Saturday, 12 March 2011

Imagining Libertarians

Edward Crane, the founder of the libertarian think tank The Cato Institute, wrote of the 1972 Libertarian National Convention held at the Radisson Hotel in San Francisco:

"As a libertarian I was always aware that it was appropriate to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles. But until I walked into that room, I had no idea just how many alternatives there were. There were anarchists dressed in all black. There were Randians holding long, gold cigarette holders. And hippies from the left and conservatives from the far right. I think the only other person there with a suit was Ed Clark, who later ran for president on the Libertarian ticket."

I thought of this over drinks the other day when I complained to a friend that I feel my ambitions are thwarted due to a lack of human material. My vision for many years was the creation of an organisation dedicated to my principles. I call it my Church of the Romantic in jest, but in practice I call it my Salon de Mal, a place where Romantic thinkers, artists, activists, and lifestylers could gather to educate and support each other and further promote the Romantic ideals and values.

Here is the problem. The thinkers I want are into academia. The artists are into aesthetics. The activists follow mainstream politics. The lifestylers are transient souls consuming superficial pop-culture; they are still growing-up and will statistically grow out of what I am offering. I may succeed in collecting the young and the idealistic educated poor (like myself), but what I need are powerful adults, but many are already invested in jobs, families, and perhaps even the status quo. What I want to is unite the strands of philosophy (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics) in society into a holistic organisation.

This is where my friend pointed out that libertarians lack an aesthetic. There is no cool and recognisable image. In my mind there is, but he was right. There is not one evident in the mainstream.

I once overheard an American student speaking to some Scots in a club who were about her same age. She said, “Do I look like a Republican?” I’d wager we could ascribe an image or stereotype to fit most ideological points of view, but somehow the libertarians fall through the cracks and are often mistaken for Republicans or Torries.

This is when I thought of Ed Crane’s observation. “There were anarchists dressed in all black. There were Randians holding long, gold cigarette holders.” For me, libertarians are Moderns. I’ll explain.

I’ve written before my theory that the Romantic Era ended in 1929 and the Socialist Era began. Other authors use different terms. What I call the Romantic Era is called the Victorian Age, The Enlightenment/Industrial Age, or simply the Modern Age by philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, who coined the term Postmodernity. What came after was called The Postmodern, or the state of Postmodernity.

So the postmodern is not defined by what it is but by what came before it. It is the period after the Modern. Lyotard suggested that the “Grand Narrative” collapsed leaving a void to be filled. The old truths that people believed in ceased to have the power to cement and motivate society. So the Modern is characterized by relatively homogenous nation-states with an established hierarchy and national will, but more importantly it believed in an absolute, knowable, and objective Truth.  Postmodern is not.

Postmodernity is the state where you may have more in common with your friend on the internet living 6,000 miles away than you do with your neighbours. It is the state where you might encounter dozens of different ideologies, from sexual orientation, to religious or cultural beliefs, to political beliefs all before lunch and none of them is more “right” than another. It’s a world where truth is not objective but subjective. If that is so, then so is right and wrong. Whatever feels good is right. This is what I call The Age of Feeling.

So within this diverse stew we have representatives of different cultures, zeitgeists, beliefs, and so on. These can be placed into three primary groups: the Pre-moderns, the Moderns, and the Postmoderns.

The Pre-moderns are the hippies, neo-pagans, neo-tribalists, eco warriors, New Agers, feminists, and so forth. You get the picture. The subjectivication of truth has served them well and they have thrived. This is mostly due to the fact that in the wealthy West they have the luxury of playing primitive without all the negative consequences of a true primitive lifestyle. Or to put it this way, they will pay a fortune for traditional Indian remedies while the people of India are in desperate need for Western medicine that actually works. The Pre-moderns are the prime movers of the Age of Feeling and the bastion of the Left.

The Moderns are the bad guys. We are the pro-industry, pro-technology, pro-science, pro-reason, pro-capitalism, pro-nationalism, pro-gender roles, and pro-Christian. Most social conservatives would fit this category, but so would the libertarians who are socially liberal. If that seems odd, remember that both were represented during the Modern Age as conservatives and liberals; the common thread is their desire to return to the Age of Reason. Given the current state of postmodernity, they have more in common than not despite core differences.

Finally, we have the Postmoderns. One book I read ages ago on the subject divided these guys into two categories: the Nihilists and the Players. “If everything is true, then nothing is true” says the Nihilist. The flip side is the Player who just loves it all. He jumps from one fad or ideology to the next. The only downside is when there is nothing new on the horizon. I suppose the author who coined the term may have had the sexual player in mind. He doesn’t care about substance or deeper meaning as long as he gets pleasure from it. When he’s finished, then he will happily move on. What they have in common, the Nihilist and the Player, is the belief that nothing has meaning.

So for me, the image of the libertarian draws from its political roots in Classical Liberalism of the Nineteenth Century and therefore the Romantics of the Modern Era. This seems perfectly embodied in Crane’s description of the followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism with their cigarette holders at the Libertarian National Convention. It is classy, charming, and perhaps a bit elitist and anachronistic.

