Should Libertarians Run for President?

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Who would be the ideal Libertarian presidential candidate for 2020? Does he (or she) exist? Will we get anyone like this person, or will it be business as usual?

We’ll find out soon enough.

One of the reasons we keep getting candidates many of us don’t want is that we can’t all agree on what the Libertarian Party nominee ought to do. Should he educate the public about what libertarians believe? Should he play the spoiler and trip up big-government Republicans? Would it be best for him to rack up the biggest possible numbers on election day? Or should he really, honest-to-gosh try to win the election?

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have.

I think we can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it. In the meantime, I fail to see where “swinging for the fence” is going to get us.

Even if we dislike political necessity, because it goes against our convictions, we must understand it if we are to increase our influence. The only way our candidates can educate the public is by getting coverage in the media. To achieve this, we must make the media sit up and take notice. We do that by creating a disturbance in their universe.

A spoiler can have that effect. If candidates seriously threaten to take votes away from the media’s anointed contenders, they begin to attract attention. The threatened party will, sooner than later, begin to court potential spoiler votes.

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have. We need to quit apologizing for this potential and embrace it instead.

We can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it.

The candidacy of Ron Paul demonstrated that a Republican can run as a spoiler and exert considerable influence on the public. If a Libertarian Party candidate could grab a share of the vote only as large as Paul’s, he or she would be in an excellent position to educate — as Rep. Paul has.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had. They’re better off simply stating — if they want to enjoy the success possible for them — what will be the truth: that they offer an alternative to Republican or Democratic options. In other words, to move the cumbersome machinery of the election to a different place.

Voters want to believe that casting their ballot will have some effect. If they know a candidate isn’t going to win the election, they at least hope to influence its outcome as strongly as possible. Libertarian ideas are popular with many people who don’t consider themselves libertarians. A candidate who stops pandering to established interests and stands for our values has a good chance of siphoning away a contender’s votes. The greater effect that has on the outcome of the election, the more likely Republican (and to a far lesser degree, Democratic) candidates may be to adopt pro-liberty positions.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had.

The next president who is in any shape or form libertarian will be a Republican. Again, we’re perfectly free to dislike this. That doesn’t change the fact that if one of our own is elected, it will be from the GOP ticket. The threat of voting for spoiler Libertarian Party candidates can provide the leverage to move a Rand Paul or a Justin Amash into winning the GOP nomination. Once nominated, in the general election that person would stand an excellent chance.

We’re not going to love everything about a Republican candidate. I have serious issues with Paul because I suspect he’s something of a closet social conservative. But though he says things rightwing culture warriors like, thus far his record shows him to be reliably libertarian. I’m not overly worried that, if he were elected president, he would turn into Jerry Falwell.

Money spent on the presidential race could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a libertarian. The few bones he’s thrown us were certainly not motivated by any fear that a more liberty-loving challenger would defeat him in the 2020 primary. But if one does indeed run next time, we need to look long and hard at the possibility of registering Republican long enough to vote for him or her in the primary.

Libertarians should run for president only if they can change the outcome of the race. That’s the only way they’ll be noticed by the media, which is the only way they can educate the public. Any other candidacy for the highest office in the land is a waste of time. The money spent could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

I have no idea, yet, whom I’ll vote for next year. But I will only vote for the Libertarian option if I feel that he or she is serious about being a presence in the election. I owe no one my vote, and I won’t be taken for granted. I want my vote to count. That will only happen if the candidate I vote for counts, too.




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More Sweet Thoughts about Love

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Suppose that one of your acquaintances used this as the heading of his Twitter account:

I am simply here to help save the world. Nothing is more important than love.

How would you react? If your eye fell only on the second sentence, you might think something like, “Sweet, but childish. Like a little kid. Actually, he may be letting his little kid write some of this stuff.”

It’s true: kids don’t know much about literacy, agriculture, airplane technology, telecommunications, vaccines, and anesthetics, or (to look on the other side of the coin), ignorance, conflict, death — all arguably more important than love in this world we inhabit. And if it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that.

So, you think, that sentence must have been written by a child — or by one of those childish old souls you’re afraid to talk to, because they’re certain to load you with theosophical advice. Should you commit the error of making eye contact, the conversation will go like this:

Well hello! And how are you today? (Delivered with a smarmy glare and a wet handshake.)

Uh . . . All right, I guess. (Somehow, you don’t want to discuss the fact that you’ve lost your job and you don’t know where the next mortgage payment’s going to come from.)

Just remember one thing (an admonition strongly suggesting that you have trouble remembering anything): nothing is more important than love.

Recalling such scenes, you feel a sense of doom as your gaze drifts back to the left of “love,” where you discover the portentous saying, “I am simply here to help save the world.”

