How the Founders Dealt with Fake News

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by Jarrett Stepman
Following the [2016] presidential election, numerous stories surfaced about how “fake news” influenced the results. This prompted a reaction from the media and a concerted effort by the social media giant Facebook to crack down on the phenomenon—announcing that it would in part by using fact-checkers to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” news.

Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.The truth is that while the American media landscape has been in a constant state of change over two centuries, the spread of hyperpartisan, scurrilous, and even phony news stories has been more common than uncommon throughout the history of the republic.

Ultimately, despite the increasingly Wild West state of journalism, Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.

The media response frames the fake news issue as nearly the single greatest threat to democracy in our time. But despite the worries that surround an uptick in fraudulent news, the phenomenon is nothing new, nor does it particularly portend dark times in America’s future.

The overreaction in response, potentially damaging both the right to free speech and a culture that supports it, may be more dangerous to a free society.

‘Dupes of Pretended Patriots’

The idea that the press could try to deceive rather than enlighten readers was not lost on the Founders. In the years before and after the American Revolution there was an explosion of printing presses throughout the Western world as improved printing technology was becoming widely available.

Journalists and pamphleteers were certainly vital to spreading the ideas of American rebellion against the English—names like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams were nearly synonymous with the American Revolution, and they certainly weren’t alone. Though propaganda and distortion of the news were common as well.

After America gained independence, there were still huge numbers of scribblers writing about news and politics with varying levels of credibility and accuracy.

When the framers of the Constitution met to discuss the construction of the new government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, freedom of the press and what it would mean for the future of the country was certainly on their minds.

Many Founders fretted about what the proliferation of false or destructive notions would mean for the idea of democracy and a society of mass political participation.

Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry lamented how the people in his home state were being led astray by false stories from malcontents and manipulators.

“The people do not want [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said. “In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”

So what did the Founders do to stop this problem? They created a system of government that would allow room for democracy, yet checked its vices: through institutions like Congress, the constitutional amendment process, and division of power between branches of government as well as the states and federal government. Not to mention the Electoral College, which the modern left now decries as unfair and undemocratic.

Unfortunately, some of these checks have been eroded over time and continue to be undermined. For instance, the 17th Amendment forced states to elect senators through a popular vote rather than have the state legislature choose a representative, which has reduced the power of the states in the American system.

And in some states, like California, the requirement to pass a constitutional amendment is simply 50 percent of the vote plus one, yet again increasing the chance that a temporary excitement of the populace can lead to rapid, negative changes in governance.

The weakening of the structural checks on democracy has been the greater threat of fake news’ proliferation than nonsense peddlers themselves.

Tocqueville on the ‘Liberty of the Press’

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. It was not only the Founders who understood the trade-offs between a free press and misleading news. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French observer of American life, wrote about the freedom of the press in his 1835 book “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville noted that when he arrived in the U.S., the very first newspaper article he read was an overheated piece accusing then-President Andrew Jackson of being a “heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority” and a “gamester” who ruled by corruption. This type of account was not unusual.

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. Freedom allowed newspapers to proliferate throughout the United States in a highly decentralized way.

And in early American history, most newspapers were expressly partisan or outright controlled by individual politicians. They often aggressively attacked and made outrageous comments about political opponents.

Yet Tocqueville wrote that despite the general vehemence of the press, America was further from actual violence and political revolution than other societies that tightly controlled information.

While recognizing the occasional problems of an unimpeded fourth estate, Tocqueville wrote that “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

An attempt to submit “false” news and opinions through an official fact-checker would likely only elevate and perhaps justify a false opinion in the minds of the people, according to Tocqueville.

He continued to write that expecting to have the good of a free press without the bad has been “one of those illusions which commonly mislead nations in their times of sickness when, tired with faction and exhausted by effort, they attempt to make hostile opinions and contrary principles coexist upon the same soil.”

Americans were so used to being bombarded with opinions and information from a diverse media, Tocqueville wrote, that they were less likely to react to falsehoods and outrageous opinions.

Fake News existed in that time as well as ours, but it did little to outright convince people to change their views. This continues to be the case today.

Tocqueville concluded of a free press:

When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn. The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be regarded as correlative, just as the censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed and which cannot long be retained among the institutions of the same people.

The visiting Frenchman understood what Americans have almost always believed. Occasional false news stories cannot destroy a society fitted for liberty, but extreme efforts to contain them will.

The Search for Truth

The reality is, barriers to prevent modern Americans from receiving “fake news” are unlikely to succeed in a free society where a mass of information is readily available.

The internet, and a lack of trust in the legacy media, has allowed numerous new media publications to find success. It has again radically decentralized the way Americans get their information.

These legacy media organizations are attempting to reign in the chaos with new gimmicks like fact-checkers, but ultimately their influence and credibility are fading in the minds of Americans as fewer people trust or desire to read those sources.

This isn’t an anomaly in American life—it has been the norm. We must trust and maintain the mediating constitutional system the Founders created along the judgment of the American people.

The freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment and tempered by institutions designed to slow governmental change and thwart temporary excitements of opinion, created a nation incredibly free, yet robust enough to withstand potential large-scale errors in judgment.

The Founders understood that the good would outweigh the bad with a free press, and no court could justly measure the rightness or wrongness of news and public opinion. They realized that without allowing the press to operate freely and leaving the people as its ultimate tribunal, America would never truly be a land of liberty.

Fake or biased news was the willingly paid price of an open society, and the winnowing process of the American system ultimately leads the country toward the truth.

This piece ran on DailySignal 

Jarrett Stepman


Jarrett Stepman

Jarrett Stepman is an editor for The Daily Signal

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

How Jesus Exorcized Ancient Collectivism

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Reprinted from https://fee.org/articles/how-jesus-exorcized-the-collective-from-the-individual/ by David Gornoski, January 6, 2017.


Have you ever found yourself living out a role scripted by those around you?  Whether it’s a family member, partner, social clique, work rival, or boss, we tend to subsume other people’s scripts for us.

You dress very finely and people call you a snob, so you begin to behave like one.  If enough voices box you into a perceived role, you tend to adopt some of its ways.

The drug addict, if set up to play the role of the anti-social screw-up, will often become as such.

The type-A business person finds himself becoming cold, greedy, and slippery as vocal and nonverbal perceptions of his role subconsciously influence the way he acts out his persona.

These great (or grating) expectations can cause burdensome conflict and bitterness in our lives, particularly at the cultural-political level.  People tend to move in groupthink.  That’s the norm, the baseline modus operandi of our species.

That Old Time Religion

The groups we form tend to give us a sense of transcendence — that is, a feeling of being able to become something bigger than ourselves — as we adopt the same thought patterns, angers, passions, hates, rituals, rhetoric, and enemies of a common body.

Acting as groups — whether defined by Marxism, racial identity, or a libertarianism — has a way of giving our lives peace, order, and a mission.  It’s our “old time religion,” you can say.  After all, “religion” comes from the Latin root meaning “to bind together.”

Culture, be it a nation or a clique of drinking buddies, is the way we act out our religion, our “binding” together.  Our group cultures never find such ecstasy as when we find a person — usually someone who doesn’t perform a script we approve for them — to expel or wage war against.  Expelling a misfit, a stubborn devil’s advocate, or an ideological turncoat rallies and unifies our passion-driven shared beliefs and acts to the point where we become as one body eliminating the toxin for our health.

Our culture creates violent, self-fulfilling systemic purging.  Desensitized sex workers, greedy tax evaders, drug pushing gunslingers don’t just pop up in a vacuum.  They are symptoms of cycles of collectivist group purges.  Yes, they are ultimately responsible for the actions they take, make no mistake, but when we treat people as “Other” we create the monsters for which we were looking.

We need those monsters.

The cold-eyed prostitute is out there so that we are here, nowhere near her lot in life.  The gun-trading dealer is who he is so we can measure our own socially-approved markers of respectability against his contrast.  I’m exploitative, but not like him.  The billionaire finds more and more cunning ways to shelter his money and game our culture’s tax and regulation system so we can feel comparatively honest, selfless team players.

Tales of the Scapegoat

Where do we learn our collective cultural values?  From the stories we tell.  That’s what education and mass media and art provide: stories that reinforce collectivism as the way of the world; we should pick a side, play by the rules of the game, and battle for supremacy over other rival groups.  Forever, apparently.

Nightly news reports of another successful drug bust in a rejected part of town are supposed to remind us: play by the rules our collective has designed or else you will receive violence and expulsion.  You will become an Other.

There’s a bug in the script, though.  A counter-cultural force has emerged in history that produces counter-stories that are slowly eroding our dominant collectivist notions of the world.  These stories leave their fingerprints on our social norms and desires regardless of our awareness of them and regardless of how collectivist groups fraudulently misappropriate them for their own violent campaigns.  These stories are good news for all misfits, indeed, all persons looking for the courage to reject the lie of the crowd that is collectivism.

I call it the personhood revolution and its founder is Jesus of Nazareth.

Beyond just rhetoric, Jesus performed his aesthetic of personhood.  He created a subversive viral bug in our old collectivist system that reversed the mainstream script: when your group is threatened or stressed, find a common enemy and expel him.  Blame him. Dehumanize her.  Kill it.

In the new script Jesus invited all of us to perform, he first openly admits that he’s a total imitator himself.  He doesn’t set himself up as the originator of anything but points all of his ideas back to his dad, God.  He then asks listeners to imitate his imitation of God — one of mercy, not sacrifice — thereby finding transcendence outside of our collectivist violent purging.

Exorcising the Crowd from the Individual

In this performative context, the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s mission are freshly astonishing.  One such example is the story of the Demoniac of Gerasa.

