(These ideas are explicated in this sloppy manifesto)

Thursday, January 13, 2005
SplendorQuest: Cain's redemption

Richard Nikoley brings forth a wonderful essay on the founding of his business, and it put me in mind of enterprises I've been involved with in the past. I have the extreme luxury of working virtually alone for now, but when I was younger, I took it as a matter of honor to lead my employees to a better way of thinking. Not by arguing or hectoring, which is useless, but by making reality-oriented object lessons out of every little last thing we did together.

Libertarians despair that there is nothing that they can do to forestall an imaginary bogeyman, called "endarkenment" by some, but one of the most vitally important things any libertarian can do to change the world is to live, breathe and especially teach the values of the middle class. I do not believe there is anyone purposing this outcome, but the net effect of mainstream culture is to rob less-independent people of the awareness of the possibility of self-reliance. By your life you can provide a potent counter-example everywhen and everywhere you are. You need not do this--it's not an affirmative obligation. But you can do it. It may well make the world an overall better place. I will pay you a dollar if it doesn't make your own workspace a better place.

I think I have established that the idea of an "endarkenment" is absurd. History is driven by people, not by nebulous Hegelian trends. A few days ago, I cited the essay Reds, which explores long-standing trends initiated by evil conspirators long since dead. But their successors are stymied, at least for now, in part because Communism proved to be such an instant horror show, and in part because the children of the West are too busy living to be swayed by appeals to death. At the same time, specific individuals, notably President Bush, are driving history decisively and one hopes permanently in the other direction.

Even so, it is not unreasonable to ask what one might do, now, in the context of one's own life, to change the world. It goes without saying that I have ideas on this subject.

First, I think it is vain to suppose that anything will change in response to what amounts to a gesture. Almost two years ago, I wrote (and wrote and wrote and wrote) about what I saw as the futility of Claire Wolfe's tax scofflawry. The Cliff's Notes are here
Deliberately frustrating your own goals in vengeance against the state seems to me to be enslaving yourself in the name of liberty.
but I want to explore this more fully. First things first:
Wolfe's scofflawry is not a rebellion but a vanity. I think she might be more consistent than other libertarian tax scofflaws, but it remains that she, like all of us, is up to her neck in the Kleptocratic quicksand. Property taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, fuel taxes, sin taxes and every precious fee down at the Dee-Emm-Vee--all of them paid, freely, voluntarily, even eagerly. On the other side, 'free' water, 'free' books, 'free' roads, 'free' bandwidth--all of them lapped up greedily, avidly, without a second thought.

Consider these categories:
  • Armadillos
  • Good Germans
  • Scofflaws
  • Rebels
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was an Armadillo. (We owe this marvelous term to Vernor Vinge, a wonderful libertarian Science Fiction writer.) Whatever his madness, he withdrew his consent. Other than using the mails (ahem!), he did not participate in the civilization he sought to supplant.

All libertarians are Good Germans. Hard workers. Good neighbors. But not Rebels.

Claire Wolfe and some few other libertarians are federal tax Scofflaws, but this is a cheap grace: They wouldn't be paying any taxes anyway. The freelance pharmacists offer a much better example of real--and consequential--scofflawry.

There are zero Rebels in the United States.

And with good reason! We have it very good here, despite our ceaseless complaints. Of all the impressive things about Libertarian Party bigwig Steve Dasbach, the most impressive to me was that he ran for Superintendent of Public Instruction in Indiana in 1996. A libertarian who ran for an office he might have won! And from which he could have truly done some good! Astonishing! In the same way, the tax scofflaws would be much more impressive to me if they were teaching the miracle of the Middle Class--the miracle that induces libertarians to be such Good Germans--to the true victims of the Kleptocracy: The people being drowned by Big Mother's bulging teats.

But: If you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. Libertarians choose--freely, explicitly, consciously, repeatedly, happily--to be Good Germans. If they are Scofflaws here or there, this might be a vice. It's more likely a vanity. But it is not a Rebellion. To implicitly and consistently support Good Germanism when doing so is fruitful, but to explicitly reject the Good German principle when doing so is convenient is specious. If you take the water, you'll take the war. This is the actual Consent of the Governed. Governments fall when the Good Germans withdraw all of their consent, not just slivers of it. Governments fall when the Good Germans become Rebels. Not before.

As vanities go, Claire Wolfe's is benign. But as all vanities go, it is never anything more than a busy way of accomplishing absolutely nothing.
Wolfe's claim is that she is a "striker" in the sense of Atlas Shrugged:
Mr. Swann just doesn't understand. I chose to be poor when I chose to resist. It's a classic Atlas Shrugged strike.
To which I countered:
Which is to say, it's grandstanding. Atlas Shrugged is fiction. The idea of the strike is to illustrate in an artificially accelerated format how free societies slowly decay. There is nothing that is noble or wise or fulfilling or liberating in deliberately choosing to pout in the corner in order to punish the Leviathan. Being an Armadillo might be more consistent than being a disgruntled Good German, but it advances the cause of human liberty not at all. It's a gesture. That's all.
Continuing from the same post, I engage an old friend:
In email to me, Sunni Maravillosa says:
A person has to start somewhere.
Indeed. But Wolfe's way, either the truth of it or the Randified fictional version, is just about the worst way I can imagine.

