cocktails) and “artificial hibernation” techniques, is reviewed (Laborit), and its further psychiatric clinical introduction in 1952..”

From the abstract to a paper entitled “History of the Discovery and Clinical Introduction of Chlorpromazine” authored by Francisco Lopez-Muñoz, Cecilio Alamo, Eduardo Cuenca, Winston W. Shen, Patrick Clervoy and Gabriel Rubio, published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 17(3):113–135, 2005. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7340552_History_of_the_Discovery_and_Clinical_Introduction_of_Chlorpromazine

35 Psychiatry’s New Brain-Mind and the Legend of the “Chemical Imbalance” written by Ronald W. Pies, Editor-in Chief Emeritus and published by Psychiatric Times on July 11, 2011. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/couch-crisis/psychiatrys-new-brain-mind-and-legend-chemical-imbalance

36 Extract from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by R. D. Laing, first published 1959/60; Part 1, Chapter 1, “The Existential-Phenomenological Foundations for A Science of Persons”.

37 McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014.

38 Larkin’s celebrated poem This be the Verse which begins with the lines “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad/ They may not mean to, but they do” was written and first published in 1971.

39 One of Laing’s great interests was in the “double bind” situation, which he came to diagnose as the root cause for most of the madness around him. Laing had adopted the idea of the “double bind” from anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Bateson, in turn, had traced the notion back to a semi-autobiographical novel by Victorian Samuel Butler, entitled The Way of All Flesh. But Butler had only described the condition and not named it, whereas Bateson had rediscovered it and labelled it as an important cause of schizophrenia.

Hearing from a parent, for instance, that “I love you” whilst seeing no expression which supported the evidence of that expressed love, presented the patient with a “double-bind” situation. This is just one example, but Laing had witnessed this and many other kinds of “paradoxical communication” in his patients’ relationships to their nearest and dearest. He eventually came to believe, along with Bateson, that being caught in such a “double-bind” situation was existentially damaging and very commonly, therefore, psychologically crippling. In recognising this, Laing had undoubtedly discovered a fragment of the truth, and it is a shame that he then over-intellectualises the issue, as intellectuals are wont to do. Replace “double bind” with “mind game” and his case becomes much clearer. If people, especially those you are closest to you and those you need to trust, constantly undermine your view of yourself and of your relationship to others, then the seeds of destruction are being sown. But to my mind, such details of Laing’s outlook are nothing like as interesting and illuminating as the general thrust of what he had to say about our society.

40 As quoted in Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) by Larry Chang, p. 412; this might be a paraphrase, as the earliest occurrence of this phrase thus far located is in the form: “Ronald David Laing has shocked many people when he suggested in 1972 that insanity can be a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” in Studii de literatură română i comparată (1984), by The Faculty of Philology-History at Universitatea din Timioara. A clear citation to Laing’s own work has not yet been found.

41 From the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets titled Burnt Norton.

42 This passage continues:

“If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself! To believe in the carnivorous reptiles of geologic times is hard for our imagination—they seem too much like mere museum specimens. Yet there is no tooth in any one of those museum-skulls that did not daily through long years of the foretime hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim. Forms of horror just as dreadful to their victims, if on a smaller spatial scale, fill the world about us to-day. Here on our very hearths and in our gardens the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along; and whenever they or other wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is the literally right reaction on the situation.”

Extract taken from The varieties of religious experience: study in human nature, Lectures VI and VII, “The Sick Soul”, William James (1902)

43 In their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better authors Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined the major impact that inequality has on eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being. The related Equality Trust website that was co-founded by the authors also includes scatter plots from their book. One of these shows a remarkably close correlation between prevalence of mental illness and income inequality with the following explanatory notes attached:

“Until recently it was hard to compare levels of mental illness between different countries because nobody had collected strictly comparable data, but recently the World Health Organisation has established world mental health surveys that are starting to provide data. They show that different societies have very different levels of mental illness. In some countries only 5 or 10% of the adult population has suffered from any mental illness in the past year, but in the USA more than 25% have.

“We first showed a relationship between mental illness and income inequality in eight developed countries with WHO data – the USA, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Since then we’ve been able to add data for New Zealand and for some other countries whose surveys of mental illness, although not strictly comparable, use very similar methods – Australia, the UK and Canada. As the graph [above] shows, mental illness is much more common in more unequal countries. Among these countries, mental illness is also more common in the richer ones.”

More Information

Pickett KE, James OW, Wilkinson RG. Income inequality and the prevalence of mental illness: a preliminary international analysis. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2006;60(7):646-7.

Wilkinson RG, Pickett KE. The problems of relative deprivation: why some societies do better than others. Social Science and Medicine 2007; 65: 1965-78.

James O. Affluenza, London: Vermilion, 2007.

Friedli L. Mental health, resilience and inequalities: how individuals and communities are affected, World Health Organisation. 2009.

Wilkinson RG, Pickett KE. The Spirit Level. Penguin. 2009. Buy the book from Amazon.

The notes and graph are also available by following the link: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/mental-health

44 A distinction I owe to American Archetypal Psychologist and former Director of Studies the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, James Hillman.

45 The facts speak for themselves really. For instance, a 2011 report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that in just ten years antidepressant use in the US has increased by a staggering 400%.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20123062-10391704.html

The report reveals that more than one in ten of the American population aged 12 or over is taking antidepressants. But that’s okay, according to “the authors of the report” because: “… many people who could benefit from antidepressants aren’t taking them. Only a third of people with symptoms of severe depression take antidepressants.”

The same report also reveals how a further 8% of Americans without depressive symptoms take the drugs for other reasons such as anxiety. And what about the population below 12 years old? Well, the following is taken from a report on what’s happening closer to home, published by the Guardian in March 2011 and which begins:

“Children as young a four are being given Ritalin-style medication for behavioural problems in breach of NHS guidelines.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/mar/18/behaviour-drugs-four-year-olds

According to official UK guidelines, children over the age of six can now be prescribed with mind-altering substances and even when these are to be administered on a daily basis.

46 Extract from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by R. D. Laing, first published 1959/60; “Preface to the Pelican Edition” written September 1964. Laing adds: “But let it stand. This was the work of a young man. If I am older, I am now also younger.”

47 R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience  (Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1967)

48 From an article entitled “Advertising vs. Democracy: An Interview with Jean Kilbourne” written by Hugh Iglarsh, published in Counterpunch magazine on October 23rd 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/23/advertising-vs-democracy-an-interview-with-jean-kilbourne/

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one year of Keir Starmer and his open war on the Labour left: my exchange of letters with constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield

Keir Starmer became Labour leader one year ago today, having comfortably won the leadership race against Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, gaining an unassailable 56.2% of the vote in the first round of the election. As leader, Starmer has since failed to offer any effective opposition to what has been and continues to be an incompetent, corrupt, reactionary and increasingly authoritarian Tory government.

Moreover, rather than unifying the Labour Party as he pledged to do, under the guise of tackling antisemitism, Starmer set his sights instead on crushing the progressive wing with a series of attacks to undermine those closest to former leader Jeremy Corbyn, promptly sacking Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet. Starmer’s war on the left culminated with his full endorsement of the decision to suspend Corbyn, who is yet to have the whip re-instated and now sits as an independent backbench MP, where even in this diminished capacity he still offers more effective opposition than Sir Keir:

And here is Corbyn speaking out to protect our civil liberties and democratic right to protest at yesterday’s #KillTheBill rally:

On Wednesday 24th February inspired by a short interview featuring the editor of Tribune, Ronan Burtenshaw (embedded below), I penned a quick letter to my local MP Paul Blomfield, the former Shadow Minister for Brexit and EU Negotiations, inviting him to watch the video in question. Reproduced below is the full exchange of letters unabridged and augmented with further links and additional video:

*

Dear Paul,

I think you should know how I and many other members of the Labour Party are feeling at this moment. I encourage you therefore to spend just ten minutes watching this short film:

Ronan Burtenshaw speaks for literally hundreds of thousands of us, some of whom have already torn up their membership cards and walked away from the party in disgust.

If the leadership and the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] continue to act in this way then Labour will lose many more members. Its grassroots base will very likely collapse. And if this isn’t already concerning enough, then I ask you also to consider the broader impact on our democracy once the party is divorced from the people, and the electorate again stops trusting our politicians. Look at the effects in America.

I cannot put my true feelings into words here which is why I very sincerely encourage you to watch the film.

Hope you are well in these difficult times.

Kind regards,

James

*

Respectfully he did watch the video and replied to me on Friday 5th March:

Dear James,

Thanks for your email sharing your views about Keir’s leadership of the Labour Party.

I watched the video, but I don’t think it provides a very accurate picture of what’s happening in the party at the moment. I find it extraordinary that it criticises the current party leadership for serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet while disagreeing with some of his policies. It suggests that this is duplicity, where actually it’s loyalty to the Labour cause. We come together in political parties around shared values, with lots of different views; we make our arguments on specific policies but back what is agreed.

I’ve disagreed with every leader of the Labour Party on something, but we should always work positively to engage, not simply look to oppose at every turn which I fear that some in the Party are seeking to do at the moment. You’ll know that Jeremy’s suspension is due to his refusal to apologise for his comments on the EHRC report, not to do with his leadership or any other issue.

I also don’t recognise your characterisation of the huge loss of members during Keir’s tenure either. In November 2019 (the last set of NEC elections during Jeremy’s leadership) there were around 430,000 members. In January this year there were around 459,000.

You’re right that it’s a serious problem for democracy when people stop trusting politicians; and turning to populism – of the right or left – is not the answer. We obviously lost the trust of a significant section of our traditional supporters in recent years, leading us to the worst electoral defeat since 1935. It’s a long haul back, but we have picked up more than 20 points in the polls since last April and Keir is rated as the most popular Labour politician (see more here).

I’m a bit puzzled by your comments about the USA where there has been a troubling polarisation of politics, with the left losing some of its traditional base, but people put their faith in the biggest charlatan in the country’s history. Let’s take comfort from the fact  that Trump lost the Presidential election, and the Biden Administration has used its position to begin to set right some of the most divisive policies – such stopping the ‘building of the wall’, launching a government initiative on racial equality, cancelling the racist ‘Muslim ban’ and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord.

Thanks again for writing and for your good wishes. I hope you’re keeping well too.

With best wishes Paul.

