The Case for Gary Johnson

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

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I’ve always associated the name Gary with a regular guy. Perhaps that’s because one of my favorite old-time movie stars is Gary Cooper — the epitome of a regular guy. My favorite among his many roles was Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Even as an extraordinary guy, Gary Cooper still managed to be regular.

Gary Johnson also manages — with breezy ease — to be both regular and extraordinary. Any man who contends for the presidency must be extraordinary in some sense. Yet Governor Johnson has always remained one of the common folks. He isn’t the type who inspires the Beatlemania that still possesses fans of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. He has a way of quietly inspiring trust.

If we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country.

Young people’s devotion to Ron Paul did reach the level of Beatlemania. But Governor Johnson is certainly catching on with millennials. They’re young enough, and fresh enough, to recognize the mentality of “I can’t vote for somebody who can’t win” for the brain fungus that it really is. All — and I mean literally all — it would take for Gary Johnson to be elected would be for that delusion to end and the many millions it has infected to come to their senses and recognize that absolutely nothing stops them from voting for him, and that if they do vote for him, he will win.

We know that government can’t really change much — at least not for the better — no matter who holds office. But if we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country. Gary keeps telling us that we can vote for whomever we want — and that if enough of us do that, we can foil the plans of our would-be rulers. In 21st-century America, that in itself is a revolutionary message.

The growing support for Gary Johnson’s candidacy is a sign that we’re flexing our muscles. That we recognize — however flabby we’ve gotten — that we haven’t lost them. And that if we fail to use those muscles, we will lose everything that matters to us.

In an unprecedentedly blatant way, our self-appointed betters are telling us simply to like it or lump it. We are coming to the realization that we want to do neither, that a choice between them is no real choice at all.

Johnson is helping us to see that running the country is our job — and his job is to get out of our way so that we can do it.

The American Revolution led not only to a change in who would run our lives but to a shift in our perspective. However unpleasant this election year may be, it gives us that same potential. It has existed all along, but we needed to recognize it anew. Like Rip Van Winkle, or the characters in some episode of The Twilight Zone, we are awakening to the reality of what surrounds us.

Gary Johnson’s candidacy reminds us that we do have a real choice, even in an election year as distasteful as this one. He isn’t going to lead us out of all our troubles, but he alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t claim that he will. He’s telling us, in fact, that no candidate for public office can do for us what we need to do for ourselves. He understands his role as helping us to see that running the country is our job — and as getting out of our way so that we can do it.

Some of the stuff he’s been saying doesn’t sound very libertarian. He wants the US to remain in the UN (and I think it’s imperative to our survival as a sovereign nation that we leave it). Far from making it more likely that I’ll vote for him because he thinks anti-gay bakers should be required by law to make my wedding cake, such pandering actually insults me. I vehemently disagree with him that Planned Parenthood should receive any taxpayer-funding. And disarming people with mental health issues — people who are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators — is a notion I find not only bigoted but disgusting.

Can I live with a president who says such things? As long as he is just a president, and not an emperor or a king, then the answer is yes. He alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty. We don’t need to worry that every dumb notion that pops into his head will automatically be forced upon the rest of us. Given the other candidates’ statist ambitions, their stupid ideas would almost certainly end up being not only their problem, but ours.

Even libertarians can get fooled into looking at an election through a statist lens. It’s not about power: about who gets elected, or even about what he or she promises to do. It’s about us. We get fixated, along with everyone else, on how much money a candidate has in the “war chest” — as if that is what determines the outcome — but nothing has changed the fact that we are still the ones who mark our ballots for the candidate of our choice. The power is still vested in us.

Gary Johnson alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty.

“Yes sir,” declared Gary Cooper in another of his movies, Meet John Doe, “we’ve been in there dodging left hooks since before History began to walk. In our struggle for freedom, we’ve hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we’re the people — and we’re tough.”

Gary Johnson is beckoning us up from the canvas once again. I, for one, fully intend to rise, take my stand, and fight.




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Why the West Went Ahead of the Rest

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What makes societies poor and what makes them rich? What makes a certain society accumulate wealth, create complex social relationships and productive institutions, minimize conflicts, and build a creative, happy population? On the other hand, what makes a society either fail to produce a surplus or quickly dissipate it or misuse it for self-destructive purposes, leaving the populace in chronic conflict and wretchedness?

For reasons unfathomable to an external, rational observer, many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence. The observer may keep saying that all such a society needs is a few minor institutional adjustments — in education, law, democracy, free-market economics, or property rights — and it will be on a rapid upward path. To his dismay, this proves impossible. If the expected institutional adjustments are made, the situation often gets worse and, ironically, the people’s predicament becomes even more institutionalized.

Considering the various reasons why European civilization went so far ahead of the rest is perhaps the best way to isolate the ingredients that make for a successful civilization. This isn’t, however, an easy task.

Guns, germs, steel, and six killer applications

In Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond says that environmental differences — not intellectual, moral, or genetic ones — created certain opportunities and necessities for social evolution that led to the superiority of the West. Westerners were early in settling down to an agrarian economy, perhaps because they had more access than other peoples to suitable plants and animals. Agriculture created food surpluses, freeing some people for activities other than mere sustenance. Specialization allowed them to build different competencies — guns, steel, and tools — thus amplifying positive feedback loops. The large Eurasian landmass allowed them to exchange innovations. Access to better domesticated animals gave Westerners advantages in farming, and then in warfare and transportation. The close proximity of humans and animals gradually increased humans’ resistance to germs, giving them huge unexpected advantages in overseas adventures. By themselves, these are small matters, but over centuries, compounding with positive feedbacks, they put the West well ahead of the rest. That is Diamond’s argument.

Many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence.