A literary analysis shows us the breakthrough taking place in the narrative.  Whether every element is literal or not is beyond the scope of this discussion.  What’s in view for our literary analysis is what the narrative is doing symbolically to its audience — steeped even more than we are in a culture in which collectivist violence was sacred.

Jesus travels across the Sea of Tiberius to the Roman pagan city of Gerasa.  Immediately, he is confronted with a possessed man.  The howler lives among the tombs away from polite society.  When he’s not moaning, he neurotically stones himself.  Apparently, this community has other-ized him so thoroughly that he performs the script of a dehumanized monster on his own.  They don’t even need to lift a pebble.

Jesus asks him what his name is.  He replies enigmatically, “Legion, for we are many.”  A Roman legion was the greatest symbol of the power of the Roman collective body.  It was the vessel by which the empire owned outposts like Jesus’s own country.

And a legion was many, anywhere from 3,000-5,000 soldiers made up a unit.  The Latin word legio was used to refer to a large group of people.  It also meant “a chosen body.”  The demoniac is the one chosen body and the many at the same time.  There’s a double entendre taking place in the narrative.  Philosophers call this the one-and-the-many paradox: the logic of humanity.

The man’s many voices beg Jesus not to expel them out of the land.  So Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs — the livestock of the community — who collectively throw themselves in the sea as one.  In Jewish literature, the sea is always symbolically associated with chaos.

In this text, we have the world’s first exorcism of a crowd out of a person.  In other words, we have a performance in which the narrative does not reinforce the mainstream narrative of collective bodies assuming possession of persons to reinforce their shared virtue against a villain.  Rather, we have a misfit reject being exorcised of the collectivist voices in his head.  These voices are given a proper home, a herd of creatures less than human who mindlessly imitate their own destruction by drowning in the sea — again, a literary device for chaos.

Left without their chosen scapegoat, the Many — the crowd’s voice that consumed the man to ostracize himself among corpses and perpetually stone himself — is symbolically unmasked by the narrative to reveal what the Gospel authors see as its future culturally perceived place in Jesus’s project: animalistic herds driven to self-destructive chaos.

Instead of Jesus helping the crowd eliminate its common enemy, he frees the person of the possession of the crowd.  The collective script no longer holds him in chains.  Clothed and in his right mind, the man — purged of the collectivist script possessing his being — can no longer provide his town with the catharsis and group normalcy yardstick on which they relied.  As such, the collective is terrified.  They beg Jesus to leave at once.  Their magic antidote for peace, order, and a shared sense of well-being has been stolen.  The man, restored of his sense of self, asks Jesus to let him join him.  Jesus tells him to stay and teach his town the way of mercy he had demonstrated to him.

Our Own Demons

We must continue to enact this counter-story today.  Our neighbors are robbed of their humanity by a society that grinds them down into scripted molds that rob them of their vibrant, dignified personhood.  We cast our misfits into human cages like animals.  We allow them to “stone themselves” as they self-medicate with destructive drugs to cope with the social alienation.  We cheapen and commodify sex every day in every aspect of popular culture and then cast sex workers and their loser clients into the living tombs of prison.

We provoke our neighbors to cling more selfishly to hyper-competitiveness and greed in the marketplace by creating ever more labyrinthine, lifeless rites of passage we call regulations they must hurdle lest we steal their money through fines or cast them into cages.

We do all of this, of course, in the new mantra of victims.  Personhood-robbing, innovation-killing laws are covered up with narratives with which we pacify our cognitive dissonance: yes, we’ll send armed agents to use deadly force to raid a raw milk farmer, but we do it because of the potential victims he might create.

Our age-old collectivist violence, fatally infected by the virus of personhood for over two millennia, must find clever ways to sneak back in faux-imitation of Jesus’s counter-narrative’s defense of victims and misfits, those most prone to receive collectivist violence.

We need the FDA’s criminalization of nonviolent acts lest the wild west of personhood-respecting voluntary exchange and innovation allow persons to become victims of fraudsters and pranksters.

No, actually, we don’t.  Protection against fraud will always be a feature compatible with a voluntary order of free persons.  It’s a self-defense mechanism that protects victims from actual violence rather than some imagined future chaos that justifies preemptive aggression.

It is collectivist violence and its possession of our minds we must exorcise.  We must cast out the accusing, belittling, abusive voice of the Many that owns the minds of our modern chosen maniacs, our necessary victims.  Our path is personal service and mercy, not collective violence.  Be it.


David Gornoski is your neighbor — as well as an entrepreneur, speaker and writer. He recently launched a project called A Neighbor’s Choice, which seeks to introduce Jesus’s culture of nonviolence to both Christians and the broader public.


My comment on this article on the day it was published: Wow!  Just wow!  Only yesterday, mumbling to myself, I said I feel like an alien in a world of mindless followers.  (I read Hoffer’s The True Believer more than 45 years ago.)  For nearly as many years I have argued that collective theft in order to transfer wealth to the thieves’ chosen groups of dependents does not meet Jesus’s exhortation that individuals, wealthy or poor, do the giving themselves, individually; not because others are needy but because giving is what humble people of God do. -David A. Woodbury

Falkland’s Maxim and Hijacking Language for Politics

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by Albert Jay Nock
Titled: ’A Little Conserva-tive’ in the Atlantic Monthly, October, 1936

I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liber-al
Or else a little Conserva-tive.

-W. S. Gilbert, Iolanthe

Gilbert’s lines recall Professor Huxley’s pungent observation on the disadvantages of going about the world unlabeled.  Early in life, he says, he perceived that society regards an unlabeled person as a potential menace, somewhat as the police regard an unmuzzled dog.  Therefore, not finding any existing label to suit him, he took thought and invented one.  The main difference between himself and other people, as he saw it, was that they seemed to be quite sure of a number of things about which he not only was not sure, but also suspected that he never could be sure.  Their minds ran in the wake of the first-century Gnostic sects, while his did not.  Hence the term agnostic suggested itself to him as descriptive of this difference, and he accordingly adopted it as a label.

The great weight of Huxley’s authority forced the term into common currency, where ignorance promptly twisted it into a sense exactly contrary to its philology, and contrary to the original intention which Huxley gave it.  To-day when a person says he is an agnostic, it is ten to one he means that he knows the thing at issue is not so.  If he says, for instance, as one of my acquaintances did the other day, that he is a thoroughgoing agnostic concerning the existence of God and the persistence of consciousness after death, he means that he is sure there is no God and that consciousness does not persist.  The term is so regularly used to imply a negative certainty that its value as a label, a distinguishing mark, is false and misleading.  It is like the hotel labels which unscrupulous tourists in Paris buy by the dozen and stick on their luggage as evidence that they have visited places where they have never been, and put up at hotels which they have never seen.

Something like this appears to be the common destiny of labels.  It brings to mind the fine saying of Homer which I have so often quoted, that “the range of words is wide; words may tend this way or that way.”  There are few more interesting pursuits than that of examining the common popular connotation of labels, and observing how regularly it runs the full course from sense to nonsense, or from infamy to respectability, and back again.  For example, our voting population is divided into two major groups, Republicans and Democrats; how many of them know anything about the history of their labels?  How many could describe the differentiations that the significance of these labels indicates, or could attach any actual significance whatever to them, except in wholly irrelevant terms, usually in terms which in the last analysis turn out to mean habit, money, or jobs?

The Republicans went into the pangs of parturition at Cleveland last summer, and brought forth a sorry mouse.  As one of my friends put it, about the only thing their platform did not do was to give the Democratic Administration a formal endorsement.  As far as one can see, all their pledges amount to is a promise to do what the Democrats have been doing, but to do it better.

Similarly the new Russian constitution seems to show merely that Stalin thinks it is easier to run things the way Mark Hanna used to run them than the way they have been run in Russia hitherto.  No doubt he is right about that; but meanwhile one wonders what the word bolshevik will mean to the average Russian fifty years from now, and how many voters in holy Russia will know the history of the word, or even know that it has a history.

Reflections like these make one quite doubtful about Huxley’s position concerning the balance of advantage and disadvantage in the matter of labels.  His misfortune was in his honesty; he invented a label that precisely described him, and he could hardly have fared worse if he had worn none, for on the one hand ignorance at once invested it with an alien meaning, while on the other hand prejudice converted it into a term of reproach.  I have had a curious experience lately which has caused me to ponder afresh upon these matters, and which I am now tempted to relate.

For more than a quarter of a century I have been known, in so far as I was known at all, as a radical. It came about in this way:  I was always interested in the rerum cognoscere causas, 1 liking to get down below the surface of things and examine their roots.  This was purely a natural disposition, reflecting no credit whatever on me, for I was born with it.  Any success I had in its indulgence brought me the happiness that Lucretius observed as attaching to such pursuits, and I indulged it only for that reason, never seeking, and indeed never getting, any other reward.  Therefore when the time came for me to describe myself by some convenient label, I took one which marked the quality that I thought chiefly differentiated me from most of the people I saw around me.  They habitually gave themselves a superficial account of things, which was all very well if it suited them to do so, but I preferred always to give myself a root-account of things, if I could get it.  Therefore, by way of a general designation, it seemed appropriate to label myself a radical.  Likewise, also, when occasion required that I should label myself with reference to particular social theories or doctrines, the same decent respect for accuracy led me to describe myself as an anarchist, an individualist, and a single-taxer.

On the positive side, my anarchism came mainly as a corollary to the estimate of human capacity for self-improvement which I had picked up from Mr. Jefferson.  His fundamental idea appeared to be that everyone answering to the zoological classification of Homo sapiens is a human being, and therefore is indefinitely improvable.  The essence of it is that Homo sapiens in his natural state really wishes and means to be as decent towards his fellow-beings as he can, and under favorable conditions will progress in decency.  He shares this trait with the rest of the animal world.