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that. “Help” is in the sentence merely to fend off accusations of extreme narcissism. Of course, that level of self-consciousness indicates that the narcissism is not naïve at all; it is ruthlessly assertive, fully convinced of itself, and aggressively intolerant of any doubts.

If it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

Now that, unhappily, you have read both sentences, you try to put them together, and find it a creepy experience. Here is a narcissist billing himself as a crusader for love. Either he has so little introspection that he doesn’t recognize the love that’s important to him is self-love, or he has so much contempt for his audience that he expects everyone to swallow whatever he says.

But at least, you may be thinking, the theme is love. This guy may be dotty and self-absorbed, but thank God he isn’t devoting his life to saving the world with some political scheme, with some campaign of force. Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power. The medieval church burned heretics at the stake in the name of its love for men’s souls — including those of the heretics. Laws that send people to jail for using or selling drugs are purportedly motivated by love for our children — including those who use or sell drugs. Prohibition was justified largely as an expression of Christian love for the American family. How much better it was for the gay marriage movement to use “Love Wins” as one of its slogans — though even in that instance, there was the specter of punishment if you didn’t agree. Recall those people who were dragged into court because they declined to make gay wedding cakes. Recall the false accusation that such a cake had been deliberately defiled by (gay) staff at Whole Foods.

All good motives can be reasons for bad deeds and bad emotions. “I am become a socialist,” says Pierrot in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo. “I love Humanity; but I hate people.” If love is really the most important thing in the world, it must have tremendous force for ill as well as good. Remember the scene in Stardust Memories in which someone comes up to Woody Allen and says, “I’m your biggest fan” — and shoots him.

Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power.

Such meditations on love and messiahship may make you hesitate to read any further in this fellow’s Twitter account. But if you do, here is the sort of thing you’ll encounter:

“Shut the hell up you b—— a— n——. You will continue to run this country further into the ground and risk lives every time you breathe. You’re not the president. Just a dumpster full of hate. FOH. [F— outta here] Sick to my stomach that literal s— currently represents America to the world.”

“@AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is only speaking facts. This is so far beyond political party affiliation. Across the world ... no matter the border ... from sea to shining sea ... 45 and all his white hooded cohorts are a national disgrace. And if you support them ... so are you. Clowns.”

“Dear @realDonaldTrump ... you are a disgusting, racist, piece of trash ... Sincerely, Everyone who is not a disgusting, racist, piece of trash.”

As the song says, “This can’t be love.” Nor is there any indication that it’s a response to any experience of hate directed at the author or anyone he knows. In appearance, it’s a message posted by an anti-homosexual white racist (“b—— a— n—— ”) who has had some kind of falling out with the “white hooded cohorts” of the Ku Klux Klan but has lost nothing of their hatred. Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people. The denunciation of the president as a racist may be taken simply as an instance of projection, as Freud called it.

I am by no means an appreciative reader of Freud. I dislike the coyness with which he modestly suggests, on one page, that such and such may possibly be considered an object of speculation, and five pages later assumes that the same such and such is obviously true. His grounds of argument and the progress of his arguments seem to me utterly fallacious. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I think that Freud was onto something when he identified projection as a primary means of pseudo-thought. He doesn’t put it in exactly this way, but I think it’s true that the more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch — and, because you’re defending yourself from charges that the rational part of your brain (if any) would naturally bring against yourself, you are especially eager to say that you’re not like those other people, who are guilty, guilty, guilty.

Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people.

It’s pretty clear that anybody who is tweeting the things I’ve quoted — without, as I say, any particular external incitement, of the type that regularly carries tweeters away — is projecting a s— load of hatred. If this be love, thank you, I’d rather have the Caesar salad. The fact that the tweeter believes in himself as an apostle of love is a matter of still more concern. It’s one thing for a person to be “a good hater.” It’s another thing to believe that hate is the same thing as love. There are good haters and bad haters, and whoever wrote those passages is a bad hater.

By now you may have guessed who that bad hater is. It’s Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who was arrested on February 21 for faking an attack on himself, a gay black man, by pro-Trump bigots using some of the vocabulary he had applied to Trump. After the arrest, Chicago police also accused him of having sent a vilely racist and sexist and threatening letter to himself, complete with a white substance suggestive of anthrax powder. The alleged motive? His desire for a raise in salary (currently about $1.3 million) as a C-list TV actor. The cops’ idea was that self-love might sometimes be the most important kind.