Announcing to the world that you pay no taxes when you wouldn't pay taxes anyway is comical by itself. "Whoo hoo! I'm doing 72 in a 65 mile-per-hour zone! Off the man! Fight the Power! Burn, baby, burn!" The alleged risk is persecution by the IRS, but this will never happen. Not because the IRS isn't interested in persecuting scofflaws, but because the IRS isn't interested in persecuting scofflaws who can't get headlines. This is why they love Irwin Schiff. And should Wolfe accidentally get her wish, her travail won't part the waters. "Ho hum," the sheeple will say. "Another deadbeat with a phony rationale." No one likes tax laws or speed limits. And no one complies with either. And no one is in the least bit sympathetic or outraged or surprised--or credulous--when someone else gets caught.

That is: Wolfe is not denying the state anything. Instead, she is leaving it with money it might otherwise confer upon her. She will never be pursued for this pale gesture of defiance. And even if she were, it would advance the cause of human liberty not at all.

But there is a tax being paid: The tax upon her own life and time that she volunteers to pay to the state, in tribute to its vile rapaciousness. She volunteers to reap less from life than she would or should or could, in her own estimation. She voluntarily acts to her own destruction. Why? Not because doing this advances the cause of human liberty. As we have seen, it doesn't. Why then? How does Claire Wolfe's volunteering to live a less-than-fulfilled life advance anyone's interests, most particularly her own?

I am an egoist, first and always. I am an individualist, a capitalist and an anarchist only in consequence. The sole purpose and meaning of human life is self-adoration. Sunni Maravillosa says, "A person has to start somewhere," and this is where one must start. A human life consists only of acts of self-construction, never of self-destruction. The cause of liberty is advanced when we learn to act always for self-love, never for self-loathing. When we learn that there is nothing we can have in exchange for self-loathing that is worth that awful price.
I heard back from Sunni, and this is the essence of that exchange:
[Sunni Maravillosa] sent some mail to me today, and I want to deal with pieces of it:
In response to my comment, you wrote:

"Indeed. But Wolfe's way, either the truth of it or the Randified fictional version, is just about the worst way I can imagine."

If someone judges the state to be an unwelcome intrusion in his or her life, and wishes to be as free of it as possible, how then would you recommend that individual break the tax shackles that have individuals unwillingly supporting it and its destruction of life? There's no land I know of on this planet from which one can escape the Tax Man completely, and live any semblance of a modern life.
My answer is that your values are not simply one of your values, but all of them, organized in a hierarchy. To set the value of living free of taxation ahead of every other value of life is disproportionate, to put it mildly. To sacrifice--or at least cripple--every other value of life in order to escape taxation is anegoic, acting contrary to the true needs of the self.

You also wrote:

"A human life consists only of acts of self-construction, never of self-destruction. The cause of liberty is advanced when we learn to act always for self-love, never for self-loathing."

One of the things that I have always appreciated most about your writings -- and you as an individual seen through that lens -- is your focus on self-love. You seem to embrace the totality of Rand's ideas better than any other writer I'm aware of, particularly the celebration of life.

You claim that Claire's (and I suppose by extension, all similar tax resistors') actions are to their own self-destruction. If those individuals value not contributing to the brutality of the state more than creature comforts (not the basic requirements for survival), how is that self-destructive? Coming back to the comments I made earlier, if you accept my premise that there's no place man can live a modern life without being subject to involuntary taxation, what would you have an individual do whose principles impel him or her not to pay them? Is it not the case that acting in accordance with one's deepest held values is acting for self-love? If it is, then how is principled tax resistance -- not just "not getting a refund back" -- self-destructive?
Because the time of your life is your sole capital. If you trade that time in such a way that you get in exchange less than you really want, less than you might actually have achieved, you have deliberately cheated yourself. You have acted to your own destruction by failing to use your time to construct of your life what you want most and need most and deserve most. You have let your obsession or anger--over what amounts to a trivial evil in a world where people are shredded alive--deprive you of all of the rest of your values. This is anegoic, acting contrary to the true needs of the self.

One of my favorite memories is of a Labor Day years ago. My son and I were out riding our bikes and we rode to a CompUSA to see all the latest software. The store was packed. Middle managers poring over the PERT packages, programmers pawing through hefty manuals, yuppie couples testing eduware with their little yuppiekinder. Labor Day is a holiday established by people who hate human productivity, who hate the human mind. It is a day set aside on the calendar to celebrate and sanctify indolence--and violence. And there in the CompUSA were the men and women of values. The people who know that to be more and have more, you must learn more and do more.

Those are my people. I love them better than any other people I meet. I work with them, laugh with them on the phone, transact business with them. I love to write about them. There are no villains, none more significant than bugs. But there are heroes. For the most part, they can't defend their beliefs the way I can. But they live those beliefs, every day.