Indica tigris agit rabida cum tigride pacem
Perpetuam; saevis inter se convenit ursis, 
2

— so long, that is, as irritating interferences, such as hunger, lust, jealousy, or trespass, are kept at a minimum.  Man’s moral superiority over the animal consists in an indefinitely cultivable capacity and will to deal with these interferences intelligently from the long-time point of view, and thus gradually immunize himself against their irritant influence.

Granting this premise, the anarchist position appeared logical to me, as it did to Prince Kropotkin and Bakunin.  Putting it roughly, if all men are human, if all bipeds classifiable as Homo sapiens are human beings, social harmony and a general progress in civilization will be far better brought about by methods of free agreement and voluntary association than by constraint, whether directly under force, or under the menace of force which is always implicit in obedience to law.

The negative argument for anarchism seemed quite as cogent as the positive argument.  The whole institution of government, wherever found and in whatever form, appeared to me so vicious and depraving that I could not even regard it with Paine as “at its best a necessary evil.”  The State stood, and had stood in history as far back as I could trace its existence, as little else but an instrument of economic exploitation, a mere mechanism, as Voltaire said, “for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.”  The activities of its administrators and beneficiaries appeared to me as they did to Voltaire, as no more or less than those of a professional-criminal class.  As Nietzsche calls it, “the coldest of all cold monsters,” the State’s character was so completely evil, its conduct so invariably and deliberately flagitious, that I did not see how society could possibly be worse off without it than with it, let the alternative condition be what it might.

My individualism was a logical extension of the anarchist principle beyond its narrow application to one particular form or mode of constraint upon the individual.  The thing that interested me, as it interested Emerson and Whitman, was a general philosophy of life which regards human personality as the greatest and most respect-worthy object in the world, and as a complete end-in-itself; a philosophy, therefore, which disallows its subversion or submergence, whether by force of law or by any other coercive force.  I was convinced that human beings do better and are happier when they have the largest possible margin of existence to regulate and dispose of as they please; and hence I believed that society should so manage itself as to leave the individual a maximum of free choice and action, even at a considerable risk of results which from the short-time point of view would be pronounced dangerous.  I suppose it may be seen how remote this is from the bogus affair of dollars and cents which is touted under the name of individualism, and which, as I showed in last February’s issue of this magazine, is not individualism in any sense.

The single tax impressed me as the most equitable and convenient way of paying the cost of such matters as can be done better collectively than individually.  As a matter of natural right it seemed to me that as individually created values should belong to the individual, so socially created values should belong to society, and that the single tax was the best method of securing both the individual and society in the full enjoyment of their respective rights.  To the best of my knowledge these two propositions have never been successfully controverted.  There were other considerations, too, which made the single tax seem the best of all fiscal systems, but it is unnecessary to recount them here.

Probably I ought to add that I never entered on any crusade for these beliefs or sought to persuade anyone into accepting them.  Education is as much a matter of time as of anything else, perhaps more, and I was well aware that anything like a general realization of this philosophy is a matter of very long time indeed.  All experience of what Frederick the Great called “this damned human race” shows beyond peradventure that it is impossible to tell anyone anything unless in a very real sense he knows it already; and therefore a premature and pertinacious evangelism is at best the most fruitless of all human enterprises, and at worst the most vicious.  Society never takes the right course until after it has painfully explored all the wrong ones, and it is vain to try to argue, cajole, or force society out of these set sequences of experimentation.  Over and above the impassioned outpourings of the propagandist for an untried way of salvation, however straight and clear that way may be, one can always hear old Frederick saying, “Ach, mein lieber Sacher, er kennt nicht diese verdammte Rasse.” 3

But while I have never engaged in any controversy or public discussion of these matters, or even in any private advocacy of them, I have spoken my mind about them so freely and so often that it would seem impossible for anyone to mistake my attitude towards them.  Only last year, in fact, I published by far the most radical critique of public affairs that has as yet been brought out here.  Hence I was mildly astonished to hear the other day that a person very much in the public eye, and one who would seem likely to know something of what I have been up to during all these years, had described me as “one of the most intelligent conservatives in the country.”

It was a kind and complimentary thing to say, and I was pleased to hear it, but it struck me nevertheless as a rather vivid commentary on the value and the fate of labels.  Twenty, or ten, or even three years ago, no one in his right mind would have dreamed of tagging me with that designation.  Why then, at this particular juncture, should it occur to a presumably well-informed person to call me a conservative, when my whole philosophy of life is openly and notoriously the same that it has been for twenty-five years? In itself the question is probably worth little discussion, but as leading into the larger question of what a conservative is, and what the qualities are that go to make him one, it is worth much more.

It seems that the reason for so amiably labeling me a conservative in this instance was that I am indisposed to the present Administration [of President Franklin Roosevelt].  This also appears to be one reason why Mr. Sokolsky labels himself a conservative, as he did in the very able and cogent paper which he published in the August issue of the Atlantic.  But really, in my case this is no reason at all, for my objections to the Administration’s behavior rest no more logically on the grounds of either conservatism or radicalism than on those of atheism or homeopathy.  They rest on the grounds of common sense and, I regret to say, common honesty.  I resent the works and ways of the Administration because in my opinion such of them as are not peculiarly and dangerously silly are peculiarly and dangerously dishonest, and most of them are both.  No doubt a person who wears the conservative label may hold this opinion and speak his mind accordingly, but so may a radical, so may anyone; the expression of it does not place him in either category, or in any category of the kind.  They mark him merely as a person who is interested in having public affairs conducted wisely and honestly, and who resents their being conducted foolishly and dishonestly.

With regard to Mr. Sokolsky, I may not, and do not, presume to doubt him when he says he is a conservative.  All I may say is that I cannot well see how his paper makes him out to be one.  If, now, he had said reactionary, I should have no trouble whatever about getting his drift, for my understanding is that he is in favor of a reaction from one distinct line of general State principle and policy back to another which has been abandoned.  This is an eminently respectable position, and reactionary, which precisely describes it, is a most respectable term; but I cannot make it appear that this position is dictated by conservatism, or that holding this position justifies a person in calling himself a conservative.

Philology is a considerable help in these matters, but in guiding ourselves by its aid we must make an important discrimination which is set by the presence or absence of a moral factor.  It is a commonplace of a language’s growth that the significance of certain terms, like certain interpretations of music, becomes deformed and coarsened by tradition.  I once heard a performance of the Messiah in Brussels, and was amazed at finding it almost a new composition, so far away it was from the English traditional interpretation, which was the only one I knew.  Similarly there is no doubt that terms like grace, truth, faith, held very different connotations for Christians of the first century and for those of the fourth and again for those of the sixteenth, while for those of the twentieth they seem voided of all significance that is relevant to their philology, much as our formula, my dear sir, means only that a letter is begun, and yours sincerely means only that it is ended.

In instances like these there is no moral quality discernible in a term’s passage from one meaning to another which has less philological relevancy, or to one which has none.  There is no evidence of any interested management of its progress.  In instances where this progress has been deliberately managed, however, the case is different.  The term then becomes what Jeremy Bentham calls an impostor-term, because it has thus purposefully been converted into an instrument of deception, usually in the service of some base and knavish design.

It is notorious that a managed glossary is of the essence of politics, like a managed currency, and it is highly probable that the debasement of language necessary to successful political practice promotes far more varied and corrupting immoralities than any other infection proceeding from that prolific source.  Thus terms like conservative, progressive, radical, reactionary, as they stand in the managed glossary of politics, are made to mean whatever the disreputable exigencies of the moment require them to mean.  The term radical, for example, stands to account for anything from bomb-throwing to a demand for better wages.  Again, we all remember Mr. Roosevelt’s culpable debasement of the term tory to further an electioneering enterprise; and the manhandling of the term liberal into an avouchment for the most flagrantly illiberal measures of coercion, spoliation, and surveillance is surely well enough known.

The term conservative, which in the course of the campaign this summer we have heard applied to a curious medley made up of all sorts and conditions of men, suffers the same abuse.  On the one hand, Mr. Smith is a conservative, and so is Mr. Raskob, Mr. Owen Young, the denizens of Wall Street, and the whole du Pont family; while, on the other hand, so is a majority of the Supreme Court, so is Mr. Newton Baker, Mr. Wolman, Mr. Lewis Douglas, and so, it seems, am I!  What an extraordinary conjunction of names!  On the day I wrote this I saw a headline which said that 53 per cent of the persons polled in a questionnaire or straw-vote conducted by some publication reported themselves as “conservative.”  I read further, and found that when all comes to all, this means that they are against the Administration, and that their difference with the Administration is over the distribution of money.

In the glossary of politics and journalism, the commonest, nay, the invariable connotation of “conservatism” is in terms of money; a “conservative policy” is one by which a larger flow of money can be turned towards one set of beneficiaries rather than towards another, while a “radical” or a “progressive” policy is one which tends more or less to divert that flow.  According to this scale of speech, the policies of Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, which turned a great flow of money towards a political pressure-group of stockjobbers, speculators, shavers, were eminently conservative; while those of Mr. Roosevelt and his associates, which largely divert that flow towards a rival pressure-group of job-holders, hangers-on, single-crop farmers, unemployed persons, bonus-seekers, hoboes, are eminently radical.  The designation follows the dollar.  Even Mr. Sokolsky, whose valiant stand against the Administration I so much admire and so cordially approve, seems to associate his idea of conservatism rather over-closely with “prosperity;” that is to say, with money.

