The Return of Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

Sign reading:

In my continuing quest to discover libertarians concerned with Civil Rights in the twenty years following World War II I found Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader. The advertising copy tells us:

Race & Liberty in America explains the major themes of the anti-racist, classical liberal tradition of individual liberty and equality, demonstrating how it has inspired individuals to improve race relations in the United States. Rooted in the Judeo-Christian natural-law tradition, classical liberals have advocated freedom from governmental interference, abolition of prejudicial law, equality under a uniform rule of law guaranteed by the Constitution, and market-based entrepreneurial opportunity.

For those of you who aren’t up on all the libertarian lingo, “classical liberal” is a term preferred by some libertarians to, well, “libertarian.” Back in the New Deal era, many folks whom we would now classify as “libertarians” adopted the term to distinguish themselves from Roosevelt’s “liberals” who they thought distorted the real meaning of “liberalism.” The book’s introduction tells us the classical liberal tradition is informed by five core beliefs: Individual freedom, Christianity and Judaism, the Constitution, Colorblindness, and Capitalism. Of course many people hold these beliefs to some extent and apparently, one can completely reject some of them and still qualify as a “classical liberal” according to this book.  Thus the outspoken atheist is listed as a “classical liberal” (p. 185) and the book reprints Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech even though, “King was a social democrat who rejected the classical liberal vision of limited government” (p. 215). (This is just one of endless examples of the right attempting to claim King as one of their own despite ample evidence to the contrary).

In any case, if we are to believe the ad copy, here are the essential readings needed to understand the libertarian position on racism during the Civil Rights era. While it does little to change my mind that libertarians did little or nothing to aid the fight against segregation, it makes for interesting reading because it shows what weird histories libertarians tell about themselves in matters racial. Continue reading

Why Do Libertarians Believe In the Conquering State?

Portrait of Franz Oppenheimer

Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943)

Libertarians portray the “State” as an alien entity that forces itself onto free individuals. It isn’t just that they believe the state is granted a monopoly on coercion, they often argue that the state is nothing but coercion and violence. It produces nothing, it uses violence to seize from productive individuals all that it has. We do not create the state; the state is them and they take what they want from us without regard to our wants or needs. In trying to trace the origins of this “othering” of the state I found myself reading a lot of nineteeth-century German social science, in particular the work of Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943).

Franz Oppenheimer was a German/Jewish sociologist who published a short book in 1908 entitled Der Staat (translated into English as The State in 1922). Oppenheimer was perhaps the strongest critic of racial theories of statehood in turn-of-the-century German sociology (Stoetzler, 2014, pp. 121-2). In his own account of the origin of the state Oppenheimer argued that the origin of the state was one of war and conflict. He began his argument by claiming that there are only two ways of producing wealth:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. Robbery! Forcible appropriation! …

Both because of this, and also on account of the need of having, in the further development of this study, terse, clear, sharply opposing terms for these very important contrasts, I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”

Politics, which is the essence of the state, is nothing but theft according to this view. And the state, as a political institution, cannot itself provide resources or be a source of wealth. The state can only acquire resources produced by the labor others by means of coercion. This is Libertarianism 101.

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An American Dilemma and Eugenics

A woodcarving of Jesus and Satan

The word “eugenic” is an unquestionably negative adjective –tagging something eugenic is to disparage it, except in the rare case of someone who attempts to resuscitate some aspect of the vilified American eugenics movement. However, if asked, it is doubtful that those who employ the term to vilify something they object to can give an accurate definition of the term. Those who turn to the history of science to define the term are likely to be frustrated. The American eugenics movement was in fact so broad and historical scholarship on it has been so profuse that by the end of the twentieth century the word “eugenics” was applied to so many different activities that it was of little use in describing much of anything. And, since every industrialized country in the world had some kind of program under the rubric “eugenics” the problem becomes more acute if we move beyond the United States. Today, historians, activists, journalists and assorted political pundits can easily find evidence in the many activities associated with the word eugenics to support nearly any assertion they wanted to make. “What,” asked Philip Pauly a quarter century ago, “is then left of ‘eugenics’ apart from Francis Galton’s euphonious term and impressionistic images of semiutopian technocratic professionals?” (p. 133).

Unfortunately, outside the specialists in the history of biology, “eugenics” is often assumed to lead directly to the Nazi Final Solution. In a society that expressly values diversity and civil rights, the word “eugenicist” carries the same sort of weight that being labeled a pinko carried during the red scare. Diane Paul, who has extensively studied and written about both the history of the American eugenics movement and ongoing genetic research and interventions that are sometimes associated with the label eugenic, wrote, “I argue that efforts to demarcate eugenics from non-eugenics will prove as fruitless as analogous efforts to demarcate ‘science’ from non-science’ for the same reason; eugenics, like science, is simply much too heterogeneous. I believe that disputes about the meaning of eugenics are also unproductive. At present, the term is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad, but beyond the pale. It is a way of ending, not promoting, discussion.” (pp. 96-7)

Rhetorician Richard Weaver would call the word “eugenics” in our world a “devil term.” By this he meant a single term that stood for an idea or concept that was so repellent as to be universally rejected. Writing in the early 1960s, Weaver suggested that “un-American” or “Communist” or, significantly, “Nazi,” were a good examples of such “term[s] of repulsion” (p. 223).  A devil term cuts of discussion. It stops inquiry. The use of them betrays a desire to eliminate any further discussion of the problem.

