Posts Tagged ‘Libertarianism’

Heaving Dead Cats on Memorial Day with H.L. Mencken (and Boyd Rice too!)

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across an interesting piece at The New American, a John Birch Society website and magazine.  Jack Kenny writes that

Perhaps as we remember the war dead this Memorial Day, we might commit our prayers and any efforts we can make for our country not only to the cause of liberty, but also to the all-important task of guiding our nation to a path of peace. Perhaps we should determine to stay out of those foreign wars and “entangling alliances” that Washington and Jefferson warned against, and employ the force of arms only when it is genuinely a last resort — when war truly is “forced upon us,” as our leaders like to say when they are all the while pursuing a war of choice. While decorating the graves of our war dead this Memorial Day, let us resolve to make fewer of them.

Kenny cites a remark by Robert Taft, a U.S. Republican senator who opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and involvement in Korea.

“War, undertaken even for justifiable purposes, such as to punish aggression in Korea, has often had the principal results of wrecking the country intended to be saved and spreading death and destruction among an innocent civilian population,” he said. “Even more than Sherman knew in 1864, ‘war is hell.’ War should never be undertaken or seriously risked except to protect American Liberty.”

I also recently ran across a quotation from Russell Kirk, the great American conservative thinker:

A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.

We tend to conflate conservatism with hawkishness.  There are good reasons for doing so, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  There’s been the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines and was comprised of such working-class heroes as Andrew Carnegie, William Graham Sumner, and Grover Cleveland; Middle-American opposition to World Wars One and Two; and, a libertarian site against U.S. invention overseas.
Nearly two years ago I concluded “No More Veterans Days” with a passage from Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States:

Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end…  Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…  Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.  As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

Isn’t it curious that the words of paleo-conservatives and a Marxist historian sound so similar?  Maybe it’s because they express a basic truth: War is a pointless waste of lives and resources.
“Yet the human race,” H.L. Mencken wrote, after watching generals “perform their gory buffooneries, cheers them when they come home, dazed and empty-headed, and thrusts its highest honors upon them.  What a certificate to its judgment, its common sense, its sense of humor, its right to survive on earth!”

Mencken with cigar

H. L. Mencken, contemplating throwing kitty corpses into shrines

That’s a tad insensitive, particularly on this day of remembrance, don’t you think?  Yes, but as Mencken wrote elsewhere “Such are the facts.  I apologize for the Babylonian indecency of printing them.”   There’s a time for sensitivity, but it limits and controls dialogue.  We hold back from expressing heterodox ideas because we don’t want to risk ostracism.  What do we call that which runs against notions of propriety?  “Bad taste,” i.e., doesn’t taste good.  As any mother will tell you, the most nutritious foods often are the least tasty.  If your diet only consists of candy, pizzas, and milkshakes, get ready for a date with diabetes.

As Mencken said of image breakers,

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least [ital]one[ital] visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts.  The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud.  One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.

More than a half a century later, another American iconoclast, Boyd Rice, would remark on the irreconcilability of sensitivity and truth:

I have never pretended to be a nice guy, because I’m not. It’s fairly impossible to remain true to oneself and still be a “nice guy.” Similarly, only people as misanthropic as myself can be counted on not to have to lie to others, since we have the unique luxury of not caring what sort of opinions others formulate about us. . .   If others choose to see the world in terms of sugar, spice and everything nice, that’s certainly their prerogative, and I would never dream of trying to tell them otherwise.

Boyd Rice

Boyd Rice: The American Iconoclast

Memorials, whether of marble or holidays, are reliquaries for received truths.  As such, a trace of impertinence, even the heaving “dead cats into sanctuaries,” is essential to the frank study of war history.  Examining the new spate of books that challenge assumptions about World War Two, Adam Kirsch writes in The New York Times Book Review that

The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. . . .

To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

If that didn’t ruffle your feathers, I’ll leave you with this scene from Platform, Michel Houellebecq’s fantastic novel of sex and Fundamentalism.  While on a group tour of Thailand, the protagonist visits a museum dedicated to the horrors suffered by allied POWs.

Certainly, I thought, what had happened was thoroughly regrettable; but, let’s face it, worse things happened during the Second World War.  I couldn’t help thinking that if the prisoners had been Polish or Russian there would have been a lot less fuss.

A little later, we were required to endure a visit to the cemetery for the allied prisoners of war — those who had, in a manner of speaking, made the ultimate sacrifice.  There were white crosses in neat rows, all identical; the place radiated a profound monotony.  It reminded me of Omaha Beach, which really hadn’t moved me either, had actually reminded me, in fact, of a contemporary art installation. “In this place,” I said to myself, with a feeling of sadness which I felt was somewhat inadequate, “In this place, a bunch of morons died for the sake of democracy.”

