Breaking the reflex of subservience

Though I had a good time at Boskone, I came out of it feeling very lonely. At SF conventions lately, I find there’s a tacit understanding which is alien to me: that our governmental authorities are good, that we’d be so much better if they were given more power, that sure, they make an occasional mistake, but doesn’t everybody? It’s hard to feel at home among such people. But it’s not just fandom, it’s the whole of American society.

A lot of people in fandom were vocal critics of the federal government before 2009. Their sudden silence about war, torture, and power-grabbing presidents after that made it clear that it was all just noises they made to get their guy elected. This is worse than if they’d never made any complaints at all. I don’t like phonies.

At the snack bar of my local supermarket today, I saw a display on the TV screen with the words “Hail to the Chiefs” and a composite picture of the US presidents. Since when to we “hail” them, as if we were in Germany in 1939? Wouldn’t “To hell with the chiefs” be a more traditionally American response?

The New Hampshire Liberty Forum looks more promising, when it comes to finding people who still have some sense of independence.

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Finding libertarian hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

In an exchange of correspondence with a friend, I said that there’s no short-term libertarian hope for America, since not just the government but the population is corrupt. He replied characterizing people as depraved. This wasn’t something I could agree with; it’s the Salvation Army that thinks everybody but them is “totally depraved.” It got me to thinking about the difference, and ultimately to recognizing that there is hope, even the way things are.

When I say Americans are corrupt, I don’t mean they’re horrible people; I mean they’ve they accept horrible things because they’ve been bought off. It’s more important to them to get stuff at other people’s expense or to get dubious protection against tiny risks than to keep their freedom. They’re the people who Ben Franklin said deserve neither liberty nor safety.

In other ways, though, these are mostly good people. They’re privately honest while accepting public dishonesty. They respect the rights of others in person while raping them through the ballot. They wouldn’t rob anyone with threats of force, but they ask their representatives in Washington to.

It’s a matter of what they’ve learned to consider acceptable. Rather then being considered horrible for endorsing robbery by proxy, they’re applauded for their “civic spirit.” In other cultures and times, people have accepted and applauded much worse things — slavery, tyranny, and religious persecution — while taking pride in their personal honor.

We can’t expect libertarian ideas to turn a culture around in a short time. We can hope, though, to make things better than they would have been otherwise. Then perhaps they can get better still, and perhaps at some point opportunities for major change will arise. If not, we may at least help to hold off disaster. Some people think it’s better to let the system collapse, but I wouldn’t want to live in the world that would follow the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

Some things have lately changed for the better. There are more legal options for domestic relationships in many places. Some serious restrictions on free speech that were called “campaign reform” have been struck down (and it’s fun to hear progressives howl in outrage). A number of restrictions designed to sustain business cartels have been struck down. Attempts to criminalize recording police activity have been resoundingly defeated. Many things have gotten worse, but the point is that libertarian efforts have helped make things better than they would have been otherwise.

Sure, we’d much rather see government carved down to its proper functions, such as putting Bush and Obama in jail, but we can only deal with the world we have. We have to look for the victories we can get, rebut fallacies, and promote better ideas. It’s not much, but the alternative is giving up.

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Wishes vs. facts

Wanting to tweet a link on a positive theme, I looked for a speech which Davy Crockett had supposedly made to Congress about the importance of staying within Constitutional limits regardless of how sympathetic you might feel to the beneficiary. It’s easy enough to find citations, such as this one from the Foundation for Economic Education. I noticed, though, that none of the pages I found gave a date for the speech. The FEE article just says he gave it “one day”; some pages mention secondary sources, but I couldn’t find any earlier than the second half of the 19th century. (Crockett died in 1836 at the Alamo.)

Chasing down various links, I eventually found this page, which looks like a plausible summary. In Crockett’s time, speeches in Congress weren’t meticulously transcribed, so we can’t get a definitive answer by checking Congressional Record. However, the inconsistencies in the account, the lack of a date, and the lack of contemporary citations all cast strong doubt on the story.

Libertarians would like the story to be true. It’s nice to have a famous historical figure to quote in support of your views, and that makes some people abandon normal caution. The supposed speech is quoted in full on the Cato and Lew Rockwell sites, among others. Maybe the people who posted it would have been more skeptical if they had been less eager to have it be real. When you close your eyes to questions, though, there’s a serious cost. The more obvious cost is to your credibility; if you’re caught in a falsehood, even an inadvertent one, you won’t be trusted as much next time. The more important cost is internal; if you skimp on judgment when you want something to be true, you undermine your own ability to think and trust yourself.

Whenever you see opinions on a question of fact divided along political lines, it’s certain that people on at least one side (not all of them, but enough to skew the numbers) are going by wishes rather than evidence. It’s very often both, since people will respond in kind to what they think the other side is doing.

