BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2 by Brandon Beckner, et. al.

Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIAProject MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA by Brandon Beckner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

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Volume Two continues the story of CIA’s crazy “experimentation” with LSD, ultimately leading to the fall of the MK-Ultra program. The story is built around strange but true events, but there is a fictionalized element, particularly with respect to the investigative journalist (Seymour Phillips) whose presence in the story is used as a mechanism to tie together events that may or may not have had much overlap in terms of common personnel. That is to say, fiction isn’t just used to make the story more intriguing (a tale this strange hardly needs much help in that department,) but to both fill in knowledge gaps (famously, most of the MK-Ultra files were destroyed) and to make a throughline connecting somewhat disparate events. The focus is on events surrounding Ronald Stark as well as the widening spillover of LSD from CIA programs into the civilian space – e.g. the birth of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

The art in this book is amazing. Of course, much of it has to capture the sensory bizarrerie of psychedelic experiences, and it does that creatively. However, even the “sober” panels are colorful and present a captivating world. There’s a full-page depiction of Chinatown that blew my mind.

If you’re interested in a story built around the CIA’s dalliances with LSD, and the subsequent spillover into the civilian world, I’d highly recommend the two volumes of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lessons by Ian McEwan

LessonsLessons by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book not only shows the characters learning their lessons, it has a few teachings for the reader, as well. The story follows the protagonist, Roland Baines, as he receives a series of harsh life lessons, at the center of each is a woman. There is Miriam, his piano teacher at boarding school, a woman who enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with Roland while he’s still a minor. There is Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland and their seven-month-old child to pursue her writing career. Finally, when a woman, Daphne, comes along with whom he can at last have a healthy relationship with a dependable partner, he has difficulty embracing the relationship because of his earlier experiences. We also witness the intergenerational learning of Alissa, whose mother never made good on her own potential as a writer.

The lessons for the reader are profound. First, after developing an intense and visceral dislike for Alissa because she abandons a baby and seems so oblivious to the suffering her actions have caused (e.g. her husband being suspected of a murder that never happened,) we are reminded that disappearing dads are par for the course; we may think poorly of them, but we rarely have an intense emotional response to such situations. Second, we are offered insight into the “intentional fallacy” – i.e. thinking one knows the author’s intentions and subjective thought processes from what she writes.

I found this to be a powerful story that asks one to confront all manner of intriguing questions. (e.g. If an individual ditches her [or his] family for career, does it make a difference if that person is the best at what she does or if she’s mediocre or if she stinks?) I’d highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction.


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