From the beginning, Smollett’s story appeared ridiculous: he was attacked in downtown Chicago by masked men who had been waiting for him to walk by at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest days of the year, men who shouted racist insults, beat, kicked, and bit him, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck (tied like a tie you wear to dinner). He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed until his arrival at his home, where a friend called the police, about 40 minutes later. When the police came, Smollett refused to let them take his phone for a few hours and have it examined for clues. He said he needed it. Much later he provided a much “redacted” list of his calls.

The more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch.

Clearly, this was a hoax. Yet everyone from Donald Trump to Trump-hating Democratic presidential candidates immediately expressed horror and sympathy; no investigation was needed or desired. It was remarked by citizens of Chicago that people living close to the nonevent were less willing to believe the story than people living far away — more evidence for the libertarian idea that the higher you build a pyramid of power, the less those at the top understand about the world beneath them. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and hundreds of others at the acme of political and “cultural” influence seemed anxious to prove this.

One thing that Trump, who was busy being a fool like all the others, clearly didn’t understand was the vicious hatred that the alleged victim had for him, despite the fact that the hatred had been advertised as much as it could possibly be. Anyone could access Smollett’s public utterances, and you would think that anyone who did would notice the way in which “love” was being used to license hate. You would think that even Kamala Harris would have hesitated to proclaim, in cadences reminiscent of the hypnotized characters in The Manchurian Candidate, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” But I have so far encountered no one who confessed that, well, yeah, those utterances were sort of a bad sign, that maybe there was something a little . . . strange about them. Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed — so ordinary and inoffensive, indeed, that when it is witnessed it is spontaneously shared?

This kind of confusion is encouraged by the culturally-official dogma that if one cares about victims, including alleged victims, one must believe them, whether their stories are absurd or not. Only under these conditions can the behavior of Robin Roberts, host of “Good Morning America,” be explained. Roberts, star of a program run by ABC News, gave Smollett an interview of whopping length, in which her most probing question was how he could heal if the cops failed to wreak justice on his assailants. (He replied that he couldn’t bear to consider the possibility.) Clearly, she believed the victim — everything the victim said.

He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed.

After the scandal was officially exposed, she tried to wipe the egg off her face by saying that when the interview was recorded the police still seemed to be going along with Smollett’s story. Who was she to question the police? Days after that, her associates at the network, prompted to defend her, “suggested that Roberts was a victim, who was ‘lied’ to by Smollett.” So now it’s the job of a news person cheerfully to believe the victim (and the police), even if it makes her the victim of lies.

Roberts interviewed Smollett two weeks after the “crime.” It’s safe to say that by that time almost everyone who’d ever heard of the case was convinced it was a hoax — everyone, that is, except the people whose job it was to report the facts. But even with two weeks to put the facts together, Roberts hadn’t a clue. Finally confronted by the amazing! revelation! that Smollett was not entirely on the up and up, Roberts said:

This touches all the buttons. It’s a setback for race relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters. I cannot think of another case where there is this anger on so many sides and you can understand why there would be.

Pardon me — what is she babbling about? I understand how the Jussie thing might be considered a setback for race relations (although I don’t think the discovery of a hoax can do anything but increase truth and candor, which every well-meaning person values, regardless of race), but how can it be a setback for “MAGA supporters”? Or for “homophobia”? Does it increase or decrease the fear of gays? Roberts is literally saying that it decreases it, which she would probably think is a good thing, but . . . what is she babbling about?

Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed?

More babble issued from politicians and media people, spin artists all, who responded to the scandal by regretting that “conservatives” or “Trump followers” or “rightwing bloggers” or some other groups they don’t like would pounce on it and use it for their own purposes. This tactics, now in use whenever the Left embarrasses itself, is a new wrinkle on the ugly old face of American journalism. Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.” I do feel a bit underrepresented, though, when I read about all these other people pouncing. Why shouldn’t I — or you, or you, or you, whoever you are — pounce on this story, too? It seems that anyone who’s interested in a hysteria-free society would want to use it for some purpose. To point a lesson, perhaps.

Yes, and lots of lessons, but not the one that is most often heard in media comments on the incident — the idea that Smollett’s actions will lead people to think that hate crimes are not a serious issue. Bigots will continue to think that, just as credulous people on the other side will continue to believe that hate crimes are happening all around them. Any hate crime is serious, but any fake hate crime is serious, too.

If you want to know an approximation of the truth about the frequency of hate crimes, you might consult Wilfred Reilly, a professor who teaches at an historically black college and has a new book on the subject. In a recent op-ed, he provides documentary sources on the large number of hate crime hoaxes (he claims to have easily numbered 409 confirmed instances) and says:

To put these numbers in context, a little over 7,000 hate crimes were reported by the FBI in 2017. . . .