So one can imagine Mr. Justice McReynolds, for instance, surveying the rank and file of his fellow-conservatives with some dismay while he wonders, like the hero of French comedy, what he is doing in that particular galley.  The thought suggests that it might be a good thing all around if we who are so indiscriminately labeled as conservatives should stand for a time on the windward side of ourselves while we examine this label and see whether or not we can properly take title to wear it.  What is a conservative, and what is the quality, if any, that definitely marks him out as such?

This question can best be got at by considering an incident in the career of an extraordinary personage, about whom history, unfortunately, has had all too little to say.  In a lifetime of only thirty-three years, Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, managed to make himself a most conspicuous example of every virtue and every grace of mind and manner; and this was the more remarkable because in the whole period through which he lived — the period leading up to the Civil War — the public affairs of England were an open playground for envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.  The date of his birth is uncertain; probably it was at some time in the year 1610; and he was killed in the battle of Newbury, September 20, 1643, while fighting on the royalist side.

Falkland had a seat in the Long Parliament, which was divided on the specious issue of presbyterianism against episcopacy in the Church of England.  When a bill was brought in to deprive the bishops of their seats in the House of Lords, Falkland voted for it.  He was all for puncturing the bishops’ pretension to “divine right,” and for putting a stop to the abuses which grew out of that pretension.  The presbyterian party, however, emboldened by success, presently brought in another bill to abolish episcopacy, root and branch, and Falkland voted against it.

Hampden, in a bitter speech, promptly taunted him with inconsistency.  In reply, Falkland said he could see nothing essentially wrong with an episcopal polity.  “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I do not believe the bishops to be jure divino; nay, I believe them not to be jure divino; but neither do I believe them to be injuria humana.5  This polity had been in force a long time, it had worked fairly well, the people were used to it, the correction of its abuses was fully provided for in the first bill, so why “root up this ancient tree,” when all it needed was a severe pruning of its wayward branches, which had already been done, and for which he had voted?  He could not see that there was any inconsistency in his attitude.  He then went on to lay down a great general principle in the ever-memorable formula, “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Here we get on track of what conservatism is.  We must carefully observe the strength of Falkland’s language.  He does not say that when it is not necessary to change, it is expedient or advisable not to change; he says it is necessary not to change.  Very well, then, the differentiation of conservatism rests on the estimate of necessity in any given case.  Thus conservatism is purely an ad hoc affair; its findings vary with conditions, and are good for this day and train only.  Conservatism is not a body of opinion, it has no set platform or creed, and hence, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a hundred-per-cent conservative group or party — Mr. Justice McReynolds and Mr. Baker may stand at ease.  Nor is conservatism an attitude of sentiment. Dickens’s fine old unintelligent characters who “kept up the barrier, sir, against modern innovations” were not conservatives.  They were sentimental obstructionists, probably also obscurantists, but not conservatives.

Nor yet is conservatism the antithesis of radicalism; the antithesis of radical is superficial.  Falkland was a great radical; he was never for a moment caught by the superficial aspect of things.  A person may be as radical as you please, and still may make an extremely conservative estimate of the force of necessity exhibited by a given set of conditions.  A radical, for example, may think we should get on a great deal better if we had an entirely different system of government, and yet, at this time and under conditions now existing, he may take a strongly conservative view of the necessity for pitching out our system, neck and crop, and replacing it with another.  He may think our fiscal system is iniquitous in theory and monstrous in practice, and be ever so sure he could propose a better one, but if on consideration of all the circumstances he finds that it is not necessary to change that system, he is capable of maintaining stoutly that it is necessary not to change it.  The conservative is a person who considers very closely every chance, even the longest, of “throwing out the baby with the bath-water,” as the German proverb puts it, and who determines his conduct accordingly.

And so we see that the term conservative has little value as a label; in fact, one might say that its label-value varies inversely with one’s right to wear it.  Conservatism is a habit of mind which does not generalize beyond the facts of the case in point.  It considers those facts carefully, makes sure that as far as possible it has them all in hand, and the course of action which the balance of fact in that case indicates as necessary will be the one it follows; and the course indicated as unnecessary it not only will not follow, but will oppose without compromise or concession.

As a label, then, the word seems unserviceable.  It covers so much that looks like mere capriciousness and inconsistency that one gets little positive good out of wearing it; and because of its elasticity it is so easily weaseled into an impostor-term or a term of reproach, or again into one of derision, as implying complete stagnation of mind, that it is likely to do one more harm than it is worth.  Probably Huxley was wrong, for while it may be that society regards an unlabeled person with more or less uneasy suspicion, there is no doubt that it looks with active distrust upon the person who wears an equivocal and dubious label; and equally so whether one puts the label on oneself, as Huxley did, or whether it is put on by interested persons for the purpose of creating a confusion which they can turn to their own profit.

This is true of all the terms that we have been considering, and therefore it would seem the sensible thing simply to cease using them and to cease paying attention to them when used by others.  When we hear talk of men or policies as conservative, radical, progressive or what not, the term really tells us nothing, for ten to one it is used either ignorantly or with intent to deceive; and hence one can best clear and stabilize one’s mind by letting it go unheeded.  It is notoriously characteristic of a child’s mentality to fix undue attention on the names of things, and in firmly declining to be caught and held by names one brings oneself somewhat nearer the stature of maturity.

By this, moreover, one puts oneself in the way of doing something to mature and moralize our civilization.  Every now and then some prophet, like another Solomon Eagle, warns us that our civilization is at the point of collapse.  We may regard these predictions as far-fetched, or we may say with Emerson, when an Adventist told him the world was coming to an end, that if so it were no great loss; or again, we may feel towards our civilization as Bishop Warburton felt towards the Church of England. 6  But however much or little we may think our civilization worth saving, and however we may interpret its prospects of impending dissolution we may hardly hope that it can keep going indefinitely unless it breaks its bondage to its present political ideas and ideals.

We must observe, too, that it is held in this ignoble bondage largely, perhaps chiefly, by the power of words; that is to say, by the managed glossary of politics. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, for example, will be long in living down the scandalously misapplied term conservative, if indeed they ever do; and there is a vicious irony in the fact that Mr. Roosevelt and his associates will always be known as radicals or liberals, according as it is meant to hold them up either to blame or to praise.

The main business of a politician, as Edmund Burke said, is “still further to contract the narrowness of men’s ideas, to confirm inveterate prejudices, to inflame vulgar passions, and to abet all sorts of popular absurdities;” and a managed glossary is the most powerful implement that he applies to this base enterprise.  We hear a good deal about inflation at the moment, and inflation is indeed a formidable thing.  Our people have no idea of what it means, and I, for one, distinctly do not care to be around when they find out what it means, for I have seen it in action elsewhere, and have seen enough.  But dreadful as it is, a far worse form of inflation, the most destructive that politicians and journalists can devise, is inflation of the public mind by pumping it full of claptrap.

The words we have been discussing are standard terms in the politician’s managed glossary. By recognizing them as such, and resolutely disregarding them, we should disarm the politician and journalist of much, perhaps most, of their power for evil, and thus give our civilization the one service of which it especially stands in need. If we are looking for an example of wisdom, insight, and integrity in their application to public affairs, let us find it in Falkland. Instead of permitting our attention to be caught and held by recommendations of person, party, or policy as conservative, liberal, radical, progressive, let us rather employ it in rigorously determining what the actual needs of the situation are, and then permit it to come to rest upon the simple and sufficient formula: “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

NOTES
1. – Latin: know[ing] the causes of things
2. – Latin: loosely, Tigers live peaceably together, and even the wildest beasts spare those of their own species
3. – German: Ah, my dear Sacher (originally Sulzer), you don’t know this damned race
4. – Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s theory is that the human being is a distinct species, and that the immense majority of Homo sapiens is not human, but is merely the raw material out of which the occasional human being is produced.  I have already discussed this theory in the Atlantic of April 1935, in an essay called “The Quest of the Missing Link.”  If this be true, the anarchist position would give way to the position of Spencer, that government should exist, but should abstain from any positive interventions upon the individual, confining itself strictly to negative interventions.  I find myself inclining more and more towards Mr. Cram’s view, and shall probably embrace it, but not having as yet done so, I must still call myself an anarchist.
5. – Latin: jure divino/divine right; injuria humana/human injury
6. – William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, 1760-1779.  He said, “The Church, like the Ark of Noah, is worth saving; not for the sake of the unclean beasts that almost filled it, and probably made most noise and clamour in it, but for the little corner of rationality that was as much distressed by the stink within as by the tempest without.”

The Pigrolet

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by David A. Woodbury
After stewing for years about the excesses of our federal government, I have come to the conclusion that the most contemptible unit of government is Congress.  This is the body which has given certain of its members super-powers out of proportion to the principle of equal representation, (raising the call for term limits).  Congress passes a bill only after it has been loaded with loathsome and unrelated riders.  With the complicity of the Executive Branch, Congress created the fourth, unelected Regulatory Branch of government, whose description is found nowhere in the Constitution.

Congress passes “enabling” legislation, and then devolves its own responsibility by turning the details over to “agency rule-making,” once a new agency has been conjured to create the new rules.  If a regulation, (which has the “power of law” as if our representatives wrote the regulation themselves), is promulgated that exceeds the intention of the enabling legislation, can Congress simply strike it down?  Oh, no.  To reverse a regulation, a new bill has to be sent through Congress — committees, party politics, House-Senate reconciliation, and all that — and must be attached as a rider to yet another unrelated bill.

I digress for a moment, but It’s a mystery to me why there has not been a Constitutional challenge to the existence of the Regulatory Branch, even more a wonder when the regulators, writing law, are under the oversight of the Executive Branch.  Maybe that’s because I’m the only American who is properly horrified by it, and I haven’t given up my family and all my personal goals and responsibility in order to devote the rest of my life to antagonizing that dragon.

