This week in the Freeman: the black tradition of armed self-defense

TheFreemanArmedAndBlack

Armed and Black

The history of African-American self-defense

FEBRUARY 03, 2015 by B.K. MARCUS

A lot of people believe that blacks march in lockstep behind calls for gun control. But while the civil rights movement was largely about nonviolent resistance, many blacks exercised a legitimate right of self-defense. Many still do today.

1 Cheer for Police Corruption

Last night at Toastmasters, I delivered my most libertarian speech yet.


PoliceBribesLate at night, a tall, handsome cop is chatting up a hooker in New York City. He’s supposed to be patrolling 2nd Avenue, but he prefers to socialize with the streetwalker.

A short man with small spectacles and big teeth steps out of the shadows and tells the patrolman that he is neglecting his duty.

The police officer lifts his baton and threatens his accuser with a beating. The smaller man identifies himself as Theodore Roosevelt, the new commissioner of police, and tells the officer to report to his office the next morning.

There’s something very satisfying about this scene. A bullying cop brought down by a heroic reformer.

In 1895, before he was president, before he charged up San Juan Hill with the Roughriders, Theodore Roosevelt spent a brief spell as a police commissioner, conducting what the city papers called a “Reign of Terror” to root out corruption among New York’s Finest.

What does TR’s crusade teach us about police corruption in our own time? That’s what I’d like to address tonight.

The people of New York did not feel protected by the police. At best they found the cops negligent. At worst the citizens felt threatened by their supposed protectors.

Roosevelt’s early anti-corruption campaign made the city safer — and made him the most popular political figure in New York.

Three cheers for the great reformer, right? Well, I want to reserve one cheer for corruption.

If I were trying to persuade you that puppies are cute, or that love is good, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have a very hard time. But preaching to the choir is boring. Instead I’d like to play Devil’s advocate and argue that widespread corruption among the police is not necessarily a bad thing. It very much depends on which supposed duties the cops are violating.

OVER THERE

Let’s start with an almost absurdly easy case. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the law said it was a policeman’s duty — in fact, it was every citizen’s duty — to report Jews who hadn’t made themselves known to the government. The established wisdom in the West, ever since the Nuremberg Trials, is that “just following orders” isn’t enough to avoid culpability if the orders you were following were themselves morally reprehensible.

We look back on such corrupt party members as Oskar Schindler as heroic.

Has everyone here seen the movie Schindler’s List? A politically connected industrialist and a Nazi spy, Schindler helped 1,200 Jews escape the Holocaust.

We consider Schindler’s lawbreaking to be virtuous, but what about the Nazi officials he paid to let him get away with it? What if they had refused his bribes? Without their corruption, Schindler’s heroism wouldn’t have been possible.

That doesn’t make them heroes. But surely we should prefer their corruption to the duty-bound Nazis who followed the letter of the law and helped send innocent people to the concentration camps.

OVER HERE

Maybe it’s too extreme to invoke the Nazis. Let’s bring it closer to home.

Once upon a time in our own United States, it was the legal duty of a police officer, even a diehard Yankee abolitionist in the slave-free North, to assist Southern slaveowners in the capture of runaway slaves. There were heroic people, black and white, North and South, who risked everything for no immediate reward in order to smuggle escaped slaves into Canada. Again, these people were heroes — but what about the people they bribed? Shouldn’t we prefer the corrupt cops who profited from the Underground Railroad to those who insisted on obeying the law of the land?

HERE AND NOW

I’d like to bring it even closer to home. I have a friend who has cancer. He has an excellent chance of survival with chemotherapy — but the treatment is horrific. He feels like vomiting all the time, and the prescribed anti-nausea pills aren’t working.

Marijuana, however, makes the nausea go away. But medical marijuana isn’t legal in our part of the world. Think about how you felt the last time you were nauseous. For me it was on one of these puddle jumpers that fly in and out of CHO. I kept telling myself, Just hold out a little longer, just a little longer.

Now imagine feeling that way day in and day out, week after week, month after month.

Do we prefer the dutiful narcotics agent to the one who looks the other way, whatever his or her reasons for doing so?

BAD LAWS

I’m not trying to convince you that medical marijuana should be legal. I’m saying that there is some law on the books that you don’t want enforced.

If you doubt me, consider this short list of candidates:

  1. In Alabama, you can be sentenced to three months hard labor for playing cards on a Sunday. (And by the way, interracial marriage was technically illegal in Alabama only 15 years ago!)

  2. Over the mountain, in Waynesboro, there is still a law on the books that says a woman may not drive a car on Main Street unless her husband walks ahead waving a flag to warn other drivers.

  3. And throughout our fair state of Virginia, it is illegal to have sex if you are not married — and if you are married, you may only do it with the lights on, face to face.

Anyone with an ounce of moral sense has to consider some laws to be unjust.

Some laws should themselves be considered criminal.