*

I then replied to Paul Blomfield the same day but at greater length – supporting links with URL addresses are as in the original but I have also included further links and Youtube clips including the interview with Andrew Feinstein:

Dear Paul,

Thank you for watching the video I sent and for your thoughtful and full reply.

Firstly, I would like to address the issue surrounding membership. Since I do not have access to the Labour database I am forced to rely on what I hear from fellow members and from the most recent newspaper reports. Regarding anecdotal evidence, it is very clear to me that I am not alone. Of the members I know personally or know through social media, many have resigned their membership; countless others feel betrayed and deceived by Keir Starmer’s calls for unity and reconciliation; and the vast majority are now terribly demoralised. As for reliable numbers:

LABOUR has lost over 50,000 members since Keir Starmer became leader, according to the party’s own election records.

UK Labour held its National Executive Committee (NEC) elections this week, which was won by the party’s left-wing faction.

In the NEC election, 495,961 members of the party were listed as eligible to vote.

When Starmer was elected to the leadership position after Jeremy Corbyn stood down, there were 552,835 registered Labour party members.

Those figures mean the party has lost 56,874 members since April

From an article published on November 14th by The National: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18871910.labour-nec-vote-reveals-drop-party-membership-since-keir-starmers-election/

When it comes to Labour’s electoral chances, if this decline is true then, as I wrote before, it will have a devastating effect on doorstep canvassing. The drop in revenue also means that the party will now have to become increasingly reliant on wealthy and corporate donors.

You say that “we obviously lost the trust of a significant section of our traditional supporters in recent years, leading us to the worst electoral defeat since 1935. It’s a long haul back, but we have picked up more than 20 points in the polls since last April and Keir is rated as the most popular Labour politician.”

Labour lost its traditional base once it came to be seen as untrustworthy. This happened when it flip-flopped over Brexit and moved from its successful stance of accepting the referendum vote in 2017 (losing by the tiniest margin of just 2.5%) to its slow adoption of calls for a second vote. Many on the left forecast this repercussion; as you may recall, I was one [see here]. The chief architect of Labour’s Brexit strategy was Keir Starmer, so he must take some of the responsibility for Labour’s dreadful 2019 defeat.

I don’t trust opinion polls very much and I think that constantly relying on them to guide us is a bad habit, and indeed one that smacks of populism. That said, at the time of the last election, the Tories won with short of a 12% lead over Labour whereas the latest opinion poll currently gives them a 13% lead. This evaluation comes after a truly disastrous year when abject incompetence and corruption in the government’s handling of the pandemic has resulted in more than a hundred thousand deaths and will leave millions of people unemployed or otherwise desperate. Of course, Corbyn’s popularity figures remained comparatively low throughout his leadership (for reasons I shall come to), but Starmer’s figures have recently nosedived too and now fallen below Corbyn’s peak. Perhaps the latest report from Yougov is illuminating in this regard:

“Starmer’s main cause for concern is that a quarter (24%) of those who voted Labour in 2019 have an unfavourable view of their party leader, although 60% still hold a favourable opinion. In fact, his personal approval rating is now better amongst 2019 Lib Dem voters, who have a favourable opinion of him by 68% to 19%. He also has the support of one in five (21%) 2019 Conservative voters.”

That he is most favoured today by Lib Dem voters certainly does not support the view that he will begin winning back traditional Labour supporters any time soon.

Keir Starmer’s decline in net satisfaction over first 12 months image

Click here to find the same graphic on page 15 of the Ipsos MORI report from March 2021.

You write that: “I’m a bit puzzled by your comments about the USA where there has been a troubling polarisation of politics, with the left losing some of its traditional base, but people put their faith in the biggest charlatan in the country’s history.” The point – not really my point – is that when people lose faith in democracy they often seem to turn to fascism. And I think we may agree that with the election of Trump, America has already moved to the cusp of turning fascist.

The difference here is that I put no faith in Biden at all because I see no reason to do so. Under Biden I fully anticipate a return to the kinds of policies that we had under Obama and without going into the details of what was wrong with Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, I would simply make the obvious point that Trump’s success followed immediately on the heels of Obama’s two terms in office. Clearly those eight years of “hope and change” left many Americans feeling little more than despair and desperation. After Biden, the same will very likely happen although with still more dangerous consequences because the situation gradually worsens with each cycle of neoliberal failure.

Finally, I shall address the most contentious of the points you have raised. To those on the left of the party the suspension of Corbyn is very evidently a politically-motivated act. In the statement in question, Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “absolutely abhorrent” and “one anti-Semite is one too many” in the party. These views are ones he has consistently upheld and are views that most of us share.

He then went on to say: “The scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” There are actually two issues here. Firstly, on what grounds is it improper for him to defend the party and himself against perceived smears by political opponents and the media?  Secondly, is his opinion false? What is the available evidence here?

I refer you to Al Jazeera’s undercover investigative series “The Lobby” broadcast in 2017. In light of Al Jazeera’s revelations, then-shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry called on the government to launch an immediate inquiry into “improper interference in our democratic politics”.

She said in parliament: “The exposure of an Israeli embassy official discussing how to bring down or discredit a government minister and other MPs because of their views on the Middle East is extremely disturbing.”

Note that: Thornberry’s statement can also be found on the Labour Party website: https://labour.org.uk/press/reports-of-israeli-embassy-official-discussing-how/

Although this story briefly hit the headlines, the main focus of Al Jazeera’s investigation and its disclosure of a dirty tricks campaign against both pro-Palestinian Labour members and also to subvert Corbyn’s leadership has been quietly buried by the media.

Moreover, in January 2017, BBC Trust felt obliged to issue a retraction and an admission that it breached its own accuracy and impartiality rules during a news report about Jeremy Corbyn’s view on shoot-to-kill policy, writing: “The breach of due accuracy on such a highly contentious political issue meant that the output had not achieved due impartiality.” Here is another indication of the media’s hostility toward Corbyn, and I will add that in response, James Harding, Director of BBC News, remained unapologetic saying (as the BBC itself reported): “While we respect the Trust and the people who work there, we disagree with this finding.”

I remind you that Keir Starmer also sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey merely for retweeting a quote with a link to respectable newspaper article on the grounds that it promoted a “conspiracy theory”.

Below is the first part of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Twitter thread apology and retraction:

Without wishing to get into the weeds, the claims made in the article in question were untrue only in the specific case of the George Floyd killing, because it irrefutably is the case that police officers in the US are being trained by Israel Defense Forces [as Amnesty International reported in 2016] and that the IDF does use a similar kind of neck restraint against Palestinians [as Jonathan Cook reports here]. As you are no doubt aware, they also routinely shoot at unarmed protesters using live ammunition.

Here is a video report also posted by Amnesty International:

And here is a video showing an IDF soldier using the same neck restraint against a Palestinian man:

Going back to Corbyn’s statement, in my view he is justifiably defending himself against an attack-dog media and those who were actively working within the party to undermine him. But my own central points are actually these: Firstly, that Corbyn is not and has never been a racist. Indeed, even his fiercest opponents have never seriously charged him with racism and that is because his antiracist position is active, long-standing and unimpeachable. Secondly, and more broadly, we must never allow criticism of Israel to be suppressed on the totally spurious charge of antisemitism. I fear that even writing this may put me somehow in breach of the party’s current position, since I fail to understand how Corbyn’s statement is more sanctionable than any of the thoughts expressed here.

Embedded below is an interview with Andrew Feinstein, former South African MP who served under Nelson Mandela and author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”, discussing Keir Starmer’s ‘New’ New Labour, how the factional and weaponised use of ‘antisemitism’ is used to purge the left from the Labour party:

In this regard I stand with Jewish Voice for Labour who released the following statement:

We are appalled that Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended and had the whip withdrawn. He has a proud record of fighting all forms of racism including antisemitism. We call on Labour Party members to protest against this unjustified outrage in the strongest terms and through all channels available to us. This is an attack not just on Jeremy, but on the party membership. Do not leave, organise and fight back.

You can read their views on the EHRC report here: https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/the-ehrc-report-an-interim-response/

Very glad to hear that you are well and I’d like to thank you again for taking the time and trouble to reply to my letter.

Best wishes,

James

*

I received a reply from Paul Blomfield on Tuesday 16th March:

Dear James

Thanks for your further email. I just wanted to respond on a couple of your points.

Membership numbers fluctuate and, while the figures showed some decline from the highest-ever level in January 2020, they are still well above the 430,359 in November 2019. Any decline in membership is clearly disappointing, but the increase in public support is encouraging. I don’t know the potential negative affect this might have on canvassing teams. After the mass influx of new members in 2015 and 2016, there was no noticeable increase in campaigning members, so I’m not sure there’s a direct correlation.

You also make the point that Labour is in danger of losing more of its ‘traditional base’ voters, or not winning them back soon. It is a real issue; democratic socialist parties across Europe have faced a gradual loss of this support over at least the last 15 years, and in the UK this far pre-dates Brexit. In 2017, under Jeremy’s leadership, the trend continued and, while we won seats in metropolitan areas, we lost Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and other such ‘traditional Labour’ seats. Bringing together a winning electoral coalition is a complex challenge – but one that we have been considering and working on for a decade. I would also point out that our 2019 Brexit policy was not Keir’s, but one that Jeremy wanted and was secured at Conference with the support of Len McCluskey, who later wrote this piece claiming that it “should be a vote-winner”.

I agree with you that over-reliance on polls outside election periods isn’t always helpful, but as you will recognise, in the days before Keir became leader we were 20 points behind and we’re now in a much stronger position – while Johnson enjoys a current ‘bounce’ from the successful vaccination programme (which is frustrating as it’s the hard-working NHS staff that his Government has denied a fair pay settlement to who are rolling it out!)

With best wishes

Paul

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My final thoughts: Although I reject Paul Blomfield’s contention that “our 2019 Brexit policy was not Keir’s, but one that Jeremy wanted…” I have not replied to him since it seemed that our sequence of correspondence had run its course. I’d like sincerely to thank him again for taking such trouble to reply in fullness to my concerns.