However, hate crime hoaxers are “calling attention to a problem” that is a very small part of total crimes. There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA. . . . Inter-racial crime is quite rare; 84% of white murder victims and 93% of black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race, and the person most likely to kill you is your ex-wife or husband. When violent inter-racial crimes do occur, whites are at least as likely to be the targets as are minorities.

From that, you can take whatever lessons you want, but such facts are a good deal more useful than the constant hurling of charges between Right and Left about inattention to hate crimes on our side of the racial or political divide.

Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.”

What is most disturbing to me about the Jussie Smollett incident is nothing that I’ve mentioned above. It’s a particular manner of regretting the incident, a manner that became very common across the moderate-to-hard-Left spectrum in the days when Smollett’s guilt was thought (by some) to be in doubt. I refer to the touching hope that he wasn’t lying after all.

One example — this from a writer published by CNN:

I continue to hold a sliver of hope that the dots that continue to feel so far apart will eventually connect and the picture before us will show he was telling the truth all along. I hold hope that those faint whispers that began almost as quickly as the story made its way across the networks will be silenced[!], that Smollett will be vindicated. And the people who took to social media to demand justice for him will not be left to look like fools. . . .

I . . . am still hoping that he's telling the truth. It may be naïve, but it's a hell of a lot better than trying to answer the "what" — as in what do we do next?

Apparently the author, like Jussie Smollett, is laboring under the impression that we just have to be doing something majestic all the time. But the vital phrase is, “I am still hoping that he’s telling the truth.” Which means —  You’re still hoping that bands of bigots are roaming the streets, beating up gays and blacks? Still hoping that race hatred is so plentiful that it never runs out, even in downtown Chicago at 2 a.m., with enough wind chill to blast your hands off? Still hoping that the world is a terrible place that only you can save?

Ah yes! That may be it. It’s all about you, isn’t it?




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Pachacuti’s Revenge

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“Check your premises!”

Ayn Rand’s admonition still rings true, in spite of her abrasive personality and cultish intellectual heirs. The admonition, and the name of her philosophy, Objectivism, encapsulate the core of her obsession: epistemology.

A few years ago, my work forced me to examine some of my premises in ways I’d never considered when I had the good fortune of landing a job as a consulting anthropologist for a pair of Canadian Cree Indians, Wendy Bigcharles and Laurie Gauchier, who were filming a documentary about traversing — on foot — the entire Royal Inca Road, a prehistoric engineering marvel stretching from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile — well over 3,000 miles. The project’s sponsors included the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company.

The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems without offending believers or pulling my punches.

I first met Laurie at the 14,000 foot mountaineers’ base camp on Aconcagua in Argentina. He was pursuing his attempt to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on all the continents. He’d become a hero to thousands of First Nations children and toured Canada’s Native Reserves lecturing and inspiring. He liked my understanding of aboriginal cultures. More importantly, we shared a libertarian outlook and similar sense of humor, laughing a lot together.

The Crees’ novel conceit was to explore aboriginal attitudes toward, and beliefs about, the earth, in hopes that these might have modern applications for conservation and sustainability. My job, among many other tasks, was to provide context for the project. The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems (inevitably including the evolution of religion) without offending believers or pulling my punches. Ideally, I wanted to propose a paradigm everyone could enthusiastically embrace. What follows was my effort. Did I succeed? You be the judge.

The Empire Strikes Back

In 2001 Alejandro Toledo legitimately became the first Native American head of state in the Andes since Huascar Inca was murdered by his half-brother, Atahualpa, in 1532. The Stanford-trained economist proved honest and competent. By continuing the sound economic policies instituted under the previous Fujimori regime, he provided Peru with high growth and low inflation. However, for some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — he was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

The 2006 elections pitted Ollanta Humala, another Native American — this time of a leftist, populist bent — against Alan Garcia, a disastrous ex-president, previously ideologically indistinguishable from his opponent but newly converted to liberal, free-market policies. Garcia narrowly defeated Humala and, against all expectations, stuck to his promises. For 2009, Peruvian economic growth proved to be the third highest in the world, after China and India. For the 2011 elections, Humala moved to the center-left with a promise of continuity. Even Nobel Prize-winning writer, one-time presidential candidate, and libertarian-leaning writer Mario Vargas Llosa endorsed Garcia. For the time being, economics trumped ethnicity, with the percentage of those in poverty dropping from 55% in 2001 to 21% in 2016.