I think it is hypocrisy to say, "I will cooperate with the state when I shower, when I drive, when I don't want a landfill behind my house, but I will pretend to rebel with respect to this one of the hundreds of taxes, all the rest of which I will pay without batting any eye." But that notwithstanding, to deliberately frustrate your own self-adoration, to deliberately circumscribe your own self-actualization, to deliberately forbid yourself to live to the fullest of your capacity--that is a tax that could only be self-inflicted. No tyrant could be that diabolical. Behaving this way is anegoic, acting contrary to the true needs of the self.

The time from the birth of human awareness, age four or so, to its death, closely correspondent to your corporeal demise, is all the life you have as a human being. To deny yourself all you can have, because it is not all you otherwise might have had, is anegoic, acting contrary to the true needs of the self. The people in the West who are most free of the bonds of other people are not the tax scofflaws or the libertarians or the imaginary prudent predators. They're the people crowding every cultural equivalent of CompUSA, working assiduously to figure out how to achieve the most and the best of all of their values, from first to last.

I think this is where true human freedom starts.
Billy Beck then weighs in with remarks about the presumed value of being a tax scofflaw, and this is my take on his remarks:
We've heard two sets of arguments from Claire Wolfe regarding the worth and value of tax scofflawry, and I think I've shown all of these to be specious. Billy, whom I've known even longer than I've known Sunni Maravillosa and who I love dearly, may have better arguments to make than Wolfe's, but I have not seen them.

I can think of some, for what that's worth. For example, a person could hold that being a tax resister is the pre-eminent value of his life, but that would call into question claims of suffering or sacrifice. Classical musicians, to pick one of many possible examples, do without a lot that the rest of us take for granted. But those who are truly committed to music don't regard this as a sacrifice. To the contrary, it is understood going in to be a very likely consequence. When musicians complain like school teachers that the job pays badly, it seems reasonable to me that they value the money more than the music. In the same way, when Claire Wolfe laments for the "thousands of folks who've given up money and security for liberty", I'm inclined to think the money and security are more important, to her at least, than the liberty--which seems to me to have been diminished by giving up money and security in any case.

As a counter-example, among the cripples, with whom I am too familiar, there is a subset of misanthropes who regard their disability as a license to hate and sneer and writhe and rail and accomplish absolutely nothing. Rather than starting where they are and racing toward their goals, as many of them as they can attain, they roll slowly backwards in their wheelchairs, blaming everyone but themselves for the gradual loss of their remaining capabilities. About them it could be said with equal justice, and perhaps with a more obvious clarity, "To deny yourself all you can have, because it is not all you otherwise might have had, is anegoic, acting contrary to the true needs of the self."

At the top of this weblog is a quote from my own corpus:
Living is what you're doing when you're too enthralled to notice. Dying is what you're doing when all you can do is notice.
Libertarian rhetoric is all about dying, turning every random thorn into a bloody scimitar. There may be a utility to that in the hurly burly of political suasion. But this is not what life ought to be about. To devote anything more than passing attention to anything except your goals and the Splendor of their achievement seems to me to be a sacrifice more awful, more total, than anything that could effected from the outside. To voluntarily give the time of your life to anything except that enthralling delight that is Splendor at its highest and best--this is a tax that cannot be demanded or collected from the outside.

Splendor cannot be stolen or divided or diminished or destroyed. It can be shared only by abstraction or ostention, never in se. Tyrants or criminals can take my money, but they cannot take my mind. They can push my body, but they cannot cause me to choose to act. They can imprison my flesh, but my thoughts soar always free. They can extinguish my life, but never my love of it. They can steal everything that does not matter in a truly human life, and nothing that does.

They act like animals because they wish to be animals, to be rid of the awful responsibility of being rational and conscious and compelled by glorious nature to choose right from wrong, good from evil, the better from the worse, the greater from the lesser, the sacred from the profane. They are nothing, and to grant them any more significance than animals is to accord them an honor they can never earn.

It may be that Billy has a better argument to make than those put forward by Wolfe. Better than the distraught claims of the dissatisfied musicians and the misanthropic cripples. Better, surely, than the ceaseless laments of the unbearably tormented libertarians. But I have not seen that argument. And while my own position is so far unassailed, this does not mean it is unassailable. I await correction.

In the meantime, I remain undeterred. I think that to sacrifice to the tyrant even one second of the incomparable Splendor that is undiluted human delight is to give him a treasure he could never steal. Dum vivo, vivam! While I live, I will live! I leave death to those who cherish it.
That much is hammered home, I hope. The trouble is, it's not enough.

I think it's crucially important for libertarians, especially, to make the most they can of their lives, to achieve the highest and best they are capable of. The primary reason is egoistic, always, but there are important secondary consequences: If you actually expect people to take you seriously when you presume to instruct them about right and wrong, good and evil, the better and the worse, the greater and the lesser, the sacred and the profane--looking, acting and living like someone who deserves to be taken seriously is probably more than wise.