*

Additional:

Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani of Novara Media marked the anniversary with their own review on Friday 2nd:

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, campaigns & events, Israel, police state, Uncategorized

10 years through the looking-glass: reflections on writing this blog and plans to mark the anniversary

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

From Alice Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

*

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog and first and foremost I would like to take the opportunity to thank all my subscribers and readers. As the tech giants continue to do everything in their wide-ranging powers (including algorithmic adjustments, shadow bans and more forthright content removal) to hammer alternative sites like this one – January saw the third blow in four years as levels of site traffic plummeted almost overnight to all-time lows – it is only subscribers like you who motivate me to continue adding new content.

Unfortunately, while I noticed this anniversary was looming, somehow its arrival has nonetheless caught me a little unprepared. So like the hapless best man at a wedding who has forgotten to bring his speech, I must ask you to forgive this rather extemporised offering and in the tradition, I shall try to keep it short!

A decade that began with Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy and Obama has somehow, and in spite of everything that happened during the interim, such as the rise and fall of the Occupy movement, and the false dawns of Syriza, Sanders and Corbyn, ended up with Johnson, Merkel, Macron and Biden. Plus ça change.

Ten years ago we also witnessed the so-called “Arab Spring” that resulted in the bloody assassination of Gaddafi and ensuing chaos to Libya, including the return of slave markets and warlords. Meanwhile, the notorious lies about WMDs that falsely accused Saddam and gave a pretext for the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003 are today routinely compounded with comparable lies about alleged gas attacks in Syria. Lies that are upheld by the majority of our snivelling mainstream journalists. Fake news did not begin with “Russiagate” although it was indeed another hoax, but is readily traced back to the toppling of Saddam’s statue, “babies out of incubators”, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the sinking of the USS Liberty, the Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough Disaster… this list goes on and on and on.

Bush and Blair’s illegal invasion (Operation Iraqi Liberation or OIL for short) had enabled Salafist terrorists to get their foothold in Iraq, and then following the “Arab Spring” uprisings, these same factions were enabled to cross the porous border back and forth into Syria, as a new Takfiri gang called ISIS sprang up and menaced the region. Timber Sycamore, a covert CIA-led operation, also helped to train and supply weapons to many of these so-called “rebels” in Syria.

In the real battle to defeat the spread of ISIS and al Qaeda, Iran remains, of course, solidly committed to the cause, at the same time it has remained solidly in the crosshairs of Israel and the US, who last year murdered Qasem Soleimani, the foremost Iranian general fighting against these terrorist factions. The duplicitous nature of the US-led foreign “interventions” and occupations in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond (including Western meddling in Ukraine and Venezuela) are all issues I have returned to.

At home, the decade has been punctuated by terrorist attacks that in turn furthered the growth and expansion of a tightening network of surveillance systems, while western nations have simultaneously been in the grip of stringent “austerity measures” inflicted on the back of the 2008/9 banking collapse. This neoliberal assault is now set to be extended thanks to repeated government failures to tackle the current pandemic, when rather than instituting appropriate public health measures and timely border controls that might have kept the economy open and avoided 130,000 excess deaths, Johnson instead forced us into nationwide lockdowns.

On a more personal note, twelve months ago I contracted covid and found myself utterly abandoned by a government that offered no support whatsoever. It didn’t even provide a means of testing and at that time it was almost impossible to check whether my own strange symptoms fitted this novel disease. I went into self-isolation (in accordance with regulations) but then had to rely entirely on my family for support. The symptoms were frightening at times and it took fully eight weeks to properly recover. I have since received no financial support in spite of reduced hours at work. Now I am one of millions of course – while many others stricken with the disease in those first weeks actually died at home for want of medical attention. Millions more have since fallen between the multiple cracks of Rishi Sunak’s convoluted and unfair furlough scheme.

This second round of disaster capitalism – the first took place in the shadow of the banking crisis – already involves massive transfers of wealth from the public purse into the pockets of the major corporations and their presiding oligarchs. The next steps as jobs are lost, whether through automation or more straightforwardly due to rapid economic decline, will enable fresh opportunities for privatisation, the accelerated dismantling of the welfare systems, and the continuing immiseration of the ninety-nine percent. Already this shift is being cleverly rebranded under the Davos-inspired banner of “The Great Reset”.

Over the years I have tried to cover all of these issues and many others including environmental ones. For instance, I first highlighted the threat of the fracking industry long before most people in Europe had heard anything about it and wrote extensively on the serious dangers posed by nuclear power during the time of the Fukushima disaster; a forgotten horror which is still haunting that region of Japan with a cost to human life that will never be fully counted.

One of my constant aims here has been to provide in-depth coverage as well as support to burgeoning protest and political movements as they have arisen. Beginning with Los Indignados in Spain, which then sparked the more widespread Occupy movement, I followed both from their inception and tried to issue warnings once I saw how Occupy was being sidetracked by internal squabbles and with its failure to make firm political or economic demands; finally reporting on its last vestiges before the tents inside Zuccotti Park were completely smashed to the ground by Obama’s law enforcement thugs.

Likewise I had supported the equivalent protest movement in Greece before switching my backing to Syriza under its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras. This was a mistake and following the referendum to end the imposed neoliberal reforms of “the Troika”, seeing how that vote was immediately betrayed, I freely admitted my own error of judgement. With greater circumspection, I also lent support to Bernie Sanders’ first campaign in America and later disclosed how his Democratic nomination was stolen during the US Primaries, while still castigating Sanders for his pitiable capitulation as he lent his unqualified support first to Clinton and then Biden.

My endorsement of Corbyn was different. I always backed him enthusiastically and on countless occasions exposed the dirty tricks used by enemies both inside the Labour Party and within the liberal media (including such ludicrous smears as labelling him a soviet spy, terrorist sympathiser, and antisemite) initially in their failed attempts to undermine his bid to be leader, and then more successfully, to demoralise his base and frustrate his leadership.

Caught up in an ongoing Blairite war against the left, Corbyn eventually lost his way and having graciously stepped aside was swiftly suspended by Starmer, the Blairite continuity successor, who seized the opportunity with Machiavellian zeal. I remain supportive of Corbyn’s project to democratise the party, though in truth it appears to be a lost cause. Notwithstanding the many setbacks, I will continue to support those on the left including Chris Williamson, Moshé Machover and Jackie Walker who all fell victim to this Labour witch hunt.

In ten years I have published or reposted more than five hundred articles and though a great deal of the writing and small parts of the research are my own, I certainly owe a huge debt of gratitude to many alternative and independent voices for providing in-depth research, on-the-ground reporting or just for receiving such well-informed opinion. These include Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Cory Morningstar, Whitney Webb, Abby Martin, Esther Vivas, John Pilger, Jonathan Cook, Craig Murray, Peter Ford, Charlie Skelton and at The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Aaron Maté. I hope that my own lesser contribution has in some way helped to promote and to widen their audiences a little too.

A few years ago, I was invited to complete an interview by Jerry Alatalo who runs The Oneness of Humanity website. The first question asked about my primary motivation for beginning the blog and I replied as follows:

The brief answer is that after years of insouciance following the end of the Cold War, I had a rude awakening upon realising where we were actually heading: the perpetual wars, the rise in surveillance, the hardening of the police state, allied to a correspondent immiseration of our already fractured and terribly unequal Western societies. After the initial trauma (trauma is really no exaggeration), I felt the need to speak out and the internet provided a platform. This is half of the story.

The other half is that I had been in the midst of writing a book when a friend suggested posting up chapters by way of a blog. Purely as a test run we set up a WordPress website and uploaded a short travelogue about my adventures in Tanzania. I kept the travelogue and began adding articles about current affairs and this is how the blog steadily evolved. Eight years on, the book (a quirky, stream-of-consciousness treatise on life, the universe and making things better!) remains a work in progress, and though some of its chapters have since been uploaded, I devoted my spare time instead to expanding the main content of the blog, which is journalistic, since this seemed a far more urgent project.

The completion of the book remains long overdue, but during the course of next few months and to mark this anniversary properly, I am determined to upload its outstanding chapters, releasing them month by month as I did before. Another idea is to repost a few of the older articles – ones that failed to receive much attention at the time of publication but remain pertinent – supplying brief updates to give them a more contemporaneous flavour.

This is what I have in mind for the immediate future as well to continue with my attempts to provide interesting and insightful content so that hopefully you will continue to follow my work.

Finally I would like to offer my best wishes to all the readers who got this far and please allow me raise a virtual glass to clink with yours!

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Chris Hedges and Matt Taibbi on true ‘fake news’ and the monopolised censorship of the tech giants

Twitter and Facebook blocked access to a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter, with Twitter locking the New York Post out of its own account for over a week. This overt censorship is emblematic of the widening and dangerous partisan divide within the US media. News and facts are no longer true or false; they are divided into information that either hurts or promotes one political faction over another.

While outlets such as Fox News have always existed as an arm of the Republican Party, this partisanship has now infected nearly all news organisations, including publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post along with the major tech platforms that disseminate news. The division of the press into warring factions shreds journalistic credibility, creating a world where facts do not matter, and where a public is encouraged to believe whatever it wants to believe.

This is Chris Hedge’s introduction to a recent interview with fellow journalist Matt Taibbi on his RT show On Contact broadcast Saturday [Oct 31st] on the eve of the US Presidential election. The show is embedded below with my own transcript provided:

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Chris Hedges: Let’s begin with 2016, which was awful, but now it’s worse. Can you talk about the progression?

Matt Taibbi: Sure. I mean I think what happened in 2016 – and it’s kind of been a story that’s assumed biblical importance for people in the news media – we had this episode where a cache of emails that had come from the Democratic National Committee [DNC] and had been from figures like Tony Podesta, came to be in the public sphere through groups like Wikileaks.

And this material was true – it wasn’t fake, it wasn’t what we would traditionally call disinformation or misinformation – and it was reported on in a small way but later blamed for helping to election Donald Trump. And, as a result, a kind of coalition of news media, tech platforms and politicians has since demanded that the next time a situation like this takes place, we have to make sure that nobody reports material like that.

And so we’re now in a semi-analogous situation, where there’s been an explosive report about some emails allegedly belonging to the nominee’s son, Hunter Biden; and there’s been suppression and the news agencies have essentially decided we’re not going to do what we did in 2016. We’re going to shut this off completely. [from 2:25 mins]

On October 22nd, Matt Taibbi was invited to speak on The Hill’s weekday morning show ‘Rising’ about the difference between how the mainstream media covered the Steele Dossier versus Hunter Biden:

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CH: But this wasn’t just Biden. They will run with stuff like the Steele dossier that obviously can’t be fact checked. They will trumpet that because it hurts Trump. And I’m not talking about partisan news agencies like MSNBC, which is just an arm of the Democratic Party, I’m talking about these old traditional media outlets like The New York Times: the kind of language that they’ll use; [how] they’ll marginalise any kind of news – even in this case of Hunter Biden’s laptop [when] no-one has denied its authenticity and yet the way they write about it will be to discredit it as black propaganda.

