Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Anarchist Cookbook

I am a child of the 1970s and I am still trying to figure out what happened back then.  Most people think that the history has already written, but that is not what generally happens in the USA.  The real history isn't typically written until after the major players are dead.  Usually until they are dead for a long time.  It was in that spirit that I watched a Netflix documentary about William Powell a few days ago.

William Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook in the 1970s when he was 19 years old.  In the documentary that single act was a thorn in his side for practically all of his adult life.  The documentary is set in the home of Powell and his wife Ochan Powell.  Ochan participated in the interviews.  They were living in France and Powell had no inclination to return to the USA but his wife did.  The interviewer asks Powell about his early life, the writing of the book, how his authorship had plagues him at times in his life, his knowledge about how it had been used and whether or not he had any regrets. Powell is introspective to a fault.  In many cases it is clear that he is trying to find the correct words and I think it is natural to speculate about whether or not he is being defensive.  He is confronted by the interviewer who is asking him tough questions about widely known incidents like terrorism and school shootings where someone happened to find a copy of the Cookbook in possession of the perpetrator(s).  The New York Times obituary is a summary of the Netflix documentary.  Please read that to determine if you want to see the film. I will focus on a few points in it that were under emphasized.

The depiction of his early life, emphasizes a pathway to alienation.  A Long Island born boy goes to England due to his father's occupation where he is viewed as an outsider.  The family then returns to the US where he is viewed again as an outsider and mocked for having a British accent.  He is sent to boarding school where he is molested by a teacher and at that point leaves and goes to New York City where he decides to write the Cookbook.  In journalistic (and documentary) style these conditions are all presented as sufficient for him to write this document.  I think an argument can easily be made that a large number of boys and men are alienated from society for various reasons and they eventually find a way to join the rest of the herd.  I would not find it too surprising that at some level it is related to brain maturation processes that we now know extend into the 20s.  There is another group of boys and men who are fascinated with weapons and explosives.  The vast majority of these boys are not dangerous in any way to other people.  Some of them are dangerous to themselves and end up getting killed or disabled by some of their experiments with explosives or setting up explosions.

Powell's description of how he wrote the Cookbook, by going to a public library and sitting in the military section that contained all of the material he needed is totally plausible.  I have some of these very books in my library and they were purchased off of Amazon.  As early as elementary school, I was being taught to use the Encyclopedia to write reports and a good deal of technical information was available in those general volumes.  You could find the general recipes for gunpowder, nitroglycerin, and even a detailed drawing of the inner workings of an atomic bomb.  All of this material was openly available in 1960s Encyclopedias.  Powell makes this argument a couple of times in the documentary as well as the disclaimer in the Cookbook that what he is presenting is general information.  At no point does he or the interviewer touch on the notion that putting generally available information into the political context of anarchism and revolution, although the interviewer does consistently push for some level of accountability.

At some point in his early life Powell found a calling - teaching emotionally and developmentally delayed children and teaching teachers about how to engage those children. There seemed to be a brief thread about how some of the school shooters may have had these problems.  In the course of his career he was boycotted for various positions when parents discovered that he had written the Cookbook.  He described a scenario where there was some initial concern and he e-mailed every parent to let them know that he had written the manual and was willing to answer any questions about it.  They did not have any additional questions.  During some of the interviews, his wife commented that he went through difficult times because of his association with the Cookbook.  Like most documentaries, editorial license is involved.  In the final shot Powell is asked a questions bout some of the parallels between his life and some of the alienated people who read his book.  The scene fades at that point and we never hear his response.  I am sure that he had one.  The final announcement was that he died unexpectedly on July 11, 2016.

The central point of the documentary from the interviewer's standpoint was the effect that knowing the book was found in the possession of some infamous perpetrators of violence had on him and whether he felt he had any responsibility.  He was very clear that he was responsible for writing the book but not how people used it.  He acknowledged that he did feel badly about these associations and it did cause him to try to take action to get it removed from print.  On Amazon, he has published a detailed letter about how he came to write the book and the fact that he no longer believes that violence is an acceptable way to cause political change.  He refers to it as a "misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print" after discussing how he attempted to get his original publisher to take it out of print.  He also wrote a detailed letter to the Guardian on December 13, 2013 that was apologetic requested that the book go out of print and that is available on their web site.    

In the end I was left with the impression that William Powell had done something that he regretted at age 19 and spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it.  Unlike those of us who made similar mistakes, he was able to find a publisher that resulted in his big mistake being put into print.  If I look back on those times, revolutionary rhetoric was commonplace and only rarely acted upon.  Rebellious youth found no level of public support for a wide scale revolt.  Most Americans then as now just want to put in a day of work and go home to their families.  The other interesting aspect of trying to hold an adult man far removed from his rebellious teenage years accountable for that person is that it is developmentally incorrect.  At a wider philosophical level, much more dangerous information is now available both in books and over the Internet.  Anyone still reading the Anarchist Cookbook has not done much research.

For me the developmental questions always linger.  Why the fascination with explosives and violence?  It seems to be an area that is consistently ignored.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  American Anarchist. Netflix documentary: https://www.netflix.com/title/80143794

2:  Richard Sandomir.  William Powell "Anarchist Cookbook" Writer Dies at 66.  New York Times March 29, 2017.

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