In my dream world, frock coats, waistcoats, and corsetry would be associated with libertarianism just as tie-dye shirts and beads are associated with hippies and the Left. I would love someone to see my style of dress and assume me to be a libertarian because I am dressed as a Modern rather than as a Player who is into “the cowboy”, “Goth” or “Steampunk” look. And while the hippies gather in the woods to sing folk songs, the libertarians are in some elegant café discussing issues.
Of course this is just a dream. In real life, if I were to see someone so dramatically and Romantically dressed, then I can only assume them to be a Player without the ideological core that I am looking for in a partner for my salon. Perhaps they are off to a club theme night. I have developed this belief through countless dead-ends and disappointments. Meanwhile, the true image of the libertarian is the somewhat intellectual and geeky guy at his computer. I guess that fits me too.

Yes, libertarians are in desperate need of a make-over from the mad men. Should this ever occur, I can’t imagine my phone ringing. From my experience, I suppose it will one day happen and the final result will be something I heartily disapprove.

My objective through my work has been to take those existing subcultural groups within Postmerdernity whose Aesthetic roots lie in the Modern, such as the Goths, Dandies, Steampunks, and Burlesques and reconnect them with their philosophical roots to form a recognisable alternative lifestyle or counter-culture called Romantic.  In this, I have failed completely.  You can lead a Player to Truth, but you can't make him think.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Modern Hero

A friend sent me this quote from the book, ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover : Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine’ by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
"Ours is not an age that wants heroes. Ours is an age of envy, in which laziness and self-involvement are the rule. Anyone who tries to shine, who dares to stand above the crowd, is dragged back down by his lackluster and self-appointed 'peers.'
 "We need a great rebirth of the heroic in our world. Every sector of human society, wherever that may be on the planet, seems to be slipping into an unconscious chaos. Only the heroic consciousness, exerting all its might, will be able to stop this slide toward oblivion. Only a massive rebirth of courage in both men and women will rescue the world. Against enormous odds, the Hero picks up his sword and charges into the heart of the abyss, into the mouth of the dragon, into the castle under the power of an evil spell."
It sounds great and inspiring, and I totally agree, but these days can we tell the difference between the hero and the anti-villain? For those not aware of the concept of the anti-villain, he is someone with all the attributes of the hero, as described above, but he is willing to commit acts contrary to accepted social morality in order to achieve a higher purpose.

In fiction, we have anti-villains like Magneto from the X-men who believes the oppressed mutants must fight back against humanity in order to survive; Ra’s al Ghul in ‘Batman Begin’ believes crime must be stopped by destroying those who engage in criminal behaviour as well as those who support criminal activity through action or inaction.

In life, we have the recent events in Wisconsin where the heroic teachers stood up against the state legislature to fight for their rights to collective bargaining for state employees. But wait a second. Collective bargaining is where union representatives have the power to negotiate terms that affect all members of the union and said negotiations are conducted between union representatives and representatives of the state legislature. Since the unions are major contributors to political parties, particularly the Democratic Party, could this not be seen as a conflict of interest? The state representatives are state representative because of money and votes provided by the very union representatives with whom they are negotiating. Furthermore, the benefits the unions are arguing for are come from the state treasury, that is, taxpayer’s money. So in truth, what the heroic teachers are fighting for is money and benefits at the taxpayers’ expense agreed upon under dubious circumstances. So are they heroes or anti-villains?

If you are a mutant, then Magneto is a hero. If you hate crime, then Ra’s al Ghul is a hero. If you are a teacher, then the teacher’s union is heroic. Propagandists, PR men, and spin doctors can contrive any group and their leaders into heroes.

The true test is a question of Ethics. Is right action determined by the real or projected special interests of a particular group or by a standard law of conduct?

Here’s an example of what I mean by a “projected” special interest. In Britain, a group wanted to ban the story of the Three Little Pigs from schools on the grounds that it was offensive to Muslims. Turns out, no one in this group were Muslim and the representatives from the Muslim community spoke out saying that they are not offended by stories about pig, they just don’t eat them. This group projected what they imagined a segment of the population might find offensive and on these grounds sought to use political force to prevent it. Is that moral?

Here is my moral code in brief. Ethics is simply defined as right action. What actions will promote greater happiness and flourishing? The fundamental answer is the recognition and respect of the Natural Rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness for each individual. These rights can only be morally infringed in defence of your rights and/or as punishment for their violation. To make it even more brief, “Live and let live”.

Sure, it reads simple and I reckon most people would agree with this in principle. The problem comes in the execution. That’s when all the deeper implications emerge and the true test of character begins. I say character because people will do things that you do not like and you have to suck-it up and accept it. People will suffer for their bad decisions, but those were their decisions to make and their consequences to suffer. Sometimes people will contrive that they have a claim on another person’s life, liberty, or property and claim a moral duty to secure it for themselves.

Get this bit of horror. The racist has a right to be a racist, though he is in violation should he choose to infringe upon another’s rights. The obese person has the right to be obese. The rich man has the right to be rich. The junkie has the right to destroy himself. The carnivore has the right to eat meat. The homosexual has the right to be gay. In other words, people have a right to say and do things that we disapprove of or find to be morally wrong – provided that they do not infringe the Natural Rights of others. Now that takes character.

