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 seasteaders politically agnostic?

SeasteadingInstituteLogoSince hearing Joe Quirk, director of communications for the Seasteading Institute, speak at Voice & Exit in Austin last June, I have become very excited about the creation of autonomous communities out at sea. I think seasteads may be the future of freedom and innovation, a way to bring greater health and wealth to humanity as a whole, and greater liberty to individuals. Pursuing these goals is, as I see it, the positive agenda of libertarianism.

So is seasteading fundamentally libertarian?

The folks over at the Seasteading Institute say no. They claim that the institute and the movement are politically agnostic.

The Seasteading Book itself (perpetually in beta, it seems) has this to say:

While the authors have a libertarian viewpoint, we want to stress that seasteading is politically agnostic. We’re attempting to describe (and create) an enabling technology for small-scale sovereignty. This will give many different groups the autonomy to experiment with their theories. We find it very satisfying to be empowering all minority political groups, not just advancing our own vision.

And in this “Floating Cities” video, Joe Quirk says,

Seasteaders are agnostic about what political systems are going to work in the future. Our goal is to create a Silicon Valley of the sea, where lots of seasteads — hopefully thousands some day — compete to attract residents. And the best social systems attract the best people…. Why not give your political opponents a chance to try out their ideas on a seastead? You can laugh at the fiascoes, and you can learn something if something surprising works. We think the inevitable result will be that solutions will emerge that are not part of what we argue about now…. I would love to see a socialist seastead trying out its ideas. I would love to see an anarcho-capitalist seastead trying out its ideas. I’d like to see political systems I’ve never heard of and don’t understand trying out their ideas. I’d like to see them attracting different types of people, different kinds of ideologues to different seasteads…. And hopefully we’ll create a diversity of political systems suitable to different kinds of people with different kinds of values, and in this market of governance, we’ll discover the best solutions for how to live together.

But how is this different from libertarianism? So long as individuals are free to enter and exit these competing governments at will — and to take their property with them — the world of a zillion seastead communities would exemplify libertarian free-market anarchy.

DeltaSync-Seasteading-Promo

Do socialists believe that libertarians want to prevent them from practicing voluntary socialism?

Do the opponents of the freedom philosophy somehow believe that we want to deny them their options?

The only option we refuse to acknowledge is the option to deny us our options.

I suspect the Seasteading Institute is wise to distance itself from a political philosophy so many people misunderstand. Their goal is to save the world through the freedom of association, not to clear up muddleheaded misunderstandings of that very freedom.

I cheer them on and hope to join them in the blue revolution. But I do think there’s a place for battling muddleheadedness, and it frustrates and saddens me that the best strategy for promoting the blessings of liberty may be to distance oneself from our tradition.

Does Thoreau Belong to Our Tradition?

ThoreauStampEditorial Preface to Here There Is No State


“THE HIPPIES CAN’T HAVE THOREAU,” wrote former Freeman editor John Chamberlain in July of 1967.

It had been 150 years since Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817), and the US Postal Service had caused some controversy by issuing a commemorative stamp.

What was the issue? Conservatives complained that Thoreau looked like a hippie.

Chamberlain called their complaints “well-meaning but stupid.… They wore [beards] in the Nineteenth Century, you know.”

The conservatives of the late 1960s were not alone in seeing the similarity. The bearded counterculturalists wanted to claim Thoreau as one of their own. “Indeed,” proclaimed one underground newspaper of the time, “Thoreau was one of America’s first hippies.”

But Chamberlain objected on behalf of conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians: “Thoreau belongs to a lot of us who are bored to death by the new psychedelic mindlessness.”

Who had the better claim? Was Thoreau a forebear of the Left or the Right? Was he a hippie or a classical liberal? For or against liberty, commerce, and private property?

As Ken Kifer writes in Analysis and Notes on Walden (2002), “Today, Thoreau’s words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.”

This collection, Here There Is No State (the title is taken from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”), shows us that Henry David Thoreau belongs more to the advocates of liberty than he does to our illiberal opposition.

Not everyone, however, wants to claim Thoreau as a part of our tradition.

Gary North recently called Thoreau “one of the most successful literary scam artists in American history,” describing Walden as “anti-capitalist and pro-green.”

As Chamberlain pointed out, Thoreau was a working capitalist whose family owned a pencil-making business, but, says North, Thoreau’s background did not make him a friend of the free market. “He was an American version of Frederick Engels, who converted Karl Marx to socialism in 1843.”