But that is not enough.

We are children of the West, and like most of the children of the West, we are the children of Cain. I've written about this on and off over the years, and I think I've confused as many people as I've edified. Someday I'll write a book out of this metaphor and then all will be pellucid. In the mean time, I want to revisit a short summary:
The Cain and Abel stories we remember and tell don't bear much relation to the originals in Genesis and the Koran. We call Abel the good guy, because he was pleasing to god and because he was slaughtered by Cain, the bad guy de facto. But Abel is pleasing to God because his sacrifice is livestock, where Cain's, displeasing to God, is grain.

Why is that interesting?


Abel was a nomad, a shepherd following his flocks. Cain was a farmer, fixed to a plot of land. Abel was a traditionalist, doing what all his (ahem) predecessors had done before him. Cain was an innovator, doing things never done before. Abel roamed the deserts. Cain was bound to the markets of the city. Abel's wealth consisted of tangible chattels. Cain's wealth was speculative, a thing of hopes and promises. Abel was a warrior, defending his own moveable estate by combat and vengeance. Cain was a merchant, depending for his defense on specialists, with his defense often being effected by means of compensation and reconciliation.

Abel made a sacrifice of a lamb, thus establishing to God that he was a true Semite. Cain made a sacrifice of grain, demonstrating to god that he had been Hellenized. Forget the murder. The 'bad guy,' from the storyteller's point of view, always does bad things. The point of the story of Cain and Abel is this:

Abel was from Jerusalem or Mecca. Cain was from Athens.

Abel was the fixed, the unquestioning, the unchanging--and thus was favored by the fixed, unquestionable, unchangeable doctrine. Cain was the fluid, the inquisitive, the innovative--the horrifyingly Greek--and thus his offering of the fruits of agriculture, of urbanization, of task-specialization, of commerce, of speculation, of peaceful dispute resolution--his offering of all the fruits of reason--was spurned by God.
The little-minded will quibble that Cain and Abel were Mesopotamians or Assyrians or whatever, not Semites or Greeks. Oh, well. And it's horribly unfair to recast Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology; we can only do that with the Greeks or Romans. My answer to all this comes from an old TV comedy show: In my country, we call this a metaphor.

The problem is that the children of Cain--as understood here--have never asserted their moral independence from Abel and his God. This is me from an article about a particular instance of the type of indoctrination discussed in Reds:
To get into the [National Junior Honor Society], you have to be a perfect little egoist, gravely and joyously pursuing self-improvement at every turn. This much I like. But at the induction ceremony itself, you are admonished to loathe yourself and to devote your every waking moment to service and sacrifice.

I'm sure the children know better, and I'm sure the anegoistic hectorers know the children know better, so it's all a cynical charade, like the cynical anegoistic hectorings we hear all day, every day, every which-where we go. But it would be nice, once in a while, to honor honorable conduct by saying, "This is good! This is admirable! This is the behavior everyone should emulate! You are to be praised and encouraged for your manifest virtues, and you have every reason to be proud of yourselves for daring to respond to reality as it really is! In short: Well done!"

This cannot happen, of course. Cain's world is never truly his own, and Cain must always make faked obeisances to Abel's world, where service and sacrifice are the penance to be paid for failing to express perfectly and consistently the self-loathing that is Abel's only reality. We live by the grace of the minds of the best among us, people who have devoted their lives gravely and joyously to pursuing self-improvement at every turn. We die as we spit at and tax and destroy these people and their virtues. We have lived for ten millennia since Cain, but, alike unto him, we have learned nothing of reality as it really is.
Cain's sin is not in being a man of the mind. This is the only human way of life.

And Cain's sin is not in having failed, in large measure, to show the starving children of Abel how to live the life of the mind. This is a great gift that he can confer upon them, both locally and globally, and it might well work to his own long-term advantage. But it is not his obligation. Cain is not his brother's slave.

No, Cain's sin is failing to assert the existential and moral rectitude of his way of life when this is challenged by the senseless gibberings of Abel. It is Cain's world all day, every day, but every metaphorical Sunday, it is Cain who kneels to Abel, begging for permission to rescue the impotent Abel from the void that he has made of his life.

This is a mistake.

It is not necessary to argue or hector, to waste your life on people who will never do anything but waste their own.

It is not only not necessary but downright stupid to affect to go "on strike," to destroy your own life as a vengeance against Abel, whose sole objective is to get you to destroy your own life.

It were well to live as well as you can, primarily for your own sake, and secondarily as a good example for those children of Abel who can profit by a good example.

But the one thing the children of Cain must do, for Cain's near-eternal sin to be redeemed, for his way of life to be redeemed, is to stand up for what is right. Ayn Rand said one must never grant evil a moral sanction, and that alone is enough for now. Not arguing, not hectoring, it is sufficient to say to the children of Abel, "That may be your belief, but I do not share it."