I bring this up because one of my Twitter frenemies keeps bringing up (even though no one asked) his belief that “Gunnar Myrdal was a hardcore-eugenicist!” if I mention Myrdal’s enormously influential book, An American Dilemma.  Published in 1944, AAD set the stage for how Americans wrote and thought about race relations for two decades. It is widely considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century on race relations. What could it mean that this anti-racist classic was authored by a “hardcore eugenicist?” To answer that question, we need a clear understanding of “eugenics” which, as Paul noted years ago, is hard to come by.

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Replacing Sessions: A One-Act Play

Our scene opens as the sun sets on Washington DC. As the lights come up on the Oval Office, Trump sits with an aide trying to find a new Attorney General.

TRUMP: “Why not? I want him! He’s tough, he’s a real man!”

AIDE: “Yes, sir, I understand but….”

T: “So, get him in here first thing in the morning!”

A: “As I explained before, sir, Vlad the Impaler is dead and therefore unavailable.

T: “Dead, huh? Maybe he’s not as tough as I thought. OK, how about my #2 choice? Get him in here, first thing in the morning.”

A: “Ah, yessir, you see with #2…..”

T: “I’ve heard good things about him. He’s my choice.:

A: “Yes, but, you see, Klaus Barbie is also dead.”

T: “Goddammit to hell! Why are they all losers! Number 3?”

A: “Well, sir, Kim Jong-un is not technically an American so…..”

T: “Huh. I didn’t know that and I’m a smart guy. #4? He’s an American, for sure.”

A. “Well, sir, technically, The Grinch is fictional so I guess he *could* be an American….”

T: “Shit, fuck, goddam, fuck! Right, I’m going with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Great guy. Tough guy. Not as tough or great as me, but still tough and great.

A: Are you sir, sir? He’s a terrible human being! You had to pardon him for many violations of human rights? He’s completely unqualified! I’m sure the Republicans in the Senate will balk at confirming him.

They lock eyes and we hold for several beats. Then they both break into uncontrollable laughter.

T: “That’s a good one kid, you are funny. Not as funny as me, of course, but funny.”

A:  “Thank you sir, I’ll have Sheriff Joe here in the morning.”

Scene

How Can You Miss Me If I Won’t Go Away?

Drawing of a chimp riding a tricycle

I’ve been absent from these spaces since May. Sorry about that. This summer was busy; I’ve moved from Williamsburg VA and the College of William and Mary to take a new position at the James Madison College at Michigan State University in Lansing MI. Naturally none of these esteemed institutions get the blame for anything I write here.

This summer was spent packing and wondering why we own so many damn books and loading trucks and wondering why the damn books are so damn heavy and unpacking and wondering where we are going to put all these damn books. What with all that I didn’t have a lot of time to blog.

But now I’m a little more settled. I hope to back in the blogging saddle soon.

Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around

This is the third part of a three-part review:
Part I: Jonah Goldberg, Darwin and Unnatural Capitalism.
Part II: The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg.

A typewriter with the phrase

National Review, “Arts and Manners” column, 11 July 1956:

“The incitement to the lowbrow’s rebellion against the ‘mass media’ was one Elvis Presley, a pimply and thoroughly nasty young man who rotates his abdominal muscles on TV screens with the abandon of an old strip-teaser and the elegance of a waterfront slattern. He also sings. And one has to hear this pathetic wail of vulgarity to believe it. At any rate, Mr. Presley is at the moment the hottest thing on TV.”

Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West, 2018:

Rock and roll is the primitive drumbeat hooked up to killer amps…. Nowhere is the romantic mixture of pantheism, primitivism, and the primacy of inner feelings than in rock’s appeal to inner authority and authenticity…. It is no accident that drugs and rock and roll are so linked in the popular imagination. Both promise to take us out of the realm of daily concerns and rational priorities…. Nor is it coincidence that rock appeals most directly to adolescents…. It is when glandular desires are most powerful and our faculties of reason are the most susceptible to all manner of seduction..

Sigh. I suppose it could have been worse. He could have gone off about Marlon Brando or EC comics.

And thus we come (at last) to the third and least original of Jonah Goldberg’s themes in his book, Suicide of the West. In previous posts, I have described and critiqued his first two themes: that capitalism is unnatural and that it is particularly vulnerable to corruption. In this, my final post (promise!) about Goldberg’s book, I will address his final theme, ingratitude:

We are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle. Our schools and universities, to the extent that they teach the Western tradition at all, do so from a perspective of resentful hostility toward our accomplishments. (p. 16)

Uh oh. He’s going after the university, or as we call it in my house, “Daddy’s paycheck!”  I’d better spring into action! Honey? Where’s my super suit?

