This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of Liberty magazine. Not Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty, which has been dead for over a century. Not the general interest magazine of that name, either, of which Groucho Marx quipped “Remember, there’s nothing like liberty — except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post!” And certainly not the Seventh Day Adventist periodical, the less I say about, the better. I am referring to the little libertarian ’zine out of Port Townsend, Washington, the one that I worked on for its first twelve years.
After my departure in 1999, it survived in print for another decade. After folding, it gave up its ghost to the Web, upon which it lingers as a scornful shade from another age.
Three decades is a long enough time to excuse a tinge of nostalgia. In January 1987, I was working on the vast library of Liberty’s publisher, R. W. Bradford, as well as researching and proofreading his monthly newsletter, Analysis & Outlook. We were preparing to launch the magazine that summer, and Bradford was looking for the right computer platform. I knew (this is going to be a self-congratulatory essay, so prepare yourself) that there was, at that time, only one computing platform suitable for desktop publishing, Apple’s Macintosh. But those computers were expensive, so Bradford futilely began experimenting with KayPro’s latest CP/M machine, and then with IBM’s PC. Both platforms were a bust. We finally went to the Macintosh. We bought two Mac Pluses, and on the first day we laid out the newsletter; within a week or two Bill and I, along with his wife, Kathleen, designed the cover and interior of the magazine.
None of us were design geniuses, and it showed. The magazine was ugly. I was responsible for the general look of the interior pages, for the most part, and Bradford and his “Scotch boxes” gave impetus to the make-up of the cover. But we three did hash this out in a long meeting, with much experimenting. And no small amount of friendly banter.
The structure of the magazine itself was, uh, odd, especially in the first few issues. (A good example being the fifth issue, shown at right.) This was mostly a result of Bradford’s resistance to putting the current-events reportage and political debate up front, at least in the first few issues. He did not want Liberty to be primarily a political magazine. It was to be a cultural magazine for a people of a particular political orientation. I liked the approach, if not the magazine’s look (which always remained a vexation to me).
Years later, Bradford credited me with establishing the style of editorial presentation. The wording of the blurbs and genre heading and the like, though Stephen Cox surely had a major hand in it at the final review end of the editorial process. It was a natural style for what we were doing, so that credit is not exactly a steller honor. He also said that I had named the final section of the magazine, the “Terra Incognita” feature. After twelve years, when he had informed me of this, I had forgotten my “responsibility” for this name.
“Terra Incognita” was to duplicate the aim and method of Mencken’s old Americana department, from which the Sage of Baltimore made a series of annual books. The idea was to take news snippets and other artifacts of our culture, and place them in our pages without comment. Each entry would use for a title the place the tidbit took place in, or from which it was published or broadcast. Then would follow a short, not too value-laden synopsis or setup. Finally, there would be an exact quotation.
Full disclosure: Bradford often edited these quotations not merely for space, but for the occasional subtle effect. Editorial license, if you will.
It would have been fun to name the section “Artifactual Man,” but I had not read the great essay “Natural and Artificactual Man” by economist James Buchanan yet. So “Terra Incognita” it became. Here is an example, snapped from an old copy littering my library:
This all came back to me, today, upon stumbling into a page of the Center for a Stateless Society, a reprint of an old Roderick Long criticism of one “Terra Incognita” entry.
The entry in question is from an issue published several years after I had left Liberty’s offices, so I can hardly be held responsible for the offending passage that Prof. Long considers. It was published as Bradford himself lay dying, so neither could the editor and publisher himself be the likely responsible agent. (Though it does sound like him, now that I think on it.) Nevertheless, I wish to demur from Long’s objections. In effect, I seek to defend the honor of Liberty’s “Terra Incognita” — as if anyone cared.
No matter. I am committed! I will quote the piece, whole, interrupting only when I have something to say:
In the back of each issue of Liberty magazine is a section titled “Terra Incognita,” which consists of news clippings inane or horrific or both. So I must assume that someone at Liberty found the following item inane or horrific, since it’s the third featured item in the latest (January 2006) issue’s “Terra Incognita”:
Port Townsend, Wash.
A glimpse into the objectives of a modern-day peace movement, from the PTforPeace “cultural statement”:
“Knowing we have all internalized the violence, patriarchy, white supremacy, and alienation so prevalent in our society. Knowing that dismantling these systems of oppression involves becoming aware of where they are hiding in our own minds, and that day-to-day patterns of oppression are the glue that holds together systems of oppression. Cultivating gratitude toward the person who points out where we may have internalized oppression without being aware of it.”
