Sunday, February 22, 2009

Prophets or Quislings: The choice for libertarians.

Over the last few months I have had to discuss various matters with Dr. Nathaniel Branden. As a result I have been rereading various essays and articles, which he wrote over the years. Tonight I picked up the October, 1971 issue of REASON magazine, which has an extensive interview with Branden.

In the interview he is asked about what advice he would give to the then burgeoning libertarian movement. His reply is quite interesting.
I think it’s unfortunate that Libertarians so often leave the initiative to the Leftists. For example, it was the Leftists who were the first—publicly and in a big way—to oppose our involvement in Viet Nam. It was the Leftists who were the first—publicly and in a big way—to oppose the draft. It was the Leftists who were the first—publicly and in a big way—to denounce racism in this country.

Never mind that the Leftists had their own motives for doing so and that those motives would not be the motives of Libertarians. The fact remains that we should have never have involved ourselves in Viet Nam, the draft is evil, and racism is contemptible. Libertarians—the true defenders of individual rights—should have been the first to speak up on these subjects, loudly and clearly and publicly.

I don’t mean that these are the only issues to which Libetarians should address themselves. Far from it. But it would have been immensely important had Libertarians been the first to speak up on these problems.

Libertarians don’t seem to know what the vital issues are, where the battle lines most need to be drawn, and which issues should be attacked first. They don’t seem to have a good sense of practical reality in these matters.
Dr. Branden has often, in his career, zeroed in on some very important aspect of the psychology of libertarians. I think these comments actually are very telling and wish that Dr. Branden had expanded on them at the time. I don’t know what explanation he would give if asked why he thought this problem existed. As things now stand we are planning to meet up in a couple of months time and I shall do my best to remember to ask him about this, if time allows.

Dr. Branden’s comments got me to thinking about this issue. First, I look inward to investigate my own actions and thoughts. My inclination has been to speak out on such issues. I have always been that way. Still in grade school myself I remember making black armbands to wear in protest of the Viet Nam war—whether I actually ever had the courage to put them on I actually don’t remember.

As a young man I remember riding in a car as it drove past a gay bar. If my research is right it was a bar called The Gold Coast, which was founded in the late 1950s. It had numerous police cars surrounding it with their lights flashing. The cops were bringing the men out of the bar and taking them off to be booked: their only crime was to be gay. What I most remember was looking out the back window of the car and watching this scene and trying to figure out why this sort of thing had to happen. I never could understand it. I still don’t.

As a boy I watched the black and white news footage that showed the civil rights activists marching through the South hoping to bring equal legal rights to the black community. The various scenes of the police ruthlessly, and without provocation, beating people up offended me.

Even when I got suckered into Christian fundamentalism I was having a hard time buying the agenda. I was spoon-fed ultra-Right garbage about lots of things. Some of it I bought. What I had trouble with was those aspects of the agenda that targeted others for hate.

One of the key things that helped me escape fundamentalism was when some church people took me to a political rally held at someone’s home. I was shocked to see men in uniforms with swastikas on their arms. The leader of this sad collective gave a passionate speech about how the Jews must be killed, how the Blacks must be killed, and how the gays must be killed. I don’t believe he used the same polite terms that I just did. His preferred method of execution was to feed these people live into a one of those large mulchers that grind up trees.

That began my journey out of fundamentalism. When I looked in the face of hatred I knew I didn’t fit there.

I have always had this tendency to want to defend the powerless – perhaps because, at times, I have been powerless. I have been concerned about the oppressed because I have known oppression. I have fought hated because I have been hate’s victim. When I look into the faces of those who are weak, who are powerless, oppressed and victimized I see my own reflection looking back at me. My humanity in reflected in their own.

That such things have caused me great pain reminds me that similar things cause pain to others. Of course I identify with the Mexican seeking a better life for himself and his family. I don’t identify because I am Mexican, since I am not. I identify with him because we share a common humanity.

Over the years I have had the freedom to make choices. Sometimes I botched those choices spectacularly. I have many regrets about decisions I made. But it was important that I make those choices and that I suffer experience the regrets. My freedom was central to my humanity. And the freedom of others is central to their humanity. To rule others is to deny them their equal humanity. It is to substitute your will for their own.

We’ve all experienced the pain of having our will violated by someone else. That experience means I respect the free choices of others, even when they are clearly the wrong choices. I don’t understand those who see things differently here—those who respond to having their will violated by wishing to become the masters of others. Whether their desire to control others is done out of “good intentions” or hatred matters not. Whatever their intentions they hurt others through their actions.

So when I look inside myself I don’t see the tendency that Dr. Branden spoke of. But I have seen it among many libertarians.

My thought is that this happens because many libertarians have come to the philosophy from the political Right. Conservatism is an inherently stagnant philosophy. It clings to the past as good simply because it is the past. It is a fearful political viewpoint that abhors change the way nature abhors a vacuum. Hayek has discussed this well in his essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative.” Oliver Brett wrote an entire book on this, In Defense of Liberty.

Conservatives fear every change. But the Left embraces every change as a revolutionary chance to change things. The Left blindly supports change for the sake of change. The Right fears it. Classical liberalism is somewhere in between. It neither fears change nor embraces it without thought.

The Left’s tendency to embrace radical change for its own sake meant that they were too easily duped by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and others. They ended up in bed with genocidal maniacs. This did much to discredit their political views. But at the same time it forced many classical liberals to abandon their alliance with the Left and form an alliance with the Right. That alliance had one primary purpose: to counter the drive toward communist dictatorships, which many on the Left supported.