So what makes a hero? A hero fights for these rights against the murderers, slavers, thieves, fraudsters, and tyrants (both large and small). The villain strives for his own interests regardless of the Natural Rights of others, but the anti-villain is not selfish. He fights for the interests of his special interest group, but he too acts regardless of the Natural Rights of others. What defines the hero is his defending of the principles of these rights as higher ideals regardless of the individuals involved or his own personal judgements of them.

Natural Rights are also called Negative Rights. No, not because they’re not positive, but because they say what people and governments cannot morally do. They cannot violate your rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The flip-side is Positive Rights. These are not so much rights as privileges, sometimes called goods. They say what people and government “should” do, such as a right to an education, health care, housing, a job, or whatever can be contrived. PJ O’Rourke calls the Positive Rights “Gimme” Rights and the Negative Rights “Go Away” rights.  I would argue that the Natural Rights form the basis of morality, whereas the qualities expressed by Positive Rights, such as personal altruism or beneficence, are morally praiseworthy but are not morally obligatory.

Many problems stem from the Gimme rights. In order to give services they must first be paid for. They are paid for through taxes which are collected under force or the threat of force. In other words, the Gimme rights are only possible by violating the Go Away rights. Gimme Rights are usually for a specific group’s benefit and not to everyone’s. Should the threat emerge that the Gimme rights might be lessened or taken away, then the anti-villains wrap themselves in the hero’s mantle, take to the streets, and fight the just cause of using government force to steal from others to benefit their group’s interests. Also, the Gimme Rights allow for larger government, this means more government jobs, more bureaucrats, and larger expense accounts.

In a proper Republican form of government the elected officials understand that the purpose of government, and therefore their purpose in government, is to protect the Natural Rights of their electorate. So every official action, law, or regulation is accepted or rejected according to this guiding star. In a Democracy, its majority rule regardless of the Natural Rights. 

However, the current state of play is this. Special interest groups, be they corporate or unions or action groups, fund political parties or candidates who use that money to influence voters. Once elected, the representatives pass legislation as they see fit, but their guiding star is how to fund the next election. This is not a Republic and it isn’t even a Democracy where the issues would be presented to an informed public for a vote with account books laid bare. It’s more of an oligarchy where the representatives of special interest groups form a shadow government alongside elected representatives. As a consequence its all about the Gimme without much Go Away.

Over the past month, both versions of the film ‘Inherit the Wind’ have been on the television and I watched them both. The story is based on the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in which a high school biology teacher was accused of violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution.   ‘Inherit the Wind’ shows two “heroes” clashing in the courtroom. Henry Drummond is the defender of Natural Law (the law of Reality) and Matthew Harrison Brady is the defender of Divine Law (the law of God) under the auspices of Positive Law (the law of Society ) as seen through the court, the audience at the trial, and the law itself. 

The true hero of course is Drummond who is defending free thinking, free speech, and of course Natural Rights. Brady is the anti-villain who is trying to preserve faith and fight the good moral fight, at the expense of Natural Rights, for the greater good. In the end we see him collapse under the weight of his own self-importance, emotionalism, and personal sense of moral rectitude. As for Positive Law, unlike the primary positions, it has no fixed position and wavers on the whim of the crowd and the greater public opinion beyond the courtroom.

The world is full of men like Brady who are full of moral zeal and righteousness who believe that the magnitude of their beliefs justifies violating the Natural Rights of those who have done no wrong save questioning, challenging, or even mocking the beliefs into which their opposition has invested so much of their emotions and their identity.

Ever since 1945 the name of Hitler is evoked to represent evil. As Godwin’s Law states, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." The thing that people conveniently forget about Hitler is that in his mind he was fighting the heroic moral battle for the souls of the German people and the German people loved him for it. After all, the evil Jewish bankers had to be stopped because they were corrupting Germany. In dire times like these, we are justified in violating a person’s Natural Rights for the preservation of the nation. Right? Wrong.

The thing about the Antichrist is that no one recognises him as such. They think he is the Christ. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. (Matthew 24:24, King James Version). We recognise the false Christ because he is willing to violate the Natural Rights of others with moral justifications. The only true moral justification is in defence of your rights or as punishment for violating rights; all crimes are punished by violating the rights of the convicted, either through death, incarceration, fines, or banishment and each penalty corresponds to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So how do we fight the villains and the anti-villains of the world? We do not initiate violence, but once begun we can morally finish it. We talk. We argue. We debate. We thwart. We challenge. We stand firm. Most of all, we do not advocate the violation of an individual’s Natural Rights either directly or through endorsing government force on our behalf. We live and we let live. 

I was ready to close this up with that, but I just realised that I have discussed the hero, the villain, and the anti-villain, but not the anti-hero.  So I shall close with two quotes for you to ponder.
“Rorschach's Journal. October 12th, 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll whisper "no."  -- The Watchmen
“I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you.” –Batman in Batman Begins