So what, exactly, is this item doing in Liberty’s “horror file”? What it says seems to me not only true and important, but something that libertarians in particular used to specialise in pointing out. For a leading libertarian publication to mock such insights is a regrettable refusal of our libertarian forebears’ radical legacy.
Though I sympathize with Prof. Roderick Long’s anti-oppression solidarity, I bet I understand why, on some level, either Kathleen Bradford or Stephen Cox or one of the other editors of the ’zine thought it, at least in part, risible.
But I cannot speak for them, only for me. So here goes:
- Liberty was still, then, published in Port Townsend, Washington. The editors probably knew the Port Townsend activists well enough. I did when I lived there. That propinquity tends to put a tinge of guffaw into the reaction. To know a leftist is to know their strange obsessions and quirks of mind and values.
- The statement lists some givens that are not given to most folks. Indeed, I hesitantly accept some, thoroughly reject others.
- I reject that we have all internalized the violence of our culture. I am a libertarian. I have externalized society’s penchant for initiated coercion. Speak for yourself, leftist.
- Patriarchy. What patriarchy? The one that gives in to nearly every feminist demand? The one that worries over not having enough women in the Senate (despite over half the voters being women) but not over the male dominance in garbage collection, logging, and sea fishing — the latter two among the most deadly jobs in today’s generally cushy workplace environments? Or would it be the patriarchy that expects men, in cases of emergency, to come to the aid of women and children, at the risk of their own lives, but not expecting anything like the same courage from women? Does not our professor realize that this cultural requirement for male valor in defense of women was written into the law during the heyday of “capitalist patriarchy” a century ago? That this was related to the fact that men, but not women, were drafted in times of war? That men were expendable, but women not?
I am not denying, actually, a patriarchal aspect to our current culture, and a stronger one a century prior. But I realize what traditional patriarchy was for: the protection of women and children, so that the species — society — could continue. The much-maligned Patriarchy was supported, historically, by a concurrent social institution, which we should call The Matriarchy. For savvy women realized something that feminists today do not: that the “dominance” of men in law and politics was counter-balanced by huge costs that men were forced to bear. This is doubly true for the bulk of men who were not in exalted positions of leadership.
Indeed, beta and especially gamma males were, as stated above, expendable. They were the ones chiefly oppressed. Society way back when was not rich enough to extend certain peaceful opportunities to women. But with the rise of capitalism came the rise in the status of women, and their gradual liberation. To repeat for emphasis: the oppressive aspects of patriarchical culture fell mainly on the men, in terms of their lives and liberties.
Sure, women did not have as much social freedom as men did, back then, especially if they were married. All this had reasonable, non-oppressive rationales. Pretending that we now experience the old oppressions (or unfortunate inconveniences) is preposterous.
Thinking that “we all” have internalized this old way of thinking is believable, however. But the nature of today’s internalized patriarchy will not please Prof. Long. Our patriarchal mindset is instantiated in reiterated point-blank acceptances of the bulk of the inanities of feminism.
Feminism has always depended on the patriarchal chivalry of men.
And men, today, still go out of their way to play White Knight for women’s fictional honor. (Personally, I have given all of that up long ago. I realized in the days of my relative youth that the relationships between men and women in the ages of feminism are so deeply fucked up that I am de facto Hyperborean, now. I am more feminist than the feminists, in one sense, since I have abandoned almost all my chivalric obsessions. I accept women as friends, as social equals, but not as any special concern of mine, and I doubt I would ever risk my life for any one of them I am not related to.)
- “White supremacy”? Really? Is that what I benefit from, today? Is that why most Asian-American men and women make more money than nearly every white male in my nearly all-white community? Who is supreme, here? Or, is it some cultural power that we scorned country bumpkins possess? Of course not. I, for one, am marginalized, if anyone is. It is Democrats and Republicans and leftists who have major political and cultural institutions on their side. Not some lowly individualist like me. And certainly not my neighboring redneck proletarians. Listening to racial theorizing from leftists reminds me of little that individualists have to offer by way of liberation. I, a white man, oppress no one. If you think I have internalized the oppression of individuals of other races, I will argue with you not only intellectually, but stridently — upon my honor. Prof. Long, in siding with these leftists, lurches preciously close to insulting me. And probably you. Perhaps any honest person of any racial background in these United States. Note: I am not saying that there are not white supremacists (the fools; the buffoons). I am not saying that there is no racial bigotry (including from racial minorities). I am just saying that supremacy is largely irrelevant to the liberation of individuals, race is itself a burden upon their thinking, and leftist obsessions with supremacy are, in and of themselves, worthy of ridicule.
