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Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal–that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him–Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said–suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.

Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human–they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155


In medicine, the term iatrogenesis refers to a condition in which symptoms or complications are themselves caused by attempted medical treatment or the conditions under which it is administered.

John Perceval, a member of a prominent English family and the son of a former Prime Minister, resigned a military commission in 1830, underwent a conversion to an unconventional Christian sect, and had a break-down while traveling in Scotland and Ireland. His older brother, then a Member of Parliament, took him back to England and had him locked away, against his will, in two private asylums, first in Bristol and then in Sussex. Here are a couple things that he had to say about what he observed during his confinement, as noted by Thomas Szasz in The Manufacture of Madness.

I will be bound to say that the greatest part of the violence that occurs in lunatic asylums is to be attributed to the conduct of those who are dealing with the disease, not to the disease itself; and that the behavior which is usually pointed out by the doctor to the visitors as the symptoms of the complaint for which the patient is confined, is generally more or less reasonable, and certainly a natural result, of that confinement, and its particular refinements in cruelty; for all have their select and exquisite moral and mental, if not bodily tortures.

–John Perceval, Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830–1832. Edited by G. Bateson. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1961. 114. Quoted in Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. 129.


But when the lunatic doctors say that the presence of friends is hurtful to lunatic patients, they are not aware of the fact–at any rate do not acknowledge it–that the violent emotions and disturbance of spirit, which takes place on their sudden meeting with them MAY arise from their being overcome by a sense of their relations’ conduct toward them, in neglecting and abandoning them to the care and control of strangers, and from the treatment of the doctors themselves. The doctors naturally do not acknowledge this, for if they are acting from stupidity, their pride refuses correction, and will not admit the suspicion of being wrong; if they are acting with duplicity and hypocrisy, they necessarily preserve their character, and cannot in consistency confess that there is any error on their part–who can expect it of them? You cannot gather grapes from thorns. Nevertheless, it is true.

–John Perceval, Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830–1832. Edited by G. Bateson. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1961. 218. Quoted in Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. 129–130.

After he gained his freedom in 1834, Perceval wrote two narrative accounts of his treatment in the asylums. After being released, he spent the remaining four decades of his life campaigning for the liberty of people labeled as mentally ill, notably founding an Alleged Lunatics Friends Society and leading a petition campaign against the Lunacy Act, which allowed for involuntary commitment and denied involuntary patients the right to challenge their imprisonment in court.

Please note that, today, the shrinks and their flunkies, who continue to inflict on unwilling patients every sort of isolation, restraint, confinement, physical torture, and emotional trauma that the mad doctors of Perceval’s day inflicted — the shrinks and their flunkies who continue to march forward with the same invincible ignorance, using the same involuntary commitments and the same hellhole prison-camp asylums, — the shrinks and their flunkies who, in spite of the lessons clearly taught by men like Perceval, still continue to display exactly no self-awareness or critical insight whatsoever into either the history of their own discipline or the possibility that the phenomena they supposedly study and correct may be at least partially the results of their own coercive treatments — those shrinks and their flunkies, I say, now have the supreme gall to turn around and claim John Perceval, the man who their forebearers imprisoned and tortured, and who spent the rest of his life opposing their forebearers’ exercise of arbitrary and absolute power to imprison and torture innocent people who have been labeled as diseased by doctors or family, as a pioneer … for the mental health advocacy movement.

See also:

Perpetual state of supervision

I first heard about this thanks to an entry in Reason‘s March 2008 Brickbats column.

TEENAGERS who refuse to work, attend training or go to school are to be issued with on the spot fines under government proposals. Any who still fail to comply would then be taken to court where they could face further penalties.

The measures are designed to enforce a new law which will be outlined in this week's Queen's speech. It will say that all teenagers must remain in education, training or employment until they are 18.

The change will be phased in by raising the age to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015. Details of the new age of participation will be outlined by Ed Balls, the children's secretary, in a television interview today and in a speech tomorrow.

The new law will effectively outlaw Neets, teenagers and young people who are not in education, employment or training. In a speech to the Fabian Society tomorrow, Balls will put the proportion of Neets at about 10% of 16 to 18-year-olds.

On today's Sunday Programme on GMTV, he will argue that the change is the biggest educational reform in the last 50 years.

To provide places for the teenagers, Balls will announce the creation of an extra 90,000 apprenticeships by 2013 for 16 to 18-year-olds to add to the current 150,000. There will also be 44,000 new places at further education colleges.

Tomorrow he will also issue a pamphlet detailing how the changes will be put into practice: These new rights must be matched by new responsibilities . . . young people are responsible for their participation and this can be enforced if necessary.

If someone drops out of education or training, their local authority will try to find them a place.

According to Balls's department, if they refuse to attend, they will be given a formal warning, in which the local authority will clearly explain their duty to participate and the consequences of not doing so.

The next step will be to issue a formal notice, followed by a fixed penalty ticket. The Neet could then be taken to a youth court and fined, but the sanction will not go as far as imposing a custodial sentence.

— Jack Grimston, The Times (2007-11-04): Teenagers who refuse to work face on the spot fines

What sort of lessons do you suppose this educational reform will be teaching British teenagers, if the Labour government goes through with this plan to use police force, on the spot, against any youth who attempts to exist, even temporarily, outside of the direct supervision of more powerful adults–parents, teachers, bosses, crafts masters, etc.? What sort of a life, and what sort of a livelihood, and what sort of a society, do you suppose that those lessons will be preparing them for?

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