Avoiding wishful thinking and sticking to verified facts can be hard work and sometimes make you unpopular, but it’s better than blindly following the crowd.

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Guidelines for insane times

I’ve written a post, which I won’t publish, about how insane the United States has become. Being publicly bitter isn’t the way I want to use this blog, however I may feel. Instead, here are some semi-organized thoughts on how to stay sane in insane times. This is largely advice to myself, reinforced by saying it publicly, but perhaps others will find something worth taking out of it.

  • Trust in individuals who’ve shown their worth, not groups. People’s group affiliations and labels prove nothing. People join groups and movements for any number of reasons, including just finding a place to belong. This isn’t a sufficient reason to trust them — or, unless it’s a really outrageous group, to condemn them out of hand.
  • Integrity is more important than agreement. People who say things you like may turn around and say the opposite when it becomes more convenient. People who disagree with you and base their disagreement on reasons which they stick by are more trustworthy. At least they’re being honest with you.
  • Moral courage is integrity exercised in practice. It’s easy to say or do something when the crowd agrees with it. Sticking to what’s right when it’s unpopular measures what a person’s worth.
  • Without good will, the rest is joyless. People who exercise their integrity only to criticize aren’t pleasant to be around. Friends provide encouragement and support, and that makes their criticisms worth hearing. Karma is just a metaphor, not a physical reality, but having a positive karma balance contributes to a positive sense of personal value.
  • Remember Albert Schweitzer’s advice: “Es gibt zwei Möglichkeiten, vor dem Elend des Lebens zu flüchten: Musik und Katzen.” (There are two ways to escape the miseries of life: music and cats.)

The persistence of race-based thinking

Scientists have established that the division of humanity into races has no biological justification. There is a certain amount of variation in people’s appearance, and the variations are sometimes correlated with other characteristics such as food tolerances and resistance to diseases, but there’s as much variation or more within the classic “races” as there is between them.

Still, minor differences in appearance often loom large in people’s minds, and the notion of race is hard to eradicate. Certainly racism exists; the fact that it’s based on an illusion doesn’t make it any less harmful, just more stupid. There are people who try to keep the idea of race alive out of misplaced good will, though it looks more like condescension. Aware that the idea of race has been discredited on biological grounds, they try to keep it alive on social grounds. Social groups often are based on ancestry and appearance, but they aren’t races. When someone talks about “people of color” and tries to claim that that’s a social characterization and not a physiological one, that’s doubletalk.

These people get extremely self-righteous about their efforts to prop up artificial racial distinctions. A certain professor mentioned a student who wouldn’t accept the idea of social races; she said that her reaction was that her mouth was working but words wouldn’t come out. I wish she’d realized that this was because her better sense was keeping her from speaking nonsense, but she claimed the student was being “unscientific.”

More recently, a much less respectable person said I was “hiding behind science” in not accepting the social redefinition of race, and threatened that I would be accused of “racism” for saying basically the things I’m saying here. How can it be both? How can the refusal to accept the new definition of race be both “unscientific” and “hiding behind science”? Don’t expect an answer. Both of these people, incidentally, have typically European appearance and a light skin.

The goal of this linguistic maneuver is to treat people as having a “racial identity.” In other words, it’s collectivist thinking, regarding people’s identity as being not their own personal, unique characteristics, but an arbitrary combination of physical and social characteristics. The groupings are ridiculous. “Asian” is typically a single “racial identity,” even though it includes people from Japan, Siberia, Tibet, and Iraq. It has its own stereotype, which looks like the typical person from Japan and forgets that all the others are equally Asian.

Several years ago a small Boston-area college ran subway ads showing a young dark-skinned woman with the text, “My major: Identity” and listing a couple of contentless course titles. Until I started to understand the jargon of racial identity I couldn’t fully believe that the ad was intentionally conveying a racial message. It’s hard to grasp just how condescending — in this case, downright insulting — some “liberal” people can be.

How do people feel about being treated as “racial identities”? Recently I visited a college library and saw an exhibit of comments by students. I didn’t get a chance to look at them carefully, but was struck by the comments of a couple of students who said they are black and were at least a little annoyed at being the “source on all things black” or always being the first one the professor called on when discussing civil rights. This sounds to me as if they’d rather be treated as individuals than be told to major in “identity.”

Certainly people’s origins and heritage are an aspect of their identity. The deadly mistakes are making them be anyone’s identity, and reducing them to a small number of pigeonholes in which everyone is assumed to fit. For some people, these mistakes are innocent, an attempt to bend over backwards and be fair. But when anyone tells you you’re “racist” or “hiding behind science” by challenging their notions, you’re dealing with someone who’s dishonest at the root.

