Bound for Destruction on the Queen Mary

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During the last weekend in April I attended the second annual meeting of StokerCon.

Before you ask what StokerCon may be, I have to confess that I didn’t “attend” in the sense of “pay to attend” or “sit through any of the sessions.” I attended only as a person who suddenly discovered that StokerCon was going on all around him.

It began when my friend and I checked into our cabin on the liner Queen Mary — the Queen Mary that has, since 1967, been tied to a dock in Long Beach, California. It’s a fascinating vessel, and the idea that you can rent a room on it is marvelous in itself. But my subject is not the QM. It’s the mob of people in black t-shirts and black and red badges that we encountered in the ship’s lobbies and corridors, a crowd that was growing when we arrived on Thursday, swarmed on Friday, and did not depart until late Sunday afternoon.

Contemplating the convention’s logo, I looked at my friend with a wild surmise.

You don’t pay much to attend a StokerCon — you can get by with as little as $99 for (early) registration and, I think, $119 a night for your room — and you evidently get your money’s worth. There are lectures, receptions, product displays, and constant opportunities to meet and mingle with like-minded people. The whole ship was involved in the life of the group.

But what, you insist on asking, is StokerCon?

My friend and I had various ideas about that. Was there a railway union that still called itself the Stokers, just as the Teamsters still call themselves the Teamsters? Was this a convention designed not for people who prepare food but for people who stoke up on it? (A lot of the attendees were, indeed, very hefty.) Or were we meeting the constant players of some videogame we’d never heard of?

At last came the light. Contemplating the convention’s logo — a stylized, perhaps intentionally spooky, version of a house or castle — I looked at my friend with a wild surmise. The Con got its name from a man named Stoker — Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Con was about horror fiction.

I was right. According to itself (and I have no reason to disagree) “StokerCon is the annual convention of The Horror Writers Association (HWA), the premier organization of writers and publishers of horror and dark fantasy.”

In addition to sessions on such topics as “The Nuts and Bolts of Publishing Your Own Comic,” “Unraveling the Dark, Mysterious, Twisted World of Online Marketing,” and ”How to Write Awesome Dialog,” StokerCon offered parties, book sales even larger than those at libertarian conventions, and readings by a ton of authors (none of them known to my friend or me). All about the production of Horror. And all proof that Adam Smith was right about the division of labor.

One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright.

The crowd was evenly split, male-female, with all ethnicities represented; and there were fair numbers of black women, though for some reason no black men (as far as we could see). Plenty of tattoos and strange millennial hair, but a good representation of retired people and folks who looked like librarians. In fact, there was a strong emphasis on libraries and librarians throughout. A few Stokers came dressed as stock horror characters — Death with a Scythe was my favorite — but I don’t think they kept it up during the entire event; even Death took a holiday. Looking for some common feature of the group, my friend said “strident voices,” and it was true that many, including librarians, had never mastered the indoor range of decibels. But that’s how we learned a lot, without paying any cash.

One thing we learned is that “universities” throughout the English-speaking world are cashing in on the evidently widespread desire to write horror fiction. If you want to do that, you will have no trouble finding classes, evening classes, summer classes, and online classes in the art of scaring people. One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright. Clearly, few of the people who shipped on the Queen Mary that weekend were burdened with extra funds; I’d put the average annual income at $55K, and the median income from literary sources at a straight $55. And from one point of view, that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of genre fiction — detective, romance, western, horror, whatever — is and always has been junk. As a matter of fact, most fiction has always been junk. The more Stokers there are — the more writers there are — the more junk is going to be produced.

But here’s the thing. The feature of this group that was even more common than strident voices — the feature that was, indeed, universal — turned out to be happiness. Moods ranged from smiling contentment to shrieking hilarity, but there were no unhappy ghouls or goblins.