Taking a different perspective — and not necessarily contradicting Diamond — another author, Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, argues that beginning in the 15th century, a few small parts of the western end of Europe developed six powerful new concepts or what he calls “killer applications”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These “applications” allowed western Europe to surge past all competitors in the East. According to Ferguson, economic competition and political fragmentation fostered capitalism and innovation, both between and within states. Property-owning democracy gave landowners a voice in government. Modern medicine cured diseases and prolonged lives. An industrial revolution, supported by a work ethic and a savings ethic, provided mass-produced goods and sustained innovations. Together, the “killer applications” made the West the preeminent civilization. The contrast between the West and the Rest is evident in many historical examples. While, for instance, Prussia separated church and state and encouraged education based on scientific enquiry, creating a predilection for open enquiry and a scientific attitude, immediately to the east of Prussia religious laws forbade the study of science.

Diamond identifies a plausible, geographical cause of the greatness of the West, while Ferguson makes no attempt to show why the killer applications originated and sustained themselves in that part of the world and not others. But let us move forward in history. All the ingredients that the two authors mention — guns, steel, and the killer applications — have been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries. Given increasingly easier movement and transportation, environmental limitations of the weaker societies should not have been too material. So why did the others fail? Why are so many societies still stuck in low and middle income traps? Japan is the rare large non-Western society that has broken the income trap, but even there cultural oppression is still the norm. Why has even the West started to falter?

I believe that the two authors, despite being mostly correct at certain levels, have not found the root cause of what made the West great. Ferguson does not even make the attempt. Diamond tries, but was likely blocked by political correctness, for he seems disinclined to explore moral or intellectual differences. As a result, he takes an exclusively materialist position. The Eurasian landmass is vast, and many different societies developed within it, with very different levels of sophistication. In what looks like post facto rationalization, Diamond fails to confront what would have been environmental opportunities for non-Western societies — warmer weather, for example — if they had been adequately exploited, as they have not been in many countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might even counterargue that it is hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Of course, my interest is not to criticize societies as such, but to look for the magic potion some have missed.

Steel and the killer applications: they didn’t work in the Rest

In Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone machetes (remember, “steel”) have been used to kill millions of people. Similar is the case of Soviet Russia, and Cambodia, where as much as 25% of the population was butchered efficiently, by the use of guns. In Mao’s China, love for steel was the jumping-off place for the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine that killed perhaps 50 million people, destroying capital built up over centuries.

It may even be hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Having fecklessly copied Western forms of governments, these people competed fiercely for political power, routinely expunging their opponents or sending them off to gulags. Later, when the Russian state officially reduced its influence in the economy, what people got were oligopolies. The state gave way, but the free market failed to assert itself. Contrary to popular belief in the West, backward societies have enthusiastically adopted Western legal and educational systems, as well as democracy. But this has usually provided a mere facade of sophistication imposed on tribal instincts and a strong belief in might-as-right.

In India, technology — operating through the internet — has been very effectively used to increase a belief in magic and fairies. When I was growing up, we were shy about discussing astrology and in admitting that we followed a ritualistic religion. Today, revisionism has been so outrageous that a large section of Indian society, particularly the so-called educated class, believes that India had spaceships and ultra-high technology thousands of years ago. Last year, one of the headlines in India’s national media was about the archeological department digging up an area to look for buried gold. What made anyone believe that gold might be lurking underneath? A god-man had a dream in which a king told him where the gold was. Somewhere in the minds of Indians there is an omnipresent deity, a faith so fixed and overpowering that it sets a certain way of thinking and looking at life, pre-empting other possibilities.

Poor societies often have very high levels of consumerism. Just visit the high-growth parts of Africa and Asia. Macau is now a much bigger sin city than Las Vegas. The majority of this world’s luxury goods are consumed by people from poor societies. In large parts of Africa and Asia, people prefer to buy expensive cars and Louis Vuitton bags, at the cost of sharing a room with several others. If you have been to Johannesburg, it is unlikely you were not awed by the number of very expensive cars on the streets.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual.

So, why have guns and steel and the killer applications not achieved the intended results in non-Western societies? Why have simple implementations of the free-market system not worked as they are supposed to work? Why has the system so often mutated into something completely opposite, something very corrupt? One might even suggest that enforcement of the killer applications has incapacitated the Rest from developing from within something extremely crucial, without which the applications don’t work and often become corrupted.

What did Diamond and Ferguson miss?

The magic potion

The groundwork for Western greatness was laid more than two millennia ago. Seed takes time to germinate, but that does not mean it isn’t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.

Recently in India I witnessed people negotiating for a young girl’s labor without her participation. The girl had absolutely no concept of her personal identity and hence none about her “rights.” She did not even have to give herself to her predicament; she didn’t know better any better. Today, as I write this, a teenage Jain girl is being driven around the city. She is throwing away money on the streets, which will be picked up by passersby, poor and rich. As an entry to the priesthood, this symbolises her renunciation of material life. Alas, she will have done this without really understanding the shallowness of temptations, ironically making her forever needing to fight against them. Much younger girls have been pushed into priesthood among the Jain, with virtually no possibility of an exit. A few years back one died after 45 days of continual fasting — she was not allowed to pull back from a pledge of a 100-day fast.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual. The individual becomes the sacrificial goat. No growth, no capacity to wonder, no possibility to image the infinite is possible where the individual lacks sanctity. Individualism does surface, but in very hypocritical ways.

Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

The magic potion that made the West great, the intellectual “application” that underpins everything else, is the recognition of the sanctity of the individual, and the means by which that understanding has seeped into all the nooks and corners of the West society — its philosophy, its governance, and its social structure. This was the seed that grew and made the West great. This is something that societies outside the West never had.

Reverence for individuality leads to reverence for reason. The person who comes to respect himself as an individual allows himself his own thoughts, feelings, and intelligence. Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

Ideas have power. They set our limitations, our imaginations, and our visions. The concept of the individual set the West on a totally different path, a path that led toward Diamond’s guns and steel and Ferguson’s killer applications.