As I have matured, which is to say, as I have become a hardened cynic, I have come to understand a key problem in the way Congress operates, and from that I realize how a simple change might benefit everyone involved, including the party in power, the party in the doghouse, and all us humble citizens as well.

See, the problem is compromise, which is assumed to be a virtue in politics.  The word, bipartisanship, is spoken with reverence by pontificating congresspeople.  It works like this: The Democrats think that every household needs a pig.  A pig takes care of your garbage, it’s companionable, unlike a Chevrolet, you can compost its waste, and in really hard times, you can eat it.  The Republicans think that every household needs a Chevrolet.  It gets you places, it’s economical to run, unlike a pig, it comes in attractive colors, and in a pinch you can sit inside it to get out of the rain.

When Congress compromises, what we get is a Pigrolet — a beast that can’t coordinate the feet on the front with the wheels on the back.  It belches foul fumes while rejecting its special gasoline/garbage blend, (concocted by scientists who reached a consensus), and it bites you when you poke around for the hood latch.  Never mind that the cost of a Pigrolet is orders of magnitude greater than that of a mere Chevrolet; Congress is puffed with pride in assuring that everyone has benefited by its new solution to a problem nobody had, and look how many jobs it has created!  Once everyone in America has a Pigrolet and realizes what a piece of shit it is, what do we do?  We send the same dolts back to Congress for another term and eagerly await the next product of bipartisan compromise.

Democrats and Republicans need to stop identifying our problems for us.  And — here is the simple change — I think they need to stop compromising.  I think the party in power in Congress — (never mind which party the President belongs to; most Presidents are mere catalysts for compromise) — should get everything it wants.  The people should get exactly what they voted for.  That’s the quickest, and probably the only, way the voters are going to realize what they’ve done by sending certain promise-makers to Washington.  Either everyone gets a pig, or everyone gets a Chevrolet, or everyone gets neither, (the best deal of all).

Am I suggesting, for instance, that the Democrats in the current Congressional mix just vote with the Republicans and pass their oponents’ entire agenda?  Yes!  Go on record to object to what strikes you as absurdities, and then vote to let it happen and get it over with.  It would be tough for a few years, but the culprits would not be able to complain that they were forced to compromise.  Either the country will go down the tubes really fast, or things will get wildly better really fast.

Doing so just might bury one party or the other for good.  Then, maybe, we could resume sending ordinary citizens to Washington who realize that you don’t need to be a lawyer in order to understand the Constitution.  (And who also might be cured of the temptation to create Pigrolets.)

My household doesn’t need a government pig or a government Chevrolet.  And especially we don’t need a Pigrolet, which is to say, we don’t need any of Congress’s cockamamie freedom-crushing compromise solutions to non-existent problems.

I am reminded of a couple of quotes from great Americans who have seen the same problem and described it with succinct eloquence:

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer. –Will Rogers

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. –P. J. O’Rourke

Artemus Ward

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Introduction to Selected Works of Artemus Ward
Albert Jay Nock — 1924

Charles Farrar Browne, known to the world as Artemus Ward, was born ninety years ago1 in Waterford, Maine.  He died at an age when most of us are only beginning to mature—thirty-three.  Little more can be told of him by way of formal biography.  Mr. Don C. Seitz2 lately employed himself upon a labour of love by seeking out and publishing all that is known, probably, of the externalities of Ward’s life.  Mr. Seitz has made the most of what was put before him, and in so doing he has done good service to the history of American letters; yet one closes his fine volume with a keen sense of how little he had to do with, a sense of the slightness and insignificance of his material.  All Ward’s years were Wanderjahre;3 he had no schooling, he left a poor rural home at sixteen to work in neighbouring printing-offices; he tramped West and South as a compositor and reporter; he wrote a little, lectured a little, gathered up odds and ends of his writings and dumped them in a woeful mess upon the desk of Carleton, the publisher, to be brought out in two or three slender volumes; he went to New York, then to London, saw as much of collective human life in those centres as he had energy to contemplate; he wrote a few pages for the old Vanity Fair and for Punch, gave a few lectures in Dodworth Hall on Broadway and Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly; and then he died.  Little enough of the pars magna fui4 is to be found here for the encouragement of a biographer; Mr. Seitz, I repeat, is to be congratulated on his intrepidity.  It is surely a remarkable thing that one whose experience was limited by the span of thirty-three years, whose literary output was correspondingly scanty, and whose predicable hold upon the future was as slight and hazardous as Mr. Seitz shows Ward’s to have been, should have managed to live nearly a century; and it is perhaps more remarkable that he should have done it in a civilization like ours, which is not over-careful with literary reputations and indeed does not concern itself deeply with spiritual achievement or spiritual activity of any kind.

Yet that is what Artemus Ward has somehow managed to do, and Mr. Seitz is on hand with a bibliography of eighteen pages, closely printed in small type, to prove it.  Some measure of proof, too, is probably to be found in the fact that a new issue of Ward’s complete works came out in London two years ago,5 and that an American firm has taken thought to publish this present volume.  How, then, has Ward contrived to live so long?  As a mere fun-maker, it is highly improbable that he could have done it.  Ward is officially listed as the first of the great American humorists; Mr. Albert Payson Terhune even commemorates him as the man “who taught Americans to laugh.”  This is great praise; and one gladly acknowledges that the humorists perform an immense public service and deserve the most handsome public recognition of its value.  In the case of Ward, it is all to Mr. Terhune’s credit that he perceives this.  Yet as one reads Ward’s own writings, one is reminded that time’s processes of sifting and shaking-down are inexorable, and one is led to wonder whether, after all, in the quality of sheer humorist, Artemus Ward can quite account for his own persistent longevity.  In point of the power sheerly to provoke laughter, the power sheerly to amuse, distract and entertain, one doubts that Ward can be said so far to transcend his predecessors, Shillaber and Derby.  In point of wit and homely wisdom, of the insight and shrewdness which give substance and momentum to fun-making, it would seem that Ward’s contemporary, Henry W. Shaw, perfectly stands comparison with him.  The disparity, at all events, is by no means so obvious as to enable one to say surely that the law of the survival of the fittest must take its course in Ward’s favour.  One is therefore led to suspect either that Ward’s longevity is due to some quality which he possessed apart from his quality as humorist, some quality which has not yet, perhaps, been singled out and remarked with sufficient definiteness, or else that it is due to the blind play of chance.

Several considerations tell against the hypothesis of accident.  It might be enough to say flatly that such accidents do not happen, that the passing stream of printed matter is too full and swift to permit any literary flotsam to escape being caught and swept on to oblivion by its searching current.  Two other considerations, however, may be remarked as significant.  First, that Ward very soon passed over — almost immediately passed over, the transition beginning even in the last few months of his life — passed over from being a popular property to become a special property of the intelligent and civilized minority; and he has remained their special property ever since.  In his quality of humorist he could hardly have done this.  Even had he really been the man who taught the Americans to laugh, disinterested gratitude could hardly be carried so far.  Artemus Ward himself declined to weep over the memory of Cotton Mather, saying simply that “he’s bin ded too lengthy”; and such, more or less, are we all, even the intelligent and civilized among us.  Ward was, in his time, a popular property in virtue of his singularly engaging personality, his fine and delicate art as a public speaker and his brilliant dealing with questions and affairs of current interest.  But his presence is no longer among us, and the affairs of profoundest public interest in his day are hardly as much as a memory in ours.  No power of humour in dealing with those affairs could serve to continue him as a cherished property of the intelligent, any more than it could serve to restore him as a popular property now that those affairs, and the interest that they evoked, have disappeared.  His continuance must be accounted for by another quality than those which he shared with his predecessors and contemporaries who have not taken on a like longevity.

The second consideration is that Ward has always been the object of a different and deeper regard in England, where his humour is alien, than in America where it is native.  It has long been difficult to get a copy of his complete works in this country, even at second hand; the last edition was published by Dillingham in 1898.  In London one buys them over the counter, and I think one has always been able to do so.  Since the Dillingham edition, Ward has been kept alive in America chiefly in edited issues like Mr. Clifton Johnson’s, of 1912, and this present volume; and also in anthologies and in essays by many hands.  These have, however, I think invariably, presented him as a humorist, and without taking account of the quality which has given his work the vitality that it seems to possess.  The English writers have done, on the whole, rather better; but even they did not strike straight through to this quality, disengage it from those that made up his strictly professional character, and hold it out in clear view; though there is evidence that they themselves had glimpses of it.  They were for the most part content, like Ward’s own countrymen, to accept him as a humorist and to assume that he kept his place in literature on the strength of his humour; and they were not aware, apparently, that this assumption left them with a considerable problem on their hands.  Mr. Seitz quotes Ward’s own view of the quality that gives power and permanence to his work — I too shall quote it presently, as it is admirably explicit — and oddly enough, without perceiving that it leaves him with a considerable problem on his hands; a problem which, if he had attended to it, might have caused him to change the direction of about three-fourths of his book.

No, clearly it is not by the power of his humour that Ward has earned his way in the world of letters, but by the power of his criticism.  Ward was a first-class critic of society; and he has lived for a century by precisely the same power that gave a more robust longevity to Cervantes and Rabelais.  He is no Rabelais or Cervantes, doubtless; no one would pretend that he is; but he is eminently of their glorious company.  Certainly Keats was no Shakespeare, but as Matthew Arnold excellently said of him, he is with Shakespeare; to his own degree he lives by grace of a classic quality which he shares with Shakespeare; and so also is Ward with Rabelais and Cervantes by grace of his power of criticism.

