8.10.2019

The Revised Boy Scout Manual by William S. Burroughs


William S. Burroughs - Beat Writer

The Revised Boy Scout Manual  by William S. Burroughs - a review by Christine Axsmith


What a long way of saying “the pen is mightier than the sword.” 

The book is disturbing, and was probably meant to be.  It is also a book that cannot be ignored. Burroughs made too many accurate predictions for the politics of the Information Age we now live in.  

Burroughs is at the same time prescient and reflective.  He predicts the political impact of electronic information distribution, but what he describes is an extension of Nazi tactics.  He uses the term “virus” to explain the spread of an idea throughout society. He describes a “meme.” He predicts the impact of handheld recording devices to challenge the entrenched power of institutions.

Burroughs is not content to deliver these gems without graphic and disturbing descriptions of violent crimes.  As in, that’s most of the book. If we view that choice as strategy, maybe the trudge through blood has purpose.  It could be an exorcism of base impulses, only to bring the revolutionary down to earth and point them towards non-violent means of information warfare, with a warning that violent means lead to failure.

The Revised Boy Scout Manual begins by describing the limits of violence as a political weapon in the 20th century.  “With heavy weapons five percent of the population can hold down ninety-five percent by sheer force.” This book tells the aspiring revolutionary how to fight back with such firepower imbalances.  

Burroughs’ general plan for revolution has three parts: a political reform party whose actions are completely aboveboard and legitimate, an ostensibly unrelated terrorist group that deflects blame while it strikes; and reactive political media that advance a “law and order” narrative.

What Burroughs doesn’t see, or mention, is that Hitler used the same plan.  Hitler led the Nazi party, and pretended that the Brownshirts were not connected or coordinated.  Then Nazis deflected blame for civil unrest onto the Communists and the Jews, who were the excuse for civil law suspension.  Then Hitler seized power.

This book relies on the naive perspective that only one side, the left, would employ these tactics.  In Burrough’s fantasy that is this book, the far right would not be copying and employing his methods.  They would hopelessly grasp authoritarianism, which would in turn fuel the leftist revolution even more. Of course, if the left had actually followed Burroughs’ game plan, the right would quickly notice and begin copying tactics.  

Instead, the far right has taken up the formula Burroughs describes, and the left is copying and reacting to it.

OFFICIALLY UNRELATED TERRORIST GROUPS


Burroughs’ plan for revolution has violent terror groups killing people while the front-facing political party has plausible deniability for the bloodshed.  We can draw parallels to right-wing terror attacks and their distancing from the Republican party. However, the rhetoric of some Republican leaders ties them together.  Referencing refugees as an “invasion force” can be directly tied to the armed militias at the U.S. southern border pretending to arrest people. What they are really doing is threatening poor people, mostly women and children, with guns.  People who are scared, hungry and thirsty. Trump call for reports to be violently attacked, and an entire newsroom is gunned down.

On the left, language of “Russian collusion” has had equal value.  Trump Derangement Syndrome, a phrase coined by Scott Adams, also leads to violence, as seen in the almost-disaster of the Congressional softball game shooting and beatings of people in red MAGA hats.

On both sides, the distancing from violent and more radical elements from the rhetoric of their political siblings serves the same purpose: ways to induce radical reactions without responsibility.  

Again, both extremes are using these tactics, not just one side as in Burroughs’ book.

CAPTIVE MEDIA OUTLET


Burroughs calls for a captive media outlet as part of his plan for thought revolutionaries.  I think we can call both MSNBC and FOX News captive media outlets at this point. The weakness in Burrough’s plan for revolution is not seeing that a tactic can be used by both sides at once.  The difference is FOX News supports the far right, and MSNBC supports the liberal establishment.

Burroughs gets points for his insight into information warfare.  He predicts memes and viral data and refers to its impact on the body politic and as a weapon of revolution. He predicts the creation of Fox News as an information and propaganda organ, but did not see the conversion of MSNBC to a countervailing role.  

When Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks hosted a show on MSNBC, he was explicitly told to support a Democratic administration in the White House.  When his critical thinking skills continue to exert themselves, he was let go. Rachel Maddow, another example, took up the chant of Russiagate as directly fed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and hasn’t shut up about it since - even after it has been disproven. The extent of MSNBC capture can be measured by how little the name “Reality Winner” is mentioned during Russiagate segments.

Again, it is Burroughs’ tactic of cheerleading media outlets.  However, he misses that anyone could do it, and it seems they have.  

He calls for eliminating words: “the” “to be” “is” “either/or” because these words support identities in people, and so their elimination would end conflict.  There’s a new take on identity politics. Again, advocating the use of thought as an effective weapon when out-gunned, this time through language control.  

The book also suggests:  random assassinations, rape (but only of women), bombs, rumors, kill lists.  Page one of the book describes blowing up the “economic system of the West” by attacking buildings in New York City, predictive of the 9-11 attacks.

Later, Burroughs touches close to his own life describing a wealthy respectable woman who is murdered and humiliated, and her son deciding to support the revolution and the gang rape of his sister.  He is describing himself, of course. Burroughs is the scion of a very wealthy family who decided to join the revolution. The older woman who commands respect would be his mother, who is the same person who is beaten and humiliated.  The young scion’s eyes widen with the fever of revolution as he leads the revolutionaries to gang rape his sister. No thoughts on the young man being raped, however. No mention of his being beaten and insulted. Damn, Burroughs must have hated women, as any revolutionary knows that men can be raped, too. Odd blind spot. I will leave it to greater minds to parse the Freud in that.  It is enough to say that I wouldn’t take Burroughs’ advice on how to fix my car, and I won’t heed his insight on gender issues.

It’s almost funny when Burroughs has the slightest realization that his script for revolution matches Charles Manson’s, who also thought random and senseless killings would spark a revolution.  He doesn’t quite accept it, though. Burroughs makes some distinction based on motivation of murders. He claims Manson’s only motivation was “crimes against property and crimes against persons.”  He ignores the Manson Family plan to start a race war. Manson’s drive was political. It was just as political as Burroughs. It’s just that Burroughs didn’t have the courage to look at his own recipe, because basically they were the same.

Burroughs calls the Ku Klux Klan a “criminal commune” to artificially separate them from his own tactics of political violence, similar to what he did with the Manson Family.  But of course the KKK is a violent political organization: it was created after Reconstruction to maintain white power, they used lynching and fire to enhance their power, and they used Jim Crow laws to prevent people from exercising their power. 

When you have to add footnotes to your revolutionary plan explaining the difference between the Manson Family and the KKK and yourself, maybe some introspection is in order.  Just saying.

However, The Revised Boy Scouts Manual is not only dripping in bloody suggestions.  Burroughs has visions of the good resulting from his revolution of thought. Society would form into small groups with similar interests, like fishing.  Soon, in Burroughs’ mind, criminals would just quit crime to pursue their personal interests. Police would lose too many officers to communes through resignation and personal choices.  Who wouldn’t rather go fly fishing? Then why do anything else?

Somehow, violent criminals in Burrough’s fantasy will stop committing crimes against people and property if given the chance to fish or something in what he terms MOBs, or loosely organized groups who Mind Own Business.  Because one thing an armed robber wants is to hook worms rather than threaten people for money, if given the chance.

This raises, once again, Burroughs’ personal perspective on the world.  He was a heroin-addicted scion from incredible wealth. Of course he would think that people who didn’t phone the cops for a little drugs would be the best to run the world, i.e., minded their own business.  He probably wished the entire world was made up of people like that. The kind that aren’t worried about their son’s substance abuse. The kind that didn’t worry about cleaning the streets and schools. The kind that didn’t worry about making a living at all, in fact.  Just like him. If people could haul off and do whatever they wanted to do, they would be doing it. If only people would leave him alone, he thought. He could live his life in peace and there would be no crime. You can see the appeal from his perspective.

Since then, society has created groups where like-minded people gather.  People join others interested in fly fishing, for example. He also describes our information diet and its influence on our political views.  This reality has been used to attempt to change elections. Yes, Facebook ads have been used to sway voter choices. That’s the purpose of ads.  But Burroughs is wrong to think such balkanization of interests shuts out other desires. You can enjoy fly fishing and still be angry at the mayor.  Burroughs’ formula assumes “minding own business” means a lack of concern for anything else - which turned out not to be true.  