A good time was had by all, except people like my friend and me, who were always getting trapped in some public space with mobs of intrusively cheerful people. Yet when Sunday night rolled around, and we were sitting in the bar by ourselves, we sort of missed the Stokers. They didn’t leave us desolate, but they left us with a little less to talk about. A little less to have fun with. They were . . . something. They were not nothing. As much as I dislike the fact that everyone in America now describes himself as a member of some “community,” these people had actually created a community for themselves, and they were enjoying it, and they were doing no damage to other people (beyond the occasional shattered eardrum). And if that isn’t good for America, I don’t know what is.




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Will Libertarians Ever Sing Kumbaya?

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I keep hearing about the “libertarian moment.” And I do believe we’re inching toward one — although we’re not there yet. I’m hoping that when it does arrive, our moment will be beautiful to behold. But will it sound beautiful? So far, we’re making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

On Facebook, I belong to several libertarian groups — part of the lively cross-section of America that the social media serve. These are contentious times, and this election year has been a bloody mess. Sensible souls (most of whom probably stay away from Facebook) might imagine that within groups dedicated to one particular point of view, the discourse is relatively harmonious. That would be sensible, but as far as libertarian groups are concerned it certainly isn’t true.

A lot of the members of these online groups heartily hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats all the time. Of course we’re an independent bunch, and our individualism makes us obstreperous. But I must admit that I come away from some Facebook encounters — as well as any number of those that happen face-to-face — quite shaken. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So far, libertarians are making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

More and more people are joining our ranks. Of course that’s a welcome development. But too many of them are permitting the sicknesses that swarm through statist politics to infect the liberty movement. Our new converts are bringing these contagions in with them.

Confusion abounds about what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that matters that legitimately concern government should be politicized, while those that government should stay completely out of should not. Either this distinction isn’t being explained to inquirers, or they’re woefully slow to grasp it.

If something shouldn’t be politicized, then why are we squabbling about it? We ought to let all comers into our treehouse, as long as they uphold libertarian ideals. I stopped worrying about cooties many years ago. And I tend to resent my time being wasted by disputes over who belongs at which table in the cafeteria.

On one of the libertarian Facebook pages, a couple of days before I began this essay, someone posted a screed ridiculing belief in God. Why was that posted there? Are there no atheist groups? The unmistakable implication was that all libertarians are — or should be — atheists.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are.

I happen to be a libertarian primarily because I’m a Christian, and it’s the political philosophy I believe comes closest to the way Christ taught his followers to live. Now, if I believed that this meant the United States should be turned into a theocracy, I can see why other libertarians would have a problem with it. But then again, if I did believe such a thing, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are. Those invested in seeing themselves (or being seen) as strong and tough-minded, or as godly, patriotic, and upright, usually become Republicans. They love to strut and crow about their “conservatism.” And would-be sophisticates, itching to join the society of the intellectual, the revolutionary, or the cool, gravitate toward the Democratic Party and bloviate endlessly about “progressivism,” “compassion,” and “social justice.”

If these were simply their opinions about themselves, such fancies would be relatively harmless. There is nothing particularly wrong with being any of these things, or at least of trying to be. But they are opinions. They are not fully-fleshed identities. Nor are they necessarily convictions that grow out of confident self-knowledge.

Now this sort of middle-school preening is making its way into the liberty movement. We’re all supposed to care who’s too smart to believe in God, who’s more compassionate toward the downtrodden than everybody else, who thinks all women should be housewives and who thinks homosexuality is a sin. It’s like listening to 12-year-olds brag about being asked to the dance or making the basketball team. As long as these matters aren’t forced to become their problem, well-adjusted adults aren’t going to give a damn.

It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like.

I don’t believe that any law should force bakers to make my wedding cake. Some right-tilting libertarians are so disappointed when they hear this that they refuse to believe it. The switch is flipped on when they hear that I’m gay, and they’re so intent on proving whatever point they feel compelled to prove that there’s no way to turn it off again. It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like. The Republicans and the Democrats have decided that, as a popular Facebook meme puts it, they “don’t want to ‘adult’ today” — which might explain why both parties’ membership rolls are shrinking.