Without respect for reason (which cannot happen without the individual), killer applications can only be accepted on faith and belief, further complicating tribal instincts and confusing society even more, making people more irrational by burdening them with more beliefs. Only the rational individual has the capacity for moral behavior, for self-responsibility. If he sees himself as a part of a collective, he rationalizes his “immoral” behavior as something that works for the greater good. He then has no reason for self-reflection. He even lacks a true sense of wonder and mystery. And he has no balance. In such a case, killer applications cannot work in sync, except by default, and then only for a short period.

Training people to aspire for the highest might be similar in its immediate outcome to training them to sacrifice themselves for the larger good. But there is morality in the former. The latter crushes them or makes them hypocritical. The culture of discussion, of real discourse about ideas and philosophy, is alien to most societies outside the West. But knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate in either a person or a society that lacks this culture. Over centuries the net effect has been enormous.

People who have grown up recognizing others as individuals, as entities with their own wishes, inclinations, and free will, may have a problem understanding the possibility of anything else. But this recognition has been by far the biggest achievement of the West, something that most of the world is still grappling with. For those indoctrinated in other ways, there is so much adverse mental superstructure, so many invested emotions and unconscious motives, that getting to the recognition of the individual is an immensely difficult and challenging, almost impossible, job. I have spent decades painfully unburdening myself from the conditioning that many Western children are never really burdened with. Indeed I envy them.

But did the West not trade in slaves, colonize the rest of the world, and give minimal rights to the women in its own societies? Of course it did. But it is always a mistake to judge people of the past on the basis of what we know better. However gross and crude recognition of the individual was two millennia back, it was a path-breaking achievement. Alas, having failed to conceptualize the sanctity of the individual, billions around the world today still live no better lives than those of animals.

Individuality: the East did not get it; the West is losing it

The West’s chosen religion centered on a man born in a normal family, not among the kings. Perhaps Greek and Roman philosophy created an environment of rationality conducive to the emergence of Christ. The New Testament emphasised the idea of the individual. Its subliminal message is for the individual to take responsibility and grow. The emphasis in regard to salvation is on the individual, not the community. The locus of morality is the individual, not the society using the individual as a sacrificial goat.

One might argue that the concept of the individual came as a result of Protestant Christianity. Or perhaps Thomas Aquinas was the reason. But my view is that these were visible signs of the germination of a path-breaking idea. The idea of the sanctity of the individual had taken firm roots in the West long before the Reformation started.

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West; and without a respect for the individual, and hence without a concept of reason, deeply embedded in a culture, the killer applications may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. They often mutate into something completely different and are used in very corrupt ways.

Islamic madrasas have a bad name for indoctrinating children. But this happens in most of the East, all the way to Japan. Children are destroyed from very early on. Through consistent humiliation, the force-feeding of facts, and various other means, their individuality is prevented from coming to the surface. Enforcing killer applications on such cultures merely burdens them with more beliefs and faiths, exhausting them emotionally and psychologically even more. No wonder suicide rates are so high in Japan and South Korea.

The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see.

This way of doing things cannot change until the societies of the East adopt the primacy and sanctity of the individual. Again, to a distant observer this may look easy, but there is a massive superstructure of beliefs and faith that must fall apart before individualism can be inculcated. Resistance within society and even within the individual will be huge. And before this, people will need to recognize the very concept of individualism. That is truly the biggest acquisition a society can make — seemingly easy for an outsider, but extraordinarily difficult for those who suffer from the lack of it. Centuries may be required for a society to develop an individualist culture.

The West’s emergence was no simple task. But now the West is retracing its steps.

Like termites, cultural-Marxist values have been eating the West from within. For several generations they have been changing the nature of Western civilization by slowly but insidiously discouraging self-responsibility and the concept of the individual. The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see. For these constrained minds, the ultimate utopia is a society in which everyone looks and behaves the same. Women see themselves as liberated only if they participate in the rat-race to break the so-called corporate glass ceiling, often contrary to their true desires or instincts. Lacking touch with their inner selves, they copy what others do, including sending their children to industrial daycares, to inculcate the ways of the collective. They exist in a trance. Ironically, with their own individuality destroyed, people then look for satisfaction through external sources and their chosen celebrities. Increasingly it is the vulgar elements — the Miley Cyruses and Kim Kardashians — that are chosen. This is no surprise. How can you see quality if you don’t have it within you? And you cannot have quality if there is no “you.” The suffocated voice of one’s individuality then asserts itself in corrupt ways through mindless materialism, a craving for power, and vicarious living. The six killer applications malfunction, the way they have in the East.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to understand why, despite globalization and free trade, the East has mostly imported the vulgar, collectivist elements of the West. What is lacking is the magic potion — the sanctity of the individual.

rsquo;t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.




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Do We Lack Impartial Media?

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Recently I saw a webpage that told the story of a veiled Muslim woman complaining, at the checkout counter of a supermarket in Canada, about Veterans’ Day and Canadian involvement in Iraq. The story ended with the cashier asking the Muslim woman to go back to Iraq, the place she had emigrated from. The cashier even offered to help her pack and finance her ticket back.

It took me no more than a minute to figure out that this was a fake story. The same story, with the scene changed to the US, Australia, and the UK, has been posted during the past eight years on many websites made for the gullible.

There are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting?

Within hours of its posting, a couple hundred thousand people had “liked” and shared the Canadian story. Responses, mostly from Americans and Canadians, spewed hatred for Muslims, with a strange combination of extreme arrogance and utter ignorance. “Leave my country. Just go,” said one. My feeling of unease was no different from what I get when I meet Muslim or Hindu fanatics.

Ten years back, I had lunch with a well-known public-policy analyst in Vancouver. In his view, nations have so many conflicts because people do not have access to full information. They are force-fed what entrenched interests in government and big media want them to believe. He told me that our job is to disseminate information in the most balanced way we can, to fight corrupt interests.

My argument was that there are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting? He went on arguing that the alternative channels are not popular enough for people to access; our job is to help these alternative media improve their standing.

His charisma and experience convinced me to agree with him.