In Here There Is No State, we collect Thoreau’s two most famous works and bring together three scholars to comment on those works and their author.

While “Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden,” writes Wendy McElroy, “it is ‘Civil Disobedience’ that established his reputation in the wider political world. It is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.”

Here There Is No State opens with Wendy’s introduction to “Civil Disobedience,” followed by the great individualist essay itself.

In her introduction to Walden, Sarah Skwire responds to Gary North and sets the record straight on what the book is and is not, and where it fits in our tradition. “I think that we must consider the possibility,” Sarah writes, “that Walden has its reputation because many who teach it choose to ignore its politics, which are strongly libertarian and even anarchist.”

Both Gary North and Sarah Skwire invite us to read critically and decide for ourselves, so the entirety of Walden is included in these pages.

Thoreau-HereThereIsNoState-CoverFinally, Jeff Riggenbach closes this volume with an essay on why we can consider Thoreau not just a “great writer, great naturalist, and great advocate of self-reliant individualism” but also “one of the founding fathers of American libertarian thought.”

Wendy, Sarah, and Jeff are all members of Liberty.me and are available to our community for questions or comments on the writings and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.

Enjoy the book and join us online to continue the conversation.

B.K. Marcus
Senior Editor
Liberty.me

Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

Batman vs James Bond

BatmanVsJamesBondI just read over my old blog post on the economics of Batman and James Bond to refresh my memory. My wife and I have recently caught up on the Daniel Craig trilogy of 007 movies, and my seven-and-a-half-year-old son Benjamin and I have been watching a bunch of the more recent animated superhero shows from the DC universe, so my thoughts have been full of action heroes — particularly the Dark Knight and Her Majesty’s secret servant — for the past few weeks.

I remember my father complaining about both characters and contrasting them to the lone-hero tradition of hardboiled detectives and their fictional forebears, the cowboys.

In fact, my father’s point to my preteen self was a continuation of a point he made to me when I was about Benjamin’s age. I’d just gotten a set of “Undercover Agent” accessories for my GI Joe doll (we didn’t call them action figures back then). Gone were the camouflage fatigues and assault rifle; now Joe sported a dark trench coat and a walkie-talkie.

GIJoeUndercoverAgentI said, "Look dad: It’s GI Private Eye!"

My father then explained to me that my rhyming name for my new hero was self-contradictory. A GI was an American soldier, an official agent of the US government, whereas a "private eye" was a private individual, a lone hero in the fictional tradition. If dad had been more of a libertarian, he would have said that the military agent is paid by coercively extracted taxes and operates by state privilege, whereas the private detective is an agent of the market, authorized only by private contracts, and liable to the same restrictions as any individual citizen. My father doesn’t talk that way, even now, but he would acknowledge that description as making the same point.

So after GI Private Eye, I grew up with an awareness of the distinction between heroes like James Bond, who was funded and sanctioned by the government, and heroes like Philip Marlowe, who was funded by private clients and sanctioned only by his personal code of conduct. (And such detective stories often turned on the question of what limits that typically unspoken code imposed on the hero.)

Now, a few years later, my father was making a different but related point about James Bond, this time inspired by my love of another toy: my Corgi Astin-Martin DB5, James Bond’s super spy car from the movie Goldfinger. "Look dad, isn’t this car cool?"

1964_Corgi_Aston_Martin_DB5Ever philosophical, my father saw the car as symbolic, not only of that state-agent/private-individual divide he’d addressed a few years earlier with my GI Joe, but also of a divide in heroic literature. James Bond worked for the queen, he explained, in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He was a knight for the monarch, and this tricked out vehicle from MI6’s Q Branch was the 1960s adventure-fantasy equivalent of the nobleman’s armor and mount.

I believe he felt the same about the Batmobile, but there are several important distinctions, some that put the historical emphasis on the “knight” in the Dark Knight, and some that put the “World’s Greatest Detective” more in league with the private eyes of American detective fiction.

For one thing, the medieval knight was a soldier for the king because he could afford to pay for armor, weapons, and a battle horse. He could afford to head off into battle instead of plowing the fields — and he could afford the time required for training between wars. The king didn’t pay him to be a knight. He paid the king for that honor. As far as we can tell, James Bond isn’t paying out of pocket for all those vodka martinis, and he certainly didn’t commission Q Branch for any of his gadgets. 007’s license to kill makes him a hired gun, even if he does restrict his paid murders to those sanctioned by his government.

Batman, on the other hand, pays his own way.