A simple declaration that you do not give a moral sanction to your despoilers, as and where it is required. Without anger, without fear, without shame, without guilt, a simple dispassionate statement of your right as an individual to be an individual. To any rejoinder, it is sufficient to say, "I am as entitled to my beliefs as you are to yours." If your interlocutor persists, your reply is any form of, "I am a free and equal citizen and I am not subject to your oversight."

There is more. As above, it is a mitzvah explain what you are doing and why to the children of Abel, to help them make the connection between effort and achievement, productivity and prosperity, morality and splendor. But whether or not you choose to do this, you should work to structure your world as Cain's world.

Justice is a piece rate and a toll road. In Cain's world, you get what you pay for and you pay for what you get. Everything in your life over which you have control should be structured that way. If you control a payroll, it should be as close as you can make it to a piece rate or a commission structure: People should be paid according to their efforts, as much as possible. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but as much as possible, everything in your life should be modeled on the entrepreneurial ideal. Taxation is unchosen, but there should be nothing in your life over which you have the power of choice that resembles Abel's insane machinations.

It is not necessary to remove yourself from society, nor to remove some or all of your productivity from the marketplace. It is sufficient only to withdraw your sanction from Abel and all his insane machinations. This Cain has never done, and in his failing to do it, it was Cain who ultimately made possible all of Abel's insane machinations.

This is all no more than a gesture, too, for now. But it is a conceptual gesture, the communication of vitally important ideas, not a pantomime subject to misapprehension, misrepresentation or simply neglect. Will it effect immediate, dramatic changes? Probably not. Will it change all of the world, eventually? It will, much as the original Hellenic assertion of individuality did.

The idea of "endarkenment" is inherently fatalistic. We hear the word "fatalistic" and we think of "fatality," of a morose conviction in the inevitability of morbidity. But the root of "fatalistic" is fatalis, fate. The opposite of fatalism is not optimism. The opposite of fatalism is free will.

Humanity is not doomed to sink into some darkness. Humanity is not pre-destined in any way at all. If the forces of darkness manage to advance their cause here or there, now or before, it's because particular human beings chose to act in particular ways. And, worse for us all, the children of Cain chose not to re-act appropriately. If the children of Abel can act--helter skelter, willy nilly, in their comically inept fashion--to make things worse, then, obviously, the children of Cain can focus their minds and direct their actions to making things better.

Cain's Original Sin was not that he made a sacrifice of grain, but that he made a sacrifice at all. It is within your power to redeem that sin, and thus to redeem all of the world. Not by shunning Cain's world, but by daring, at long last, fully to embrace it.

"Would you blame a coma victim for wetting the bed?"

Another gift from Arst, this charming defense of Neo-Nutbar Prince Harry.

Me spotless, you guilty...

This is my friend Mike Arst, surfing the tsunami news:
I have begun reading The Death of Satan, which concerns Americans' gradual loss of a clear sense of evil in the world. Near the start of the book the author discusses the Puritans and their sometimes-paradoxical views about Satan — sometimes an external figure, sometimes an internal one. He touches upon some Puritans' feelings of self-loathing: it wasn't just that they believed the human race to have fallen from God's grace; some also held themselves, as corrupted individuals, in permanent contempt.

No Christian I know is afflicted by a Puritan-style loathing for self, but you can hear a lot of that kind of self-contempt coming from secular liberals. Could it be that some such people are the true inheritors of an old, dark, self-hating side of American puritanism?

I thought of "contempt for self" on reading an MSNBC article whose headline, when it appeared on the MSNBC main page, was something like: "U.S. partly to blame for tsunami death toll?" (The headline and link to the article no longer appear on the main page.)

You knew that was coming, right? I had been expecting it for a while, and I wouldn't be surprised if some web site blames George Bush himself for the death toll, even as we speak. They couldn't make the "Bush is a Nazi" charge stick, but who knows — maybe they're fingering him for the death toll in south Asia, anyway. They certainly got some traction from his "obvious" lack of caring (he didn't express enough sorrow quickly enough; he didn't send enough money quickly enough; if it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, George W. must be to blame for something terrible).

The article itself has the following headline and sub-heading:
"Scientist who warned of tsunamis finally heard
U.S.-trained Thai also says U.S. partly to blame for high death toll"
It's consistent with the headline that had appeared on the main page.

Near the start of the article, this sentence: "And [the Thai meteorologist] has a new message: the United States must take some of the blame for the grievous number of casualties."

Ok, ok, we get the picture.

Wait. Do we? Notice that his "new message" is not a direct quote. Rather, it's the (unnamed) reporter's interpretation of his remarks — and a "creative" interpretation at that.

We have two damning-sounding headlines and one damning-sounding statement in the body text, the former written (I assume) by MSNBC headline writers and the latter by the reporter. They are attributed to the meteorologist. But none is a direct quote.

What were the man's actual remarks? This appears a bit later in the article:
"Workers at the Hawaii center have said they tried in vain to warn Indian Ocean nations about the possible effects of the earthquake but they were not equipped to monitor that part of the world and didnāt even have phone numbers for the right officials.