Let us look into this a little, for the sake of making clear the purpose for which this book is issued.  I have already said that Ward has become a special property, and that he can never again be a popular property, at least until the coming of that millennial time when most of our present dreams of human perfectability are realized.  I have no wish to discourage my publishers, but in fairness I have had to remind them that this delectable day seems still, for one reason or another, to be quite a long way off, and that meanwhile they should not put any very extravagant expectations upon the sale of this volume, but content themselves as best they may with the consciousness that they are serving a vital interest, really the ultimate interest, of the saving Remnant.  Ward is the property of an order of persons — for order is the proper word, rather than class or group, since they are found quite unassociated in any formal way, living singly or nearly so, and more or less as aliens, in all classes of our society — an order which I have characterized by using the term intelligence.  If I may substitute the German word Intelligenz, it will be seen at once that I have no idea of drawing any supercilious discrimination as between, say, the clever and the stupid, or the educated and the uneducated.  Intelligenz is the power invariably, in Plato’s phrase, to see things as they are, to survey them and one’s own relations to them with objective disinterestedness, and to apply one’s consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchanneled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by routine and formula.  Those who have this power are everywhere; everywhere they are not so much resisting as quietly eluding and disregarding all social pressure which tends to mechanize their processes of observation and thought.  Rabelais’s first words are words of jovial address, under a ribald figure, to just this order of persons to which he knew he would forever belong, an order characterized by Intelligenz; and it is to just this order that Ward belongs.

The critical function which spirits like Ward perform upon this unorganized and alien order of humanity is twofold; it is not only clearing and illuminating, but it is also strengthening, reassuring, even healing and consoling.  They have not only the ability but the temper which marks the true critic of the first order; for, as we all know, the failure which deforms and weakens so much of the able second-rate critic’s work is a failure in temper.  Take, for example, by way of a comparative study in social criticism, Rabelais’s description of the behaviour of Diogenes at the outbreak of the Corinthian War, and put beside it any piece of anti-militarist literature that you may choose; put beside it the very best that M. Rolland or Mr. Norman Angell or even Count Tolstoy himself can do.  How different the effect upon the spirit!  Or again, consider in the following pages the pictures which Ward draws of the village of Baldwinsville under stress of the Civil War.  Not one item is missing of all that afflicted the person of Intelligenz in every community at some time in the last ten years.  Ward puts his finger as firmly as Mr. Bertrand Russell and Mr. H. L. Mencken have put theirs, upon all the meanness, low-mindedness, greed, viciousness, bloodthirstiness and homicidal mania that were rife among us — and upon their exciting causes as well — but the person of Intelligenz turns to him, and instead of being further depressed, as Mr. Russell and Mr. Mencken depress him, instead of being further overpowered by a sense that the burdens put upon the spirit of man are greater than it can bear, he is lifted out of his temporary despondency and enervation by a sight of the long stretch of victorious humanity that so immeasureably transcends all these matters of the moment.  Such is the calming and persuasive influence of the true critical temper, that one immediately perceives Ward to be regarding all the untowardness of Baldwinsville sub specie aeternitatis,6 and one gratefully submits to his guidance towards a like view of one’s own circumstances.

The essential humanity of Abraham Lincoln may be largely determined in one’s own mind, I think, by the fact that he made just this use of Artemus Ward.  Mr. Seitz tells us how, in the darkest days of the Civil War, Lincoln read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation at a special meeting of his Cabinet, and, to the immense scandal and disgust of his associates, prefaced it by reading several pages from Ward.  The incident is worth attention for the further establishment of the distinction drawn among men by the quality of Intelligenz.  Seward, Chase, Stanton, Blair, had ability, they had education; but they had not the free, disinterested play of consciousness upon their environment, they did not instinctively tend to see things as they are, they thought largely by routine and formula, they were pedantic, unintelligent — that is precisely the word that Goethe, the greatest of critics, would have applied to them at once. Upon them then, naturally, Lincoln’s performance made the impression of mere impudent levity; and thus one is directly led to see great force in Ward’s sly suggestion that Lincoln should fill up his Cabinet with showmen! Alas! how often the civilized spirit is moved to wish that the direction of public affairs might be taken out of the hands of those who in their modesty are fond of calling themselves “practical” men, and given over to the artists, to those who at least have some theoretical conception of a satisfying technique of living, even though actually they may have gone no great way in the mastery of its practice.

In another place Mr. Seitz tells us how the great and good John Bright, the Moses of British political liberalism, attended one of Ward’s lectures in London, sat gravely through it, and then observed that “its information was meagre, and presented in a desultory, disconnected manner”!  The moment I read that, I laid down the book, saying to myself, Behold the reason for liberalism’s colossal failure!  The primary failure of liberalism is just the failure in Intelligenz that we see so amusingly indicated in the case of Mr. Bright; its secondary failure, as we saw in the case of the late Mr. Wilson, for example, is a failure in the high and sound character that depends so largely upon Intelligenz for its development.  Can one imagine that Ward would be more intelligible to representative British liberals since Bright’s day, or that he would make a more serious and salutary impression upon the energumens who in this country are busily galvanizing some of Mr. Wilson’s political formulas into a ghastly simulacrum of life, and setting them up as the soul and essence of liberalism — upon ex-Justice Clarke, for example, or ex-Secretary Baker or Mr. George Foster Peabody?  One smiles at the thought of it.

Ward said of writers like himself that “they have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists and solid writers that have ever spoken or written…  They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.”  I venture to italicize these remarkable words. How many good causes there are, to be sure, that seem hopelessly condemned and nullified by the personality of those who profess them!  One can think of any number of reforms, both social and political, that one might willingly accept if only one need not accept their advocates too.  Bigotry, arrogance, intolerance, self-assurance, never ran higher over public affairs than in Ward’s day, yet he succeeded in putting upon all public questions the precise critical estimate that one puts upon them now in the perspective of fifty years; its correspondence with the verdict of history is extraordinarily complete.  It would be nothing remarkable if one should arrive now at a correct critical estimate of the Negro question, for example, or of the policy of abolition, or of the character and qualities of public men of the day, or of the stock phrases, the catchwords and claptrap that happened for the time being to be the stock-in-trade of demogoguery; but it is highly remarkable that a contemporary should have had a correct critical estimate of them, and that he should have given to it an expression so strong and so consistent, and yet so little encumbered with himself as to be wholly acceptable.

Really, there are very few of the characteristic and distinctive qualities of American life that Ward’s critical power left untouched.  I read somewhere lately — I think in one of Professor Stuart P. Sherman’s deliverances, though I am not quite sure — that Americans are just now very much in the mood of self-examination, and that their serious reading of novelists like Mr. Sinclair Lewis or Mr. Sherwood Anderson, and of essayists like Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn or Mr. Mencken, is proof that they are in that mood.  I have great doubts of all this; yet if it be true, I can but the more strongly urge them to re-examine the work of a first-rate critic, who fifty years ago drew a picture of our civilization that in all essential aspects is still accurate.  Ward represents the ideal of this civilization as falling in with one only of the several instincts that urge men onward in the quest of perfection, the instinct of expansion.  The claim of expansion is abundantly satisfied by Ward’s America; the civilization about him is cordial to the instinct of expansion, fosters it, and makes little of the obligation to scrupulousness or delicacy in its exercise.  Ward takes due pride in relating himself properly to the predominance of this instinct; he says that by strict attention to business he has “amarsed a handsum Pittance,” and that when he has enough to permit him to be pious in good style, like his wealthy neighbours, he intends to join the Baldwinsville church.  There is an ideal of civilized life for you, a conception of the progressive humanization of man in society!  For the claim of instincts other than the instinct of expansion, Ward’s America does nothing.  It does nothing for the claim of intellect and knowledge (aside from purely instrumental knowledge) nothing for the claim of beauty and poetry, the claim of morals and religion, the claim of social life and manners.

Our modern school of social critics might therefore conceivably get profit out of studying Ward’s view of American life, to see how regularly he represents it, as they do, as manifesting an extremely low type of beauty, a factitious type of morals, a grotesque and repulsive type of religion, a profoundly imperfect type of social life and manners. Baldwinsville is overspread with all the hideousness, the appalling tedium and enervation that afflict the sensitive soul of Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  The young showman’s courtship of Betsy Jane Peasley exhausts its resources of romance and poetry; its beau ideal of domesticity is completely fulfilled in their subsequent life together — a life fruitful indeed in certain wholesome satisfactions, but by no means such as a “well-formed mind would be disposed to relish.”  On the side of intellect and knowledge, Baldwinsville supports the editor of the Bugle as contentedly as New York supports Mr. Ochs and Mr. Munsey, and to quite as good purpose; it listens to the school-master’s views on public questions as uncritically as New York listens to Mr. Nicholas Murray Butler’s, and to quite as good purpose.  Baldwinsville’s dominant type of morals is as straitly legalistic, formal and superficial as our own; its dominant type of religion is easily recognizable as the hard, dogged, unintelligent fanaticism with which Zenith confronted Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  We easily recognize the “dissidence of Dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion,’; which now inspires the Anti-Saloon League, and which informs and animates the gentle ministrations of the Ku Klux Klan.

Thus Ward, in his own excellent phrase, powerfully helps along the truth about civilization in the United States; and all the more powerfully in that, unlike Mr. Lewis and Mr. Mencken, he does not so encumber it with himself, so overload it with the dragging weight of his own propensities, exasperations, repugnances, that his criticism, however accurate and interesting, is repellant and in the long run ineffectual.  Often, indeed, his most searching criticism is made by indirection, by the turn of some phrase that at first strikes one as quite insignificant, or at least as quite irrelevant to any critical purpose; yet when this phrase once enters the mind it becomes pervasive, and one finds presently that it has coloured all one’s cast of thought — and this is an effect which only criticism of the very first order can produce.  For instance, consider the first sentence that he writes in a letter to his wife from the Athens of America:

Dear Betsy: I write you this from Boston, ‘the Modern Atkins’ as it is denomyunated, altho I skurcely know what those air.

