My Country ’Tis of Me

As Stephen Colbert has said: “My country ’tis of me, sweet man of liberty!”

Actually he was right. I’ve argued that the idea of democracy – the idea of self-government, of the people ruling themselves – logically leads to the idea of individual self-government, to anarchy; that mere majority rule, the government of the many over the few, is precisely not any form of self-government and does not deserve the term “democracy.”

In the following passage Mark Twain seems to be working his way toward the same idea:

For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant – merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Mark Twain Who, then, is “the Country”? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.

Who are the thousand – that is to say, who are “the Country”? In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country – hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.

(Mark Twain, Papers of the Adam Family.)

(Conical hat tip to J. Michael Straczynski, in the latest issue of Amazing Spider-man – though I then looked it up to make sure it was a genuine quotation.)

No, Twain hadn’t gotten all the way yet. Individual self-government and collective self-government were still blurred together in his mind. But the seeds were there.

Saucer Speak

News coverage of the recent O’Hare UFO – this sighting with the added frisson of multiple credible witnesses and FOIA-extracted proof of a government cover-up – has fallen into a predictable pattern. The story is always introduced with a chuckle, as though to suggest “don’t worry, we’re not actually taking this seriously,” and the assumption is always made that whatever was seen must either be

  • a) some perfectly familiar and ordinary phenomenon misidentified, or
  • b) an alien spaceship.

Hence all the jokes: “Who would fly a million light-years just to land at O’Hare?” 

These are not UFOs Indeed the term “UFO” has virtually come to mean “extraterrestrial spacecraft” (as when people ask “do you believe in UFOs?” or inquire of some anomalous sighting “was it a UFO?” – clearly the term is well on its way to becoming a dead acronym, in a sense analogous to a dead metaphor); thus language is once more pressed into the service of foreclosing alternatives.

Yet alternatives of course there are. Just to name three, UFOs might be:

  • c) some unfamiliar natural phenomenon not yet understood, perhaps electromagnetic in nature;
  • d) parapsychological phenomena along the lines suggested by Jacques Vallee and Kenneth Ring (and earlier, Carl Jung);
  • e) secret experimental military aircraft.

And probably there are more possibilities. I hold no particular brief for any of (c), (d), and (e); nor do I claim they’re especially likely. Then again, (a) and (b) aren’t especially likely either – indeed, those two strike me as the least likely of the five. 

But I don’t have any particular UFO theory. As long, however, as the prevailing attitude toward UFOs remains a mix of embarrassed titters on the one hand and fantastic visions of space invaders on the other – as long as the aliens-or-nothing paradigm prevails – serious investigation of the UFO phenomenon will continue to be minimal.

Which might be just the way our rulers want it, especially if something like (e) is the truth. (Indeed, cynical-minded folks have suggested that some UFO sightings may be deliberate hoaxes perpetrated by the government to discredit the actual sightings. But then, we all know that the Illuminati are a front for the Illuminati ….) In any case, the media seem remarkably uninterested in the government cover-up, despite the fact that in this case the FAA was caught red-handed and basically had to admit it had lied. But what news agency is going to risk its credibility by investigating Saucermen from Sagittarius?

The Passion of Indiana Jones

Word is that the fourth Indiana Jones movie is finally starting to slouch its way toward the big screen. (Conical hat tip to AICN.)

One non-obvious reason to be excited about this is that Lucas and Spielberg have suggested more than once that the complete Young Indiana Jones DVD set won’t be released until Indy IV is. Young Indy was one of my favourite tv shows (incidentally very libertarian and antiwar) and surely the most nuanced work Lucas has ever done. A few years ago a random scattering of Young Indy episodes (in the studio’s ineffable wisdom, nos. 6, 8, 10-13, 15-18, 20, and 22) were released on VHS, but the long-awaited DVDs are supposed to be the full deal, including footage never actually broadcast and lots of bonus features.

Although I’m glad they’re getting rid of the pathetic-old-coot-Indy framing device – the tv series’ equivalent of Jar Jar – I don’t care for the way that Lucas has been re-editing the series, jamming what were originally disparate one-hour episodes together into broken-backed two-hour episodes. But we all know Lucas can’t let past work be; I sometimes expect hovercars to be edited into the director’s cut of American Graffiti.

Young Indiana Jones Heretically, I actually like Young Indy better than the Indy movies, with which it has only tenuous connections anyway; both the character and his world seem radically different between the tv and movie versions, and trying mentally to put the two together is like learning that Hilary Swank’s character in Million Dollar Baby got resurrected and changed her name to Lara Croft. I think this disparity hurt the success of the tv series; viewers tuned in expecting something similar to the movies and were disappointed by the (usually) slower pace, greater realism, darker mood, and more thoughtful scripts, while many viewers who would have liked the series didn’t think to tune in, expecting a low-budget Raiders for kiddies. (Insanely erratic scheduling didn’t help much either.)

Admittedly Young Indy at its worst could be pretty cheesy – hey kids, here’s another famous historic event or personage to be oversimplified and crammed implausibly into Indy’s life story – but at its best it was stunningly good. And it was at its best fairly often – particularly the World War I arc, and most particularly episodes 9 and 11, which deserve a place of honour at libertarian/antiwar film festivals. (In the interest of full disclosure: I also liked the second American Graffiti movie – another film with strong libertarian and antiwar themes – more than the first. I may be the only person on earth of whom this is true. So caveat lector.)

