Sunday, January 22, 2017

Profiles in International Education: William Powell, an Anarchist and a Scholar

Everybody does dumb shit when they're young.

But has ever a generation had their stupidity so carefully and often ineradicably documented as the internet generation?

People seem to be a bit more cagey about protecting their identities on the internet in the last few years, but between about 2005 and 2010, people were allowing their real names to be attached to all kinds of horrendously anti-social and even criminal behavior on the internet for all to see. (Note to kids -- don't Facebook your crime.)

Sometimes it was just carelessness and lack of foresight that caused this; sometimes it was pure narcissism and desire for fame. (I'm sure Tucker Max and Neil Strauss are anxiously awaiting the day their new children will Google them and run screaming from the house.)

In the old analog days, becoming famous for doing something bad was much more difficult, actually.

But people still managed to do it.

A teacher named William Powell died last year.

He was a respected educator and international school administrator who worked across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. He was one of the founders of Education Across Frontiers, a teacher-training organization. He was a pioneer in inclusive special education programs for at-risk youth in international settings, as well. He is the the author of numerous books about progressive teaching philosophies and methodologies.

One little blemish on his otherwise admirable and squeaky-clean record.

He wrote an insurgency and terrorism manual advocating open revolution against the US government.

It was called the Anarchist Cookbook, written in 1971. (Link is to a Wikipedia article about it.)

There were plenty of copies of this floating around small-town America in the 70s and 80s. I knew a kid who had one. As of now, they are very easy to locate on the internet, even on Amazon. (I hesitate to link to them as I don't want to be on any more watch lists than I already am.)

In it you can see recipes for explosives and improvised weaponry, formulae for illegal drugs such as LSD, and a hodgepodge of information about revolution, resistance, and assorted dirty tricks and violence.

(Yeah, see, before the internet, we had to use books to get information. I know, right?)

The book has been endlessly banned and villified, and linked with all kind of  terrorists and criminal acts as well as just plain old suburban angst. Even the author quickly disclaimed the book, after becoming a father and a Christian, but it was too late; he'd sold the copyright to the publisher, and couldn't get his name taken off it.

Written by William Powell when he was a teenager at the end of the counterculture era of the late 60s, it was mostly written after perusing military manuals in the public library as well as counterculture "zines", and in addition to being now terribly out of date, many of the recipes were known to be dangerous and inaccurate anyway.  For example, Powell included a formula for bananadine, a psychoactive drug derived from banana peels; unbeknownst to him, this was something between an urban myth and a practical joke.

(Actual anarchists weren't too happy with it, either.)

Still, I seem to remember that my high school classmate English Teacher Q managed to make gunpowder using a recipe in the book,a few household substances and a few chemicals lifted from the high school chemistry lab, so it certainly isn't completely harmless.

 (But since you could buy black powder in any sporting good store at that time in the South, making it at home wasn't an especially big deal. And we got more of our information about weapons and tactics from 80s action paperbacks, as I recall.)

Reportedly, Powell's connection to this book followed him even to places in Africa and Asia, and he lost numerous jobs due to his connection with it, although in the last years of his life he made many public pleas for it to be taken out of print.

So there you go! Like Shakespeare said, the evil that men do lives on while the good dies with them. Writing dumb shit can follow you around for your whole life, even in outdated formats.

If he'd sold it under the pseudonym Anarchist X he'd have had no problems, eh? Other than perhaps his conscience.

(Just a couple of sources for more information -- a Newsweek article, a lengthy article in Harper's, and a documentary about the whole deal. There's even a romantic comedy film based on it (!) which you can watch on YouTube.


Anonymous said...

Stop pretending to be a Southerner you yid punk!

Anonymous said...

Who would claim to be that, who was not that, especially now?

brian said...

I owned a copy of the book myself, and it was a fun read, but I never had the nerve to try anything from it. Too much Catholic guilt I guess. I did burn the bottom right-hand corner of the cover and first few pages with a lighter, telling girls it was from a failed experiment. That never failed to impress.

Shabeer said...
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