The book itself is filled with lurid imaginings of the aforementioned tactics in action.  It is, in parts, gory, disgusting, clairvoyant and strategic. 

MEMES


“The Revised Boy Scout Manual” introduces the concept of a “meme.”  Burroughs had the vision to see the intersection of propaganda and electronic communication in terms of political influence and persuasion.  He saw the power of memes operating as electronic rumors and thought changers, and the magnifying power of electronic communications.  

However, thought as a weapon is not a new idea, as any Nazi will tell you.

RECORDING DEVICES


“You can do more to destroy enemies with tape recorders and video cameras than with machine guns.”  Burroughs anticipates recording devices in everybody’s hands. That was far-sighted. He didn’t envision everybody having a video camera on them at all times, but it was a good guess.  He also ties power shifts to the ubiquitous availability of information.  

The current political climate is certainly a case study of political change via public exposure.  Fights against unjust police shootings and imprisonments, rapes ignored by law enforcement, the water protector movement and more demonstrate the power of mass exposure that Burroughs predicted.  But mass exposure also brought us cat videos and the Kardashians. Screaming goat videos still have more views than any police shooting expose. The most profitable YouTube channel is a child who tells us what he thinks of toys.  The Young Turks, a very popular news network on Youtube, has four million subscribers; but NigaHiga, a comedy channel, has twenty-two million.

RANDOM POLITICAL KILLINGS

Of course history since has shown that fringes of the far right has employed Burrough’s ideas of mass and random killings.  And guess what? It didn’t work. His prediction of an opposing terrorist force just didn’t happen. The killings have not made American more extreme and punitive.  If anything, the opposite happened.  

The National Rifle Association has, for the first time in decades, lost ground politically and socially.  Youth, most impacted by mass shootings on a daily level, revolted in the opposite direction, but not with violence. Burroughs calls for random killings to ignite a authoritarian reaction which will only feed the revolution in the end.  However the right’s use of senseless violence has not birthed a left version of the same thing.  

If Burroughs’ revolutionary plan worked, far right political killings would cause a boomerang of leftist violence.  It has not.  

There has been a leftist reaction to right-wing political assassinations, but mostly a legal and non-violent one.  The question is, how would this feed into the agenda of a far right revolution, rather than defeat it? Income streams have dried up for the NRA, they have degraded public support, lost advertisers, lost television channels and are regularly called out on social media, as are associated politicians.  Was this Dylann Roof’s plan when he shot worshippers on a Sunday morning? The result of these attempts at race wars has been clear public will opposing that agenda. So Burroughs’ suggested tactic of mass killings is a failure.

The far right feels ever more under attack, but enough to fund a rightist revolution?  I don’t think so. Revolution requires youth, and that is one group that tilts left by a wide margin. 

Burroughs uses the word “assassination” to include killing the enemy’s word and image.  A modern example would be Scott Adams highlighting the MAGA hat as a symbol of support for Trump whose meaning was assassinated in the Burroughs’ sense and turned into a symbol of racism.

Another result of the random killing tactic is strangulation of radical voices on the right.  Right-wing groups like QAnon and people like Alex Jones have been sidelined from media platforms and all mainstream, and frankly, marginal media outlets.  Payment platforms like Patreon have banned them, causing funding to become scarce. Credit card companies won’t process their payments.  

The final history has not been written on our current political struggles.  Maybe these radical fringe groups are growing in the dark and will surprise us all.  But it doesn’t look that way.

The Revised Boy Scout Manual posited a revolutionary game plan.  Its tactics are being employed right now. They have not created a revolution.  Both left and right are using captive media outlets, memes, fake news, recordings and more. 

Burroughs was prophetic in seeing the acceleration of information warfare with electronic communications.  The end of the book lists weaponry and related countermeasures. His conclusion is that guns and bombs will lose.  The only weapon that could work is ideas, he writes. Again, a long and bloody way to say “the pen is mightier than the sword.”