I think there’s kind of a sea change within that traditional media which I come out of; just a whole new ethic. I find days when I read The New York Times it’s unrecognisable in terms of how it writes, the language it uses, what it’s willing to say… it’s really a completely new organisation in many ways. Can you talk about that shift, because I find that very frightening.

MT: Sure, and of course you would know this better than I would, I think that traditionally what The New York Times would do with a story like this is; it would work very hard to ascertain first whether the material was real, and it would wait to come out with some kind of pronouncement about it news value until it had done that. And that is exactly what they don’t do anymore. You know, really in the first days after this story broke they already had a story by Kevin Roose in the paper that the headline was something along the lines of “There was a mistake in 2016, Facebook promised to fix it, well this is what the fixing looks like.”

And then the lead of that… [from 5:05 mins]

CH: Matt let me interrupt you because this is the headline… “Facebook and Twitter Dodge a 2016 Repeat, and Ignite a 2020 Firestorm

[Chris Hedges then reads from Matt Taibbi’s report published on taibbi.substack.com]

The Companies have said they would do more to stop misinformation and hacked materials from spreading, this is what the effort looks like. And then, I’m reading from your article: [Kevin] Roose, who you’ve just mentioned, notes that “politicians and pundits have hoped for a stronger response from tech firms, ever since Russian hackers and Wikileaks injected stolen emails from the Clinton campaign into public discourse.”

This again, a quote from him:

“Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services.” The Podesta emails are not false – they’re real.

MT: No exactly, it’s a bait and switch. And this has been going on all across the media landscape. When they’re doing that… they’ve used the word disinformation, or misinformation, so many times that people associate those emails with words like that. And so they can get away with saying, “Well we have to do something to stop this misinformation or disinformation”. Even though, again, we are talking about things that are real and true, but just that it happened to come to the public through a means that is in their minds infamous.

So again, the traditional mission of an organisation like The New York Times – and they exist specifically because they have the resources and the training to hunt out whether or not stuff like this is real – they are just skipping straight past that and going to the editorial pronouncement about how this is the kind of material that should be suppressed, and this is what suppression looks like, and good for them, and that’s the angle that they’re taking right now, which is really extraordinary, it’s an amazing change.  [from 6:45 mins]

CH: Yeah, no it is seismic.

So Matt I want to ask you about this podcast because I don’t think it’s unrelated: ‘Caliphate’. It’s a five-part series [where] they interview [Abu Huzayfah] – it turns out that he’s an imposter – you call it, correctly, stuff of snuff films. He’s talking about stabbings. He claims to have been an al Qaeda murderer, putting people up on crosses and putting daggers in their hearts. It’s quite amazing – again, coming out of the culture of The [New York] Times.

It’s completely false. It’s rabidly salacious. You know the worse parts of tabloid trash television. But I think that that’s a piece of what’s happening here. Can you talk about that – especially back up a little bit for people who aren’t familiar with what happened.

MT: Sure, yes. They had what I think was a six-part podcast series, and the lead reporter was a pretty celebrated figure in the organisation: it’s Rukmini Callimachi… and she’s been a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer [Prize]. And they interviewed this character who’s a Canadian citizen, who’s a Muslim, who claimed to have gone over to Syria to become a soldier for ISIS, and in the process he accumulated all these tales of committing horrific acts of violence.

The podcast was essentially based around these graphic descriptions of what he had done while he was in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East, and then he was arrested by Canadian authorities for perpetrating a hoax under a law – I guess we don’t have an analogous law here in The States – but when The [New York] Times was presented with this news that their main source in this very acclaimed, significantly trafficked podcast had turned out to be an imposter; their immediate reaction was to deflect and say, actually one of the purposes of the podcast was to determine whether or not he was telling the truth, which is completely untrue.

As Eric Wemple of the Washington Post put it (who incidentally has been one of the few media critics who’s actually done real work on this kind of stuff), they spent the entire podcast really bolstering the credibility of this source and not calling it into question at all. Incidentally, what would be the worth of a podcast like that, if there was any question at all of whether or not it was true? It would be a complete waste of time to do the story.

So they undermined themselves rather than do what I think a traditional news organisation would do, which is to say “okay, we might have a problem here, we’re going to look into it – if necessary we’ll bring in an outside auditor to see what went wrong and we’ll come out with all the results of our investigation later, and in the meantime we apologise”; that’s exactly what they didn’t do.

They’ve learned that audiences now forgive this kind of thing, and if you just pretend that it didn’t happen you can just move along and just go to the next thing. And that’s now more the kind of modus operandi, which of course wasn’t what it was when you worked there and I think when a lot of other people entered The [New York] Times back in the day. [from 8:50 mins]

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Many of the media outlets that promoted Russiagate claims which helped to deflect attention from the contents of the DNC email leaks during the 2016 election, recently repeated the same ploy by reporting unsubstantiated claims made by former intelligence officials, including John Brennan and James Clapper, as well as of top Democrats, including Joe Biden and Adam Schiff, that the Hunter Biden laptop revelations are also “Russian disinformation”, even though no one from the Biden camp has disputed the authenticity of a single leaked email or document, or denied that the laptop belongs to Hunter Biden.

On October 23rd, The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté spoke to Ray McGovern, a former career CIA officer who served as chief of the CIA’s Soviet analysts division and chaired National Intelligence Estimates, about latest claims of “Russian disinformation”, and how these new allegations actually raise questions about the conduct of the intelligence officials behind the original Russiagate claims:

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CH: Well they will forgive it only if it bolsters the dominant narrative. If it doesn’t bolster the dominant narrative, they won’t forgive it. That’s why they’ve pushed you to the margins of the media landscape.

MT: Right, and you too obviously.

CH: Yes. So, on the one hand, you have the Podesta emails, the Biden [story], which is real, being denounced as “fake”. And you have a complete hoax defended – let’s call it what it is: fake news, sensationalist garbage – being perpetrated by The [New York] Times.

I just want to read a really great paragraph you wrote: Now the business (you’re talking about journalism) has reversed course, acting like a gang of college freshmen who’ve just read Beyond Good and Evil for the first time. Objectivity is dead! There’s no truth! Everything is permitted! The cardinalate has gone from pompous overconfidence in its factual rectitude to a bizarre postmodernist pose where nothing matters, man, and truth is whatever we can get away with saying.

I mean it’s funny, but it’s not. That is really what we’re documenting here.

What do you think the pressures were? Is it commercial? I think to an extent it must be commercial: The [New York] Times has bled advertising. It’s stumbling into a new media environment that it’s not familiar with. What do you think is causing this? Or maybe it’s just moral posturing, I don’t know.

MT: I think it’s a combination of all of those things. Clearly, the commercial aspect of it plays a strong role because – just to take an example of that ‘Caliphate’ podcast: here you’ve got somebody giving a first-hand account of crucifying a human being, and that’s what you’ve got to do to you know trend on Twitter for eight seconds now! You need to come up with stuff like that just to keep getting a requisite number of clicks. Just to not lose audience, you need to come up with sensational material because everybody’s hyping things left and right.

So there’s enormous pressure now to stretch the envelope of sensationalism in ways that probably didn’t exist when I first went into the business or you did. But that’s only part of the picture. The other part of the picture is there’s been this segmentation of audience.

You know the Pew Center did a study this summer where they asked people what their political affiliations were. If your primary news source was Fox, you know 93% of those people were Republican. If your primary news source was MSNBC, 95% of those people were Democrats. With The New York Times it was 91% of those people are Democrats. NPR are 87%.

So all of these news outlets are talking to one audience exclusively, and so they’ve learned that if they screw up and they make a mistake about the other audience, it’s not going to matter. So I think whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s sped up their fact checking process, or made it looser, because they know it doesn’t really matter. You know, if we make a mistake about this it’s not going to come and bounce back at us. If we predict that something’s going to happen – if we say the walls are closing in and they don’t – that’s not going to bounce back. So I think that’s a major, major part of this picture. [from 13:05 mins]

CH: Is this the death of journalism? I mean I don’t hold the commercial networks to the same standards (maybe it’s nostalgia) that I do for The [New York] Times. But, if you can’t communicate across these divides – which is essentially what’s happening – then the country just bifurcates into warring, antagonistic tribes, which is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia because you had competing ethnic groups seize rival media outlets, and speak only to their own and demonise the other.

But to see this happening in The New York Times and in the Washington Post: is this the end of traditional media?

MT: I think temporarily. I do believe – I mean I have maybe a naive hope – that some canny entrepreneur will realise that there’s a screaming need out there for a new kind of media product. I hear it every day from people sending emails: I just wish there was a place I can go to find out what happened, stripped of all the editorialising.

Like people want the old school boring when, why, where, how; third person; dead voice; that we used to get in all these newspapers. And they’re not getting that anymore because everything is highly charged and highly politicised and tailored for a political audience.

So I do believe that if somebody was smart they would create that outlet and there is some interesting stuff going on in independent media. But for the time being, the major commercial media outlets have become completely bifurcated as you put it. And it’s literally balkanising American society. I think you make a good point there.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re seeing groups of people who are marching around carrying AR-15s, really on both sides of the aisle, and that’s because we’ve developed different realities for different groups of people. And that’s very dangerous. [from 16:35 mins]

CH: It is: it’s very dangerous. And I will just throw in there that nobody in Yugoslavia thought they were going to have a war. You have people dressed up in camos posturing, but once that violence starts – we saw glimpses of it in Portland – once people start getting killed you open a Pandora’s Box that you can’t control.

I want to talk about the tech platforms because they’ve played a major role, I think a very pernicious role in all of this. You’ve also written about that. Can you talk about that?

MT: Sure. A couple of years ago when Alex Jones was thrown off basically all of the tech platforms in what was actually, in hindsight, kind of a remarkable moment, because it was clearly coordinated. All of the major platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Spotify, Youtube – they all kicked of Jones at the same time. And sort of liberal America cheered: said, well this is a noxious figure; this is a great thing [that] finally someone’s taking action. What they didn’t realise is that we were trading an old system of speech regulation for a new one [and] without any real public discussion.