On another occasion, however, I had a talk with a scholar in which I was able to present a different view. My idea was that there are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex. I had no exact number, for there are no statistics on it, but I claimed anything between 50% and 70% fell into this category. These guys don’t have bad intentions. They just want to carry on their lives unhindered. If not provoked and indoctrinated, they don’t have many views of their own. They normally do what the authorities tell them to. They believe what they are asked to believe. They go shopping and buy small cans of Coke — whereas, in their position, I would buy big bottles from Costco. I have nothing against them. Part of me even envies them, for their capacity to live in the moment without worrying about the future.

There is another perhaps 5% to 10% of the population that would have belonged to the above, except that they developed a sort of activist mindset and a high sense of the self and its “rights.” If they went to the university, they never studied; they spent all their time partying and drinking. They never really understood what research is. In a democracy, they have views and truly believe that they matter, irrespective of whether the people who hold them can produce a rational analysis or not. Soundbites are their philosophy. They never bother to look at the major contradictions that lie just below the surface of their ideas. Suffering from a sort of impotence, they also carry hatred toward people who are better off than they are. In an ideal world, none of them would have been admitted to the university. They would have saved resources and allowed the flow of wisdom to be less polluted. But the cocktail of their ignorance and arrogance allows them to speak up very confidently in public. They have the psychology of Marxists, even if they don’t call themselves Marxists. They are modern collectivists but ironically tribal, always with an enemy in mind. They are the ones who “liked” the above story of the Muslim woman in Canada. These are the kind I call fanatics, rabble-rousers.

The fanatics are the agents setting the theme and tone of society’s emotions. They decide who is next to be hated, based on simplistic soundbites of climate change, communism, capitalism, people in faraway places, etc. They don’t really get anything personally out of their unfocused, unexamined agitations; they are pawns in the hands of the warmongers, politicians, lobbyists, pursuers of corporate interests, and so forth, who contribute some of the 5% of clinical sociopaths in the population. Alas, they also agitate and affect the opinions of the 50% to 70% who are basically uninterested in politics and in philosophy.

The scholar convinced me that these people — sociopaths and fanatics — were mere products of their circumstances and that all we needed to do was provide them with love and understanding, to nudge them into a rational way of thinking.

And yet . . .

I grew up in the small city of Bhopal in India, under a socialist system. There were a couple of newspapers, both of them private but for all practical purposes controlled by the state, and two radio stations, both operated directly by the government. I had no concept of what television was until my last year of school. For all practical purposes the outside world did not exist. Our access to information was rare and so extremely difficult that we had developed extreme competencies in looking for rumors, analyzing them for inherent flaws, and filtering out what was likely the truth. After some event occurred, it was often days before we saw the official news reports, but we had usually worked out what was happening with a very high level of accuracy.

There are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex.

Today, despite hundreds of TV channels, smartphones, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc., the reality hasn’t changed much. In Bhopal, those who don’t care still don’t know. Those who think they know, but don’t know, look for information to rationalize what they want to believe in — as they did before. The proportion of those who really want to know the truth still know it, and this number hasn’t changed despite proliferation of information.

During the last decade, the situation in Vancouver hasn’t changed either.

I am back to my initial position on whether the media is responsible for our lack of information and our social conflicts. Depending on what our paradigms and worldviews are, we either look for the truth with curiosity to change our views, add to them, and give them more nuances; or we look for what helps us rationalize what we already believe in, unprepared to go through the pain of changing ourselves. Big media and big government may be crooks, but they are merely symptoms of our failure as a society to be eternally vigilant.




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Oscar Shrugs

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Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Fish in a Barrel

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Many leftist “progressives” are determined to disarm the populace. They can’t fathom why anyone might find this strange. Their hearts brim with concern for women, gays, people of color, and the poor! But their efforts, if successful, would leave these people more vulnerable to violence than they are right now, and probably more than anyone else.

Our self-appointed benefactors want us to depend on them. Keeping us from depending on ourselves for our own protection is naturally part of the plan. Citizens without recourse to effective self-defense are like fish in a barrel. The barrel may be easy to protect, but the fish are easy to kill.

Over a period of several months, when I was a teenager, I would hear heavy footsteps on the walkway outside my bedroom window. I never so much as caught a glimpse of who was out there. But something drew him back to my bedroom window time after time.

Then one evening I was home alone, sitting in the very den where I now write this essay. It had to be pretty obvious I was sitting there, at a well-lit desk. All at once, the window began to slide open. I ran down the hall to my mother’s bedside table, opened the drawer, and got out the .25 caliber pistol. Meanwhile, back in the den, the uninvited visitor was struggling to pry open the window all the way. I entered the room, picked up the phone, and loudly called the police.

Could I have fended off the prowler without a firearm? I’m glad I never had to find out.

Sounding bored — as if she didn’t believe me, or simply didn’t care — the dispatcher told me she would “send someone out.” The prowler had to hear my end of that conversation, but it did nothing to stop him from trying to get in. I flipped open the curtains, pointing the gun out into the darkness beyond the window. All I saw of him was his shadowy backside as he turned and fled.

About forty minutes later, a police cruiser rolled lazily by. It slowed very slightly in front of my house, then sped on. No one stopped. Nor did anyone from the police department even bother to call and find out if the issue had been successfully resolved — in short, whether I was alive or dead.

I don’t think I heard those footsteps during the next few nights after the near break-in. But a few days afterward, a young man was arrested only a couple of blocks from our house. He’d allegedly beaten his mother to death because she wouldn’t give him money for drugs. I do know I never heard the footsteps after that.

If the mother-murderer and the prowler were one and the same, could I have fended him off without a firearm? I’m glad I never had to find out. But without a gun, against a man big enough to murder a grown woman with his bare hands, a teenaged girl would have had less than a fighting chance.

A quarter century later, when my father suffered a heart attack, I moved back into my childhood home to help care for him. When he died, the house became mine. Though it is in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, there have been several break-ins on my street. Never have the police shown up until after the prowlers have fled. In every case, it has been the homeowner or a neighbor who has driven them away.