Stalin Parade

J-O-S-E-P-H-S-T-A-L-I-N! Joseph Stalin! Joseph Stalin! Forever we hold our banner high, high, HIGH!


Notes on Democracy and the Jihad on Narcotics

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Nowadays Prohibition seems rather quaint.  It conjures flickering, grainy black-and-white images of silent movie stars, flappers, and Tommy gun-brandishing gangsters.  Even Prohibition’s goal—a sober, righteous America—has a decidedly outdated smack to all but the most militant teetotaler. 

But don’t mistake the Volstead Act for a mere historical curiosity.  It was a prolonged, destructive violation of personal freedoms.  Ironically, the law fostered chaos.  As Deborah Blum explains in “The Chemist’s War,” an article that appeared last February in Slate,

But people continued to drink—and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.

(Incidentally, for a firsthand account of fun and games under Prohibition, including rum-running, tending bar in a speakeasy, and shootouts with rival bootleggers, turn to Don’t Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore.  As obnoxious as Moore is, one reason I like him so much is his utter refusal to be controlled, whether by oppressive bosses, rich women, or Prohibitionists.)

Despite the law, Americans continued to pursue the forbidden pleasure.  Sound familiar?  Make no mistake, Prohibition exists today.

And as with yesterday’s Prohibition, it’s not just that there’s laws proscribing pot and other narcotics.  They’re enforced with a vast security apparatus, paid for with billions of our tax dollars.  The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free has more citizens in its prisons than any other nation, largely because of its Jihad on Narcotics.  It’s not enough that statutes are on the books: they must be enforced with the zeal of true believers and people jealous of their government salaries.

Of course, the effects are never, ever what were intended.  Just as Al Capone and his peers grew rich and powerful through bootlegging, we’ve seen the rise of well-armed gangs, narco-terrorists, and the Taliban, all flush with lucre from drug sales.

Then as now, lawmakers’ response to proscription’s unexpected consequences was the same: full steam ahead.  Indeed, the effort must be intensified.  Harass citizens?  Jail offenders?  No, that’s not enough.  Poison the juice and its imbibers.

Blum explains that when Uncle Sam stemmed the flow of smuggled Canadian hooch, gangsters stole industrial alcohol and redistilled it to make it palatable.  Industrial alcohol is essentially grain alcohol with some disagreeable additives to render it distasteful.  As crooks slaked America’s thirst with redistilled firewater, the government reacted by telling producers to pump chemicals into industrial alcohol.

Gangsters met the challenge by recruiting chemists to “renature” the purloined rotgut and render it consumable.  Washington, in all its infinite wisdom and compassion, in turn demanded manufacturers pump more poisons into the mix.

By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.

It wasn’t long until the inevitable results came in:

In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.

Readers of Notes on Democracy will recall H. L. Mencken’s words of praise for Reed.  “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” the Chicago Tribune observed in 1927.

That’s right.  Fanaticism.  It was the driver then as it is now.  Two passages from Notes on Democracy sum it up:

Our laws are invented, in the main, by frauds and fanatics, and put upon the statute books by poltroons and scoundrels.

Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel.  In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.

Incidentally, if you think official and deliberate tainting of illegal substances is the stuff of nearly a century ago, think again.  In the 1970s the U.S. sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with an herbicide named Paraquat.  Blum relates that its

use was primarily intended to destroy crops, but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s—if some citizens ended up poisoned, well, they’d brought it upon themselves. Although Paraquat wasn’t really all that toxic, the outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.

I’m not the only one who sees a parallel between the yesterday’s and today’s crusades against intoxication and finds Notes on Democracy a valuable commentary on both.  Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know, writes this week that

Prohibition is a comfortable 80 years in our past, of course, so we can read [Notes on Democracy’s] passionate denunciation of it with equanimity, even smugness. A terrible idea, based on false premises and conducted ruthlessly, that left the country far worse off than it was to begin with. Yet simply substitute “War on Drugs” for “Prohibition,” and see what you think.

McHenry says that Mencken in Notes “performed vivisection on the dogma underlying the American political system and revealed the offal within.”

As Mencken loathed Prohibition, he would’ve detested the War on Drugs, and not just for its infringement on liberty.  Mencken would’ve perceived democracy’s stunting influence at work:  Because addicts can’t handle wine or cocaine responsibly, the healthy are barred from enjoying them.  The same force was at work when the FCC went after Howard Stern

The censors wield their red pens, defending the weak’s delicate ears from profane words.  But what of those of us who don’t take offense at Stern’s ramblings?  How truly free are you when you can’t partake of simple pleasures like smoking a joint or listening to uncensored talk on the radio?