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Indy movies too, and I’m looking forward to Indy IV for its own sake. But I worship the tv series (again, at its best); so the promised advent of Indy IV is doubly good news for me.

So what’s Indy IV going to be about? Here’s a clue:

For the moment, the title of the new film as well as its story line are being kept under wraps. In August, however, Lucas told, “I discovered a McGuffin. I told the guys about it and they were a little dubious about it, but it’s the best one we’ve ever found. … Unfortunately, it was a little too ‘connected’ for the others. They were afraid of what the critics would think. They said, ‘Can’t we do it with a different McGuffin? Can’t we do this?’ and I said ‘No.’ So we pottered around with that for a couple of years. And then Harrison really wanted to do it and Steve said, ‘Okay.’ I said, ‘We’ll have to go back to that original McGuffin and take out the offending parts of it and we’ll still use that area of the supernatural to deal with it.’”

Any guesses as to what this controversial, potentially offensive McGuffin (= object on which the plot turns) might be? My first thought was the spear that was used to stab Jesus during his crucifixion.

Apocalypto East

“The man who speaks to you of sacrifice,” Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead, “speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”

In his latest “special comment” tonight, Keith Olbermann responded forcefully to reports that our Prince President plans to call for “sacrifice” to justify increased U.S. troop presence in Iraq:


More American servicemen and women will have their lives risked.

More American servicemen and women will have their lives ended.

Keith Olbermann More American families will have to bear the unbearable and rationalize the unforgivable – “sacrifice” – sacrifice now, sacrifice tomorrow, sacrifice forever. …

That is what this “sacrifice” has been for.

To continue this senseless, endless war. …

It has succeeded, Mr. Bush, in enabling you to deaden the collective mind of this country to the pointlessness of endless war, against the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It has gotten many of us used to the idea – the virtual “white noise” – of conflict far away, of the deaths of young Americans, of vague “sacrifice” for some fluid cause, too complicated to be interpreted except in terms of the very important-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrase “the war on terror.”

And the war’s second accomplishment – your second accomplishment, sir – is to have taken money out of the pockets of every American, even out of the pockets of the dead soldiers on the battlefield, and their families, and to have given that money to the war profiteers. …

This has now become “human sacrifice.” …

Our meaningless sacrifice in Iraq must stop.

I would grumble a bit at Olbermann’s focusing solely on American lives sacrificed; but otherwise it’s dead-on. Read the whole thing. (And I assume the video will be online ere long.)

Stalag Economics

As most of my readers will know, Kevin Carson uses the term “vulgar libertarian” for the all-too-prevalent tendency in this movement of ours to treat the prevailing state capitalist order as an approximation to a free market, thus allowing the case for the latter to serve as a justification for various features of the former – an unfortunate legacy, IMHO, of the quondam alliance of libertarians and conservatives against state socialism. (Incidentally, as Carson has noted, the term is best used for the sin and not for the sinner, since very few of us commit it consistently.)

I fear I must chide my seldom-vulgarlibbin’ comrade Butler Shaffer (who after all wrote the very un-vulgarlib In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition) for going the vulgarlib fallacy one better in an LRC blogpost today that treats prison camps as an approximation to the free market.

Jailhouse Rock Butler uses the fact that trade in prison camps leads to significant inequalities of wealth as evidence that free markets generate such inequalities – and so as evidence that such inequalities are unobjectionable from a libertarian standpoint.

Now I have no idea what the extent of economic inequality would be in a free market. Certainly most of the current inequalities, depending as they do on direct or indirect governmental intervention, would be absent; but I don’t claim to know that entrepreneurial skill and/or luck wouldn’t lead to new ones.

What I do claim is that a prison camp, in which all goods are doled out in fixed quantities by the guards and no one has independent access to natural resources, is an even poorer model of a free market than state capitalism is; making inferences from the prison camp to the free market is accordingly risky. Even if in such a prison camp higher economic positions are initially achieved by free exchange, they are in part maintained by the fact that nobody can compete with the present winners by going off and producing more cigarettes or whatever. A prison camp is a perfect example of a world in which production and distribution are radically separated; how goods end up being traded has no effect on the kinds or quantities of goods that will be produced in the future.

Suppose that through clever trading I’ve managed to accumulate more gumdrops than any other prisoner, and am consequently charging high prices for this scarce commodity. In a free market, this would send a price signal to encourage increased production of gumdrops, and my market share would quickly be in danger of erosion. But in the prison camp the production and (initial) distribution of gumdrops is entirely outside of the prisoners’ control, and so the forces that produce competition are suppressed.

In a free market, by contrast, the forces that produce economic inequality by rewarding entrepreneurial judgment face constant challenge from other forces that work to undo such inequality by rewarding the entrepreneurial judgment of competitors. These forces are severely hampered in a prison camp; inequalities in the latter thus tell us little about what inequalities to expect in the former.

The state capitalism that prevails in western democracies is freer than a prison camp; but, as Kevin frequently notes, access to natural resources is artificially restricted here too. (I don’t agree with all the details of Kevin’s views on land – see our exchange here – but I certainly agree with that general point.) And as Kevin further notes, much existing inequality draws support from those governmental restrictions. Thus inequality under state capitalism is likewise an unreliable predictor of how things will be under liberty.

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