By “David Sheldon” — this somewhat irksome think-piece, printed just in time for the 1987 Libertarian Party Convention, was roundly hated in both the Ron Paul and Russell Means camps. Ultra-Paul supporter Murray Rothbard thought it was “pro-Means”; Honey Lanham, the Means campaign’s chair, thought it was pro-Paul. For the record? It was neither.
Liberty, Vol. 1, No. 1: August 1987, pp. 42-44
Russell Means has been described as a wild card, a cipher, an enigma. But, for all his charisma, despite his mystique, there is no mystery about him. He is simply what he says he is: a leader of an oppressed people.
What is striking about him is his sense of poetry, his intensely mythological imagination. He begins each speech to libertarians by speaking in his Sioux language, declaring that he has at last found his true allies. He speaks of his place of birth as a traditionally sacred place of his people.
Myths for Libertarians
Of the several definitions for myth, the most popular is the least interesting. “An untrue beliefor story!” In this usage, “myth” is merely a weapon for polemicists. It merely provides a tool for argument, not inquiry.
The anthropological and literary definitions have much richer meanings. What is important to the anthropologist and the literary critic is not the truth or falsity of a belief or story, but how the story is used. Myths, in anthropological terminology, are experienced in a particular way. They have an important place in the culture of which they are a part: they impart a sense of awe, or reverence in their listeners, and influence how the people behave. They are integral with, the religion or customs of their culture, and have an ethical import. They help make up the mores and morals of the culture.
The literary critic, on the other hand, takes a step back from this view of the myth. He is not concerned with how the myth affects the behavior of the people who created it, but merely how it can be experienced by the lone appreciator.
“Myth” can be legitimately used in a value-free sense. Furthermore, it is possible that there might be true myths. C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and literary critic, understood this very well, and insisted not only on the aesthetic value of the mythopoeic, but also on the actual truth of his Christian mythology — all the while insisting that it was, indeed, mythology.
Myths are not limited to religions, however. Science, in Karl Popper’s words, “must begin with myths and the criticism of myths.” But it often ends with them too: even today the accounts of long ages of slow change and monstrous beasts are often experienced as mythology, as horders of dinosaur-crazed third graders should attest.
And politics, of course, is filled with myths. Ideologues tend to use history as a sacred, text to defend their positions, and the fact that they do so does not necessarily invalidate either the history so used or their arguments (no matter how our suspicions are aroused).
In the United States, the place of the Constitution in the life of the nation has led more than one observer to characterize the Constitutional process as the “secular religion” of the people. Constitution-worship is not limited to right-wingers such as the Birchers. The stories surrounding it and our experience of it are heavily mythological. Ro-nald Dworkin, the well known “liberal” legal theorist, believes that this mythological/religious aspect is part of the genius of the American Constitution.
Toward this religion, as so many others, the libertarian must be considered a heretic. We have our own myths, and place our respect elsewhere. Our tales of American history do not often mesh well with the more traditional American approach. Our history runs a slightly different course.
We tell how colonists threw off an imperial rule, justifying their actions by recourse to the idea of “certain inalienable rights . . . to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We go on to relate how those same revolutionaries turned back on their official justification, and avoided granting that same liberty and sovereignty to African slaves and the Indian nations. In the crises that inevitably followed, America gave up the ideal of a Republic of free men, and became an empire.
Of course, we tend to keep our emotions low-keyed. We are the children of the Enlightenment, and are inexperienced in the use of myth. To us, a myth is untrue. Just like Marxists, we like to think that every argument we use, every story we tell is backed up by science.
The libertarian ideologue calls himself a philosopher, and says: Mythology: Who Needs It?
The Noble Savage
There is something a little pathetic in all this: it is born out of narrow-minded thinking and a lack of self-reflection. One suspects that many libertarians have fooled themselves, and do not really know why they are libertarians.
Many libertarians, during their formative years, undergo a period when they feel an intense alienation from the rest of society. Libertarianism (especially in its Objectivist variants) meets a specific psychological need: a justification for this alienation, for not belonging. Egoism becomes the explicit doctrine of many libertarians not only because of its sheer simplicity and elegance, but also because it provides a foundation for the intransigence of the libertarian loner. It justifies what is felt to be the commonly understood “unforgiveable” sin: uniquity.
