Dagny on a Train

Angelina Jolie [cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Looks like Angelina Jolie will indeed be starring in the film version of Atlas Shrugged. (Conical hat tip to Wally Conger and Bob Bidinotto.)

This will likely translate into lots of new Rand readers, which is good. But as I’ve said before, we left-Randians will need to work hard to make sure new inquirers know about the full range of Rand’s legacy. I have some thoughts about how to do that – coming soon!

The Shroud of Turin

Dragonslayer's helmet Of all the various tales of Middle-Earth that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in addition to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, my favourite has long been his unfinished novel Narn i hin Húrin (“The Children of Hurin”), printed in Unfinished Tales.

There are two stories from the Middle-Earth backstory cycle that Tolkien wrote in various versions, both prose and verse, over and over and over again: the story of Beren and Luthien, and the story of Turin and the Dragon – the latter a grim tale of a doomed hero, drawing heavily on Norse and Finnish legends. (Picture an Elric story, but written by Tolkien.) Narn i hin Húrin is one of the many versions of the Turin story; but it is unique among the various Silmarillion-related works in being written in something much closer to novelistic style and detail than any other Middle-Earth material besides The Hobbit and LOTR. It really would have been another Middle-Earth novel if Tolkien had finished it. (One might say that if The Hobbit is Tolkien’s Rheingold and LOTR is Tolkien’s Götterdämmerung, then Narn i hin Húrin is Tolkien’s Siegfried and Walküre.)

Now comes the news (see here and here) that Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R.’s son, is completing the novel. Peter Jackson, are you listening?

Why They Were Anarchists

Anti-Anarchist Cartoon, 1886 More anarchist classics!

Benjamin Tucker and Voltairine de Cleyre each wrote essays on the subject “Why I Am An Anarchist.”

Tucker’s essay appeared in Hugh Pentecost’s Twentieth Century in 1892, and was subsequently republished as a pamphlet in 1934. It’s not well known, since it didn’t appear in Liberty, Instead of a Book, or Individual Liberty.

De Cleyre’s piece was delivered as a lecture in 1897, and subsequently appeared in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth in 1908.

Online now, they are.

So Who’s Behind All These Conspiracy Theories?

My 9/11 blog post Five Years After was re-posted on LRC this weekend. The new version is substantially identical to the old one, except that it includes this additional paragraph:

The fifth anniversary was marked by commemorations amounting to an apotheosis of the American State, with endless images of waving flags, and endless posturing. The 9/11 attacks were repeatedly referred to as “the worst terrorist attack in history” (conveniently forgetting Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden …). The president spoke earnestly about children who “still long for the daddies who will never cradle them in their arms” (as though having one’s father killed was something only suffered, never caused, by Americans) and about “fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations” (as though ending lives abroad and destroying freedom here were the natural way to do this). “America did not ask for this war,” he proclaimed innocently, as though the terrorists’ actions were something other than a response to, and in large part a mirror image of, U.S. foreign policy in the years prior to 9/11.

I’ve received surprisingly little hate mail over this LRC post; but many readers have written (I’ve been away from email all weekend and so am just seeing their responses now) to ask me why I seem to accept the official governmental version of what happened, i.e., why I make no reference to the various 9/11 conspiracy theories. CONSPIRATORS!The simple answer is that while I’ve read and watched a number of presentations defending such theories, I’m simply not technically competent to evaluate them. When two purported scientific experts disagree as to whether, for example, a jet fuel fire could be hot enough to melt steel in the manner that is supposed to have occurred, I don’t see that I, who know nothing about jet fuel fires or the melting point of steel, am in any position to decide between them. (Nor, I suspect, are most of the people on either side of the controversy.) 

I accept the official story provisionally, as supported by the preponderance of the evidence I understand, but with no especial conviction. I’ve studied a few conspiracy theories closely enough to form a cautious opinion – for example, I think the official story on the Holocaust is pretty much correct, and that the official story on the JFK assassination is very likely wrong (though I have no one particular alternative theory I’m plumping for on that one) – but I don’t have the time or inclination to investigate every conspiracy theory closely enough to make an informed judgment, particularly if doing so involves mastering details of chemistry and structural engineering.

A word about conspiracy theories: I think there are two kinds of mistakes to make in regard to them.

One kind of mistake is to be overly dismissive of such theories. One often hears people say “oh, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories” – any conspiracy theories, apparently, as though “conspiracy” were a term without referents. But that’s pretty silly, for everybody is committed to recognising some conspiracy theories as true. For example, as conspiracy theorists rightly like to point out, the official story on 9/11 is as much a conspiracy theory as the dissident version; ditto for the Holocaust. The Manhattan Project, too, was a government conspiracy involving massive numbers of people, and yet kept successfully secret from the public in precisely the way that critics of conspiracy theories like to claim is impossible.

The opposite kind of mistake is to be too receptive to conspiracy theories. The core of this mistake is the assumption that the only alternative to conspiracy is coincidence – as when conspiracy theorists refer to their opponents as “coincidence theorists.” Thus when the number of suspicious correlations becomes too high to be plausibly labeled a coincidence, the conspiracy theorist infers deliberate coordination. But given the central role of invisible-hand explanations (both beneficent and maleficent ones – spontaneous order and spontaneous ordure) in social science, any approach to the explanation of historical events that limits itself to coincidence and conspiracy is pretty hard up for categories.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

Conspiracy theories should not necessarily be regarded as inherently suspect. After all, the greater the extent to which power is concentrated in a society, the easier it is to form an effective conspiracy (because the number of people that need to be involved to pull off a major change is smaller); so we should predict that more conspiracies will indeed occur in societies with centralized power. However, it is also true that incentive structures can coordinate human activities in ways that involve no conscious cooperation.
(“Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class,” pp. 331-2n.; in Social Philosophy & Policy 15. no. 2 (Summer 1998), pp. 303-349.)

In any case, as Brad Spangler recently pointed out, even if the official story on 9/11 is true – that is, even on the interpretation most favourable to those in power – the government is still largely to blame for the attacks. Even accepting its own official version, the government helped to provoke those attacks, was powerless to prevent them, and continues to provoke further attacks it would also be powerless to prevent – all the while using the whole cycle as a pretext for foreign wars and domestic oppression. The defendant may have committed crimes to which he hasn’t confessed; but those to which he has confessed are enough to hang him. 

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