Nothing but that.  Yet somehow when that little piece of exquisite raillery sinks in, it at once begins to put one into just the frame of mind and temper to meet properly the gentle, self-contained provincialism at which it was directed.  Let the reader experiment for himself.  Let him first recall the fearfully hard sledding he had on his way through, say, Mr. Barrett Wendell’s History of American Literature, or the recent volume of Mrs. Field’s reminiscences; let him remember the groan of distress that now and then escaped him while reading Mr. Howells’s really excellent novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham.  Then with this sentence in mind, let him try reading any one of the three books again, and see how differently it will impress him.

After the same fashion one may make quite good headway with Mr. Villard’s biography of John Brown if one’s spirit is cleared and steadied by Ward’s inimitable critique of “Ossawatomie Brown, or, the Hero of Harper’s Ferry.”  Amidst the squalor of our popular plays and popular literature, one preserves a decent equanimity by perusing Ward’s reviews of East Side theatricals and of Forrest’s “Othello,” and his parodies of the cheap and lurid romances of his day.  Our popular magazines take on a less repellant aspect when one remembers how, after three drinks of New England rum, Ward “knockt a small boy down, pickt his pocket of a New York Ledger, and wildly commenced readin Sylvanus Kobb’s last Tail.”  No better criticism of our ludicrous and distressing perversion of the religious instinct can be found than in his account of his visit to the Shakers, the Free Lovers and the Spiritualists.  Never was the depth and quality of routine patriotism more accurately measured than by this, from the account of his visit to Richmond after the surrender:

I met a man today — I am not at liberty to tell his name, but he is an old and inflooential citizen of Richmond, and sez he, “Why! weve bin fightin agin the Old Flag!  Lor bless me, how sing’lar!”  He then borrer’d five dollars of me and bust into a flood of tears.

Again, how effective is Ward’s criticism of the mischievous and chlorotic sentimentalism to which Americans seem invariably to give their first allegiance!  During the Civil War the popular regard for motherhood was exploited as viciously as during the last war, or probably in all wars, and Ward’s occasional reflections upon this peculiarly contemptible routine-process of militarism are more effective than any indignant fulminations of outraged common sense; as when he suggests, for instance, that “the song writers air doin’ the Mother bisness rayther too muchly,” or as when in another place he remarks that it seems about time somebody began to be a little sorry for the old man.  He touches another fond topic of sentimentalism in his story, which I must quote, of leaving home as a boy to embark in the show business.  Where can better criticism than this be found?

You know, Betsy, that when I first commenced my career as a moral exhibitor with a six-legged cat and a Bass drum, I was only a simple peasant child — skurce 15 summers had flow’d over my yoothful hed.  But I had sum mind of my own.  My father understood this.  ‘Go,’ he said, ‘Go, my son, and hog the public!’ (he ment ‘knock em, but the old man was allus a little given to slang).  He put his withered han’ tremblingly onto my hed, and went sadly into the house I thought I saw tears tricklin down his venerable chin, but it might hav’ been tobacker juice.  He chaw’d.

But I must end these illustrations, which I have been tempted perhaps unduly to multiply and enlarge upon because their author has never yet, as far as I am aware, been brought to the attention of modern readers in the one capacity wherein he appears to me to maintain an open communication with the future — the capacity of critic.  In conclusion I cannot forbear remarking the spring, the abounding vitality and gusto, that pervades Ward’s work, and pointing out that here too he is with Rabelais and Cervantes.  The true critic is aware, with George Sand, that for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy; that it is by the bond of joy, not of happiness or pleasure, not of duty or responsibility, that the called and chosen spirits are kept together in this world.  There was little enough of joy going in the society that surrounded Ward; the sky over his head was of iron and brass; and there is even perhaps less joy current in American society now.  But the true critic has his resources of joy within himself, and the motion of his joy is self-sprung.  There may be ever so little hope of the human race, but that is the moralist’s affair, not the critic’s.  The true critic takes no account of optimism or pessimism; they are both quite outside his purview, his affair is one only of joyful appraisal, assessment and representation.

Epitaphs are notably exuberant, but the simple line carved upon Ward’s tombstone presents with a most felicitous precision and completeness, I think, the final word upon him.  “His name will live as a sweet and unfading recollection.”  Yes, just that is his fate, and there is none other so desirable.  Mansueti possidebunt terram,7 said the Psalmist, the amiable shall possess the earth; and so, in the long run, they do. Insight and wisdom, shrewdness and penetration — for a critic these are great gifts, indispensable gifts, and the public has regard for their exercise, it gives gratitude for the benefits that they confer; but they are not enough of themselves to invest a critic’s name with the quality of a sweet and unfading recollection.  To do this they must communicate themselves through the medium of a temper, a prepossessing and persuasive amiability.  Wordsworth showed himself a great critic when he said of his own poems that “they will co-operate with the benign tendencies in human nature and society, and will in their degree be efficacious in making men wiser, better and happier”; and it is just because of their unvarying co-operation with the benign tendencies in human nature and society that Ward’s writings have made him in the deepest sense a possession, a cherished and ennobling possession, of those who know him.

Notes:

1 – 1834; 2 – Don Carlos Seitz; 3 – German: years of wandering; 4 – Latin: the great part; 5 – For a collection of works by Artemus Ward, see Project Gutenberg; 6 – Latin: literally, “under the aspect of eternity”, or that which is universally and eternally true; 7 – Latin: The gentle shall inherit the earth.

Dear Trump Nation: Guard Your Heart

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by Joey Clark
I made a promise to myself before the beginning of the 2016 Presidential cycle that I would not support anyone for President, and I am happy to report I have remained true to my promise.  Honestly, this has been easy to do because, in my heart of hearts, I forever hope no one will be President, and I have once again been greatly disappointed.

Dare I say, I would love to see America made great again!  Yet, my heart also prods me to remain part of the Great American conversation.  Consider me akin to those two old men from The Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf, sitting in a theater box watching the American political arena.  I’m not happy with what I see, but I still show up day after day in my usual curmudgeonly way.  I am truly a disinterested party when it comes to supporting one president over another.

However, despite this aloof pose, I do love my fellow Americans and hope to see this dear nation of ours flourishing and prosperous once again.  I do have hope for the future of America — that she will serve as a beacon of liberty for all the world to emulate.

Dare I say, I would love to see America made great again!  

Yet, since I am not a supporter of Mr. Trump, consider me a neutral third party.  Consider me a wise fool here to serve you, “the people,” a fellow traveler ready to provide counsel come what may.  Thus, from this neutral place — with love for you and contempt for presidential ambitions — I feel obliged to advise those of you supporting Donald J. Trump.

Guard Your Heart

Yes, you and Donald may be having fun for now — the wining and dining, the guarantees of big walls and big hands, the appointments, the interviews, the speculation, the promise of a happier future together — but there are red flags galore.

So, please, guard your heart.

I do not expect many of you to follow my advice.  That’s the thing with being in love — it turns us absolutely dense and quick to play fast and loose with the truth and our well-being.  “When one is in love,” writes Oscar Wilde, “one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others,” and this is especially true of the love between the politician and the crowd.

Crowds of all stripes are notoriously more idiotic and immoral than the average person, but a crowd head-over-heels in love with a political leader?  Well, such a throng is usually downright dangerous, deceptive, and dimwitted, despite the intelligence and talents of the individuals who constitute it.  Crowds give us the cover we need to act like total imbeciles, and democracy gives us a pass to act like petty little tyrants.

One by one, the citizens fool themselves each election cycle that a certain politician will be a president representative of their interests, and then they proceed to fool their neighbors just the same.  Their tragedy is usually getting what they want.

Yet, the crowd’s collective responsibility under democracy is really no responsibility at all.  There is too much moral hazard built into the system whereby all claim to take the blame without ever personally doing so.  Therefore, I suspect you will not listen to my advice.  I fear, if you are to learn at all, you will have to learn the hard way.

A Tragic Love Story

So, allow me to provide the moral of your political love story with Mr. Trump before it ends.  I’ll do so by way of example.  It is the story of a young woman who fell in love with Obama in 2008.  The young woman’s name is Carey Wedler, and in March of 2014, she posted a video that went absolutely viral.  As of this writing, her video has been viewed 1,869,263 times.

From the outset, Carey appears on screen wearing an “Obama is my homeboy” t-shirt only to admit she was one of Obama’s most “hysterical supporters.”  She then displays a photo of her on the night Obama was elected, wearing the shirt and “shedding a tear of euphoria” because she thought “history had been made.”  Carey tells us that after a couple years and a little bit of research, she discovered Obama had “become exactly like the George Bush” she “used to so vitriolically hate.”  She then proceeds to indict Obama’s abysmal human rights record along with other failures.

The video then takes a dramatic turn.

After telling us she felt personally betrayed by Obama, Carey proceeds to strip off her Obama t-shirt, takes out a butane torch, and lights the shirt on fire!

 And now, I can’t help but ask: will Make America Great Again go up in flames just like Hope and Change?

How many of you will feel betrayed and heartbroken by Donald Trump a few years into his tenure just as Carey felt betrayed by Obama?  Will it be a few burning candles in the night, or a raging bonfire fueled by millions of hats, shirts, and signs?

“We’ll see,” says the Zen master.