You and I were raised in a system where you got punished for speech if you committed libel or slander or if there was imminent incitement to lawless action: that was the standard that the Supreme Court set. But that was done through litigation; it was an open process where you had a chance to rebut charges. That is all gone now.

Now basically there’s a handful of these tech distribution platforms that control how people get their media and they’ve been pressured by The Senate, which has called all of their CEOs in and basically ordered them: we need you to come up with a plan to prevent the sowing of discord and spreading of “misinformation”.

And now I think this past week is when this has finally come to fruition, when you see an major reputable news organisation like the New York Post, you know with a two hundred year history, is now locked out of its own Twitter account and that story [of Hunter Biden] which has not been disproven – it’s not disinformation or misinformation – it’s been suppressed in the manner as you know it would be suppressed in a Third World country. Which I think – I don’t know what you think – I think it’s remarkable kind of historic moment for us. [from 18:35 mins]

CH: No, it is: it’s a very frightening historic moment.

These tech platforms are not neutral. They’re on one side of the political divide. And the danger in my eyes – I’ll get your opinion on this – is that if Trump loses the election, this platform and this old media, and whatever their veracity is about their critiques of Trump, will essentially be completely written off. You won’t be able to reach that segment of the population at all.

MT: Right, yes. Exactly.

And I know some of the people who are high-ranking executives at some of the companies, and I’ve had discussions with some of them in the last year or so, and one of the things that I’ve tried to communicate is that there’s no possible way to institute a standard of something like factual reliability that can be done in an even-handed way without an awesome amount of people going through each and every submission. And they’re clearly not doing that. They are clearly creating rules and selecting out some content that they don’t like and allowing other content that they do like go through.

There’s no possible way to do it either with AI or with manpower in any kind of even-handed way. It’s automatically either going to be a mess or a double-standard. Like whack-a-mole, or a double-standard. And I think in a post-Trump reality, the danger is that we end up with essentially like a one-party informational system, where there’s going to be approved dialogue and unapproved dialogue that you can only get through certain kind of fringe avenues. And that’s the problem, because we let these companies get this monopolistic share of the distribution system and now they’re exercising that power. [from 21:15 mins]

CH: And I know you lived in Russia – I worked in Eastern Europe – what are the political consequences of that, because you’ve seen it?

MT: Yes, I kind of lived in both versions of Russia. I lived in the Soviet times – I was a student during that time – and I was there when the media freed up. And a lot of my former colleagues (Russian colleagues) worked under the Soviet system. And the similarities are pretty striking because what ends up happening is that it’s really more of a psychological form of censorship than it is an overt top-down kind of pressure.

The reporters end up knowing ahead of time what kinds of things they can write and what kinds of things they can’t write. And if you’re worried about where the edge is with Facebook or Twitter, and your career depends on not being deplatformed by those companies, you just won’t go anywhere near where you think the line might be.

And already, you know somebody like myself, or you, or Glenn Greenwald, reputable journalists, we’re already within range of possible suppression, which I would have said was outlandish even six months ago. And that’s no longer the case. So that’s what you worry about – is where the fear is going to take hold of the business [of journalism] very quickly. [from 22:45 mins]

On October 30th, Glenn Greenwald was invited by The Hill’s morning show ‘Rising’ to explain why he took the decision to resign from The Intercept (the alternative news outlet that he had co-founded) following censorship of his own reporting on the Hunter Biden story:

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CH: Well doesn’t the fear come from the fact that critics such as you have credibility, and therefore are dangerous because as the kind of moral centre erodes within journalistic organisations, critics such as yourself, who point it out, are no longer a nuisance, they essentially can be fatal, and so the suppression becomes much heavier?

MT: Yeah, and that’s the reason why I think this censorship is so self-defeating; it’s such a mistake. Normally, if you just allow this kind of speech to be distributed freely, it’s not going to have the impact. But what ends up happening in societies like the Soviet Union – you know, nobody would use a Russian newspaper, or a Soviet newspaper, for anything but lining a bird cage, or anything like that. But people would treasure the Samizdat [self-published undercover publications] documents that would be handed from family to family because that was the actual truth.

And that’s going to end up happening in this country, if you have an approved dialogue that you can get on Facebook and Twitter, and then there’s this other thing that’s forbidden. People are going to flock to that, which is why I don’t understand the commercial decision that companies like The New York Times and the Washington Post are making to throw off the thing that made them most valuable to people, which was the institutional credibility they had for being a kind of political third-party that was neutral. That was what gave them all of their value and they’re throwing it away and I don’t understand it. [from 24:25 mins]

CH: I think they’re throwing it away because they’re bleeding money. And they’re frightened. I mean you’re right it’s ultimately self-immolation.

You write: The people who run this country have run out of workable myths with which to distract the public, and in a moment of extreme crisis have chosen to stoke civil war and defame the rest of us, black and white, rather than admit to a generation of corruption, betrayal and mismanagement.

And I think part of it is that organisations such as The New York Times do not shine a light on the corruption, the betrayal, and the mismanagement.

MT: That’s right, and so they’ve had to come up with some other thing to sell to the public as the reason for all of our troubles. After the election of 2016, where internally within The New York Times we now know there was a tremendous kind of come-to-Jesus moment where they realised we didn’t see this coming how could we possibly have let that happen? We have to hire more people like Bret Stephens because we’re so out of touch with conservative America.

That’s what they were saying internally, but externally they spent all of their energy building their newsroom around this fictitious Russiagate story, rather than doing things like let’s look at what’s happening with poor and middle class America, and the massive amounts of insecurity that led to Trump’s election. They didn’t do that at all. They went with this other story.

And then later when that story fell apart, they kind of threw their weight behind The 1619 Project and other issues, because that was preferable to telling dangerous truths about the neoliberal economics and other issues that were really concerning the country. So that’s the danger that you get: that when they’re afraid to tell you what’s actually happening, they end up coming up with alternatives that are not convincing. [from 26:20 mins]

CH: Right, The 1619 Project, which they then denied what they wrote.

MT: Yeah, exactly.

CH: That was also kind of bizarre.

MT: Totally.

CH: That was Matt Taibbi, one of the few real journalists left on the disintegrating media landscape in the United States. Thanks Matt.

MT: Thanks Chris.

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White Helmets and Hala Systems – the grotesque militarisation of “humanitarianism” in Syria — The Wall Will Fall

Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador to Syria:

Inter alia the  investigation of Hala Systems shines a light on the strange situation where jihadi extremists in Idlib have mysterious access to state of the art drone technology capable of testing the defences of a nearby Russian airbase in. If the CIA and Pentagon had wanted to probe Russia’s defences in hot war conditions they could hardly have hoped for a better test bed. Speculation about US de facto collaboration with Al Qaida against Russia, as occurred earlier in Afghanistan, is far from fanciful.

The following extract is from an article written and published by Vanessa Beeley reposted from her website The Wall Will Fall.

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Hala Systems – who are they and what do they do?

In August 2015, my first article on the White Helmets was published by the Ron Paul Institute. In this article, I mention that Khaled Khatib, a White Helmet cameraman, was demanding an early warning system that would “ensure civilians can flee areas that are about to be bombed”. This appeal was echoed, at the time, by Syria Campaign director, James Sadri.

Syria Campaign were established with seed funding from Ayman AsfariAsfari, a Syrian oil executive, UK resident and supporter of the regime change war against Syria is also known for his generous contributions to the UK Conservative party. Asfari was investigated by the serious fraud squad UK on allegations of extensive bribery and corruption in the oil and gas industry for the last three years, according to the Electoral Commission.

The question I raised at the time in my article was “who would benefit most from this early warning system – the civilians or the “rebels”?

sentry

Screenshot from a Hala Systems promotional video – the Sentry system partnering the White Helmets.

In August 2016, one year after the appeal launched by the White Helmets and their PR agency, a Chicago-based company, Hala Systems, launched “Sentry” – a “threat-prediction system designed for use by civilians in conflict zones”. Hala Systems itself was launched in 2015 at the same time as the White Helmets were requesting radar support in their role as adjuncts to Al Qaeda (rebranded or affiliates).

According to published data about Sentry – the warning system relies on human observers and remote sensors to collect data on potential air strikes. Observers spot the take-off of Russian or Syrian warplanes – they enter critical information into an Android app, which then sends information to Hala’s servers. Sensors placed in trees or on top of buildings collect acoustic data which aid confirmation of plane type, location and flight path. Software gathers and analyses the data to determine the potential for and location of the incoming air raid. If the risk is high, the system will generate alerts via social media and activate air raid sirens remotely. Using a “neural network”, an automated system continuously scans Facebook, Twitter and Telegram for “posts that might indicate air strikes”.

Sentry is based on an original Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lincoln Laboratory, prototype.

eleven-young-boys

Screenshot from one of Hala Systems promotional videos. A White Helmet operative describing 11 young boys trapped under the rubble in Idlib.

Hala works in partnership with the White Helmets to implement this technology with a special focus on Idlib province, NE Syria – “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11” according to Brett McGurk – former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. Department of State.

Hala Systems makes the claim that their technology has resulted in an estimated 20-27% reduction in casualty rates in 2018. Of course, it is not determined conclusively whether those casualties are civilians or armed group fighters. There is a history of the manipulation of statistics for the benefit of the US Coalition aggressors in Syria.

Hala Systems website informs us that they are “democratizing advanced defense, sensing, and artificial intelligence technology”. Their team is made up of the following members:

“..a team of 21 [now 29] working together around the world to solve hard problems. Founded by a rocket scientist, an ex-diplomat, and an expert in using technology for good, we hail from leading educational, research, and business institutions (including Stanford, MIT, Wharton, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, LBS, MIT-Lincoln Laboratory, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, Deloitte, Booz, and the World Bank) and are united by a mission to create a sustainable business that provides massive social impact.” (emphasis added)

Salaries are generous at Hala Systems – an accountant or product manager is offered between $ 60 – 90k. $ 110 – 160k for a “firmware engineer”. According to some estimates, Hala Systems, is now a $4-6 million company with an impressive annual growth rate.

via White Helmets and Hala Systems – the grotesque militarisation of “humanitarianism” in Syria — The Wall Will Fall

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October 3, 2019 · 3:12 pm

the last casualty of war is Truth… as the White Helmets ride off into the sunset!