For some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — Toledo was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

In next-door Bolivia, Juan Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and head of the indigenous coca growers union, was elected president in 2006. Morales never finished high school. To date, his rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Local councils, little more than mobs, bypass the courts and mete out justice with gasoline-filled tire-collars. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

The Inca heartland is in the throes of a native revival. Though Ecuador hasn’t yet elected a native head of state, the Indians have gone on the warpath. In 2000, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, in alliance with junior military officers, overthrew President Jamil Mahaud and formed a new political party named after Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438–1471), tenth emperor of the Inca Empire. Pachacuti is still revered as pre-Columbian America’s most accomplished leader, combining the military prowess of Alexander the Great with the sagacity of Roman Emperor Justinian.

Tahuantinsuyu, as the Inca Empire called itself, did not go gently into that good night. Though Francisco Pizarro’s band seemed to make quick work of the conquest, mostly through luck, disease, and the confusion of an Inca civil war of succession, serious resistance to the new order continued for nearly 250 years. The last Inca rebellion, led by Tupac Amaru, culminated in the siege of Cusco in 1781 and the execution of the last Inca pretender. Ironically, the only firsthand account of the Spanish conquest and its initial aftermath was written by an Inca lord, Titu Cusi Yupanqui; it is still in print.

Evo Morales' rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

Native Andean resurgence has not been limited to politics or, for that matter, to South America. Over the past 20 years a quiet and low-key enthusiasm for Andean epistemology has burgeoned in Europe, North America, and South Africa, gaining prominence through the teachings of the Cusco school and elaborated by Americo Yabar, a paqo (or, loosely, a mystic-cum-management consultant); the writings of Joan Wilcox and Diane Dunn, now a paqo herself; anthropologists Inge Bolin and Catherine J. Allen, and Oakley Gordon, a psychologist who has tried to reconcile Yabar’s teachings with non-Andean epistemologies. Not that, from a certain perspective, there is any conflict — after all, if “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.

Epistemology?!

Nothing induces instant boredom in a reader more acutely than a word like epistemology in the title or first sentence of a casual read. And well it might. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, and is at least one or two categories of abstraction away from concrete reality. Epistemology is not what most people would consider as fun or relaxing as, say, Canadian politics or Chinese opera.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary eye-glazingly defines it as “the study of knowledge systems,” or “the theory of knowledge.” Dr. Oakley Gordon elaborates (and I paraphrase slightly), that it encompasses not only the formal fields of science, philosophy (of which it is also a subcategory), and religion, but also “patterns of assumptions, beliefs and behaviors” that are tacit, subconscious, or otherwise unexamined. Simply put, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

If “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.

The word is cobbled together by academics from the Greek “episteme” (knowledge) and “ology” (study of) because they had no run-of-the-mill word at hand to describe the convoluted concept they’d come up with. So they coined a new word, modeled on words like geo-logy (study of earth), bio-logy (study of life), philo-logy (study [or love] of words), psych-ology (study of the mind) and many other words ending in “ology.”

What makes epistemology so much more difficult to grasp is that epistemology is twice as abstract as these other “ologys.” Whereas most “ology” words are the study of the concrete things that precede them, epistemology is the study of those studies — in other words, the hows and whys of what we know.

But epistemology can attain an even more rarefied and abstract level. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is also “the study of the validity of knowledge.” So judgments can be — and often are — part of this philosophical endeavor.

Hector Sizes Me Up

On our first trip together down to the Andes one of my employers, Wendy introduced me to Hector, a Peruvian labor organizer who had spent 13 years in a Peruvian prison during the Fujimori and Toledo regimes. While there, he had dedicated his time to studying the Inca road system, over 15,000 miles in its entirety (including the Royal Road, its main trunk). It has been described as the Inca’s “dialogue with the land." Wendy characterized Hector as having “the sort of knowledge that can’t be put into a book.”

Well, to a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs and set my BS antennae quivering apoplectically. I couldn’t wait to engage this sage of the unwritten.

Nevertheless, when I first met Hector I was struck by his modesty and transparency. Figuring that full disclosure was the best strategy for establishing rapport, I leveled with him about what Wendy had told me. Hector looked at me thoughtfully and, after a minute’s reflection, said that he could size up a person’s character within minutes of meeting him or her — and that that sort of knowledge he could not convey in writing.

He had a point.

To a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs.

Still, though it might take thousands of words to describe the process one goes through when one sizes up someone, it can be done. Malcolm Gladwell did it in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, 2007. And the skill is not uncommon. Research by Jefferson Duarte of Rice University suggests that one of a person’s most telling moral features, his creditworthiness — as well as his sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, teaching ability and personality — can be seen in his face, often after only half a minute’s exposure to even a years-old photograph.

On the other hand, effectively teaching the art of successful snap judgments is much more difficult. But I digress. What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us — both are the proper study of epistemology.

Not too unrelated is kinesthetic knowledge, or physical, as opposed to intellectual, knowledge. Remember learning to ride a bike or play a musical instrument? No matter how long you leave it, your torso, fingers, and lips never lose that knowledge.