For me, the distinction is easy: Good laws protect us from crimes — and by crimes I mean someone harming someone else. So-called victimless crimes aren’t really crimes at all.

BACK TO TR

This distinction must have been lost on Theodore Roosevelt. His anti-corruption campaign made him extremely popular with New Yorkers — at first.

Then he began to insist that the police enforce a very old and rarely observed law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. For working-class people, that was their only day off. TR may have wanted all laws enforced equally, but the people of New York understood that buying a beer on Sunday was no more criminal than having a beer any other day of the week. TR went from being the most popular man in the city to the most reviled, practically overnight. And his campaign against corruption fell apart.

CONCLUSION

I’m certainly not saying that all corruption is good. We are right to be scared of bad cops. But whether or not the corruption is a bad thing depends entirely on whether the law being corrupted is itself a good or an evil.

Thank you, Madame Toastmaster.


For a far more hardcore libertarian treatment of this subject, see Walter Block’s “Defending the Dishonest Cop.”

Are we too dumb for democracy?

TheFreeman-TooDumbForDemocracy

FEATURE

Too Dumb for Democracy?

Global ignorance vs. local knowledge

NOVEMBER 17, 2014 by B.K. MARCUS

Mass ignorance about an increasingly complex world is a fact of life. And yet we’re all supposed to make decisions on matters about which we know little to nothing. It’s called democracy.

(If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it.)

Hayek’s “Rejuvenating Event”

HayekNobelFreeman
Today is the 40th anniversary of F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize. My article in The Freeman tells the story behind the so-called Nobel, the controversy around Hayek’s winning it (and sharing it with a socialist economist), and what the prize did for Hayek’s personal life, his reputation, and his impact on the fall of European communism.

If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it.

my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.

why libertarians wanted Scotland to secede

Scotts-secedeMy Facebook feed is full of disappointment in Scottish voters’ recent rejection of independence from Great Britain. For a while there, we were all wearing the white and blue Saint Andrew’s cross, at least in spirit. Why do we feel so let down?

Our brief Scottish fever and subsequent despondency over the No vote must have seemed especially puzzling to those who knew the immediate goals of the separatists. As libertarian scholar Robert Higgs writes, “the contest was essentially between the establishment plutocrats, on the one hand, and the welfare drones, on the other. It’s tough to root for the ‘good guys’ when one cannot identify any good dogs in the fight.”

Many libertarians have been fans of secession for a while, so much so that we have become uncomfortably associated with one of modern history’s most illiberal institutions: Southern slavery. If our ideological opponents want to paint us as apologists for the rich and powerful and enemies of the little guy, they don’t need to reach much farther than our retrospective support for the “wrong side” in the American Civil War.

And no matter how many times we defend ourselves by pointing out that the issues of secession and slavery are distinct — and that the War between the States was not fought for emancipation but for taxes, tariffs, and political centralization — we will always be on the losing side of that conflict in the popular imagination.

Scotland offered us a chance to root for the secessionists without rooting for the slavers.

But was it any better to be rooting for the socialists?

One comrade put it to me this way: if the dominant political culture of the Green Mountain State wanted to withdraw from the Union so it could form the People’s Republic of Vermont, should local libertarians side with their socialist neighbors in secession? Do the classical liberal principles of independence and self-determination trump the protection of the Bill of Rights, or might a Vermont libertarian support political centralization in good conscience?

I, for one, would lock elbows with the Green Mountain State reds and march for separation. And I trust that many Vermont libertarians would join me. Because libertarians know the dirty little secret of democracy: who’s in charge and what they believe doesn’t matter nearly as much as the institutions and incentives that will outlive any current administration. We also know that the smallest political units will inflict the least long-term damage.

Our focus on economic education is not just about helping potential voters to understand the damage done by price fixing, protection, and other interventions into the market economy; it’s also about understanding the nature of collective decision making, when and why special interests win out over the general welfare, and how even well-meaning people will usually make things much worse through the coercive mechanisms of government.

What economics has taught us is that the bigger the collective making the decisions, the easier it is for a political class to feed its cronies to everyone else’s detriment. The smaller the polity, the harder it is for an elite to externalize its costs, and the easier it is for the public to be informed on the cause and effect of political policies.

Small nation-states (or even better: city-states) can’t afford to erect significant trade barriers. They can’t afford to impose heavy regulations on local businesses or burdensome restrictions on the freedoms of individuals, because in a small state both businesses and individuals have the power of easy exit. If an independent Scotland had tried to build a giant welfare state, how would they have funded it? What would keep the biggest taxpayers from fleeing the tax-consumers, crossing a nearby border into the welcoming arms of less intrusive political masters?

No matter what political ideology drives an independence movement, real independence for a small political territory requires smaller government to survive. Perhaps the Yes voters were seeking a more generous dole from a new Scottish welfare state, but what economic principles teach us is that the citizens of an independent Scotland would instead have discovered greater prosperity, freedom, and flourishing.

