For all the random wierdos who happen to stumble across this blog: I’ve got a new home, at Anarchy and Culture.
June 23, 2011
August 1, 2010
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. I’m not really up for too much writing tonight, but here’s a really cool live version of Some Kinda Love by the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City. Enjoy.
July 29, 2010
I recently unsubscribed to the Cato Institute’s daily podcast. I’ve never been a big fan of Cato’s Right-Opportunist, Fabian approach to libertarianism, but there is a dearth of libertarian podcasts that analyze what’s going on inside the beltway (except when it comes to foreign policy, where Scott Horton’s Antiwar Radio will have a monopoly on the market for a long time). The main reason I stopped listening was one particular episode which featured a nameless wonk defending Obama’s use of CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan. I nearly broke my iPod. But a secondary reason was that seemingly more than half the episodes since I started listening were about issues related to the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the Constitution. This is to be expected, since this year has so far seen a lot of activity there: the Kagan nomination and important (as far as those things go) decisions on the second amendment and corporate money/free speech (take your pick). I became impatient with Cato’s relatively conservative take on the court, but what finally hit me was how boring I found the whole thing, especially compared with the daily exposure of the truly malevolent shit our government has been up to in the War on Terror. I finally had to admit to myself what I already pretty much knew: I do not care about the Constitution. At best it’s a thin, soft sheath over a vast iron truncheon. I do not care that most people don’t know that torture is unconstitutional, but I am horrified that they approve of its use, and I am unconvinced that correcting the former problem would help with the latter.
The Constitution in American political discourse is usually just a veil for other concerns and interests. Conservatives are most likely to identify as “Constitutionalists” who want to interpret the document “strictly” and according to its “original intent” (an analogy here to the fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic is probably quite apropos), but they do so because they think- rightly in many cases, wrongly in others- that the Constitution conforms to their conservative vision of America. But that doesn’t stop them from disregarding it during wartime (which in our lifetimes means all the time). Libertarians are often highly supportive of the constitution, but really would probably love to scrap everything except the Bill of Rights (addenda forced upon the document by the naysayers in the first place), and if they could design a machine to automatically protect against rights-aggressions they would do so in a heartbeat. Liberals should probably just come out and say they wish for the abolition of the second amendment.
Now I’ve just been going through the archives of the Journal of Libertarian Studies and come across historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s review of Thomas Woods’ (now of Meltdown fame) Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Hummel is quite rightly critical of the book- which I read when it first came out- from its asinine packaging and marketing (admittedly the publisher’s fault and not Tom’s), its glib style, and the barely held-together tension between libertarian, conservative, and neo-confederate sympathies. But most of all Hummel takes Woods to task for his “constitutional fetishism,” a feature far more appropriate to a conservative than a libertarian, even a conservative libertarian. He wonders why a libertarian ought to care about constitutionality per se, since,
The Constitution, rather than representing the culmination of the American Revolution, embodied in fact a reactionary counterrevolution, designed to reverse many of the previous victories of Liberty over Power.
This was precisely the position of Woods’ avowed mentor, Murray Rothbard, who always preferred the Articles of Confederation. The most charitable reading I can give Woods’ book is that he’s trying to win traditionalist conservatives over to a more libertarian position, but the book so effectively muddies the libertarian message that traditionalist conservatives are more likely to think that their position already is libertarian (or, vice versa, that libertarians are or ought to be traditionalist conservatives).
Then Hummel goes on to write probably the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read about the Constitution, with implications far beyond the libertarian political culture:
In the final analysis, there is no absolutely correct interpretation of the Constitution. From the outset, it was a political document, deliberately ambiguous in some clauses to ease its ratification, and contested right from the Philadelphia starting gate in 1787. Since then, competing theories about applying the Constitution have vied for political supremacy. American politicians have invariably embraced whatever constitutional theory fits their policy predilections. Over the two centuries and more the Constitution has been in force, only a mere handful of intellectually consistent statesmen has ever publicly concluded that government activities they favored for other reasons were proscribed under the Constitution. And I include among politicians all judges, because the courts have always been as politicized as the other branches.