But again, guard your heart.  I’m not asking you to stop supporting Mr. Trump, but to check your expectations.  Take the orange billionaire off the pedestal.

If you choose to not heed my advice, well, that is your liberty. But that brings us to the tragic moral of most political love affairs.

As Carey Wedler says at the end of her video:

Now Barack, I can admit that I probably hated you more than I needed to once I found out what a scam you were.  I hated you more than I hated George Bush because I felt personally betrayed by all the lies that you told.  But really, I should thank you now, because a few years out from realizing what a scam you were, I understand that it’s not just you… it’s the institution of government that is the problem.  It doesn’t matter what political party is in office.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a liberal or conservative or you or George Bush or anyone else who will run for President… it’s the institution of government that is violent and forceful and coercive and kills people and subjects them to will with a force… this government that you are currently at the head of (but really it doesn’t matter who is) is strictly violative… it only restricts the potential of humanity…

The Government Is the Problem

Put simply, the moral of the story is this: government is the problem.  You shouldn’t put your hopes and dreams in the State, else prepare for a broken heart.  It’s not about kicking the establishment bums out, and putting in new people.  No, the problem is the government itself.

The government is not “us.”  Each election season, we tend to stop seeing this truth.  We start seeing personalities.  We start seeing the other side who wants to take power over us, so we fight back, thinking we have found a new champion for our cause.  So, as you get caught up in the promises of power and your worry about the future of your nation, neighbors, and culture, just remember “we” are not the government.  The government is not “us.”

Government is something wholly separate from us, and as much we would like to think we can control this wild elephant by hopping on its back and tugging at its ears, this behemoth is much more prone to trample upon our livelihoods and liberties than ever protect us.

I suppose we must have a president, but I am not convinced this is actually fact.  So as you go forth supporting Donald J. Trump, just remember to guard your heart.

Joey Clark


Joey Clark

Joey Clark is a budding wordsmith and liberty lover.  He blogs under the heading “The Libertarian Fool” at joeyclark.liberty.me. Follow him on Facebook.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

Urban Fashion Team

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by David A. Woodbury
The rest of the country hardly considers Portland, Maine, an urban center.  In Maine, it is, though, and especially so from where I live, in the northern half of the state.

One recent spring, I spent an April weekend in Portland, my first sojourn into a major city in almost a year.  (It was Portland the last time, too.)  We spent two nights this weekend in a stuffy motel room and departed from our neo-Paleolithic roadkill-and-foraging diet into the decadence of IHOP and Applebee’s.  I drank three bottles of Shipyard ale in one evening.

My daughter and son-in-law (conventionally-married couple, no children, alumni of an über-liberal Massachusetts college who nevertheless escaped with their minds intact) have lived in a second-floor apartment on a “residential” street in Portland for most of their ten years there.  She grew up in T1R9 in the Maine wilderness, population 16 per square mile, while he grew up in Manhattan in the miasma of New York, population 100,000 times as dense as T1R9, so Portland is a middle ground for each of them.  To my amusement, though, rather than consternation, they have been sucked into the pulse and flow of this city, as through a straw; they have hospitality jobs and now drive a Prius hybrid.  They blend; I applaud; they have more courage than I; cities frighten me.

As I stalked the sidewalks during this visit, alongside my daughter and the rest of the family, and drifted into a few narrow storefronts, clothed in my rip-stock all-purpose laborer pants, flannel shirt, barn jacket, purposeful work boots, and Registered Maine Guide cap, much of what bothers me about city life chilled me with a weakening hangover-like queasiness.

Each storefront is, perhaps, sixteen feet wide with an interior arranged as to fit a wide railroad car.  Who or what occupies the three or more floors directly above each one?  I doubt most city dwellers even ask themselves that question.  No store has a public restroom, not even Dunkin’ Donuts.  At home, I let ‘er go just about anywhere I’m standing when the urge strikes.  Where do all the city people go to pee when they’re out and around?  (We went to a harbor-side park — Bug Light — to fly kites, and it wasn’t long before I had to pee.  No polite way to do it, so I had to let it crystalize in the pipe, so to speak, while I pondered where it would be publicly tolerated, since the businesses which kindly provide such facilities in small towns don’t do so in cities any more.)

Two of the strangest stores I passed in downtown Portland — well, one of the two was in the Maine Mall — are made strange by what they sell.  One sells art made of glass.  That, apparently, is all they carry.  Another sells pillows up to sizes intended to replace major items of furniture and in mostly plain bold colors.  Who buys enough of that stuff to make careers for a cadre of shopkeepers?  Will either of these shopkeepers one day pass on the business to a daughter or son so that their children can boast “In Business Over 40 Years” or will they both be gone within six months?

I know my way around Portland very well.  I began learning the lay of the city in the early 1950s, having briefly lived with my grandmother at 234 State Street, one block below Longfellow Square, and then continuing to visit her regularly after that right through my teen years.  I have lived in other cities as well, what most would consider pleasant places, both in this country and abroad — Cincinnati, Monterey, Augsburg, Boston — and in each instance I have become ever more resolved that I will never voluntarily call such a place, or its urban sprawl, my permanent home.

I am an alien in such an environment.  I see as much moose poop where I often walk as city people see dog poop on their daily strolls.  I love spending a day picking wild blackberries and hoping that I’m out of the berry patch before a bear finds them too.  I enjoy sleeping in wood-heated cabins that the power lines will never reach, taking compass readings to make sure I’m still on the trail, listening carefully when I hear distant gunshots to decide whether someone is target shooting or signaling distress.  I teach firearms safety and hunter education.  As a Maine Guide, I get paid to go fishing.  When I’m home, which is more often than it used to be, old man that I am, I am continually doing some project that requires overalls and eye protection and, eventually, bandaids.

I can’t help but observe people, myself included.  What I wear from day to day is according to function.  What I do from day to day is not dependent on or influenced by what others are doing or by what I imagine others expect of me in order to assure my continuing acceptance in their world.  Have you noticed, for instance, that since the 1960s clothes designed for city people are intended to express non-conformity?  I don’t shop for clothes just so I can then wear them in front of others to show that I have conformed to the expected non-conformity.  No doubt I’m an embarrassment to my urban children.  I don’t choose a place to drink my morning coffee so that I will be noticed being in the right place.  Nor do I think all city people behave thus, but it is apparent that a great many do.

I am just not a joiner.  A city is like an enormous club — or a container of many jostling clubs.  People in cities make me think of schooling fish or herding caribou.  They crowd together and move together as an organism.  As an organism they abide predictably by rules of conduct — not that the rules are predictable, but the behavior is.  As an organism they accept noise, loss of privacy, cramped living spaces, bad-tasting tap water, street hazards, expensive everything, weirdos, keep-off-the-grass signs, and innumerable other impositions in exchange for proximity to airports and exotic restaurants and custom shops that sell glass art and giant pillows and events like a “musical” about marijuana.  It is the rejection of the individual as supreme and the view that people are part of an organism that is greater than the individual that sways urban behavior.  This is the view that subdues and subjects the individual to the whimsy of the amorphous masses.  I can see how it lures people, always has, always will.  (In my youth, I was going to be a concert pianist and spent my first college year at a conservatory of music, but then severed my right index finger in a work accident; my next ambition was to be a Russian-English translator; both of those, certainly, being urban careers.  Along the way to becoming a translator, meanderthral that I am, I dabbled in, and became drawn away by the biological sciences.)  And now I can see how wrong city life was for me.

City people are convinced that their city is the island-center of their universe and the surrounding metropolitan region is a ring of satellites, and the next city is like the next galaxy, to be reached by passing through the outer space of forests and fields where no one of consequence lives there except farmers, who are required to grow food for the city, and forest rangers, who will rescue them if their car gets stuck on a dirt road detour between cities.

I do not see myself even as a decorative whisker on the cheek of such an organism.  And that’s putting it politely, for if I were part of an urban organism I would not be permitted to choose my place; more likely, curmudgeon that I am, I’d get an assignment somewhere in the lower GI tract.

That Saturday, as I waited in front of the motel for other family members to emerge for the day’s activities, my wilderness-honed personal space (roughly 1/4 square mile) was invaded by a growing number of young men boisterously gathering in the taxi area.  Presently they grew to eight or ten in number, most with precisely-trimmed narrow beards, flat-billed baseball caps in assorted colors and marked conspicuously with various codes, clean new shoes of the kind we once called sneakers but now defined according to purposes other than sneaking: skateboarding now, or basketball perhaps.  They were not in uniform; no two of them were dressed quite alike.  They seemed to have in common some general ancestral origin — they were all dark-haired and of lightly-tanned complexion, all shorter than I, all of about the same age, all speaking English but I heard the timbre of ESL.  I observed them for a few minutes, guessing at what brought them together.  They might have been a visiting baseball team except that the Sea Dogs hadn’t taken to their muddy field yet.

One (but only one) of the bunch wore his jeans at that jaunty, gravity-defying level that advertised his bright yellow boxer shorts underneath.  (Why was he so modest as to wear boxers?  Why not good old white jockey shorts?  Why any underwear at all?)  Once my party had assembled at our cars, the motel’s airport shuttle arrived and those young fellows crowded into it.  That’s when I decided that they must be some other city’s visiting Men’s Urban Fashion Team, in town for a competition.  I can think of no other explanation.  If they had been strung out through the mall, jostling all the other competing teams, they would have pleased the judges no doubt, but I never would have noticed them as a separate squad.

I have since retreated to my refuge, remote from the scrutiny and direct influence of those swarming masses.  They are not on my doorstep, although their politics will forever threaten my independence.  And an annual visit to their mild chaos has once again provided me a year’s dose of metropolitan amusement and musings.