When members of the world’s most distinctively attired ‘rescue group’ were last weekend “evacuated” by Israel and their role in the war in Syria formally ended, the official portrait of the White Helmets as humanitarian “volunteers” and paragons of virtue was freshly asserted. By parsing a single Guardian article, my intention here is to show again how this grotesque misrepresentation of the truth has been cultivated and maintained.

For closer analysis of the corporate media’s complicity in the promotion of the White Helmets I refer you to the addendum – first published on Pier Robinson’s official website, his original article is reproduced in full at the end of this post.

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The White Helmets and their families were evacuated by Israeli defence forces on Saturday night, crossing from northern Israel into Jordan at three points. The Israelis had initially put the numbers evacuated at 800, but later the figure was revised downwards by James Le Mesurier, a former MI5 officer who is considered to have founded the group in Turkey in 2013.

He said on Sunday that 422 people were rescued, including 98 White Helmets. As many as 800 others did not manage to escape or chose not to do so.

Writes ‘Patrick Wintour and agencies’ [italicised as original] in a recent Guardian article.

The first point of note is that the primary source for their story, James Le Mesurier, is described simply as “a former MI5 officer who is considered to have founded the group” following which the partially anonymous authors rather conspicuously fail to drill down into Le Mesurier’s stated ties to British intelligence. Moreover, they avoid all mention of Le Mesurier’s subsequent contract work for the US and UK governments:

Prior to his founding of the White Helmets, Le Mesurier served as Vice President for Special Projects at the Olive Group, a private mercenary organization that has since merged with Blackwater-Academi into what is now known as Constellis Holdings. Then, in 2008, Le Mesurier left the Olive Group after he was appointed to the position of Principal at Good Harbor Consulting, chaired by Richard A. Clarke – a veteran of the U.S. national security establishment and the counter-terrorism “czar” under the Bush and Clinton administrations. 1

Click here to read more about Le Mesurier in the same article written by Whitney Webb and published by Mint Press News.

It is the case and easily verified that Le Mesurier was indeed the founder of the White Helmets which he had helped form in March 2013 in Turkey. His pivotal role in the unlikely origins of the White Helmets is not remotely controversial although the authors of the article deliberately lessen the impact by stating only “is considered to have founded the group”. Quoted below is Le Mesurier’s own account of the birth of the White Helmets, proudly retold in a speech given in Lisbon in 2015:

In early 2013 I had a meeting with nine local leaders that had come out from northern Aleppo, and they painted this picture of the frequency and the intensity of the bombing that was taking place. And I was delivering programmes on behalf of the US and UK governments, and we were able to offer them some good governance training, some democratising training, and a handful of sat phones.

Several days later I was very fortunate to meet the head of Turkey’s earthquake response group, a group of people called “AKUT.” And the conversation that we had was along the lines of: “If they can rescue people from a building that has been flattened as a result of an earthquake, how possible is it to rescue people from a building that’s been collapsed as a result of a bomb?” And this led to a series of design labs. We brought a number of people out of Syria who brought building samples, and we sat down over several days merging the expertise of the Syrians that had come out from the ground (who knew the regime tactics) with my organisation that understood operating in war zones and the expertise of this organisation, AKUT, who rescue people after earthquakes. 2

[from 4:10 mins]

Embedded below is Le Mesurier’s full speech given at The Performance Theatre, Lisbon on June 26, 2015:

James Le Mesurier’s CV is so very reminiscent of former Navy Seal and founder of Blackwater-Academi, Erik Prince, that this really must raise eyebrows. For why did an ex-MI5 officer who thereafter enjoyed a boardroom position in private security firm the Olive Group – a group that afterwards merged with Prince’s Blackwater-Academi – go on to form the purportedly humanitarian White Helmets? And why did he officially name this group formed in Turkey, the “Syrian Civil Defence”, unless he fully intended to usurp extant and internationally recognised domestic civil defence organisations? Incidentally, if you search for James Le Mesurier on Wikipedia you will be redirected to the entry for the White Helmets. Unlike Erik Prince, there is no separate entry for James Le Mesurier himself who in the White Helmets entry is correctly designated its founder but briskly described merely as “former British Army officer”.

Click here to read an extended piece investigating the background to the White Helmets written by Max Blumenthal, published by Alternet in October 2016.

Wintour and the unnamed ‘agencies’ continue:

The White Helmets have operated in opposition-held areas rescuing civilians from the rubble of airstrikes, but they have been attacked as western agents by Russia since their work has been funded by the UK Foreign Office (FCO) and the White House. 3

That the White Helmets have exclusively operated in regions controlled by “opposition groups” is well-known. What is only seldom reported on, however, is how they shared the same territories with proscribed terrorist groups including Jaish al-Islam (trans: “The Army/Sword of Islam”), Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra aka al-Qaeda in Syria).

Once again, this well-established fact ought to cast very serious doubt on their stated neutrality. Moreover, this admittedly circumstantial evidence of collusion on the grounds of location becomes conclusive once we consider the multiple images shamelessly uploaded on social media by White Helmet “volunteers” themselves, in which we see them cavorting with combatants of those same Islamist terrorist groups, posing with firearms, waving the black flag of al-Qaeda, and actually assisting with the clear-up of executions. Is this the image of selfless humanitarianism?

Click here to see a cache of literally hundreds more images like this one.

The authors of the Guardian piece claim “they have been attacked as western agents by Russia since their work has been funded by the UK Foreign Office (FCO) and the White House”, which is another of many half-truths in this account. Saying “funded” implies that monies donated to the group were additional and a top up, when it would be far more accurate to say that the White Helmets are ‘financed’, or, better still, ‘bankrolled’ by Western governments. Here are the figures – please judge for yourself:

But the main implication in this statement is that no-one besides agents of the Russian state has ever challenged the neutrality of the White Helmets, which is outright rubbish.

For instance, here is John Pilger describing them as “a complete propaganda construct”:

Seymour Hersh has been nearly as outspoken against the White Helmets saying:

“Also, I think America was indirectly supplying some money [to the White Helmets], certainly the Brits were, and so certainly it was a propaganda organisation too.” 4

Both statements were of course made in interviews broadcast by RT, but this is because even journalists as acclaimed as John Pilger and Seymour Hersh are just not permitted mainstream airtime to impugn the heroic status of the Oscar-winning White Helmets. The neutrality of the White Helmets has become an article of faith and all who dispute it do so at the risk of becoming marginalised themselves – Hersh in particular, who is today largely restricted to publishing articles in the London Review of Books, has been roundly abused for his stance on Syria.

Embedded below is a ‘Corbett Report’ broadcast in February and aptly entitled “The White Helmets are a Propaganda Construct”. It addresses all of the points raised above and more:

As this officially sanctioned story of the White Helmets has been spun, the most troubling aspect is the astonishing lack of diligence in mainstream reporting. Aside from an abject failure to follow the money — or simply to acknowledge and report on the considerable streams of taxpayer funding — the corporate media has never once questioned the group’s humanitarianism or its purported neutrality. In consequence (at least in part), the White Helmets have since been lauded by politicians across both sides of the aisle, bolstered by some of our most influential NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, celebrated in an Oscar-winning documentary, and finally nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Had the truth ever been allowed to come out, would they still have so many friends in high places?

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Finally, I know that we are no longer expected to retain memory of events relating to periods outside the current news cycle, but that Israel is leading this rescue mission is curious isn’t it. Curious given the recent IDF massacre of more than 130 unarmed Palestinian protesters – including 25 children; given how those same forces are once again “mowing the grass” in Gaza, bombing the homes of its own refugee population; and that Israel has just passed a nation-state law to ensure the old de facto apartheid system was made de jure. Why then, we might reasonably ask Netanyahu, are the lives of some Arabs who have chosen to live within regions of Syria occupied by Islamist terrorist groups worth so much than others, closer to home, who just happen (perhaps entirely by accident) to be living under the flag of Hamas?

Netanyahu later tweeted that the evacuation by the IDF was a “humanitarian gesture”, which given Israel’s very direct involvement in the war on Syria is clearly downplaying its significance. But then, it is impossible to understand Israel’s aims in backing anti-Assad opposition without considering the bigger picture. As Brian Whitaker wrote in a Guardian article published during the lead up to the Iraq War in late 2002 and entitled “Playing skittles with Saddam”:

The “skittles theory” of the Middle East – that one ball aimed at Iraq can knock down several regimes – has been around for some time on the wilder fringes of politics but has come to the fore in the United States on the back of the “war against terrorism”.

Its roots can be traced, at least in part, to a paper published in 1996 by an Israeli thinktank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. Entitled “A clean break: a new strategy for securing the realm”, it was intended as a political blueprint for the incoming government of Binyamin Netanyahu. As the title indicates, it advised the right-wing Mr Netanyahu to make a complete break with the past by adopting a strategy “based on an entirely new intellectual foundation, one that restores strategic initiative and provides the nation the room to engage every possible energy on rebuilding Zionism …” […]

The paper set out a plan by which Israel would “shape its strategic environment”, beginning with the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad.

With Saddam out of the way and Iraq thus brought under Jordanian Hashemite influence, Jordan and Turkey would form an axis along with Israel to weaken and “roll back” Syria. Jordan, it suggested, could also sort out Lebanon by “weaning” the Shia Muslim population away from Syria and Iran, and re-establishing their former ties with the Shia in the new Hashemite kingdom of Iraq. “Israel will not only contain its foes; it will transcend them”, the paper concluded. 5

[Bold highlight added]

Click here to read the full article written by Brian Whitaker.

A strategy for Israeli expansion which includes the “weaken[ing] and ‘roll back’ [of] Syria” can be further traced back to the so-called Oded Yinon Plan – Yinon was an Israeli journalist with links to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Published back in 1982 by the World Zionist Organisation’s publication Kivunim, it had called for the Balkanisation of Iraq and Syria. Both nations have since been ravaged by war and Iraq is already partitioned. The permanent division of Syria may yet follow. If it does, it will not have happened by chance.

Click here to read more about ‘The Clean Break’ and the ‘Yinon Plan’ in an extended post on the subject.