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The power of non-cooperation

I’ve never been called to be on a jury, although I’m eligible and have never tried to dodge a call. As a matter of principle, I oppose compulsory service, but if I had the opportunity I’d exercise it, since I might be able to help justice happen or avoid an injustice. I’m less susceptible to peer pressure than the large majority of people; that’s too obvious to count as bragging.

I might, in some cases, be able to prevent conviction under an unjust law, and I was pleased to read this account by a juror that refused to convict a New Hampshire man of marijuana possession. provides an account of the nullification. Doug Darrell is a Rastafarian who reportedly was growing 15 marijuana plants for his own religious and medical use. These were discovered by a National Guard helicopter that was flying below the FAA-designated safe altitude to snoop on people’s back yards and get people thrown in jail for what they were growing there. The judge had instructed the jury that “even if you find that the State has proven each and every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find the defendant not guilty if you have a conscientious feeling that a not guilty verdict would be a fair result in this case.” The jury acted accordingly.

The juror, identified only as Cathleen, said:

We put the facts aside to give nullification consideration. The written definition was requested and posted on a chalk board. Some discussion occurred regarding what would be extraordinary enough to nullify. Several law and order proponents (not to say we all don’t want some law and order) had serious concerns about the precedent a not guilty verdict would set. What kind of chaos would ensue if this became common? Would finding this defendant not guilty give him a pass to keep on breaking the law? One by one the responses were offered and chewed upon. I fully expected a deadlock. One juror even felt relief at the prospect on the chance that the prosecution would retry.

The turning point was when one of the jurors declared that after reading the definition on nullification its reliance on “conscientious feeling” and “fair result”. It nowhere said extraordinary. And thus the last three jurors agreed that they could nullify.

One of the best defenses against a government that tries to ruin people’s lives is the simple refusal to give it your support. That’s what Cathleen and the other jurors did, and even if it made a difference only in one person’s life, it was worth it. The ripple effects could reach much further.

This is how I wish everyone would live. Don’t volunteer help for the destruction of freedom, either your own or another’s. Don’t use convenient but unjust laws to make your neighbors conform. Don’t turn people in for victimless crimes because you don’t like them. Don’t lobby to stomp on your competitors or to give you subsidies at the unchosen expense of others.

Laissez faire.

The right to be proud

Obama’s You didn’t build that” speech has deservedly stirred up a lot of anger. His suggestion that people don’t deserve credit for their own achievements didn’t go down well, but it’s a restatement of a very old theme. Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

On one level this is saying the obvious. We don’t live on desert islands, and we benefit from each other’s actions. “What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” But the thrust of his remarks is that “you,” the person addressed, don’t deserve the credit. An unnamed “somebody” does. Who deserves credit for the Internet? Not the many brilliant programmers and designers who worked on it, the people who created its many components, or the people whose taxes paid for ARPA, but the government. My writing code, fixing bugs, and dealing with website emergencies is merely “making money off it.” Not engaging in productive effort is the requirement for being given credit.

He cites roads and bridges, which are normally government projects, but not producers of materials, designers, managers, or the many other people who trade productive effort for what others produce. He doesn’t even offer credit to the manual laborers who are so beloved of the left.

People who know that they’ve earned what they have aren’t easy to push around. That’s what Obama doesn’t like. He wants to foster a feeling of dependency, of the idea that you have to “give something back,” as if creators merely take and don’t offer anything of value.

It’s a very old idea, doubtless owing a lot to the fact that so many people through history have gotten rich by force rather than productivity. The term “robber baron” comes from people who committed literal robbery to gain the wealth they thought they were entitled to. Even today there are a lot of people who get money by lobbying for barriers to entry, taking advantage of a broken patent system, bribing politicians for favors, and the like. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the producers from the parasites. But those who succeeded honestly deserve full credit for what they’ve built. The parasites in high office who try to grab the credit deserve none.

Related: “The Bad History Behind ’You Didn’t Build That’” by Virginia Postrel.

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First audio post: I’m an Unbeliever

Song blogging is one way to get an idea across. This is my own song, “I’m an Unbeliever,” with no connection to any better-known songs that might have titles something like that. Recorded at home using a Zoom H2. The lyrics have been polished a bit since the last time I inflicted it on people, and I’ve worked on the accompaniment.

“I’m an Unbeliever” is copyright 2012 by Gary McGath and Creative Commons License is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Download the MP3, if you prefer that to using the player.

Update: I’ve posted the lyrics.

Campus bullying

Bullying is a significant problem on college campuses these days. Working at Harvard, I’ve run into some of it myself. I’m not talking about the crude, “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up” kind of bullying, but intellectual intimidation. If you express views that are out of line with the orthodoxy, you can be subject to serious pressures. Not even the president of Harvard is safe; Lawrence Summers was driven out of that post in 2005 for raising the possibility (not asserting as fact) that statistically slight cognitive differences might contribute to the numeric differences between men and women in the sciences.