One of the things I love best about libertarians is that most of us enjoy being individuals. When we come together, I meet gay Christians, pro-life atheists, gun-toting pacifists, and recovering alcoholics who’d never touch weed but wholeheartedly support its legalization. Nobody consents to being crammed into a pigeonhole and conveniently labeled. Each of us can be gloriously ourselves. Why would we want it any other way?

By all means, let’s keep on coming together. Maybe, instead of a symphony orchestra, we’re more like a rowdy and exuberant jazz band. We each feel free to improvise; you strut our stuff and I strut mine. Yet on the all-important central theme we cangel. Together, we can make beautiful music. As long as we remember the song.




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An Amish Funeral

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R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, loved the unusual features of America and its people, and always sought articles about them. When he didn’t find good articles, he wrote them himself. Liberty has always been especially interested in the variety of communities Americans have created. As Isabel Paterson observed, even “closed communities” can succeed in America, because they are embedded in an open society. Paul Hochstetler is a descendant of an Amish community. He presents an inside-outside view of a place and a people in northern Indiana, observed when he took his 91-year-old father to the funeral of his father's sister-in-law.

— Stephen Cox

“Sis kalt du-miha,” said the man as he and his two small sons sat on the bench next to me. In my brain began the 1-2-3 count as I processed this statement. Then, recognizing the meaning ("It's cold this morning") and breaking the flow of Deitch, I agreed, and indicated that was why I was still wearing my hoodie. Though it was dark blue and I was wearing a white shirt (heavy, not dress) and black jeans, the clothing still looked a bit too flashy — too Anglish.

That wasn’t the first Deitch addressed to me that morning. One of Uncle Lonnie’s boys greeted me with “Hochstetla” as he shook my hand. I thought of Number Two at work who often barks out a last name as a greeting. Or was he playfully introducing himself? Perhaps he was identifying me as “one of them.” I thoughtfully raised my finger to my cheek as I replied in Deitch, “I believe I am.”

Roads that day were much clearer than I had anticipated. Still, getting there had adventure potential. Service begins at 9:00 a.m. on January 3, at Herman Miller’s, I was told. Yet, the location was a mystery even as my father and Iset out at 7:20 for the funeral of Aunt Katie.

Visions of crisscrossing LaGrange County roads appeared before me. We’d stop at every house that looked funereal, eventually staggering in ten or 20 minutes late. But Dad had his plan . . . revealed as we drove. Go to where Willis and Katie, my aunt and uncle,had lived (at a son’s home) and see if anything can be learned there.

The plan’s flaw was that he couldn’t remember exactly which road east of LaGrange led to this home. So we went several miles too far and zigzagged our way back in the bright morning sun. Soon we saw a buggy and assumed it was headed where we wanted to go. We passed it, and over a hill was another buggy. Dad suggested hailing them, but their side curtains were tightly drawn against the cold.

Then a van came down a crossroad — probably an Amish-transporter. We were not surprised because there are many who make money by taking groups of Amish to reunions and funerals. Many cross state lines with their cargo. He turned in our direction, so we stopped him. Yes, we were very close. In fact, the house was about one-quarter mile from the Hochstetler place we had originally sought.

When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir.

The service began at 9:30 and this was not the Herman Miller place. The (apparently added-to) shed used for the funeral had three rooms and a cement floor. Scattered about were several radiant heater discs attached to propane tanks. A large tent had been erected next to the shed area (how did they get those stakes pounded into the frozen ground?), but the tent was not used for the funeral. Perhaps it was part of the viewing that had begun on New Year’s afternoon. Surely not overflow, because anyone in there would not have been able to watch and listen through closed-circuit TV. A port-a-potty was outside and I was reminded of an outhouse.

Dad was seated next to Aunt Ellen in the siblings’ area near a stove. People continued arriving and the rooms became warm enough. A group of teenaged Amish boys slid into the row behind me at about 9:25. I wondered if they had been outside being young or perhaps helping with the incoming horses and buggies. The last two rows in “our” room were filled with what was later revealed to be the male choir.