It warms my heart that progressives care so much about my safety. Are they right that I don’t need a gun because they’ll protect me themselves? I hope I never have to find out about that, either.




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A Movie Called Mud

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Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.


Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.



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Mudblood

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In the August 2010 issue of Liberty I wrote an essay about racism. But that article was largely theoretical. Now I would like to share my personal experiences about the topic.

To do so I must first disclose my own racial identity. I am what might be called a mutt or a mulatto, although I prefer the term “mudblood,” which is the Harry Potter name for wizards who come from Muggle bloodlines. My mother is a white American woman of Russian Jewish lineage, and my father is a Muslim man with brown skin who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. My parents were married at the time of my birth but later divorced. My childhood religious and cultural education was a mixture of Judaism and Islam, although I never felt completely comfortable among either Jews or Muslims and as an adult I have abandoned organized religion. I have light brown skin but I am sometimes able to “pass for white.”

For my reader’s education let me mention that Bangladesh is a country with a population of mostly Muslim brown-skinned people located on the Indian subcontinent. (I doubt that I need to explain where Russian Jews come from.) What insight into race relations do I have as one of the world’s few part-Bangladeshi-Muslim, part-Russian-Jewish people?

The amazing thing about knowing Jews and Muslims is how distorted and out of touch with reality are the stereotypes and preconceived notions that some people have about members of other racial groups. Let me discuss the Bangladeshi stereotype first.

What most Americans know about Bangladesh, if anything, is that we are Muslims. Many Americans believe that most Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women and support terrorism. My experience is that Bangladeshi Muslims are all different kinds of people, each with an individual identity. A minority of Bangladeshis are deeply religious, Islamic conservative fundamentalists. Some Bangladeshis are modern-liberal or leftist Muslims. However, I have found that most of the Bangladeshis whom I know are religious but not fanatical. I strongly believe that most Bangladeshis do not sympathize with or support Islamic terrorists. In fact, Bangladesh has something right now that the United States has never had, a female head of government.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it?

On the other hand, what can I say about Jews? Aside from a general enjoyment of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and the other festive ornaments of Yiddish culture, the Jews whom I have known each have different individual personalities with traits that could not be predicted on the basis of knowing that they are Jews. I do not believe that most Jews are unusually smart or that most Jews are greedy, although the argument can be made that Jewish culture places a high value upon learning and intelligence and is conducive to a successful career as a lawyer. I recall with a certain fondness the Jewish custom of Hanukkah gelt, which is children's chocolate wrapped up to look like gold coins. I also recall pressure to study Hebrew and read Jewish books, but it is a stretch to find some special meaning in those customs. I regard “smart” and “greedy” as compliments, but I have known Jews who are neither. Yet some people have bizarre stereotypical pictures of Jews, as if all were identical.

When you have no firsthand knowledge of something it is easy to have a two-dimensional understanding of it. If I have any insight to offer it is that no two people are the same, and racial or ethnic generalizations have no relation whatsoever to how any real human being behaves. There is a notorious academic argument that if you were forced to form a basketball team to win money it would be logical to include no one but African-Americans. I suspect that athletic talent varies widely among blacks, and the idea in question is a thinly disguised excuse for racism. It is plausible to think that bigotry and racial hatred begin innocently enough as a crude cognitive technique of relying on racial generalizations for the purpose of understanding people. But this evolves into racism as the natural result of thinking about humans in terms of groups rather than individuals. I believe that racial stereotypes have no predictive accuracy.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it? One likely reason is that if race blindness were prevalent then the people who purport to speak for oppressed racial minority groups, the leaders of the racial special interests, would have no power. Unlike some libertarians, I have always believed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a hero and that the civil rights movement was a good thing. But I believe this only because in the Jim Crow South, blacks were second-class citizens who were not legally equal to whites. Segregation was the result of racist laws as well as the actions of racist owners controlling their private property. In my opinion, the civil rights movement was a success. Blacks achieved legal equality. There are still parts of America where racism is common, and I have been told that some data suggest that certain areas of the United States have noticeable numbers of white racist police officers. But the use of the machinery of government to enforce racist laws has disappeared in the United States, and this precisely is the victory of the civil rights movement.

Now, in the post-civil rights era, socialist blacks such as Al Sharpton and Cornel West have hijacked the civil rights movement and preach to the members of racial minorities that we remain locked in a racial war against the white supremacist conservative Republicans. They claim that the Democratic Party with its modern liberalism is the only place where we can find refuge and protection from the evils of the white racists. The desired protection takes the form of special programs to favor non-whites, or certain non-whites. This is an Orwellian nightmare — like saying that racial equality is our ideal but non-whites should be more equal than whites.

It is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not their race.

It is probably true that there are more pro-white racists in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, but I think that the American Right is a racially diverse group of people. Most conservatives, and the vast majority of libertarians, are good people who oppose racism. Only a small but vocal minority on the Right are Nazis or Klansmen who give the Right a bad name. It is worth noting that at various times in American history the Democratic Party was associated with the racist South and the Republican Party with the slave-freeing North. It is merely another absurd stereotype to say that the “average” right-winger is a white racist.

It is clear that racism and racial stereotypes have their philosophical basis in the doctrine that people are defined by their memberships in groups. If there is any hope of ending the blight of racism, it will come by taking an individualist approach. We libertarians are the world’s best advocates for individualism, and it is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not which race they are members of. I think that individualism will ultimately produce more diversity than state-sponsored affirmative action, because individualism attacks the root cause of racism, whereas affirmative action merely treats the external symptoms.

My friends in high school used to tell me that I should bomb my own car, and there have been many times when I got the sense from some Jews that they didn’t like me because I was Muslim, and received the same feeling from Muslims who did not like my being Jewish. I have never been beaten up as a result of racism (although my father has, and my maternal ancestors endured the Russian pogroms), but my entire life I have felt abnormal because it was not easy for me to fit into a traditional established role as a member of a specific race. I cannot be “a Jew” or “a Muslim” or “a white person” or “a dark-skinned person,” although I can be on the receiving end of discrimination against all of those categories. But it is still possible for me to be “an individual.” And being an individual is what each member of every different race on the planet has in common. It is what unites us and brings us together.