- Alienation is not the result of oppression. Alienation is a step on the liberation from oppression. See Walter Kauffman in Without Guilt and Justice. I expect more from a philosopher than repetition of brain-dead tropes from the unthinking masses of symbolic-action-obsessed leftists.
So, obviously I am not on the same page as Roderick Long. Why?
My aim is not to criticise Liberty in particular; it’s one of my favourite magazines, and this particular failing is merely symptomatic of a larger problem in the libertarian movement generally. One might call the problem knee-jerk anti-leftism, or in other words, automatically responding negatively to certain issues (at least when those issues aren’t obvious applications of libertarian principle, like drug legalisation) merely because those issues have typically been the concern of the left.
Could Prof. Long sutter from the opposite problem, a knee-jerk pro-leftism? I believe he calls himself a “left libertarian” — an absurd position that mischaracterizes what individualism is, what libertarianism has to offer.
The knee-jerk anti-leftist infection — libertarians’ costly inheritance from their long alliance with conservatives against the genuine menace of state socialism — takes different forms in different sectors of the libertarian movement: softness on corporatism here, softness on militarism there, softness on white-male-hetero chauvinism somewhere else (with each such sector quick to denounce the flavour of deviation embraced by some other sector, but far less swift to recognise its own). A crucial aim of left-libertarianism, as I see it, is to help libertarianism recover its pre-conservative roots.
Well, the conservative stain may very well be the case. I have argued this in the past. But upon extended consideration, I have come to think the problem arises from a completely different source. Consider this:
There are two main conceptions of justice in this world: traditional justice (in its variant forms) and revolutionary justice (in statist and anarchist varieties). These two correspond to the two visions of social causation that Thomas Sowell has advanced in A Conflict of Visions and other works. Traditional justice fits in with the constrained vision of human nature; revolutionary justice fits in with unconstrained visions. Individualism is an attempt to steer clear of the Scylla and Charybdis these two forms of justice present. My philosophy, anyway, owing in no small part to the work of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger and F. A. Hayek, is an evolutionary justice.
The job of the individualist is to take the insight of liberalism, about applying a few rules up and down society’s institutional matrix, consistently and seriously to all individuals even within the institutions normally associated with the State. This project is by no means alien to the basic notions of traditionally evolved justice. But it does not stop by merely restating the past. And it can only proceed if certain ancient tribal attitudes about loyalty and sovereignty are either discarded or completely recast.
And, more importantly, it does not commit the huge error of trying to remake the whole world, especially in the impossible endeavor of balancing out for the inequalities and unfairnesses of the fate or chance we see at work in the natural world. The evolutionary revision of justice is a limited conception of justice. It makes it out as only one virtue among many. And it is mainly attuned to the practice of coercion. Not to redressing the imagined imperfections of nature.
Leftists, on the other hand, are embedded in a culture that rests entirely upon recreating man in a new image, of fair play writ cosmic and carried out microscopic. They see oppression even in the merest accommodations to nature or to others’ demonstrated preferences.
They are fools, almost to a person.
We do not have much to learn from them, other than to see how recalcitrant human moral imagination can be, how reluctant it is to settle for a moderating liberty.
Now I suspect the average libertarian hears or reads words like those from the PTforPeace statement quoted above, and swiftly conjures up a mental picture of a person who is likely to utter them — a strident, self-righteous lefty, equally likely to have wretchedly statist views on all sorts of issues. But even supposing this stereotype is an accurate portrait, what of it? The inference is sheer ad hominem. And if libertarians can recognise valuable insights when they find them in the work of John Calhoun — a brilliant man, but an apologist for, ahem, slavery — inviting them to be equally open to insights from self-righteous lefties doesn’t seem too much to ask.
I have had little trouble learning from anyone, in the past. I have learned from Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Gore Vidal. C.S. Lewis, James Branch Cabell, Lucian of Samosata, Epicurus and Ortega y Gasset. But what I learn from true leftists? Mainly from their many mistakes.
The ways that leftists talk about oppression are almost wholly counter-productive to freedom, to true liberation. Their current obsession, often dubbed by critics as an “Oppression Olympics,” is a vile victimhood cult, a slave morality, a revival of Christianity without the leavening lump of a distant and humbling deity.
Where leftists are, there be dragons.
They have left reality in their vain imaginings, and wander in the mythic realm of Terra Incognita.