It all fairness to democracy, everyone knows other systems are often repressive.  Actually, they tend to be even more restrictive.  But what’s particularly galling about democracy is that by its very nature it allows and encourages small but focused groups—Prohibitionists, for example—to direct the nation.  As Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy

Some of these minorities have developed a highly efficient technique of intimidation.  They not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters.  How formidable they may become is shown by the example of the Anti-Saloon League in the United States—a minority body in the strictest sense, however skillful its mustering of popular support, for it nowhere includes a majority of the voters among its subscribing members, and its leaders are nowhere chosen by democratic methods.  And how such minorities may intimidate the whole class of place-seeking politicians has been demonstrated brilliantly and obscenely by the same corrupt and unconscionable organization.  It has filled all the law-making bodies of the nation with men who have got into office by submitting cravenly to its dictation, and it has filled thousands of administrative posts, and not a few judicial posts, with vermin of the same sort.

Certainly it’s possible for a determined minority to persuade a king or dictator, but it’s got just one shot, so to speak.  The potentate either approves or dismisses the petition: end of story.  But in a democracy, if the minority is driven and well-funded enough, chances are it’ll succeed, no matter how insane its goal.  Politicians need money and votes.  If a lobby offers them, it’s got your representatives’ ears more than you can ever hope.

This is not a libertarian rant.  I don’t see government as inherently evil.  Living in a community means making compromises.  But something is very wrong when there’s more resources invested into forbidding adults from indulging in whatever pleasures they choose than fostering science and culture.  As Mencken points out elsewhere in Notes, although liberty is “the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic,” democracy “always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves.”

What I Found at BEA! Part III

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Libertarian Nation: The Call for a New Agenda by James Walsh, Silver Lake Publishing, $19.95

I’m really looking forward to reading this.  I like this extract from the book featured on the front flap:

The current political debate that you see on TV and online is not a real exchange of ideas. [Emphasis mine]  It’s bread and circuses.  They say that generals are always fighting the last war…   well, the same is true for TV producers and newspapers editors.  This nation has spent and borrowed its way to a crisis point.  We’re losing our position as a world leader.  And we need to get back to the philosophical roots on which the nation was founded.  This won’t be good news for the smirking neo-cons… or self-righteous liberals.  They’re both yesterday’s partisans.”

Six years ago I organized a talk co-sponsored by the New York alumni clubs of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  It was entitled “Monotone Media and Voices on the Margins,” and it examined the lack of true diversity and vigorous political discourse in the mass news media.  Rather than bringing the usual talking heads, I invited journalists from “fringe” backgrounds: a neo-pagan, a conspiracy researcher, and a Marxist.  There was also a business reporter and an analyst from the media watch group FAIR.  I wish I knew Jim back then so he could’ve sat on the panel. 

It’s interesting that Jim mentions “bread and circuses”:  Mencken repeatedly uses that phrase throughout Notes on Democracy.  According to HLM, the masses don’t want real freedom: they want a safe, secure prison, with regular servings of Wonder Bread and “Gilligan’s Island.”  Or Sour Dough and “Lost,” if you prefer.  Jim also talks about the “philosophical roots” upon which America was founded.  I don’t know his position, but Mencken argues that the founders were not at all in favor of universal suffrage, and had a real fear of the mob.  I’ll be curious to know what Libertarian Nation says on this. 

One last thing…  Why should it be surprising that the people Jim condemns as “yesterday’s partisans” be TV producers and newspaper editors?  They’re men and women knee-deep in technology and modes of communication from the last century, indeed, in the case of newspapers, the 19th century.  If the media is the message, then what else could their message be except for yesterday’s news? 


Mencken: a Medieval, Pessimistic Dissident?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I had a nice conversation with a lady that I earlier gave copies of Dissident Books’ two offerings, Notes on Democracy: A New Edition and Don’t Call Me a Crook!  She said she was enjoying both.  However, she was curious about my company’s name and how it fit in with its two titles.  She could see how it applied with Bob Moore, the author of Don’t Call Me a Crook!, a rouge and scoundrel, yet questioned its suitability for Mencken.

According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “dissident” means “disagreeing with an opinion or group: disaffected.”  The definition of “disaffected” is “discontent and resentful esp. against authority; rebellious.”  Mencken considered himself part of a permanent opposition, always skeptical of whatever agenda the governing class and its lackeys sought to push through. 