It’s liberating to be a mudblood, and it’s comforting to think that there are libertarians out there in the world who believe in individualism and represent the possibility that the human race will one day outgrow the abomination of racism.




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Office Complex

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Recently, I missed a flight and ended up in a vast airport-adjacent suburb with a few hours to kill. My first stop was at a Starbucks to do some quick work. (Although I don’t drink coffee, I travel enough to know that Starbucks outlets almost always have clean bathrooms and reliable wireless Internet connections.)

One appeared quickly, at the corner of a big box shopping center. It was larger than most of the shops in the Pacific Northwest, so I figured there’d be plenty of room near noon on a weekday. But I was mistaken. The place was packed.

It took a few minutes to find an empty table where I could set down my tea and set up my laptop. In the meantime, I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

A youngish man with a carefully cultivated scraggly beard and black apparel was plugged into his laptop via elaborate headgear. He was facing me, so I couldn’t see the screen of his computer; but, from the cadence of his talk, it was evident that he was participating in some sort of video conference. He made direct eye contact with me for a few moments — which I thought might be a reproach for looking at him — but then he changed his gaze to another person and spoke into his mic.

I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

Something I’d read somewhere came back to me: videoconferencing veterans suggest choosing people or things in the room around you to represent the other participants in a conference call. On video, this creates the impression that you’re responding to specific others in the “meeting,” as if they were in a real room with you. He was just using me as an eye-contact avatar.

I couldn’t make out everything the fashionable man said. He was too far away and the Starbucks had too much background noise. But a few phrases made it across the space. “Elevations.” “Build-out.” “Retrofit.” “Improvements.” Because my wife is an architect, I recognized these as terms from a construction project — and, specifically, the expansion of an existing building.

Other snippets of words he used conveyed a certain fastidiousness; he constantly asked others what they thought and if they understood what someone else had said. Sounded like he was the construction manager or coordinator on the project.

I noticed that he’d chosen a seat with a blond panel wall behind it. The small video camera atop his computer screen would frame him in a background that could be from some fashionable office. And the elaborate headgear probably filtered out the background noise. Smart. His clients would have no idea he was sitting in a coffee shop.

Closer to me, a middle-aged salesman and saleswoman huddled at a smaller café-style table and swapped office gossip. The man did most of the talking — an overweight man with an overbearing voice: “The guy is so clueless that he has no idea Everett actually hates him. And he’ll never figure that out.” “I tried to give him some advice. Live on your draw and save your commissions. Don’t count on commissions for paying bills. But he doesn’t listen.” “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not my fault it’s like this. I mean, times are hard. We’re all cutting back.’”

The woman listened and nodded agreement with most of this. But she looked tired and clearly wished she were somewhere else.

As they reached the bottoms of their lattes, the salespeople plotted their afternoon. They were sharing one rental car but had separate appointments before their flight home that evening. He sketched out a plan for dropping her off at her next call while he made his and then switching driving chores, so that she’d drop him off at his last call while she made hers.

If times were better, they’d each have rented their own car.

Just behind me, two women — one older and very sharply dressed, one younger and casually dressed — talked about graphic design work. Their conversation was more about practical matters than aesthetics. The older woman opened a nice leather portfolio and showed the younger various business forms: letterhead, contracts, purchase orders and invoices.

It wasn’t clear whether the business forms were the product of the older woman’s practice or the forms that she used to deal with clients. And the younger woman’s questions were so elementary that they didn’t make matters any more clear.

This meeting seemed to be a “Can I pick your brain?” session. Perhaps the younger woman was the daughter of one of the older woman’s friends. The younger may have read somewhere that asking an established person for “advice” is the best way to get intelligence on employment.

Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

I’ve been on the older woman’s side of the table for a few of these meetings myself. I caught a glimpse of her face. She was in her late 40s or early 50s, quite attractive and carefully appointed. But her eyes looked sad. They squinted a lot — in contempt, I think — at the younger woman, whose childish questions and cadence made her sound simple-minded.

If the meeting behind me was a job interview, the younger woman wasn’t going to be hired. As the older woman folded up her portfolio, the younger asked her about any contract work that might be available. “It would be subcontract work,” the older said ruefully. “Give me a couple of business cards. I’ll keep them handy.”

Nearly finished with my emails, I took a break to use the men’s room. There were a couple of men ahead of me. While waiting, we listened to a white-haired man pitch four or five other older men and one woman on an investment scheme.

He’d handed each of his marks letters and information printed on heavy-stock paper which had a Baroque-style firm name ending in “Capital” at the top.

“ . . . our record speaks for itself, of course. But, like everyone, we are always looking for more business. And advertising on radio or television, frankly, isn’t something that interests us.”

The others nodded eagerly. This was a job interview. The white-haired man was selling them on becoming sales representatives for his firm — which was involved in some capacity with reverse mortgages. But my turn to use the bathroom came before I could hear the details.

Reverse mortgages are, essentially, the subprime loans of the coming decade. They are legal but unwise financial vehicles that are most effective at separating gullible people from their wealth. The gullible people, in this case, are seniors with real estate that they own outright or nearly outright; with a reverse mortgage, they get a monthly stipend in exchange for leaving their property to the mortgage company when they die.

If they die after just a few years of payments, the gullible old people have effectively sold their property for a fraction of its value.

Although he had the cheap sophistication of a game-show host, the white-haired man couldn’t have been very high up on the food chain of his shady industry. Multilevel marketing schemes are usually desperate to seem established, so they aren’t usually run out of coffee shops. But, hey, times are hard. And we’re all cutting back.