What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us.

Timothy Leary, the late guru of LSD, and Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, offer to expand epistemology’s territory even further — much further. They argue that the judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality. For some people, psychoactive drugs have the unusual effect of suspending the perception of time. To these users, past and future disappear and all reality is concentrated into the here-and-now. This extraordinary sensation intensifies events experienced during the “trip” and alters the user’s perception of reality.

But Back to Chinese Opera

Have you ever read a poem or listened to a piece of music and had one of those “aha!” moments when a light bulb goes off in your mind and suddenly your understanding changes? Art, literature — even music — are media that help shape our view of reality. So then, these too are also the proper territory of epistemology: the study of how those transcendental endeavors create new insights. Problem is, one man’s Chinese opera is another’s cat-scratching-on-a-blackboard. Why the difference?

Different people, brought up in different cultures and traditions, respond differently to different sensory stimuli. Exactly why this might be is not only the subject of anthropology and psychology but also, ultimately, of epistemology. Language is a case in point.

Benjamin Whorf, in Language, Thought, and Reality, argues that since much of our conscious thought is in the language(s) we speak, its conventions affect our perception and interpretation of reality. Modern English grammar with its built-in verb tenses inadvertently forces us to think in terms of past, present, and future. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has no tenses; a Chinese speaker must consciously include a reference to time if he wants to convey tense. Perhaps that’s why Chinese has such an aphoristic inscrutability.

The judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality.

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end: referential reliability. This requires the speaker to attach suffixes that clarify his relationship to the data being conveyed. While English now has three basic tenses — past, present, and future — built into its verbs, Quechua has three levels of validation built into its.

When the content of a sentence is directly experienced by the speaker, he uses the first level of reliability indicator, called a witness validator suffix. When conveying information learned secondhand, the speaker uses the hearsay validator suffix. Finally, when speculating without evidence, or when uncertain, the speaker employs the conjectural validator, indicating that the reliability of the information is a complete crapshoot.

How might this structure affect a Quechua speaker’s perception of reality? How does it affect his social relationships and what he knows about people? Does our English grammatical structure with its tenses make us particularly vulnerable to the way psychedelic drugs stop time? Epistemology seeks to answer this and many other even more subtle relationships between the world, our senses and our minds.

Have We Lost our Minds?

Just how does one actually do epistemology? Is it anything like doing biology or geology? Let’s take a (short) look at epistemological investigations into the nature of consciousness.

For centuries, philosophers, biologists, social scientists, bartenders, and every sort of investigator of the human condition has been clawing away at that black box and, more importantly, at one of its central underlying assumptions, what is known as the mind-body problem: what is mind and how does it emerge from physical and chemical processes?

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end.

The investigations have yielded few answers but have shed much light on the nature of the problem. On the one hand, diehard advocates of mind still harbor faith in the existence of a “thing” that is mind and attribute our failure to unlock its secrets to not enough hard work. At the other extreme are those who have thrown up their hands in frustration, declared that we’ve done all possible research, still not found “mind,” and that therefore “mind” does not exist.

Into this quagmire jumped some researchers who decided that perhaps part of the problem lay in how we approached the problem. Traditional Victorian scientific investigative techniques approached a complex problem by analyzing its many parts separately, gaining individual insights and then summing the parts in order to understand the whole — a very productive methodology in most instances. However, in some cases, results were a bit like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: the particulars didn’t add up to the sum of the whole.

These investigators decided that perhaps it might be better not to analyze certain phenomena into their parts but rather to investigate complex entities — such as sentient beings — as a whole. That, perhaps, in order to understand the nature of sentient beings, these shouldn’t be approached as mind-body dualities but approached as a single entity — a monistic approach. Ironically, this “new” approach mimicked “primitive” animistic philosophies, according to which the interrelationship of everything was impossible to separate (a subject further investigated in the following subsection).

Zindler suggested that mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing.

In the spirit of this new approach, Professor Frank R. Zindler, both a biologist and linguist, late of the State University of New York, and others decided to take a fresh look at “mind.” They believed that through purely historical accident the word mind, in all European languages, is grammatically a noun. Because of our grammar and the hidden assumptions of our language, we tend to think of nouns as substantive “things” such as tree, table, brick, etc., despite many nouns being quite insubstantial, e.g. truth, beauty, velocity, etc.

Zindler suggested that because mind was a noun, it was conceived to be a thing. Because it was thought to be a thing, it was thought to have existence apart from the brain. Neurobiological studies offer no supporting evidence for these ideas. Rather, mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing. If we change the processes of the brain, we change the mind. If nothing else, psychedelic drugs have taught us that fact.