The first preacher stood, beginning tentatively but becoming stronger. His style made me think of a chant. Not a lulling chant, but more of a harangue. It clearly was not his conversational voice. Uncharitably, a passage from Elmer Gantry sprang to mind: “What a rotten pulpit voice the poor duck has.”

He spoke for 35 minutes, and the next man — much easier to listen to — went on for 50. Of course, only the occasional word or phrase was recognizable, along with several Bible stories.

Suddenly there was a swooshing of clothes and scraping of feet and benches as all rose, knelt, and flung themselves across the benches for a prayer. I reacted as quickly as I could. After that there must have been a scripture reading, because twice everyone genuflected (“at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”). This too took me by surprise, because I didn’t properly hear the words. (I also remembered that at the funeral of Aunt Ellen’s husband, Dad was next to me and when the appropriate moment came, he placed his knee behind mine to make me “go down.”)

It was during this reading that all the women on our side turned around. I didn’t see it happen on the other side (and the third, smaller room was completely out of sight) but Ellen seems to think it did. Some inquiries did not yield a definite answer about this practice but two persons thought it dated back to early Anabaptist gatherings in Europe when it was important to watch for persecutors. The second preacher said that was probably why, but (and this seemed the compelling reason), “we’ve always done it this way.”

The minister continued with a reading of the obituary (“gross-kinna”), and the “undertaker” removed the top portion of the lid. That was the signal for all to file past. When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir. It was a four-line song (I was later told the last two lines were the same on every verse). At the end of the verse, without a break, the next phrase was soloed, followed by the entry of the choir.

They sang while the rest of the gathered made their pilgrimage. Then the undertaker came to their row and gave a sign (though not the dramatic finger across the throat that I anticipated), and they stopped at the end of the verse. The family had their final viewing, the lid was replaced, wraps were brought to the family, the pallbearers picked up the casket, and the service was over.

Dad went to the cemetery in a van — red with a front license plate proclaiming “Mama’s Fire Truck.” This was another van which had been used to carry Amish to the funeral.He told me later that a tent had been erected that reduced the wind, but there was a bit of a battle to loosen the frozen top of the dirt when they were refilling the grave.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits.

Immediately after the departure of the Amish hearse (a two-seat buggy with an extension on back for carrying the casket), tables replaced the benches in the smaller room and the food was arranged on both sides of the tables. This setup became the dual assembly line as each woman filled a compartment of a Styrofoam tray and passed it forward for the eventual recipient.

I’d like to say, quoting Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “O the pudding,” but there was none. It was the standard Amish funeral starch festival: white bread bologna sandwich (lightly coated with mayo or, more likely, sandwich spread), a slice of cheese on the side, a cup of chicken and noodles, potato salad, a hunk of jello with fruit cocktail, and a cupcake. Still, very good on a cold day.

I told Dad not to be rushed and stay as long as he liked. Meanwhile, I wandered around and talked to a few people — most of whom began with the question, “Are you Paul”? I also re-met Paul Hochstetler — one of Uncle Omer’s sons and was reminded of how Uncle Omer copycatted Mom and Dad with the names Lamar and Paul for his kids.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits. Two other impressions: too many women looked stoop-shouldered at an early age and too many men had bad teeth. But whatever else one thinks, they do have a strong community.




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Imagined Community

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Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho




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It Takes a Colony

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True Community

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When Americans think of “community,” they imagine warm and snuggly things. The word conjures a host of wholesome associations. It reminds us of neighbors sharing loaves of home-baked bread, of children playing in a safe backyard, of grownups meeting face to face to solve problems with good, old-fashioned common sense. The term sounds very Currier and Ives. Until we step back and take a good, hard look at those who use it.

These days, it’s thrown around by people who seem uninterested in grownups solving their own problems. A more honest term for how we’re seen would probably be “herd.” It seems calculated to keep us bunched together too closely to remember that we are individuals. It’s the way our teachers used to speak to us in the third grade. If you put Currier and Ives into a blender with Lyndon B. Johnson and Mister Rogers, this is likely what you’d get.