Back from the bathroom, I packed up my computer and scanned the place one last time on my way out. There were at least a dozen intense conversations going on; and another dozen or so people working intensely on computers or other devices. Did any of these people have “jobs” in the sense that the Department of Labor defines them?

Statist hacks like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Barack Obama think of “jobs” as compliant proles lining up at the gates of General Motors for hourly-wage work, performing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined places. But this thinking is antiquated and wrong. Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

For most people, a “job” means — and will mean, for the foreseeable future — hustling for freelance work. Contracts and subcontracts. Commission sales. Multilevel marketing. There’s money in it, but that money doesn’t come easily. And, sometimes, it doesn’t come reliably.

That’s what I saw at the suburban Starbucks freelance labor bazaar.




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New Light on a Great Libertarian

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One day in September 2011, I received the following email:

“I’ve just ordered your book on Garet Garrett, brother to my grandmother, Gertrude Garrett Graham, and my great uncle. There are a few anecdotes from his later years of retirement in Tuckahoe NJ and his relationships with his family and I’d enjoy talking with you, once I’ve read your book.”

It was signed, “Trudy Beth Bond.”

Garet Garrett (1878–1954) author of The Driver, The People’s Pottage, and The American Story, was one of the great libertarian journalists of the 20th century. I wrote a book about him, Unsanctioned Voice, published in 2008.

The book is more about Garrett as a writer than as a person and necessarily so. Most of his papers were lost. He had no children. His third wife, Dorothy Williams Garrett, had a son from a previous marriage, and he also had died, but I found his daughter. She had a few photos of Garrett but was too young to have known him.

Digging for details more than half a century after he died, I found one person who had known him: Richard Cornuelle, who had worked with Garrett in the early 1950s (and who died on April 26, 2011). Cornuelle had gone on to become an official at the National Association of Manufacturers — and had written a book, Reclaiming the American Dream, championing the nonprofit sector as an alternative to the welfare state. In 2007 I flew to New York City to meet him at his Greenwich Village townhouse and hear of his time with Garrett. Cornuelle, then 80, was delighted that someone wanted to know about the man who had been his mentor.

My book was more about Garrett as a writer than as a person and necessarily so. Most of his papers were lost.

Cornuelle gave me some personal details about Garrett, some of them incomplete. He told me one of Garrett’s sisters lived in a farmhouse on Garrett’s property at Tuckahoe. But which sister? Why was she there? What role had Garrett played in her family? He didn’t know. My book wasn’t mostly about things like that, but more personal details would have improved it.

After the book came out, I wondered whether I would hear from some lost relative. Three years went by. Then came the email from his grandniece, Trudy, who lives in the very town, Port Townsend WA, in which Liberty was founded and published for more than 20 years — a town about two hours’ drive and a ferry ride from my house.

Trudy was born in 1941. Through her, I got to talk to her brother Marshall, born 1943, and her sister Connie, born 1945. They knew Garrett as kids, aged 9 to 13. They were also part of a family that would have some stories about him. They might fill in some of the blanks in my account.

I had known that Garrett and his third wife, Dorothy, lived somewhere along the Tuckahoe River in New Jersey. From Connie, I received a satellite photo of the property.

At the beginning of the book I had listed Garrett’s siblings from Census records: Gertrude, Mary, Sarah, Thomas, and “what looks like ‘Clarra.’” But I knew nothing about them. Now I had their full names — it was “Clara” — and the dates of their births. I noticed that all but two of Garrett’s siblings were born in different towns, most of them not far from Garrett’s birthplace at Pana, in central Illinois. Garrett’s father Silas was a tinker — an itinerant tinsmith — and his family moved around.

From my new acquaintances, I heard one story of the children’s youth. Garret’s father, Silas, was a Protestant. What denomination was never said, though his funeral was in a Methodist church. According to Marshall, Garet’s mother, Alice, was a devout Catholic.

“They had made a pact when they married that their children would be allowed to make up their own minds,” Marshall said. “But the priest prevailed on Alice, and she did certain things behind her husband’s back, such as putting them in catechism class.” The effort backfired, and Clara, Gertrude, and Marie embraced the new religion of the time, Christian Science.

Then came an email from the very town, Port Townsend WA, in which Liberty was founded and published for more than 20 years.

“The Christian Science thing was a big schism in the family,” said Trudy, who was raised in that faith but abandoned it. She heard the story through her grandmother, Gertrude, who was zealous enough to become a Christian Science practitioner. Garrett was not a follower of Christian Science, and Trudy says his religious sisters disapproved of his drinking, smoking, and being married three times. But Gertrude and Marie also respected his achievement. They called him “Brother,” as if it were his name.

I learned little about Clara, who had stayed in Illinois. Sarah, whom they called Sadie, married a veterinarian and lived in Missouri and Iowa.

“I met my Aunt Sadie when I was 10,” Trudy said. “She seemed to have escaped the whole religion thing.”

Garrett’s younger brother Thomas had been an artist, and Connie has a painting of his (“landscape on the front, female nude on the back”). Thomas died young, in 1917, of somedisease. He is buried in the same cemetery as Garet and Dorothy Garrett, in Tuckahoe, which suggests that his elder brother had taken care of him — and perhaps had removed his remains, because Garrett didn’t move from Egg Harbor, NJ, to Tuckahoe until the mid-1920s.

The sister living on Garrett’s property was Marie. Trudy recalled the story that Marie had been living in Chicago. She was a man’s secretary for many years, and had become his mistress. “Supposedly his wife was sickly and when she died, he said, he would marry Marie, but he did not.”

His religious sisters disapproved of his drinking, smoking, and being married three times. But they also respected his achievement.

Trudy’s sister Connie writes: “As mother told me, Marie fell in love with a successful lawyer in Chicago. He was married and his wife was in a mental institution, and he told Marie there was some law that prevented a spouse from divorcing a spouse who is in an institution. So Marie consented to stay with him (my impression was that he paid for her apartment), something she otherwise would never have done.” Connie recalls her mother's stories of visiting Aunt Marie in Chicago as a kid, with her sisters Jane and Ruth, and "Uncle Walter" stopping by with candy for them.