Spidey the G-Man

Spider-Man-SHIELDI posted to Facebook on Saturday about how much Benjamin loves Ultimate Spider-Man, which we watch together on Netflix.

Nick Ford wrote in the comments, “I’ve heard really mixed things about USM. How do you like it, Bk?”

I find that I can’t track down anything on Facebook that’s older than a week or two, so it makes sense to me to move some of my longer thoughts back over to this blog:

I have really mixed feelings about Ultimate Spider-Man, but none of them make the show any less entertaining. It is very smartly put together and cleverly written. Benjamin absolutely loves it, but he loves other shows that I can’t sit through 5 minutes of. I find USM a pleasure to watch. Any kid who has seen Marvel’s recent movies will be happy to see the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor visiting the show. Even Wolverine has made an appearance, though unfortunately he was wearing the silly yellow costume. This can’t be done on the big screen yet, because Marvel doesn’t hold the feature-film rights to Spider-Man: they licensed those rights to Sony, who holds onto them tenaciously.

For kids who don’t already know Spider-Man or the Marvel universe, USM is especially well done. Peter Parker is still in high school, struggling with the tamer side of teen issues, and constantly breaking the 4th wall to chat with the viewer. More than that: even in the middle of what would otherwise be intense scenes, the show will shift into Peter Parker’s mind, where everything looks like video games, anime, and juvenile comic-strip characters — including a big-rounded-headed sort of Muppet Babies version of Spider-Man. In the main story, Spider-Man is self-centered and overconfident; in Parker’s head, he’s goofy and self-effacing. The show knows how to switch back and forth with a timing that never lets things get too intense for 8yo Benjamin, or too goofy for his dad.

My main problem with the show is its premise: Spider-Man and his teen-hero comrades are all government agents. Yes, JJ Jameson still libels him as a criminal, and the cops consider him a vigilante at best, but in the end he’s a G-man with the full force of Nick Fury and SHIELD as backup. He even has access to the high-tech gadgetry of SHIELD’s equivalent of Q division.

I wrote a blog post last January about Batman vs James Bond. In that dichotomy, I think Spider-Man should be much more like Batman. But “Ultimate” Spider-Man is James Bond Junior.

Nick read my Batman vs James Bond post and disagreed vehemently:

Now that I’ve read your article I realize we have some pretty strong disagreements here…

For one thing I don’t think Batman fights for the people (as much as he might claim this sometimes). He fights for himself and his own idea of justice as well the idea that no one should suffer what *he* went through.

As far as I can tell Batman is a revenge on Gotham. It has done nothing but attract more people to the “challenge” of Batman. He attracts way more villains than he defeats and Gotham always represents darkness, paradise lost and defeat. It notably doesn’t represent success even if Bruce himself does (while, notably, most of the population seems to live in destitution or barely getting by).

“…but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.”

I know you were probably alive in the 80s (and I certainly wasn’t) so I am surprised you never saw Batman beat up drug users. Comics certainly have a infamous history of depicting drugs and alcohol (think: Tony Stark’s infamous alcoholism and Green Arrow’s sidekicks addiction to heroin, etc.). Batman and Anarky (a favorite character of mine) both attack drug users in Anarky’s debut issue.

“For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim.”

This isn’t true either. Batman has *constantly* interrogated “criminals” who he only *suspects* are doing something wrong. He does this in The Dark Knight Returns and he does it almost everywhere. He does it even when they aren’t violating rights or even if he just thinks they have some information that he needs. Batman tortures…a *lot*.

An example of this (though it’s Dick Grayson under the cape and cowl, not Bruce but whatever, the MO remaisn the same):

http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/…/grant…

I’d also argue against that The Dark Knight Returns *doesn’t* depict a libertarian Batman.

At this point in his life Bruce is an outlaw, true. And the government doesn’t like him much and he rebels against that, also true. But there’s no libertarianism here. Just because the government doesn’t like someone and they’re doing something they declare illegal (vigilantism) doesn’t mean we should consider them libertarians.

Batman has nothing *inherently* against the structure or order that the government and police have set up. Sure, he may not want “corruption” but as soon as James Gordon takes over it he pretty much takes it for granted (with some exceptions of course) that the police and him are working together to rid the streets of Gotham with crime.

Batman more actively works together with the state and its agents then against it. And even when he *does* go against it it isn’t for any libertarian reasons. He just wants to be a vigilante and that doesn’t mean he’s a libertarian.

On another note, Frank Miller is a goddamn fascist personally (see: his comments on Occupy Wall St and his book “Holy Terror”) and I very much doubt he had anything more than the lone-hero and rugged individual in mind when he wrote TDKR.

“But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.”

Due to how intertwined big business and the government is I don’t think you could reasonably contend that Bruce is only relying on his money for these things.

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