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Additional: Peter Ford responds to the ‘evacuation’ of the White Helmets

Former Ambassador to Syria 2003 – 2006, Peter Ford responds to the UK Government statement by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt on “exceptional” Israeli evacuation of the UK/US Coalition intelligence construct, the White Helmets:

Following a joint diplomatic effort by the UK and international partners, a group of White Helmets volunteers from southern Syria and their families have been able to leave Syria for safety.

They are now being assisted by the UNHCR in Jordan pending international resettlement.

The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own. Many White Helmets volunteers have also been killed while doing their work – trying to rescue civilians trapped in bombarded buildings or providing first aid to injured civilians. White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection. We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible.

We pay tribute to the brave and selfless work that White Helmets volunteers have done to save Syrians on all sides of the conflict.

Peter Ford responds:

The government statement contains two bare-faced lies.

The White Helmets most definitely have not assisted all sides in the conflict. From the beginning they have only ever operated in rebel-held areas. Government controlled areas have the real Syrian Civil Defence and Syrian Red Crescent. This is quite a big whopper on the government’s part. It goes without saying that the media will not pick up on it.

Secondly the White Helmets are not volunteers. They are doing jobs for which they are paid, by Western governments. They have a press department 150 strong, bigger than that for the whole of the UK ambulance service. Their claims of saving over 115,000 lives have never been verified. The co-location of their offices with jihadi operation centres has been well documented.

Apparently the government are lying because they are nervous of being accused of importing into this country scores of dangerous migrants who have many times been reported to be associating with extremists (social media is rife with self-propagated videos of their misdeeds such as participation in beheadings and waving ISIS and Al Qaida flags), and wish to whitewash them.

The White Helmets’ dramatic exfiltration leaves many questions unanswered

1. Why was it deemed necessary to evacuate this particular group in the south when other groups of White Helmets simply got on the buses to Northern Syria when military operations concluded in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere, and when similar exodus by bus has been arranged for rebels in Deraa?
2. Why should White Helmets be considered to be more at risk than combatants, many of whom have either ‘reconciled’ or been bussed out? In the demonology of the government side the White Helmets are not seen as worse than other jihadis.
3. Might the British government have been afraid of this particular group being caught and interrogated, revealing perhaps the truth about alleged chemical weapon incidents?
4. Will they now be foisted on to areas of the UK already struggling to absorb migrants, or will they go to places like Esher and Carshalton?
5. Will local councils be informed about the backgrounds of these fugitives? Will local councils be given extra resources to absorb them and cope with resulting security needs, bearing in mind that Raed Saleh, leader of the White Helmets, was refused a visa to the US in 2016?

Click here to read the same post originally published by Vanessa Beeley on her website The Wall Will Fall.

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The following is a comment by writer and photographer Bryan Hemming appended to Peter Ford’s statement on TheWallWillFall:

From our living room window, here on the tip of Southern Spain, we can see the North African coast. Every day we hear news of refugees risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. They are fleeing the violence, hunger and destruction that is a direct consequence of wars instigated by Western governments funding, training and arming religious fanatics and terrorist groups determined to impose tyranny.

This morning’s news told of another thousand or so new arrivals over the weekend. We see videos of the blurred out women holding the lifeless bodies of babies that didn’t survive the trip. With the extremely hot weather, most died of dehydration. As if from ironic perversity, a few died from drowning in salt water.

A walk along the beach at any time of year can reveal a tiny shoe, a pair of soaked jeans, or the sorry remains of a deflated rubber dinghy, whose passengers didn’t make it to shore .

In the art market in Conil de la Frontera, where we sell our work, Javier, a painter, tells me of the times he’s called out. He’s a Red Cross volunteer on standby. On call 24/7 he gives up his time to welcome and look after the survivors, handing out food, water and blankets along with a little bit of care and love. Last week was particularly busy, he told me, with two or three helicopters searching for survivors of dinghies that sank. Many launches were also out hardly knowing where to look, as there were so many in need of help.

The Anglo corporate media won’t be reporting that, they are too busy worrying about the White Helmets. Seems a good time for someone to come down here and see what’s really happening.

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Addendum: Pier Robinson on media complicity

The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorizing and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict. In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives. More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked … These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations’. These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.

It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II. The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID. Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.

Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.

The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”. The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.

In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be. Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued. It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.

Click here to read the same article published on Pier Robinson’s official website.

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Update:

On August 4th, RT broadcast a special episode of its news show Going Underground featuring interviews with head of the White Helmets, Raed Al Saleh, and investigative reporter Vanessa Beeley:

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1 From an article entitled “James Le Mesurier: The Former British Mercenary Who Founded The White Helmets” written by Whitney Webb, published in Mint Press News on July 31, 2017. https://www.mintpressnews.com/james-le-mesurier-british-ex-military-mercenary-founded-white-helmets/230320/

2 Transcript modified from show notes to “Episode 330 – The White Helmets Are A Propaganda Construct” (Feb 9, 2018) written and published by James Corbett on The Corbett Report website. https://www.corbettreport.com/whitehelmets/

3 From an article entitled “UK agrees to take in some White Helmets evacuated from Syria by Israel” written by Patrick Wintour and agencies published in the Guardian on July 22, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/22/israel-evacuates-800-white-helmets-in-face-of-syria-advance

4 http://thepeacereport.com/investigative-journalist-exposes-propaganda-of-the-white-helmets/

5 From an article entitled “Playing skittles with Saddam” written by Brian Whitaker, published in the Guardian on September 3, 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/sep/03/worlddispatch.iraq

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Dr Schäuble’s Plan for Europe: Do Europeans approve? – Article to appear in Die Zeit on Thursday 16th July 2015

Yanis Varoufakis

Pre-publication summary: Five months of intense negotiations between Greece and the Eurogroup never had a chance of success. Condemned to lead to impasse, their purpose was to pave the ground for what Dr Schäuble had decided was ‘optimal’ well before our government was even elected: That Greece should be eased out of the Eurozone in order to discipline member-states resisting his very specific plan for re-structuring the Eurozone.

  • This is no theory.
  • How do I know Grexit is an important part of Dr Schäuble’s plan for Europe?
  • Because he told me so!

I wrote this article not as a Greek politician critical of the German press’ denigration of our sensible proposals, of Berlin’s refusal seriously to consider our moderate debt re-profiling plan, of the European Central Bank’s highly political decision to asphyxiate our government, of the Eurogroup’s decision to give the ECB the green light to shut down our banks.

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US drone programme deemed unlawful by two major human rights groups

Amnesty International yesterday released an important new report on how US drone strikes kill civilians in Pakistan, saying that some drone killings may amount to war crimes. In a separate report, Human Rights Watch criticized the US drone programme in Yemen, where strikes have also killed many civilians.

Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International and author of the report, “‘Will I be Next?’ U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” was interviewed on today’s Democracy Now! broadcast. He says:

When you look at people living there, already facing so many threats, curfew, living a very difficult life, the idea that in the skies, the skies are no longer safe, and then when these strikes happen—you know, it could be very close to you, could be your neighbors, could be your loved ones involved—obviously you want to help them, and now people are so scared even to do that, it’s really quite shocking.

In terms of the law, that—we see that as unlawful. We can’t see a justification for that. We really call on the U.S., as we saw with [White House Press Secretary] Jay Carney claiming this is a legal program—well, fine, show us the legal justification for it and ensure those justifications and the facts are given to a genuinely independent, impartial investigator. That’s the key thing. We are saying now to the U.S. government: Come clean, show us what is your evidence in law and fact for justifying rescuer attacks and the other unlawful killings we’ve documented in the report.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the video on the Democracy Now! website.

Concurrently, a second report by Human Rights Watch entitled “US: Reassess Targeted Killings in Yemen” was also released yesterday. Author of the report, Letta Tayler, who is senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, saying in the press release:

“The US says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen. Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Meanwhile, BBC news also reported on this latest evidence presented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch under the headline “US drone strike killings in Pakistan and Yemen ‘unlawful’”. What caught the eye, however, was an inset to the main article under the heading “analysis” put together by their correspondent M Ilyas Khan, who writes:

The general impression that one gets from talking to elders and correspondents from the area is that drone strikes are for the most part accurate, causing little or no collateral damage.

They say if civilians deaths had been as high as those mentioned in some recent international reports, there would have been more of an outcry against it both socially and also in the media.1

Khan’s remarks are deplorable. Presented with carefully gathered evidence from not one, but two human rights groups, independently alleging that US drone attacks are probably in violation of international law, his response is to ignore the evidence and downplay their conclusions purely on the basis of hearsay that drone strikes have caused “little or no collateral damage”. Such thoughtless use of neo-con euphemisms simply underlining his deliberately calculated and utterly flippant dismissal of the crimes taking place. Lazy and biased reporting which, to quote Khan again, is a big part of the reason there hasn’t been “more of an outcry against it… in the media”. Shameful.

Click here to read the full BBC news article.

1 From an article entitled “US drone strike killings in Pakistan and Yemen ‘unlawful’” published by BBC news on October 22, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24618701

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“Into The Fire” — ‘austerity’ and its part in the return of fascism

Angela Merkel tried to contain her irritation when asked at a podium discussion in Berlin this week whether southern European countries could take much more German-ordered austerity.

But the frustration in her voice was clear enough after a week in which several European allies broke ranks, and in a public challenge to Germany, effectively declared the era of deficit reduction in Europe to be over.

“I call it balancing the budget,” the German chancellor told her audience at a book presentation. “Everyone else is using this term austerity. That makes it sound like something truly evil.”

So begins an article published yesterday by Greek Independent Press. The article continues:

There are signs the criticism is beginning to grate. German officials turn testy when the word “austerity” is mentioned these days. In recent months, they have deliberately adjusted their language, adopting the term “growth-friendly consolidation” to describe their policy approach.

Yes, whatever you do just make sure you don’t mention… “the austerity”!

Listening to Angela Merkel here, one might mistakenly imagine that “austerity” was some kind of nasty term made up by opponents of the agenda, whereas, in actual fact, it was coined as the euphemism of choice by those who advocated and most avidly sought the implementation of such an economic “shock therapy”. “Shock therapy” being, of course, a term conveniently applied by the earlier proponents of such measures, and good enough when the victims mostly lived in Latin America or Africa. But then, when “shock therapy” came back to Europe and America it needed another name, and, as euphemisms go, “austerity” obviously had its advantages: it was short and memorable, and unconsciously appealed to a certain kind of stoical, almost religious outlook, and as such was able to cover its ill intentions beneath the guise of such virtues as frugality and self-restraint.