Even your private conversations aren’t out of the bullies’ reach. In 2010, Law School Dean Martha Minow castigated a student in public for failing to dismiss categorically — in private email — the question of whether there are racial differences in intelligence. When the defense of a scientific idea consists of “You’re forbidden to think about the alternative,” the only people who’ll think about the issue are the ones who challenge it, and no one will be equipped to rebut their claim that the old idea is mere dogma.

This month, Harvey Silverglate gave three out of five Campus Muzzle Awards to Harvard. I disagree in part with his assessment of the locking of the gates last winter in response to some Occupiers; if the purpose was “keeping the outside world from seeing a political demonstration,” it only kept people from seeing how tiny it was. The lockdown was a clumsy attempt to keep outsiders from camping out on campus without dealing with the problem directly, causing serious inconvenience to legitimate visitors.

As long as I’m employed at Harvard, it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to detail my own experiences in public, but I’ve encountered the bullying attitude myself. Let’s just say that a person I have reason to worry about recently addressed the words, “I’m for free speech, but …” to me.

Even as an unusually stubborn person with money to fall back on, I can feel worried. What must it be like for an undergraduate with very little experience and hardly any money, away from home in an unfamiliar culture?

High school students picking colleges to apply to should consider the atmosphere of intellectual freedom or its lack at the schools they consider. There’s no definitive ranking anywhere; obviously people will vary on how intimidating they think practices are. It will take research. If you apply to a military or religious school, you know up front that some ideas will be encouraged or frowned upon. Maybe it’s worth putting up with, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s the ones full of fanfare about “academic freedom” and “open exchange of ideas” where you have to look carefully. FIRE‘s website can be a valuable source of information.

If you run into academic intimidation, the best response is a firm, calm stance. If you seem afraid, bullies of any kind will take advantage of it. If you get angry, you’ll lose. Clearly (not belligerently) pointing out that what you’re encountering is intimidation will make them worry. It’s a common trick for bullies to play victim: by saying something they don’t like, they say, you’re creating a “hostile environment.” Remind them that you are simply discussing an issue, and they’re the ones trying to make you feel afraid. Most professors and administrators are chiefly concerned with keeping their jobs and not getting into trouble themselves; your best chance is not to look like either an easy target or a threat.

Easy for me to say, I know. But it’s the best advice I can offer, and if you can carry it out, it’s your best chance.

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Choosing freedoms

In today’s society freedom is a scarce commodity. If I’m going to maximize my own freedom, I have to decide what form of it is most important to me. I have to make tradeoffs, giving some things up in order to have more of the liberty that I want.

For instance, we don’t have the freedom to travel as we choose, subject only to reasonable restrictions for the sake of safety. I can choose to continue flying from US airports and be subject to intimidation, humiliation, and the possibility of worse at the hands of the TSA, or I can give up some opportunities and keep myself outside their reach. I choose the latter. This might not be your choice, even if you’re equally outraged.

I think it’s outrageous that if you live in New Hampshire and work in Massachusetts, you pay income tax to Massachusetts, and if you live in Massachusetts and work in New Hampshire, you pay income tax to Massachusetts. Some people would refuse to pay the tax. I pay it, since if I refused it would just be taken from me one way or another, with extra pain along the way. It’s not a battle I choose. If you choose it, have a good lawyer or a quick escape route.

Whenever you exercise a disputed freedom, there’s some risk. For me, the freedom to speak out is especially important. I can’t be directly punished for it under American law, but I risk making enemies who might retaliate at me. I’ve posted cartoons of Muhammad, made no secret of my being a libertarian and an atheist, and declared plainly that office holders have engaged in wrongdoing. As a result I’ve sometimes been harassed. In my college days I was punched in the nose and the sweater I was wearing was set on fire. In Hollis, NH, I was banned from a town meeting and subjected to slanders for saying that the library trustees’ use of public funds to influence the vote was immoral. A pair of lunatics once ran a years-long harassment campaign against me. I take due precautions, such as having an unlisted phone number. I don’t want to give the wrong impression — on the whole I’ve lived a tranquil life — but there would have been fewer stresses (and far less enjoyment of life) if I’d just shut up.

The point is to care about some freedom strongly enough to take some risks for it. Without that commitment, you just become a pawn of others. It’s easy to slip into going along and getting along. Many people gladly sell their freedom for freebies. I wouldn’t mind that so much except that my freedom goes down the drain along with theirs. Worn down by pressures to conform and bought off by stuff at other people’s expense (while not noticing how much other people get at their expense), they end up grateful to their masters, but there’s nothing I can do about them. It’s the people who still care about some liberty who matter, those who, as Rand wrote, “have retained some sovereign shred of their soul, unsold and unstamped: ‘—to the order of others.’”

What freedoms do you choose? What are you willing to risk for them?