Like most of the medieval knights, his wealth originally came from privilege more than trade. The Waynes are old money. Even "stately Wayne Manor" suggests aristocracy, and where Superman’s Metropolis is shiningly new and forward looking, gothic Gotham is old, with deep roots in Europe. Frames of Batman on the rooftops harken back to Quasimodo atop Notre Dame.

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.

Finally, who are the bad guys?

For Bond, they are the enemies of the state — meaning that they are whoever Her Majesty says they are. In both the books and films, they are invariably evil, so James Bond will look like the good guy when he finally defeats them, but ultimately the double-O agents are weapons: the government aims them at its enemies and pulls the trigger. We know full well from history who ends up in the cross hairs.

Even my favorite fictional private eyes, however independent and heroic they may prove to be, don’t go looking for trouble until a client hires them to do so.

But for Batman, the enemy is crime — not mere violators of legislation and statute law, not people who manufacture without regulation, trade without license, or copy digital patterns in violation of copyright. A true comic-book fanboy could probably dig through back issues and show us the exception, but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.

For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim. And it is the victims Batman is fighting for; they are proxies for the parents he was too young and scared to rescue from the back-alley gunman. In the versions of the backstory that I prefer, Batman can never avenge his parents’ deaths, so even the target of his vengeance is a proxy: not a human criminal but crime itself. And by "crime," I mean rights violations, violence against person and property.

The Dark Knight may be on a perpetual quest, but it is not for a king; it is for the people.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]

DarkKnightReturnsPostscript

My vision of Batman comes from Frank Miller’s masterpiece of 1985.

Movies, TV, and comics have all kept the Dark Knight dark ever since.

As left-leaning Grant Morrison writes in Supergods, “Frank Miller brought the Dark Age style into line with a newly confident right-leaning America. His monumental Batman was no bleeding-heart liberal but a rugged libertarian.”

I introduced my father to Frank Miller’s work the very day I discovered it. He was reading issue #1 next to me as I read issue #2. I believe he loved it almost as much as I did. If he had been putting Batman in the same camp as James Bond back in the 1970s, he could only have had TV’s Adam West in mind. The campy television Batman of the 1960s may as well have been a costumed cop.

Here’s Grant Morrison again:

In the fifty years since his creation, Batman had become a friend of law and order, but Miller restored his outlaw status to thrilling effect. A Batman wanted by crooks and cops alike made for a much more interesting protagonist…

stuck between past and future

ConeSphereIntersection_650We’re finishing up the Exodus story in our family Bible readings. After the children’s bible’s story about Joshua and Caleb as spies, the grownups returned to Thomas Cahill‘s The Gifts of the Jews, in which we find this interesting further commentary on the idea that the Jews invented the conception of linear time (which I explore in the post "under the sun"):

Of the many innovations that Sinai represents — the codification of Abrahamic henotheism (that one God is to be worshiped, even though others are presumed to exist), the articulation of “ought-ness” (or what Kant will one day call the “categorical imperative”), the invention of the Sabbath — nothing is as provocative as the way in which this tremendous theophany brings to completion the new Israelite understanding of time. The journey of Avraham and the liberation wrought by Moshe transformed human understanding of past and future: the past is all the steps of my forebears and myself that have brought me to this place and moment; the future is what is yet to be. But the past is irretrievable and the future is a blank. The one is fixed, the other unknown. For the past I can have only regret, for the future only anxiety. To live in real time, to live in history, can be a horrible experience — and no wonder that the ancients contrived to escape such torments by inventing cyclical time and the recurrent Wheel, leading only to the peace of death.

But this gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now. What I have done in the past is past mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth the candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in this moment — and only in this moment — I am in control. This is the moment of choice, the moment when I decide whether I will plunge in the knife or not, take the treasure or not, begin to spin the liar’s web or not. This is the moment when the past can be transformed and the future lit with radiance. And such a realization need bring neither regret nor anxiety but, if I keep the Commandments, true peace. But not the peace of death, not the peace of coming to terms with the Wheel. For in choosing what is right I am never more alive.

I keep thinking of my upper-level college philosophy course on postmodernism, which was the first time I had to struggle to get good grades in philosophy.

My current take on the class is that I needed to stop thinking like the Jews and learn to think more like the Greeks (and all other ancients, according to Cahill) to grasp the supposedly postmodern conception of time as circular. I am, in fact, so much more like Cahill’s Jews (which is to say, so entrenched in modernism) that I consider so-called postmodernism to be a form of retrogression.

Onward!