"...'I'm not angry at them for failing to warn Thailand, because at that time they did not know for sure, they merely said a tsunami was possible after the earthquake,' [the meteorologist] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"But after the giant waves hit southern Thailand, the center had more than an hour to alert India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, 'and if they warned [sic] those countries, they could have saved thousands of lives,' he said.

"'It's their failure to do so that makes me mad at them,' he said.

"[The meteorologist] has been equally critical of his own country's meteorologists."
Notice: we started with an assertion of collective American guilt, expressed in the headlines and once in the body text; the accusation is apparently that of the man himself. But when we come to his own words, does he say he's angry at the American government? Not in this article. Does he blame the American people? Not that I can see.

No, it appears that he is angry at particular meteorologists at a particular meteorological station, who, he belives, didn't take particular actions at a particular time. He is also upset with meteorologists in Thailand — notice that there's no mention of them in the most damning paraphrases (those written by MSNBC).

And all that aside, what would MSNBC have us believe — per its headlines, at least? That the USA is "partly to blame" for the high death toll. "We" share in the guilt.

Intellectually dishonest? As they say: we report, you decide. Does the publication even notice the dishonesty? Probably not. Is this sort of playing fast-and-loose with meaning standard fare among journalists and their publications? Yes, it's as common as dishwater. It has become so common, so ordinary, that we readers hardly notice it.

The article contains nothing about what calls the American meteorologists could or should have made at the time, or exactly what calls they did make. Does it report whether they discharged whatever responsibilities they might have had — for instance, by calling in a warning to the State Department? Does it discuss how and why they made their decisions? Does it attempt to report exactly what their responsibilities were? No to all of the above.

No, the folks at MSNBC are content to expose the barest bones of the story — after pulling us in with a dishonest headline. So in reading such an article, are we reading "news"? If that's "news," then I'm the royal family of Romania.

Are we in self-loathing territory, here? Sure looks like it to me.

Ah, but it calls for translation, some filtering. When people quickly condemn "us" for this, that, or the other sin, I don't think they mean "us" at all. It's as with the Ethically Elect who announced from their (intact!) ivory towers, just after the September 11 attacks, that "We had it coming." They began spraying this kind of refuse all over the landscape long before the buildings had finished settling.

Their words aside, they didn't mean "I [a subset of 'we'] had it coming." They meant something very different. They meant "you had it coming." They meant "Of course, I am without fault. The blame rests with you —  with those bad Americans. (And my announcement, itself, of this truth is the evidence of my innocence. Condemning you, I am absolved. Accused by me, you are thus proven guilty.")

Perhaps we need a new Puritan News Network. Or perhaps the Self-Loathing Channel. Or — in keeping with one of the other dark sides of the Puritan mind-set: the Me Spotless, You Guilty Channel.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005
SplendorQuest: Fear of the "endarkenment"...

Billy Beck shoots back about this, but there really isn't any argument there. Again it turns out that I don't understand the Socialist atrocities of the last century, so again I will refer you to here, where I dissect the casualties. The gist of Beck's claim is that because New York State has dumb gun laws, The End Is Near, which event is evidently to be commenced by calling in air strikes on backyard shooting ranges. O, the drama.

In fact, the notion of "endarkenment" could, conceivably, be much better defended. But this would require more than a cataloguing of supposed symptoms. If Johnny can't read and community college students in California don't know anything and cute Ivy League know-nothings get cushy media jobs and Billy can't shoot his gun without fear of airstrikes, this might mean something, or it might not. What's missing is a unifying theory of why there is an "endarkenment". What unites these seemingly disparate incidents, and what in their theorized union foretells untold disaster?

Of course, nothing unites them. They're just noise, and most of what is reported as news is nothing more than background noise. Everything that is truly important to human life goes unreported, precisely because it is ordinary. People work, parents provide for their children, doctors heal, elevators don't fail, boats, planes and trains run on time (and it was American Capitalism that made the trains run on time, goddamnit!), formerly unskilled Koreans master the art of the luthier--all of this happens all day, every day, all over the world and no one takes notice. Ho hum... But let a tax-funded drone of a college professor in California brag about how perfectly uneducated are the tax-funded drones in his classroom, and this alone is sufficient evidence to predict immediate and unending doom.


Here are two actual means by which the West might be "endarkened":

1. Philosophy. Socialism is an elaborate hoax whose sole purpose is the destruction of the self, the locus of humanity. It had a modest run in the last century, but the mountains of corpses it produces as a by-product gave the game away before it could achieve its totalitarian goals. By now it is a dead letter, geo-politically. Islamism has the more modest goal merely of the submission of the self, rather than its destruction. In consequence, it only produces corpses in abundance in the midst of conflicts, and its surviving victims are actually able to subsist at some level of efficacy, where Socialism's are not. Whether what we are seeing of Islamism right now is a genuine resurgence or the last flailing gasps of an historical dinosaur remains to be seen. In both cases, and in others that we might imagine, the impetus to "endarkenment" is the conscious goal and desire of a few knowing conspirators, an objective to be sought as the path to absolute power.