An intriguing question is whether American political life could continue in good faith if we all admitted these facts.
July 14, 2010
Harvey Pekar died yesterday at his home in Cleveland. He was 70 years old, and those who have been following his career, or at least saw the movie based on his life, American Splendor, knew that he was diagnosed with cancer years ago. However, it is not yet clear which of his many health problems finally got to him.
Pekar was a fine writer, though largely ignored because he happened to write for the comic-book medium. I first heard of Pekar through his association with his friend and occasional illustrator, the underground comics superstar Robert Crumb. But Pekar’s work could not be more different than Crumb’s surrealistic style. More than anyone else, he showed that the comics can be a subtle yet powerful vehicle for realistic, human stories.
July 4, 2010
Last night I did what I suppose what millions of Americans do for fourth of July: I watched a fireworks show at a local park. I was the designated driver for the evening, and I suppose not being drunk for the occasion had a certain detrimental effect on my enjoyment of the proceedings. I like hot summer evenings, outdoor grilling, and fireworks as much as the next guy, but I do not know what they have to do with America, or freedom, or anything other than a good time and a day off from work. I suppose fireworks are meant to remind us of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and other such warlike imagery which, we are taught from a young age, are central to our national sentiment. One thing I don’t like is the flyovers by fighter jets and bombers which accompany the show. These remind me that the military is everywhere. They give me a tight feeling in my chest, an anxiety that is the opposite of a feeling of freedom.
Patriotism, even the kind which recognizes a difference between State and Nation, is usually anathema to anarchists (Emma Goldman, for instance), but I don’t think this need be the case. I’d like to quote extensively from an essay by the great English writer G.K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism.” He considered himself a true patriot and was indignant that patriotism was becoming identified in his country with the warlike spirit, or what he calls a “deaf and raucous jingoism.” His words can be neatly transposed to our own country’s situation as well:
On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.
. . .
We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England, which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to us to have none of the marks of patriotism–at least, of patriotism in its highest form? . . . We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not knowing our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in the history of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among the foremost in that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows do not slay, but create. In painting and music we are inferior to many other nations; but in literature, science, philosophy, and political eloquence, if history be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with any. But all this vast heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our schoolboys like a heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull and infantile type of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. There is no harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect children to be equally delighted with a beautiful box of tin philanthropists. But there is great harm in the fact that the subtler and more civilized honour of England is not presented so as to keep pace with the expanding mind. A French boy is taught the glory of Moliere as well as that of Turenne; a German boy is taught his own great national philosophy before he learns the philosophy of antiquity. The result is that, though French patriotism is often crazy and boastful, though German patriotism is often isolated and pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull, common, and brutal, as is so often the strange fate of the nation of Bacon and Locke. It is natural enough, and even righteous enough, under the circumstances. An Englishman must love England for something; consequently, he tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a German might tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting, because he really believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It would not be in the least extraordinary if a claim of eating up provinces and pulling down princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The extraordinary thing is, that it is the chief boast of a people who have Shakespeare, Newton, Burke, and Darwin to boast of.
America cannot look back on a long and deep tradition of high culture and intellectual distinction (though we have recently produced some of the finest world literature, from Whitman and Dickinson to Faulkner and Stevens), as England and the European nations can. But it has a far more glorious tradition of libertarianism, and it is this tradition which is forgotten, largely by the design of our education. It is therefore a shame that the nation of Jefferson and Paine, of the Whiskey Rebellion and the spirit of ’76, of a long long train of religious dissidents and individualist anarchists, has as its best avatar of the soul Dick Cheney.