Decades of this battle meant that many liberals—and when I say liberals I mean classical liberals—were in constant contact with conservatives. As such they adopted conservative temperaments. When modern prosperity allowed humans to seek out what Abraham Maslow called our “higher order needs” for self-actualization the conservative temperament said to resist.

With each new cultural explosion the conservative was defending the past, no matter how bad the past was. And libertarians, acclimated to being allied with such backward-looking types, followed suit.

One example I can think of was a pamphlet put out by a libertarian foundation. This was published at the time that the civil rights movement was fighting for equal rights in the South. From a libertarian perspective most of what they fought for was right and honorable. Some of it was not.

Conservatives fought back, wanting to stave off any and all changes. These libertarians published a booklet which discussed in legal detail why individual business owners had the right to withhold their services to others for any reason they wished, including race. Technically speaking there is no logical fallacy that I can detect in that essay. I would agree with it. What I question is why that was the side of the civil rights movement that they tackled.

We were witnessing large-scale attacks, by the Southern states and their police forces, to extinguish the right of free protest against injustice. We had police officers urging vicious dogs to rip into the flesh of human beings who asked for the right to register to vote. We had Southern juries covering up for the murderous activities of the cowards in the Ku Klux Klan. State governments were forcing bus companies to refuse to treat black passengers with equal respect. Fire bombs were being thrown into churches filled with children. Yet, out of this landscape of atrocities, these libertarians, who were good people, decided to focus on the issue of whether or not a barber should be forced to cut the hair of a black man.

There were a hundred legitimate ways in which libertarians could have stood up for individual rights against an oppressive state regime that was doing violence to millions of people. Instead they concentrated on a small issue of limited importance. Worse yet, by picking that issue, they seemed to be siding with the conservative forces of oppression. Their first reaction was to side with the status quo, in other words, they acted like their conservative allies.

Today there are two major political battles taking place in the cultural arena. One is gay marriage and the other is our war on immigrants. And while many good libertarians are working to establish equality before the law for gays, and stop the war on peaceful immigrants, far too many libertarians are on the wrong side.

Just as libertarians left Viet Nam, the draft and civil rights to the Left we are leaving marriage equality and immigration to the Left today. Some just aren’t involved because the issues don’t touch them directly. They aren’t gay; they aren’t immigrants, so why worry? Instead they may continue to fight for gun rights, a battle that is largely won in fact.

One reason libertarianism is often seen as heartless is that libertarians are too often absent when assaults on people take place. They are afraid to stand up to the mob.

When the young schoolboy, Lawrence King, was brutally executed by another boy who hated him because he was gay, people were horrified. How many libertarians bothered to express outrage? If someone gets pulled over for carrying a firearm, in a state where it is not permitted, libertarian blogs light up in indignation. Both are violations of rights. One meant that the victim spent some time in jail and faced a trial. Another meant a small boy bled to death on the floor of his school classroom. Guess which one they talked about?

Libertarians need to follow Dr. Branden’s advice. There are issues that are igniting passion. By remaining silent you endorse the status quo, or at least you give that impression. By focusing on the motes in the eyes of the victims, and ignoring the beams in the eyes of the oppressors, you send the rather unsubtle message that the victims deserve their fate. When you do that, you do liberty a disservice and undermine the very principles of justice, which ought to compel us to fight for the rights of all.

The more powerless someone is, the more victimized they are, the greater the mob mentality against them, the more necessary it becomes for libertarians to come to their side. The conservative mentality says that the greater the size of the mob gathered to lynch someone, the more likely it is that the person deserves to be lynched. What libertarians ought to know is that this means that justice is more likely to be trampled upon, that rights are more likely to be violated.

When a large mob gathers to burn the witch it is vital that we libertarians speak out in opposition. The short-term, maximize-the-vote mentality says that is disaster. One never wins popularity contests with a mob by stopping them from burning the witch.

My view looks farther ahead. One day the mob will wake up and realize what monsters they have become. Lynch mobs eventually come to their senses. When they do they remember the lone voices that spoke out against their cruelty and they respect them. Helen Suzman was vilified for decades for being the one voice in South Africa’s parliament to speak against the inhumanity of apartheid. Beyond her own constituency there was no hope for her or her party being elected. But apartheid fell and Suzman was honored in nation after nation for being that one lone voice in a sea of anger.

When we side with the safety of the conservative view, when we fear to stand against the mob mentality, we gain some short-term support from the mob, but we lose respect.

Today the mob continues to do horrific things to people. Libertarians will lose votes today by standing up to that – this is precisely why the conservatives who run the LP today have played down the social issues. But in gaining those short-term votes (and not very many of them, I might add) they lose long-term respect.

It is said that a prophet is never respected in his own land. That is false. It is true when he first arrives and preaches his message that the people must repent of their egregious errors. At that moment he is hated, he may even be martyred for raising his voice. Eventually the day comes when the prophet is honored and acknowledged and the people embrace his message.

Unless libertarians are willing to be the prophets of our day, and to stand up for the rights of all people, especially those most vilified and hated, we shall be forever relegated to the footnotes of history. If we can have the courage to stand for justice and individual rights, in the face of popular opinion, the day may come when people see the wisdom of our philosophy. If, instead of playing a prophetic role, we seek the approval of the mob, we shall be forever be following the mobs as they burn their victims. We will become the Quislings of liberty.

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