2. Decadence. Rome fell not because the barbarians were powerful, but because the Romans had made themselves weak. I don't think I have to argue that the West has a bad case of self-loathing. It is not epidemic, but it is more or less the entire political philosophy of the Left. This is a hangover from Socialism, and we can hope that the Left will recognize its futility in due course. I discuss what is in fact a union of Socialism and Decadence in Reds, and this is an enduring peril whose portents remain unplumbed. If we assume that anti-Western Decadence will grow steadily more endemic, that the West will come to loathe itself in the same way and with the same fever that Michael Moore loathes himself, then the barbarians are ready--and this would be a gift from Allah to Islamism--to sack and destroy and conquer and rule, Dark Ages Part Two.

For my own part, I think none of this matters. Socialism is dead, Islamism is dying, and Decadence can only destroy a culture when it is inescapable. The market economies of the West are dynamic. Unlike Imperial Rome, spent dissipates cannot prevent new blood from taking over, renewing the vows of the Enlightenment. Tax-funded drones in California might drone on about their vast ignorance, but, in that very same California, the children of the refugees from an Asia ravaged by Socialism are racing to places the human mind has never been before. Islamism rages and ruins, but later this month the innocents of Iraq will have the chance to publicly repudiate it, as any sane person would. It could be that those countries beset by a millennium-and-a-half of Islamist "endarkenment" will be the seat of the next Renaissance. May Liberty make it so.

Richard Nikoley has a sermon with a similar theme, and I commend you to it:
There are two things that elevate people beyond a sense of being a victim, other than the moral principles that underlie it all: Capitalism and Science/Technology. Capitalism has been imperfectly implemented, of course, but even in socialist democracies, it uplifts people to a sense of self-sufficiency and pride.

Capitalism, science and their technological offspring out compete God and Government. The one thing the purveyors of God myths didn't count on way back when was man's eventual capacity to go beyond God's miracles of the time. This puts them in a pinch, today. Does that mean there's no God? Of course not; He's just not who you thought He was.

So in the widest sense, God is our trump card. God is why evil is unimportant in that widest context of humanity. He always comes out on top, in the end. But God is you. You are that goodness. You are the key to the future, and you always have been. Trust that you will do well, and that others will too.
Reading that put me in mind of Shyly's delight, my own portrait of the face of god.

In truth, I had never thought much about the argument of "endarkenment" put forth by Beck and others. Now that I have, I don't see much to think about. Either there is a conspiracy like Socialism or Islamism, in which case I should want to see the conspirators identified. Or there is an inescapable Decadence, which seems to me to be contrary to fact--to the vast accumulation of spiritual and technological riches that comprise the vitally-important but unreported news. Or there is nothing but a baseless fear founded upon no discernible rational argument of any sort.

Sunday, January 09, 2005
SplendorQuest: Lighting candles...

Billy Beck insists that I lack the conceptual ability to understand tyranny. If you scroll down to here, you will see me completely dissect tyranny, explaining what it is, why it is, how it persists and how, ultimately, it will be eradicated. I explore tyranny existentially, epistemologically, ethically and psychologically. I'm doing that job in around 2,300 words in the context of a story, boiling down the entire subject to a one-on-one encounter, boiling down a seemingly vast and intractable topic to a scale that can be apprehended by any mind. I will accept criticism of my mental acuity from anyone who can do that work as well or better.

Which company does not include Billy Beck, who insists that
cheap guitars, in the present political context, are analogous to Mussolini making the fucking trains run on time
This is unconscionably false, of course. If the trains in Fascist Italy ever ran on time, the motive (no pun intended) was fear of retribution. The free world is flooded with cheap guitars--and cheap computers, cheap cars, cheap cell phones, cheap everything--because of the profit motive. In failing to make this distinction, Beck lets his anger run away with his argument.

Even so, he hits a home run when he avers of me:
you have no sense of outrage
This is absolutely true. I have no sense of outrage, nor of despair, nor of guilt, nor fear, nor shame, nor hopeless longing, nor self-loathing, nor any conceivable flavor of pain. I have never been angry for longer than a second in my life, and I have never, ever found myself in a situation where I could retain a focus on some negative emotion in the instant when I caught sight of some positive value.

I have never been capable of despair, never in all of my memory. Intellectually, I think it is useless and stupid and wrong, but my reasoned reflection post-dates my fundamental emotional commitment by years. I have never once in my life called into question the idea that the time of my life is my sole capital, and I have never been tempted to squander that capital on the outsized indulgence of bilious outrage.

That's the personal. This is the political:

The world is not only getting better, it is getting dramatically better at an amazing pace. To the extent that there is any "endarkening" threat, it is not this or that inane "shocking" tidbit cribbed from the Drudge Report, it is the flagging but still potent peril posed by Islamism. There is no fundamental danger in someone like Hillary Clinton, although there are sure to be many Drudge Reports about her. When the absolute state in all its forms is regarded as its Socialist variant is, the affectation of a psychotic fringe, all of the "endarkeners" will have been left out in the dark.