I recommend as devotional readings for the anarchist patriot the following: “Anarchism and American Traditions” by Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in America,” and “Was the American Revolution Radical?” (an audio excerpt from the multi-volume history Conceived in Liberty) by Murray N. Rothbard.
P.S.- I was looking for some American flag pictures to accompany this post, but I found it too stomach-turning. Enough with the damn flag already. The less American citizens care about actual freedom or any of the worthwhile traditions of this country (like say, the Bill of Rights), the more they care about worthless symbols like the flag. I am reminded of a witty aside by literary critic Harold Bloom in one of his best books, The American Religion: “Creationism, I am now convinced, is only secondarily directed against the ghost of Charles Darwin. It is directed instead against all those who might deny that the Bible is a vast solid object, like a cliff or a First Baptist Church in a Texas city.” Similarly, American patriotism, 99 times out of a hundred, is only secondarily directed against those who hate America. It is instead a fierce defense of the American flag as a concrete object as it waves in arrogant victory over the cowed foreigner and the awestruck citizen, its stripes licking the sky like tongues of flame, its stars seeming like an explosion of sparks, the kind often seen when one has been punched squarely in the nose.
June 27, 2010
It’s been known for a long time that in his pre-Velvet Underground days Lou Reed worked as a staff songwriter for a small label called Pickwick records and recorded a number of conventional (at least by the standards of the book as VU later rewrote it) rock and roll ditties, including an infamous novelty dance song (or parody of a novelty dance song) called “The Ostrich,” for which Lou tuned all of the strings of his guitar to the same note, hence the potential for feedback and drone effects, hence “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music and all the craziness that came later. But first, there were songs like Your Love, now available courtesy of the Norton Records compilation All Tomorrow’s Dance Parties.
June 23, 2010
I’ve been reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to Radical Capitalism. The book is somewhat dated, and flawed in a number of ways, not the least of which is the title, which summarizes his whole economistic approach to liberty. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile, and I would recommend it to non-capitalist libertarians, just as I would recommend Proudhon and Kropotkin to capitalist ones, and I believe I shall do so now, since checking Friedman’s blog I see that it has just been made available as a pdf. (My own copy comes courtesy of the University of Utah library.)
“To discover the unknown is not a prerogative Sinbad, or Eric the Red, or of Copernicus. Each and every man is a discoverer. He begins by discovering bitterness, saltiness, concavity, smoothness, harshness, the seven colors of the rainbow and the twenty-some letters of the alphabet; he goes on to visages, maps, animals and stars. He ends with doubt, or with faith, and the almost total certainty of his own ignorance.”
-Jorge-Luis Borges, Atlas
“The person who says, as almost everyone does say, that human life is of infinite value, not to be measured in mere material terms, is talking palpable, if popular, nonsense. If he believed that of his own life, he would never cross the street, save to visit his doctor or to earn money for things necessary to physical survival. He would eat the cheapest, most nutritious food he could find and live in one small room, saving his income for frequent visits to the best possible doctors. He would take no risks, consume no luxuries, and life a long life. If you call it living.”
-David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom
. . . the government of Israel does not like the kinds of things I say — which puts them into the category of I suppose every other government in the world.
I may be premature or overly optimistic, but I think that we’ve reached some kind of turning point in American public opinion regarding Israel in the wake of the Gaza aid flotilla debacle. Our policy of blindly supporting Israel whatever they do, at whatever cost (monetary or political) is one of the greatest barriers to peace in our time, and such a policy seems more ludicrous the more heavy-handed Israel’s tactics become. When the Israeli state’s (I must repeat, with emphasis, “State,”not people) only supporters in America are the Christian Right and Democratic party leaders with a clear vested interest in keeping the Israel lobby happy, then we might see some change.
Here’s a round-up, with some comments, of articles I’ve recently read on the subject.