But most libertarians are not really egoists: many embrace libertarianism not simply as a way to justify their differences with the rest of society, but also to reach out on terms that are respectable. Few libertarians join the Libertarian Party because they really believe it is in their self-interest, understood in the usual egoistic sense. Most, one suspects, join out of a desire to be a part of a movement to help humanity. Libertarianism rests not on a theory of rational self-interest, but on rational other-interest.
This explains much better the psychology of the Libertarian Party joiners than does the dominant theory of egoism. It also explains why the arguments of Erwin Strauss’s The Case Against a Libertarian Political Party have had little impact. Its arguments simply do not apply to those who are dedicated to the Party. “Big L” Libertarians are instead closet “altruists,” of a moderate sort.
And it also explains why so many of them have become so enamored with Russell Means. These latter day Noble Savages with their State-of-Nature theories, their feelings of alienation and their repressed desires to belong, are easily attracted to the poetic mythology of Russell Means. And his myths fit easily into the libertarian mythology. It is easy to agree with Means when he claims that the European-American treatment of the Indians was a fatal flaw in their efforts to build a good society: what good could come of not respecting the rights of a whole race?
And when Means claims that the American Indian, is, by his culture, an anarchist, what could be more thrilling? The Noble Savage is no longer a point of theory, it is a living . . . myth, right in front of us.
Libertarians, as a number of surveys have shown — though we hardly need a survey to tell us the obvious! — are remarkably “irreligious.” They seem to be as godless as the proverbial commies. What religions they do represent are statistically out of sync with the rest of the nation: More “new religions” than Jews, more Jews than Mainline Protestants, more Catholics than Conservative Protestants. And whatever religion a libertarian may believe, among other libertarians, it is very private.
The avoidance of religious rhetoric within the movement is a result of the underlying distrust of the standard rhetoric: religious rhetoric is seen as traditionally an influence against, rather than for, the pluralistic social order libertarians want. And this also explains why Russell Means is the exception to this prejudice: his religiosity is not threatening. When he speaks of the “sacred colors of man” (referring to the various races), it is interpreted as a poeticism, as part of a non-threatening piety that truly does respect human diversity. We can get into that.
Still, there are doubts. The biggest doubt about the advisability of running Means as a Libertarian (aside from the obvious question as to whether he is actually a Libertarian, something more than just an ally) should probably be whether other Americans would buy his mythology, whether the average American would be inspired by his religiosity, or turned off by it, find it ridiculous. Libertarians, so out of sync with the mainstream of American culture, are probably unqualified to decide.
Other doubts also arise. Though his mythology may be infectious, our rationalism persists. On the face of it, his myths are often myths in the common sense of the term: simple untruths.
He speaks of a monolithic Indian culture, but the historical evidence is all against such a notion: customs varied from tribe to tribe, and there were thousands upon thousands of tribes. Perhaps over the several centuries of opression they have converged, but that is not his line of argument.
He has also insisted on the idea of an American genesis for man: a notion that most anthropologists find ridiculous. But he seems to actually believe it, and believe it with the same conviction with which he holds all his other mythical notions.
How can libertarians tolerate such nonsense? Because, I suppose, they are deemed harmless. They do not threaten. They are tolerated as poetic license. And the poetry is appreciated as far better — and perhaps far more effective — than any of the libertarians’ feeble attempts at stirring the heart-strings. It surely has more beauty than the standard libertarian rationalism.
And it feels so good. Russell Means may, or may not, “speak American” — but he does speak to many libertarians. He speaks to the libertarians who want to belong to a movement that will do good, will “save mankind” — a movement that will be as noble as their dreams.
As any reader can guess, I, too, am tempted to support Russell Means. I can easily imagine myself as a delegate at the Seattle Nominating Convention, casting my vote for this remarkable man. I can almost hear the crowds . . . I can imagine myself — for the first time in my life — actually enjoying this sort of thing. I can imagine believing that my vote is significant, impor- tant in a way it has never before been. But even in my dream I feel a vague discomfort, a nagging doubt. I am sure that most libertarian would call this feeling “the voice of reason,” but I beg to differ: a better word would be guilt, a sense of sin.
Not, perhaps, an unreasonble feeling to have, upon entering the realm of mythology.