But at the same time, the world's most efficacious libertarian, President George W. Bush, is doing everything he can to transmit what he understands of human liberty to millions and millions of people who have never known it. That Bush's understanding of liberty is not perfect is lamentable, but bless that man for putting forth more than publicly prostrate lamentations. Democracy is not freedom, Capitalism is, but Bush's democracies will have markets free enough to engender a middle class, the best protector political freedom has ever known.

There is no "endarkenment", and there is no justification for despair. The world gets progressively better--better, cheaper guitars and steadily better political institutions--because every sane human being wants his own life, and his childrens' lives, to be better. This is not hard to understand.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of the sixties, and like its New Left cousins, it has always been afflicted with a globalized self-pity masking an interior inertia. The world each individual lives in becomes better, in greatest measure, to the exact extent he makes his own life better.

Purpose, Productivity and Pride, said Ayn Rand, in what at one time was supposed to be a philosophy of human joy. The state of being that I call Splendor is the interior experience of being so enthralled by the act of creating the values that contribute to and ultimately comprise your idealized perfect self that, while you are experiencing it, you are your idealized perfect self.

Splendor is the purpose of human life, the sole purpose of human life, and anything that you do instead or or in spite of that mental state is an act of self-frustration, self-inhibition, self-imprisonment--self-destruction. The world each individual lives in becomes worse, in greatest measure, to the exact extent he makes his own life worse. There is no torment a Hillary Clinton could ever devise that is worse that deliberately swimming--for life!--in your own bile.

It really doesn't matter, though. We are what we do, and if we choose to do nothing, we come to be nothing. But this is not the way we are made, and while Splendor or even Purpose, Productivity and Pride may require a conceptual leap, Pleasure and Pain--Profit and Loss--are persistent goads that can be apprehended by any mind.

I think it is foolish for anyone to do less with his life than he is capable of doing. The only thing true tyrants want, Socialists or Islamists, is the destruction of the self. Wallowing in self-pity, wailing in despair, instead of making the most and the best of the finite time of your life, your sole capital, is the voluntary surrender of a value that can never be taken by force. What is professed to be an "endarkenment" is simply willful self-destruction in an elaborate disguise. A correctable malady, although the time lost to it is irredeemable.

But as I said in mail to Richard Nikoley, all human behavior is habit-forming: The better you do, the better you get at doing better.

I wish you Splendor,

Greg Swann

SplendorQuest: A song of hope...

I've been talking for the past few weeks with Richard Nikoley of Uncommon Sense about the ubiquity and, ultimately, insipidity of The-World-Will-End-Tuesday libertarian laments of hell and all its hand-baskets. Richard has been writing in this neighborhood since the start of the year, and I've followed up with him by email. Below is one of my emails, less than profoundly serious but fun for me.
Following up, less momentously. (I'm wicked sick and fairly stupid from it.)

One of the things that delighted me, over the holidays, was Beck's discussion of the relative excellence of cheap guitars.

It's a rhapsody, but it's completely contrary to the argument of "endarkenment". How can this or that be so unimaginably better if absolutely everything is inevitably worse? You can argue that people's values are perversely diverted, but you can't argue that they have no values--not from a personal computer, you can't.

Anyway, I got a Variax 500 for Christmas, by far my favorite gift.

The whole idea behind Line6 is to use modern electronic tools to profile and then model classic guitar, amplifier and fuzz-box sounds, putting lots and lots of classic tones under one roof. This is simultaneously decadent and revolutionary--decadent in the sense that it is solely backward-looking, slavishly conservative. Revolutionary in the sense that much of the music community is bizarrely techno-hostile, make of that what you will: Two tones that are identical on an oscilloscope are nevertheless fundamentally distinct, one pure and natural and the other corrupt and synthetic. This is Abel v Cain all over again, in my opinion.

All that aside, the guitar is simply exceptional, a vast collection of great guitars all in one light, perfectly-balanced solid-body package. I spend a lot of time affecting to be a Martin D-28, a giant James Taylor-style dreadnought. The difference is, I can play as loud as I like with no feedback. I have a Line6 amplifier, too, so now all I need is a wooden stool and a girlfriend with flat hair and a droopy hat and I can play for quarters at the Rathskeller down at the community college.

(My son will insist that I play badly, which is true, but you have to play badly to fit in at the Rathskeller.)

That leads to this: Earlier this week, I finally broke a string, surprising because I bang hard and often on this little pet. I replaced all six strings with a D'Addario XLs, essentially a premium product but they sell at a very competitive price. But: What incredible quality. They ring, sweet and pure, and the sustain is unending. The Variax out of the box is a remarkable instrument, but with the new strings it is doubly amazing.

Think of this: I got 25 classic guitars, some of them unobtainable at any price, for $763 on EBay, and for six dollars more, I got strings that make me sound like someone worth listening to. So from this one can only conclude that the world already went to hell yesterday, and hope is but a pathetic illusion. Damn betcha!