Yes, though he was a libertarian, he was no one’s freedom fighter.  As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers cites in her introduction to Notes, Mencken wrote that

If I have accomplished anything in this world it is this: that I have made life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America.  The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless.  I have reason to believe that my books and other writings have given a little comfort to many such persons and even inspired some of them to revolt.  I am glad of the comfort but the revolt doesn’t interest me.

Yes, revolt didn’t interest him, but he spoke out against censorship, what he perceived as injustice, cant, and hypocrisy.  As I said to the reader, unlike most pundits today, he wasn’t a mouthpiece for a political party or social class.  He had a stake in the battles of his time only insofar as he felt one side was right, or at least more tolerable than the other.  He certainly wasn’t an uplifter.  “I am against slavery simply because I dislike slaves,” he quipped.

Mencken didn’t follow anyone’s talking-points memo.  He was an outsider, in the best sense of the word.  And in that regard, he was a dissident.

Most of us think of a dissident as someone fighting for a philanthropic cause.  That’s not necessarily so.  To me at least, a dissident is someone who stands apart from the crowd, and his/her views aren’t don’t have to be along the lines of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”  In the introduction to his 1920 translation of Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, Mencken wrote:

But this combat between proletariat and plutocracy is, after all, a civil war itself.  Two inferiorities struggle for the privilege of polluting the world.  What actual difference does it make to a civilized man, when there is a steel strike, whether the workmen win or the mill-owners win?  The conflict can interest him only as spectacle. . . .  The victory, whichever way it goes, will simply bring chaos nearer, and so set the stage for a genuine revolution later on, with (let us hope) a new feudalism or something better coming out of it, a new Thirteenth Century at dawn.

(For the record, call me a sentimentalist, but I for one will always, always root for the steelworkers, be they of the Eternal Mob or not.)

A “new Thirteenth Century at dawn.”  Not very American, is it?  Like I said, Mencken stood apart, especially from his countrymen.  As Morgan Meis writes in his wonderful review of Notes for the online Smart Set,

Mencken’s Nietzschean metaphysics runs against the American grain. He simply does not think that there are any answers. He refuses to romp into the glorious future. Looking backward, he notes with satisfaction that whatever the ills of medieval society, at least they recognized that “the evils of the world were incurable.” Musing for a moment on the final Day of Judgment that he never actually believed in, Mencken thinks that “the last joke upon man may be that he never learned how to govern himself in a rational and competent manner. ”

Thus, the final secret of Notes on Democracy. It is not actually an attack against democracy as such, but against an Americanism that constantly pats itself on the back and manically proclaims its own unique virtue. Mencken was not excited by the “shining city on the hill” metaphor most recently associated with Ronald Reagan and now repeated ad nauseam from every compass point on the political dial. . . .

His pessimism about the human capacity for self-improvement was an extended slap in the face to the inherently aspirational nature of American thinking. He wanted to inject a fatalism into the American mind and he was willing to inject with force. The saving grace of that fatalism is that, in an explicitly Nietzschean vein, it is a fatalism that says “Yes.” It is a fatalism that wants to participate in the ongoing follies.

For those doubting Meis’ characterization of Mencken as a pessimist in the midst of Yankee positive-thinking, I cite his praise of Joseph Conrad.  The “enigmatical Pole” offers readers illuminating sunshine on the world’s nature, although not the rays of light of “the imbecile, barnyard joy of the human kohlrabi–the official optimism of a steadily delighted and increasingly insane Republic.”

At the risk of splitting hairs and straying from my point, it’s interesting to wonder how far back Mencken yearningly looked back.  As cited above, Mencken speaks of “a new Thirteenth Century.”  A few sentences earlier he writes that “[w]e are in the midst of one of the perennial risings of the lower orders.  It got under way long before any of the current Bolshevist demons was born; it was given its long, secure start by the intolerable tyranny of the of plutocracy–the end product of the Eighteenth Century revolt against the old aristocracy.”  Curiously, 11 years later he wrote that the Eighteenth Century was

the days when human existence, according to my notion, was pleasanter and more spacious than ever before or since.  The Eighteenth Century, of course, had its defects, but they were vastly overshadowed by its merits.  It got rid of religion.  It lifted music to first place among the arts.  It introduced urbanity into manners, and made even war relatively gracious and decent. . . .

The Eighteenth Century dwelling-house has countless rivals today, but it is as far superior to any as the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.

“[A]s the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.”  Again, not very American, is it?  I wonder if there’s a connection between the beginning of old aristocracy’s fall and what Mencken sees as the graciousness of the time.  I believe Nietzsche wrote that late-stage societies, as they become more civilized and decadent, have a kind of luxurious, hedonistic quality to them.  In any case, Mencken looked backward, while his country’s eyes were glued to the future.  That heterodox spirit is a sign of a true dissident.