When the man’s wife died, he wouldn't marry Marie. Connie continues: “Humiliated, Marie went east to Garet’s, where she stayed on, and where Joe French, Garet’s tenant farmer, fell for her and asked her to marry him.”

French was not an educated or worldly man. His claim to fame was playing baseball in the minor leagues in San Francisco, Topeka, Sioux City, Dubuque, Peoria, and Beaumont in the years before World War I. Trudy recalls that his fingers had been broken from playing catcher.

As Connie recalls the story, Marie went to Garet and asked his advice, telling him, “Imagine. That man is no more than a tenant farmer and he wants to marry me!” To which Garet replied, “At least he wants to make an honest woman out of you.” Trudy says that Marie married French “under duress from Garrett, who didn’t want to support Marie for the rest of his life.”

In none of Garrett’s writings does he talk about taking care of his family, or the stress of an obligation to do so. Garrett left his family in Iowa in his mid-teens. Several of the characters in his fiction are without family, and none of his fiction or his vast amount of journalism focuses on family issues or champions family loyalty. He addresses other things. Yet he takes care of his sister when the gamble of her life fails. He nudges her into a marriage with a man who loves her, and he provides them both with a house.

It is what honorable people do, if they can, when there is no welfare state.

Trudy, Marshall, and Connie recall Garrett as the success, the urban sophisticate, of the family — and, of course, much older than they. As preteens and early teens, they moved with their parents from suburban Chicago to New York City in 1953. She believes they were the only relatives of her generation who lived close enough to visit Garrett, and the only ones today who remember him.

In none of Garrett’s writings does he talk about taking care of his family, or the stress of an obligation to do so.

From the summer of 1953 to Garrett’s death in late 1954, they visited Tuckahoe often, staying at Marie and Joe’s, in the farmhouse on Garrett’s property. This other building was not a farmhouse really. It was a three-story brick house, covered with ivy. It had a ship’s binnacle on the porch, and Connie remembers it as “the captain’s house.” The place was the subject of a feature story in the Atlantic City Press. (Trudy has the clipping.) Part of the Stille Homestead, the house had been built in 1795 “by slaves,” the newspaper said, using “bricks brought from England.” It had thick walls and five fireplaces, two of them in the basement, “where in the cold winter time the first families cooked, ate and kept warm.” Upstairs it had a “borning room” where mothers gave birth, and outside was a small graveyard.

One of the side buildings had been made into a glassblowing studio for Garrett’s wife, Dorothy. Connie has a small bottle that Dorothy created, with a dime in it.

Trudy turned 13 in 1954. Of the captain’s house she remembers “a wonderful attic where I spent many, many hours reading old Saturday Evening Posts” that Garrett had kept in bundles. His articles were mostly above her head, but she saw his name on them in the Post. “It wasn’t really until then that I knew what Uncle Garrett did.”

Garet and his wife lived several hundred yards from the old house in a new house he had built. “Garet and Dorothy's house was enchanting to me,” Connie recalls. “It had the biggest fireplace I had ever seen and I remember very well the bust of Nefertiti that you mention in your book, as well as the high bookshelves that flanked the fireplace.”

Trudy remembers Garrett’s room with the two-story ceiling and the big fireplace. “The room had a cozy feel to it, almost like you would feel in a log home. Garrett was the boss of that room. Really he was the boss of the whole place. Dorothy was pretty much in her cups all the time.”

I had mentioned Dorothy’s alcoholism in the book, and all three of Gertrude’s descendants remembered it. They remembered Garrett drinking, too, but not being drunk.

They also remembered the outbuilding Garrett called his “cave,” where he wrote. “He built that,” Marshall recalled. “He was proud of that. He had a little storage area underground where he kept his ink cool. He had these big bottles of Scripps ink. Four of them. He’d refill the well on his desk.”

I had quoted Richard Cornuelle in the book about how Garrett would research a topic, keeping everything in his head, “muttering and fuming quietly. Then, suddenly, he would seize an old-fashioned pen holder, jam a new point into it, and scrawl on white foolscap, often for hours, panting and sweating, jabbing the pen in the ink now and then, until he had it all down.”

Scripps ink, from big bottles.

I had said in the book that Garrett sometimes hid in his “cave” from kids, and Connie, who turned 9 in Garrett’s last year, recalls:

“Although we did often go over to Garet and Dorothy's house, and I did catch my first fish off their dock, and Garet helped me unhook it, on the whole not too much happened of a family gathering nature when we were over there. We kids generally weren't allowed in his little building where he did his writing, but sometimes we were sent out there to fetch him or take him a snack, and I would look around in awe at all the books and papers around him.”

Trudy and Marshall remember Garrett showing them his artesian well, and how he had piped the water into his house. Garrett did his own plumbing.

In Unsanctioned Voice, I quote Cornuelle saying that Garrett had buckets of silver dollars under his porch as insurance against a feared inflation. (If he had lived another 20 years, they would have paid off.) Trudy and Marshall remember the stories of buried coins, either silver or gold. Marshall recalls that silver coins were found inside the ship’s binnacle, under a layer of sand.

When Garrett died, his property went to Dorothy. She died six months or so later, willing the property to her son, James. That was a setback for Marie and Joe, because they had to move out of the captain’s house into town.

Perhaps Garrett had an influence on the family. Connie was the closest to Garrett in her career: she became a writer and editor of Smithsonian magazine. Marshall is the closest to Garrett in his philosophy.

“I don’t think anybody knew about libertarianism then, if they called it that,” he says. “Most of us are still quite conservative, maybe not to the extent of libertarianism, but pretty near.”

“When I read about the attitudes of Garet Garrett, I see my brother,” Trudy says.

Trudy was an attorney, teaching classes in how non-attorneys could file papers and defend their rights. She recalls once going out with a man who admired Ayn Rand, and telling him, “I am the grandniece of Garet Garrett.”




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