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Dancing with the infidel

by Greg Swann

A friend asked me how we might engage non-libertarians in a non-confrontational, inclusive kind of way. She wanted to know if there is some way that we can address the infidel in his own tongue, so to speak, to attempt to show him that his goals are ours.

My short answer is: no.

My slightly longer answer is: his goals are not ours in any language.

And, pushing the flippancy suppression button: I don't think we actually convert anyone.

With one exception, I have never seen anyone converted to libertarianism. There was a time in my life when I thought it my duty and my honor to convert the heathen masses, to lead the wretched infidels to the path of noncoercive righteousness. I converted no one.

And of course, I am always surrounded (virtually, that is) by bright young missionaries of freedom--flesh-pumping, bible-thumping, hoop-jumping zealots with firm convictions and fast modems. They convert no one.

And we all yak and yak and yak and the infidels yak right back, and it seems that no one is ever converted.

And yet this is not a cause for despair. After all, I am here and you are here and we are here and we are all together, all alone in our finely-honed fanatical individualism. And thus you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here?

It's a good question. For, on the one hand, we seem never to convert anyone. And yet we seem to suffer no apostasies, no irredeemable heresies.

The obvious explanation is that we are, all of us, actually converts. But, with rare exceptions that I will argue seem to prove the rule, this fails the test of observation. We can each of us explain how we came to be libertarians, using that term as a political or philosophical category. But few of us can tell interesting and truthful stories about converting the unwashed hordes.

The ludicrous explanation is that we are born, not made, libertarians. That like Athena, like Minerva, we emerged from the head of god fully formed and fully armed--with really cool hats and stylish but comfortable hiking boots.

This is true of me, and it's true of a lot of libertarians with whom I've spoken: I was very bad at taking orders from morons long before I learned that there are good, stridently philosophical reasons for objecting to the orders of morons. I was a rebel before I could speak, and I'd bet a large dollar that I was a rebel in some intrauterine fashion before I was born. My conversion to philosophical libertarianism owes directly to the heroes of Ayn Rand, like whom I behaved--in my imagination, and in reality in my very best moments. But I have always been constitutionally a libertarian--in my heart, in my bones, in my guts--and I always will be.

This is part of me--part of us I say--a founding stone of my ego, my soul, my self. I am a libertarian because I am an individualist. And I am an individualist because I am an egoist. I was all of these things before I ever had concepts for them. And, as nearly as I can tell, I am an egoist because I always was.

I think you always were, too.

Certainly that would explain why we have no apostates. There are former libertarians, and most of them now more closely resemble Republicans. But I have never met a person who once understood and upheld individualism and yet is now a collectivist. It just doesn't happen.

And the one exception I mentioned was this: I met a focused liberal (already a rare bird) who was dangerously contra-doctrinaire on the subject of speaking his own mind. Arrogantly, in some respects manipulatively, I said to him, "You're a libertarian, you just don't know it yet." A year later he was a libertarian. I claim no credit for this. All I did was make one snotty remark. In my opinion, he didn't convert himself to anything, he simply discovered what he'd known and failed to notice all along.

That's what happened to me when I danced with Dagny. And I expect that's what happened to you, too.

All of which tends to imply that we had no choice about this, and perhaps we didn't. I certainly don't remember choosing self-interest over self-sacrifice. A great many people helped me to learn how to act for my self-interest and not the contrary, and I am very, very grateful to those people. But a great many others attempted to teach the opposite lesson, and somehow it never took.

Stipulate it, if you would. We're treading on ground that is entirely pre-verbal, and virtually anything one says in this realm borders dangerously on religion. The question I came here to ask is:

How did they get here?

We are what we are for some reason. It's probably pre-verbal, possibly pre-natal. What accounts for our collectivists, those wretched infidels with their bizarre and incomprehensible language?

If we are born, not made, would not the same be true for them?

Could it be that they are born collectivists, doomed to suffer endless self-sacrifice and to inflict their suffering on everyone else? Fated by malevolence or simply perversity to strive endlessly and absurdly to destroy every value human life requires? Robbed at birth or even before of undiluted delight, the boundless joy that can only be known in solitude, in the quiet of a mind in love with itself?

I hope not. And I wish not. And I think not.

It would be logical and very depressing to conclude that we are what we are most fundamentally through no choice of our own, and that they are what they are without their choice. But another interpretation is possible, and it's one that I assert not just because it offers me some hope for the redemption of the human race:

They are like us, but they've had it well and truly beaten out of them.