Of course, the term “austerity” is actually just a polite cover needed to hide away the truly diabolical consequences of destroying a nation’s wealth and welfare provision. “Growth-friendly consolidation”, on the other hand, and aside from being unmitigated nonsense*, is far too much of a mouthful. After all, does anyone still remember the dear old “Community Charge”? – most people don’t. When it came to naming, more cuddly sounding “Community Charge” simply didn’t stand a chance against its punchier rival “The Poll Tax”. So Merkel and the others should be warned: they are no doubt already stuck with the term “austerity”, whether they like it or not.

And “austerity” is only getting a bad name because it is indeed “something truly evil” (as Merkel put it); an evil that, as time passes, will doubtless become more and more obvious to everyone. For “austerity” is as socially divisive as it is economically destructive: opening up the way for the very worst forms of political extremism to rise and prosper. Savage economics and hard right policies complimenting one another perfectly; the iron fist slipped (but only barely concealed) inside an already iron glove. We should call it what it is: extreme “austerity” is creeping fascism.

I actually visited Greece in the Summer of 2006, just about a year before this crisis kicked off, and back then it was a fully functioning western democratic society. It felt like a home from home. Yet, in little more than six years the country has been trashed. Broken on the wheel of “austerity”, and with no end at all in sight.

To see how terribly Greece has been ruined, and to also understand how, on the back of such wanton destruction, a neo-Nazi group like Golden Dawn has grown and incrementally seized more power, I strongly recommend a new documentary entitled “Into The Fire: The Hidden Victims of Austerity in Greece”, which was released just a few days ago and is embedded below:

Into the Fire is being crowd-released today [April 20th]: All over the internet people are embedding Into the Fire on their website or blog. With everyone who participates the audience and distribution network will grow. Are you participating? http://intothefire.org

A hard hitting documentary which shows the plight of refugees and migrants in recession hit Athens, Into The Fire is a film with a difference.

Shot and edited with sensitivity and compassion, it doesn’t pull its punches and makes for harrowing viewing in parts. It is the product of crowd funding, dedication, self-sacrifice and a burning sense of justice.

In times of severe austerity things look bleak for Greek people, but they’re far worse for those who have recently arrived. Without housing, legal papers or support, migrants in Greece are faced with increasing and often violent racism at the hands of the growing Nazi party Golden Dawn and the police in Athens. Many are trapped by EU laws and legislation of other EU countries meaning they’d be returned to Greece if they managed to get to another member state, they are desperate to leave the country.

This film gives incredible insights into the reality faced by people who simply want to lead peaceful, normal lives.

*

* Here are some interesting graphs taken from an wikipedia article entitled “European sovereign-debt crisis”, which show the rise in the levels of Greek, Spanish and Portuguese debt since 1999 as compared to the average of the Eurozone:

All three graphs (and others including those for Ireland and Cyprus) show a marked turning point around 2007-8, providing further evidence not only that “austerity” hasn’t worked (even within its own terms of debt reduction), but that the western world is actually faced with a systemic banking crisis that flared up at that time. (Please note that the flattening off throughout the final three years of these graphs represents only projected estimates.)

The following is taken from an article written by Tyler Durden and posted on zerohedge from February 18, 2013:

“Beleaguered Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just broke another record. As if a plague of corruption scandals was not enough, Spain’s debt-to-GDP has now reached levels not seen in over 100 years. As El Pais reports, Spanish debt levels rose at an alarming EUR 400 million per day in 2012 making for the largest annual increase in debt in the nation’s history – all the while proclaiming austerity.”

And here’s another helpful graph that goes along with the article, showing once more that rather than reducing Spanish debt, the imposition of “austerity measures” is very closely correlated to the spike in that debt:

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Dutch scientists to resume weaponising bird flu — but why?

Little more than a year ago I posted an article entitled “Dutch scientists have weaponised bird flu — but why?

And then, one week later, the research project was abruptly halted:

Scientists who created a potentially more deadly bird flu strain have temporarily stopped their research amid fears it could be used by terrorists.

In a letter published in Science and Nature, the teams call for an “international forum” to debate the risks and value of the studies.1

One of the concerns then being highlighted was the intention of the Erasmus Medical Center, the group behind the research, to make their findings public:

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended key details be omitted from publication of the research, which sparked international furore.

“I would have preferred if this hadn’t caused so much controversy, but it has happened and we can’t change that,” Ron Fouchier, a researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, told Science Insider.

“So I think it’s the right step to make.”

So now apparently we had two controversies. A more academic one concerning the rights and wrongs of censoring scientific publications, and the other one about whether creating “a potentially more deadly bird flu strain” is a good idea in the first instance. In any case, concerns about the research had effectively forced a voluntary 60-day moratorium:

But some said the 60-day pause on research was not enough.

One critic of the studies, Richard Ebright, a biologist at Rutgers University, told Science Insider that the letter “includes flatly false statements” making assurances about the safety of H1N1 research labs.

Reports say that a meeting debating the research and steps forward could come during a World Health Organization meeting in February.

Click here to read the full article on the BBC news website.

With research on hold, “publication was [also] delayed for several months after a US agency expressed concern that it might be useful to bioterrorists”. That delay lasted until May:

[Eventually] the US government and the journals Science and Nature agreed that the papers from teams in Rotterdam and Wisconsin [the other institute involved] should be published in full.

And so they were:

Last month Nature published its H5N1 research and now that’s been followed by a series of papers in the journal Science.

Together they set out the potential threat of an H5N1 pandemic and how to prepare for it.

My colleague Pallab Ghosh has a summary of the Science research which you can read here.2

[In fact, you probably can’t read that particular summary because the link seems to have failed.]

These extracts are taken from a BBC news report by Fergus Walsh, someone who seems intent on playing down the worries about the research itself and keener to emphasise the likely prospects of a future flu pandemic:

The potential for a pandemic of avian flu is considered by the World Health Organisation as one of the greatest potential threats to global health.

So is the world a safer or a more dangerous place now that these papers have been published?

The journals involved argue this data will allow scientists to monitor the threat from avian flu and work on preparations for a potential pandemic. That view is widely shared among scientists.

And on the same day, BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh wrote a companion piece also highlighting dangers of a bird flu pandemic:

The H5N1 bird flu virus could change into a form able to spread rapidly between humans, scientists have warned.

Researchers have identified five genetic changes that could allow the virus to start a deadly pandemic.

Writing in the journal Science, they say it would be theoretically possible for these changes to occur in nature.3

Which has always remained the justification given by those scientists undertaking the research: that the study will help them and others to “learn which viruses can cause pandemics and by knowing that we might be able to prevent them by enforcing strict eradication programmes”. But should we not be concerned that as a direct consequence of their research such a strain has now been artificially mutated and so presumably already exists.

In the next part of Pallab Ghosh’s article, we come to what many (myself included) see as the most troubling part of the whole exercise – it appears as a bold subheading that instantly puts the research back into more chilling context:

Bioweapon

It is the first time it has been shown that it is possible for bird flu to become airborne, but the research team was unable to determine precisely how likely this was to happen.

Prof Derek Smith, who led the analysis, said more information was needed.

He said researchers required a better understanding of how flu viruses were transmitted between people in order to develop a clearer idea of the likelihood of the emergence of an airborne strain of bird flu.

“These are difficult things to find out,” Prof Smith told BBC News.

“What this work enables us to do is to prioritise particular experiments to obtain this information”.

And yet the very next statement in the same article then immediately raises more questions about the supposed value of the research whilst simultaneously coming as a great relief:

It is clear though that the emergence of an airborne mutation of H5N1 is unlikely. Were it not it would have emerged already.

I have highlighted this in bold because, to my admittedly untrained eye, it already contains a rather significant answer to the question they are supposed to be trying to answer — that any naturally occurring variant is unlikely to be a highly dangerous “airborne mutation”. So what is the point of the research, again…? Back to Ghosh’s article:

But researchers want to be able to calculate the risk of such a virus emerging more precisely in order to help public health officials in their contingency planning.

Is this really a good enough reason?

Click here to read the full article by Pallab Ghosh.

All of which brings me to the latest BBC news report, which was published yesterday [Jan 23rd] and entitled “Controversial bird flu work resumes”. Apparently, the moratorium, which had initially been set at 60-days, and then was later extended to a year, is finally over:

Controversial research into making bird flu easier to spread in people is to resume after a year-long pause.

Some argue the research is essential for understanding how viruses spread and could be used to prevent deadly pandemics killing millions of people.

Research was stopped amid fierce debate including concerns about modified viruses escaping the laboratory or being used for terrorism.

The moratorium gave authorities time to fully assess the safety of the studies.4

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

So is it regarded as safe to continue the research then? What do most experts think now, and following a year’s consideration? Back to the article:

[Other] scientists said the risk of the virus spreading was too great for such research to take place and described it as a folly.

That sounds like the same opinion as before – yet surely if the research is about to be resumed there must now be a consensus in favour…?

“This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research.

“We cannot wait for another year or two years.”

And who says so?

“One of the leading proponents of the research Prof Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Medical Centre”

But do other leading experts, and in light of whatever debate has taken place during the year long moratorium, now concur with the assessment of Professor Fouchier?

Prof Robert May, from the University of Oxford and a former president of The Royal Society, said: “These are not bad people, they are good people with good intentions, but they look through rose-coloured glasses at the security of the laboratories.”

He said past history suggests “it will get out” as there had been more than a thousand cases of people being infected in labs with the highest standards and the 1977 outbreak of flu may have been connected to a Russian facility.

“That’s why I feel the world is a safer place if we maintain this moratorium.”

So no then…

*

1 From an article entitled “Bioterror fears halt research on mutant bird flu” published by BBC news on January 20, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16662346

2 From an article entitled “Five genetic changes that could allow bird flu pandemic” written by Fergus Walsh, published by BBC news on June 21, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/18541433

3 From an article entitled “Bird flu ‘could mutate to cause deadly human pandemic’” written by Pallab Ghosh, published by BBC news on June 21, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18534676

4 From an article entitled “Controversial bird flu work resumes” written by James Gallagher, published by BBC news on January 23, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21165288

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