We elected a president who touted his experience as a “community organizer.” He stands at the podium and lectures us about what’s best for us, as if we lacked the sense to figure that out for ourselves. The impression that unmistakably comes across is that he thought he was far smarter than any of those dolts in the “communities” he organized. And that as president, he is certain the voters are so stupid we don’t see that his own reelection — his glorious little career — is factored into every move he makes.

Recently, I bought a new computer. I’ve been very happy with it, because it does a lot of wonderful, whiz-bang things. But I am unfamiliar with some of its programs. I had a screenplay to write — something I hadn’t done since college — and I couldn’t figure out how to set up my document in the proper format.

I managed to figure it out by myself, except for one crucial detail. Geek Squad wouldn’t simply answer my question, but they’d access my system from headquarters and fix the problem themselves — for 60 bucks. I threw it out to some online groups, and kept getting people who would gladly give me an answer — in exchange for my credit card number. From “the community,” I must admit, I wasn’t feeling much love.

Are our government-anointed “community organizers” right? I began to wonder. Have we lost the capacity to solve even the simplest of problems without their guidance? A whole industry has arisen to do for us, for money, what we know in our guts we should be able to do for ourselves — or at least with the help of somebody who won’t charge us for it.

People resent this, but their resentment is often exploited by those who don’t believe in private industry. Devotees of the government collective cluck their tongues about the hucksters out there who’ll take our money to answer questions with which they might help us for free. But are they to blame for wanting payment because we lack the imagination to look for solutions we don’t have to pay for? If our stupidity and helplessness keeps a roof over their heads, is that their fault or ours?

Refusing to give up too easily, I went to the meeting of a group to which I belong — one of those voluntary associations we’re forever being told no longer exist. I asked my question to some friends before the meeting, and within minutes somebody provided an answer. Afterwards I went home, tried it out, and it worked. And I was not one penny poorer.

Community — the real deal — still exists. If we’re willing to trust it. What that means is that we must remember how to trust each other. The real community is us, not an organizing "leader." But we can only trust each other if we dare to trust ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be treated like sheep, we are ripe for plunder by wolves.

The best ideas still come, not from any central committee of self-appointed smarties, but from our friends, our neighbors, sometimes even our children, and ourselves. A little bit of resourcefulness, of self-reliance, of trust in the everyday folks we know, can save us a lot of cash. In the long run, it may save our freedom.

And here's an important point: those in government who claim they will solve our problems for us will not do it for free. That is always the assumption, when they insist on helping us. But it's never true. We will pay for everything we get — and often for things we don't get — in money, time, inconvenience, and anger. And it increasingly looks as if the price they’re demanding is our very souls.




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Update on Laissez-Faire Books

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The January-February 2008 issue of Liberty ran my account of Laissez Faire Books, entitled “Laissez Faire: RIP?” When I began working on the story the previous October, the longtime mail-order service appeared to be in the coffin; but by the time I had it in to Editor Stephen Cox, the business had been rescued by the International Society for Individual Liberty.

Last October, the Society closed the sale of LFB to a financial newsletter company, Agora Financial LLC, which moved LFB’s inventory from Arizona to its offices in Baltimore.

Agora’s owner, Bill Bonner, runs a longtime business serving hard-money clients. He has been blogging at dailyreckoning.com since 1999 with his colleague Addison Wiggin, and, with Wiggin, is co-author of the books Financial Reckoning Day, Financial Reckoning Day Fallout, and Empire of Debt. His most recent book is Mobs, Markets and Messiahs, co-authored with Lil Rajiva. Bonner has written extensively for LewRockwell.com.

I recently spoke with Bonner’s manager for LFB, Doug Hill. He said that Bonner is most interested in economics-oriented books “with a takeaway for investors,” but that the company will make an effort “to carry a lot of the titles that are expected of a libertarian bookstore.”

He said they know they have to compete with Amazon, and they hope to sell some books at prices lower than Amazon’s. Agora’s specialty is direct mail, he said, and “this is the first bookstore we’ve run.”

He said he expects to put together a libertarian board to advise on the selection of books, and to run book reviews. He said LFB will test the use of a printed catalog.




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