Assuming that both individualism and collectivism are in some sense unavoidable pre-dispositions is not an utterly hopeless posture. At least we can out-breed them, if we get busy. And we can lend some support to this position by observing that the classical liberal argument was advanced by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, himself the father of what we call the Western political tradition. What distinguishes West from East, fundamentally, is individualism. It was the Nazarene who so stunningly made the individualist argument by choosing to be gruesomely executed rather than renounce his ideas and comply with the orders of morons. We love this story so much that we have made it the core of every story we love, including Rand's. And the people who loved it before us crafted the philosophies and the institutions we now uphold and improve upon. And they were commanded to go forth and multiply, and they did it with abandon.

But we could use the same data to support the contrary position: that it was the life-loving values of the Christians, and not their sheer numbers, that won the West. They bred like crazy, yes, and out-bred every potential competing creed. But they also raised their many children to pursue self-interest at least most of the time.

And stipulating that, we come back to the infidels. If they are not genetically different from us, not inherently different due to some irreversible pre-disposition, not sprung from the behind of Hades, frailly deformed and forlornly disarmed, then how are they different from us?

Surely no one who has ever been to the supermarket can doubt that bad parents can be horribly and yet casually brutal to their children. Properly speaking, self-destruction is the dismantlement of the ego by the ego. But what becomes of a child whose proto-egostuff is raped and murdered before he even has the conceptual facility to abstract the ego. We know what becomes of these children if they are stupid: they become drunks or addicts or criminals or apathetic wretches and, in most cases, the next generation of abusive parents.

But what about the smart ones? Words are a way of apprehending and categorizing reality. But they can also be a way of avoiding or rationalizing reality. If you take an ego-mangled child who nevertheless has a fine mind, a deft ability to manipulate concepts, what do you get?

We all know the answer, don't we? We yak and yak and they yak right back. And we say to ourselves, "the lights are on, but on one's home", and we don't know that no one is home. That the rebel we expect to find inside every fine mind is cowering in some cognitive basement while its imaginary evil twin--Ivy Starnes, Karl Marx, Nero, Herod--enacts a pantomime of a person upstairs.

We cannot speak to them in their language because what we have to say cannot be said in their language. We utter the pidgin of the absurd: "Self-interest is the best way to practice self-sacrifice," is self-consuming. "The best way for the group to advance itself in the aggregate is for each individual member to pursue his own objectives relentlessly," is mere babble; the group is what there is, and there are no individuals. And, "Freedom is even better than slavery," is suitable only for Madison Avenue Orwellians.

What we can do, to offer up the smallest smidgen of hope, is help them learn to speak our language. We have an ally, in the sense that that mangled ego yearns to break out of the basement. And we have a powerful enemy, since the evil twin is entrenched and very well defended. Nature is just, and in the long run one cannot pursue self-destruction with the mind without achieving it with the body, and so the unhappy consequences of error can serve as reinforcement of your gentle sermons. I wouldn't expect much progress, and I certainly wouldn't expect it rapidly, but--I fervently believe, and I believe I can prove--people can discover that they have been wrong, and they can change their behavior accordingly.

It's not a matter of enormous concern for me, really. My missionary days are done, and my long-term goals are rather more ambitious than Peter's. But we can talk to the infidels, not in their language but in ours. And if they talk wisely and if they talk well, someday they may learn to dance.

True fact: often when I'm alone and working and when I love the work I've done, I yelp, I bark. Not like a dog, particularly, and onomatopoeia conceals more than it reveals. But I yip, loud and proud, a boisterous and liberating expression of delight undiluted. I don't want to dance with the infidels, nor even to talk with them. For the most part I am happy enough to let them stumble to their own damnation, and there are days when I would hasten them. But there is inside me a yearning to have everyone know, if only for an instant, what it feels like to love life in the way that I do when I bark for joy.

We are libertarians, and we define ourselves, in large measure, by what we rebel against. But we are as much defined by what we are loyal to. The infidel won't be converted when he claims to hate the state or to uphold the individual. He will be converted when he discovers that the interests of one's own self come before any other claim. When he acknowledges that no one but himself can imprison him in a dank basement of fear and doubt and humiliation. When he permits himself to embrace life, the precious life that each of us should treasure and too many of us squander. He will be converted when he lets himself yip like the fox puppies romping in the dewy dawn. He will be converted when he dares to dance, awkwardly, gracelessly, proudly, joyously free...

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