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The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg

This is the second part of a three-part review:

Part I: Jonah Goldberg, Darwin and Unnatural Capitalism.
Part III Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around.

Cover of a pulp novel entitled

Goldberg constantly smuggles in ideas he claims he has abandoned.

In 1938, rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke published a review of Thurman W. Arnold’s book, The Folklore of Capitalism.  Entitled “The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking,” Burke held that the debunker “covertly restores important ingredients of thought that he has overtly annihilated” which describes Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Suicide of the Westperfectly. Goldberg attempts to put forth a number of big ideas which recast the history of capitalism in a new light, by drawing on evolutionary psychology among other things, but he cannot build his argument without re-enrolling ideas which he has told us he has abandoned. The result is a book that is completely incoherent. The most serious consequence of Goldberg’s covertly smuggling ideas back into his argument is when he addresses the tangled history of capitalism, racism, and slavery.

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Jonah Goldberg, Darwin and Unnatural Capitalism

This is the first part of a three-part review:

Part II: The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg.
Part III Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around.

 

A drawing of a classical figure labeled

Anyone who claims, “There is a human nature” inevitably follows it with, “and I know what it is!” In his new book, Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg thinks he knows that there is “human nature” is and, unsurprisingly, claims to know what it is. “Human nature is real” he declares (p. 23) and is the result of “innate programming” we acquired 200,000-300,000 years ago and has held constant ever since.  We are programmed to live in small groups that max out at about 150 people–Dunbar’s number (p. 63). Because of this “genetic programming” (p. 63) we tend toward a sense of unity within our group and hostility toward strangers which are “universal human tendencies” (p. 25). In other words, “Violence is the natural way to get what you want from strangers” (p. 11). This tendency toward ingroup unity and outgroup of hostility is only a sample of the extensive list of universals that Goldberg claims have been documented by “thousands of researchers” (p. 26).  Capitalism and its concomitant individualism have proven to be the best way to overwrite our natural tendencies toward distrust since they demand we see individuals, not groups, and that peaceful exchange is mutually beneficial.

Despite its blustery assurance Suicide of the West is based on some very suspect evidence and equally poor argumentation. My task here is to explain why he is wrong about human nature. Subsequent posts will take up other claims he makes.

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My Alt Right Crazy Wall

A wall with pictures and maps and documents tacked to it connected by red yarn

It is a TV/Movie cliché: the wall covered with pictures, maps, documents all connected with string or yarn, usually red (so it shows up on camera I suppose) to signal that something big is going on. TV Tropes call the cliché “String Theory.”  There are usually two situations where we see such walls depicted. The first is the detective drama: it is posted on a whiteboard in the middle of the squad room so our characters can stand around it do some plot exposition. Another detective drama trope is when our hero has been taken off the case by the captain because he’s gone rogue one too many times. Our detective goes home and, to the surprise of no one, there is a wall covered with all the clues connected with the obligatory red yarn.

The other situation is more ominous. The wall is being constructed by the bad guy. Maybe a serial killer, maybe someone who has lost control of their faculties. String theory has now been transformed into a “Crazy Wall”  Crazy walls are usually signs of conspiratorial thinking. Someone who is convinced that some evil person or group is control of the whole situation and must be unmasked. Someone who thinks the world is controlled by Colonel Sanders and his friends. The Crazy Wall signals to the audience that there is an unbalanced mind at work:

Sean Hannity explaining his Crazy Wall of the Uranium One

The trick for the audience is to try to figure out if the character is onto something or has gone off the deep end.

The Crazy Wall has always annoyed me as a lazy bit of writing. Maybe it is because I’m not a very visual thinker, but I’ve never understood how the wall was supposed to help the character figure things out. Maybe it is because I’m not very crafty and I could never figure out how that yarn always looked so tidy. And you can forget about your damage deposit what with all those thumbtack holes in the wall.

So I never saw the use of such a wall.  Naturally, now I’m working on a Crazy Wall of the Alt Right.

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The Color of Law and the Politics of Artifacts

Ancient Roman Soldier

All roads lead to Rome. They do because the ancient Romans built roads. Lotsa roads. They were famous for it. They had had an empire to build and maintain.  They had to come and see and conquer. They had nouns to decline and verbs to conjugate. So they built roads. Really good roads. So good, in fact, that many routes we still use today through Europe were laid down by the Romans two-thousand years ago.

The Romans built roads because they needed them for the maintenance of their empire. The technology of the road was embedded in a particular social system of power. Roman roads are an example of how, in political theorist Langdon Winner’s phrase, artifacts have politics.  The artifacts we are surrounded with every day: our houses, neighborhoods, roads, cities are political in nature. They reflect a certain set of assumptions about who should live where and who should travel freely. One of Winner’s examples were the overpasses built on Long Island. These bridges were too low to allow buses to pass which meant that major transportation routs were designed to keep lower-people out of areas while allowing wealthier, car-owning folks easy access.

In Richard Rothstein’s new book, The Color of Lawit is clear that Winner’s was not an isolated example. Throughout the country, technologies of space and place were purposefully designed to maintain a racist society.

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