“Israel’s Feeling of Isolation is Becoming More Pronounced” (from The Washington Post): If Israel is very much like America, and a taste for indie rock is a pretty good indicator of liberal political beliefs, then concert cancellations by “Elvis Costello, The Pixies, and indie folk singer Devandra Banhart” should breed some internal resentment (in addition to, you know, the murdered aid deliverers).
“Desegregation in the Holy Land” by Richard Spencer, from Alternative Right: This is not really about the Gaza situation, but it points out that relations with Arabs aren’t the only race problem Israel faces. Coming from a right-wing perspective, of course Spencer points out the hypocrisy of this, given the fact that Jews have been in the vanguard of civil rights movements in America. But what he fails to address is this: in every case of hypocrisy, the question is in which direction should it resolve into consistency- start practicing what you preach, or start preaching what you practice? Spencer’s fellow “white nationalists” clearly prefer the latter, the former is always possible and usually preferable. This leads me to a fascinating article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, which shows clearly that there is something of a generation gap between young Jewish liberals in America and their parents or grandparents when it comes to attitudes about Israel. Faced with a choice between liberal democratic values and support of Israel, young Jews will decidedly opt for the former. Or as Beinart puts it:
For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
Beinart characterizes this situation as a “failure of the American Jewish establishment,” that is, a failure to offer an alternative “liberal Zionism.” Whatever, the reason, it is an important part of the change in public opinion I am sensing.
Michael Chabon, the Jewish-American novelist, (author of several novels I’ve been meaning to get around to reading), is a bit older than the demographic Beinart discusses, but his embarrassed reaction to the news of the aid flotilla attack in the New York Times is probably somewhat typical. He muses about the discrepancy between famed Jewish intelligence and Israel’s “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Had he read Kevin Carson’s book on Organization Theory, he would have no cause for wonder: a given organizational system (in this case a militarized state) may be stupid, even if the people who make it up are not. It is no accident that “military intelligence” is widely regarded as an oxymoron. But I wonder if Chabon is not evading the real issue by focusing on the stupidity of Israeli actions, which is of course that they are highly immoral. As a parallel, I suggest that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is one of the stupidest acts the American government has ever done, but that is nothing compared to how immoral it was. One of my main problems with liberal critics of the war is that they have been obsessed with how “badly handled” it was (the unspoken subtext being that a high-I.Q. Democratic administration would have fared better), which distracts from the fact that it should not have ever happened in the first place. Bad management does not bring people to the barricades. Fighting brutality and oppression, that is to say, fighting evil, does.
P.S.- It’s stupid that I should even have to address this, but let me clear up a few things: 1. I am not Jewish, but even if I was, that fact alone doesn’t seem to keep you safe from the charge of anti-Semitism these days (nor, apparently, does it even give you a right to visit Israel). 2. Not only am I not anti-Semitic, I would even say that I am pro-Semitic, though I would point out that Arabs are Semites too. 3. Do I think that the State of Israel should not exist. Of course! I am an anarchist: I think no State should exist. States do not have a right to exist- people do, and both Jews and Arabs, in the Middle East as elsewhere, can claim the same right.
June 20, 2010
Happy Father’s day, Daddy-O!
When I Paint My Masterpiece is a song written by Bob Dylan, and wonderfully performed by The Band. I have to confess a supreme ignorance of The Band, beyond their association with Dylan and their big hit “The Weight,” but many fellow rock snobs are very enthusiastic about them. (I’ve not even seen the famed concert film The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, and I’m a big Scorsese fan.) The Band’s version of this song was brought to the attention by the movie Observe and Report, a comedy with Seth Rogen playing a disturbed Mall Security guard. In my interpretation of Dylan’s impressionistic lyrics, the singer of the song has never been to Europe, but has as rich an inner fantasy life as Rogen’s character, and imagines himself changing the world and his own sordid and pathetic life by creating an artwork to rival the European masters of old. My favorite line is “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” It’s a pop-art effect (Dylan, with his roots in the folk scene, is underappreciated as a pop-artist) and stands the European fantasy on its head.