For perspective, Zindler posits that to wonder what happens to the mind after the brain decays is as silly as asking where the 70-miles-per-hour have gone after a speeding auto has crashed into a tree:

Now that scientists recognize mind as a process rather than a thing, they are making rapid advances in understanding the specific brain dynamics that correspond to the various subjective states collectively known as mind.

Foremost among these advances is the discovery (at Goldsmith’s College, London, and the University of Houston) that the previously mentioned “aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them. More startling, Dr. Allen Snyder at the University of Sydney has been able to induce savant skills through repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Clearly, epistemology is useful.

John Dewey, in the early 20th century, was one of the first Western philosophers to minimize the mind-body duality. He argued that philosophers’ obsession on creating a problem of the relation between the mind and the world was a mistake. He retorted that no one had ever made a problem about the relation between, for example, the hand and the world. As Louis Menand puts it in The Metaphysical Club:

The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, or a fishhook, or an editorial . . . They just use a hand where a hand will do. Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks . . . or soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.

Pachacuti vs. Plato: The Nature of Religious Faith

With modern man facing a slew of problems ranging — according to some — from overpopulation, pollution, and global warming to the recent economic-fiscal crises, many people are questioning our approach to, and use of, knowledge. This analysis has resulted in the recognition of a distinct “Western” epistemology as opposed to epistemologies that developed outside the modern tradition — epistemologies that bear examination in hopes that these might be mined for some nuggets of wisdom. This was Wendy’s and Laurie’s project.

“Aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them.

Western, or modern, epistemology has its roots in a movement that emerged independently throughout centers of high culture all across the Old World in the first millennium BC. Robert N. Bellah, an anthropologist, has characterized it as “an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable.” This dualistic perception emerged in Greece with Plato’s classic formulation of a realm of the ideal that mirrors mundane reality; in Israel with the conception of a transcendent god in whom alone there is any comfort; in India with the Buddha as the only refuge from a world of chaos; in China with the Taoist admonition of withdrawal from human society.

It is hardly necessary to cite comparable Christian sentiments, while the Koran stresses that the life to come is infinitely superior (virgins or no virgins) to present reality. Even in Japan, usually so innocently world-accepting, Shotoku Taishi declared that the world is a lie and only the Buddha is true, and in the Kamakura period the conviction that the world is hell led to orgies of religious suicide by seekers after paradise.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after. Prior to this radical shift in perception, epistemology was more concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as men have always been concerned. Salvation in an afterlife was virtually absent; the intellectual focus was on getting along with the natural forces that ruled existence — the sun, the earth, water, wind, thunder, fertility, game, plants, etc — in a word, animism.

Animism is a holistic approach that reveres natural phenomena without separating the whole into constituent parts — vital essences, soul, energy, their physical manifestations, or their subsystems — while still including them. It is a monistic perception as opposed to the later revolution’s dualism. Animism seeks integration while world rejection seeks transcendence.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after.

The revolution that took place in the first millennium BC, by creating a schism between the real world and an ideal reality, started an intellectual movement that helped humankind look at the world differently. If reality could be broken down into its constituent parts — real and ideal — couldn’t everything else? Might there be more than two parts? Now that natural phenomena could be analyzed into building blocks, these became much easier to understand and, ultimately control. It was the first step towards a philosophical reductionism that later culminated in Victorian science.

With the existence of an ideal world theorized, comparative analyses between the real and ideal worlds also led to the possibility of reform on this earth — of the self, society, government, technology, etc. — as separate entities. There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform. Power could be split into political-military and cultural-religious, as could social classes and economic specialties. Doubtlessly, this new paradigm greatly aided mankind’s adaptation to growing population pressures worldwide by facilitating technological innovation.

Still, the revolution was not democratic. Control was still vested in authority: church and state. It took yet another revolution another 2,000 years later (more or less) for epistemology to undergo as radical a change as it previously had with world rejection — the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation made man’s relationship with — and understanding of — reality, much more democratic. Prior to the Reformation only the religious elite had access to God’s revelation, the Bible. They, in turn, interpreted God’s word for the rest of society. In some European countries it was actually a crime to own a Bible in the vernacular.

There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform.

The second revolution that the Protestant Reformation wrought was simple: the concept that everyone had the right to own, read, and interpret God’s word for himself. This principle of individual autonomy and the devolution of ultimate authority spread to governmental and economic realms where it presaged the end of monarchy and the rise of capitalism. In the meta-sphere of epistemology, it was the beginning of the end for the earlier, world-rejection, revolution. Western epistemology diversified. It was an age of enlightenment — in science, philosophy, and even religious thought, where hundreds of new sects flowered.

Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Cusco

Whatever its benefits, the Protestant Reformation had little effect on the divide-and-conquer dualistic-reductionist approach that was still yielding so many insights. If anything, Victorian scientists were predicting mankind’s imminent omniscience. By first identifying the constituent parts of whatever was being studied (dualism), investigators could more easily analyze each part individually and finally re-assemble the lot into a complete explanation (reductionism).

However, there was a problem. With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms. A new, more holistic approach was necessary because understanding constituent parts didn’t fully explain the whole.

Philosopher and ecologist Robert Ulanowicz said that science must develop techniques to study ways in which larger scales of organization influence smaller ones, and also ways in which feedback loops create structure at a given level, independently of details at a lower level of organization. In an attempt to reconcile this difficulty, James Lovelock, an exobiologist for NASA, postulated the Gaia Hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of Earth.

With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms.

The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the biosphere and physical components of the earth — atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere — are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on earth in a preferred homeostasis.

Today we are in the throes of a new revolution. If a more holistic approach has been productive in studying the mind, perhaps other fields of inquiry might also benefit from a less dualistic-reductionist approach. The door was opened for a re-evaluation of the animistic approach.

A New Age (literally) dawned. The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms. Now that each person could find his own road to enlightenment, people scoured the world for alternative spiritual approaches, particularly holistic, natural phenomena-centered (as opposed to world-rejecting) beliefs.

In popular culture, that search probably began with the Beatles’ discovery and popularization of Transcendental Meditation as practiced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though world-renouncing in its transcendentalism, it did not renounce worldly involvement or pleasures.

The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms.

More recently, the search for a new approach has focused on indigenous American animist epistemologies, particularly Andean epistemologies, not only because of their geographical isolation from world-rejection creeds but also because of the sophistication and success of Inca civilization — a civilization that absorbed virtually its entire known world, maintained a burgeoning population more-or-less peacefully and without famine; and displayed a reverence for their environment that attracts many today.

A Formicable Society

If nothing else, anthropological theory has taught us that increasing population density tends to beget technological innovation in a continuous feedback loop but is always associated with increased governmental power, regimentation, and social stratification.)

Inca society was the antithesis of a liberal ideal. Tax freedom day didn’t fall until September — in most years; subjects worked for state and church two-thirds of the year. Even when too old, poor, or incapacitated to pay, individuals had to at least pay their tribute in lice to maintain the integrity and fairness of the system. (Perhaps giving some of their lice in lieu of anything else was at least a required token of participation in the system.) There was no private property beyond one’s clothing, tools, guinea pigs, and such. Individual organized trade was not permitted; the government monopolized trade. Nuclear family autarky was the rule and the economy was rigidly centrally planned. Beyond the firstborn, a family’s children were at the disposal of the emperor and were sometimes subject to human sacrifice. Inca and subject populations were resettled at the whim of the emperor to discourage revolt. Inca society was the human equivalent of a bee or ant colony.

Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast.

Still, it had its attractions. Tahuantinsuyu was the first successful, corruption-free welfare state in the world. Few starved, lacked a home, or suffered arbitrary injustice at the hands of local administrators. Corvée labor kept state granaries full to supply the army and areas hit with failed harvests. A sophisticated network of spies and informants provided instant polling to the Inca. Local chiefs and administrators guilty of malfeasance suffered swift punishment. Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast. Trained relay runners with sophisticated mnemonic devices could cover 140 miles in one day and could go from Quito to Cusco in 7 days. (For comparison, the US Pony Express could cover 250 miles per day, or about 10 days from the Atlantic to the Pacific.) Giant llama caravans carried supplies and the armies’ kit over the paved, bridged and accommodation-replete Royal Roads. And medical care was free, with Inca cranial surgery being second to none.

Best of all, Inca rule created peace. The Pax Incaica was achieved with a minimum of bloodshed. Inca ambassadors would regale prospective conquests with the benefits of Inca rule while massive Inca armies camped outside the walls of the target city. Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace. Siege tactics could last for years but were always punctuated with truces during planting and harvest. But ultimately, if the peaceful incentives failed, Inca armies were known to inflict hideous torture and annihilate entire male populations.

The Cusco Creed

Inca theology reflected the sophistication of such an advanced civilization. Like the Romans, the Incas allowed their subjects religious freedom but required a few minimal doctrinal concessions. During his reign, Pachacuti convened the Council of Curicancha, which, like the Council of Nicaea, set out to standardize doctrine. It integrated all the beliefs of the newly conquered trans-Andean subjects with Inca theology. Pachacuti started by recognizing three contradictions in traditional simple sun worship:

  1. Inti — the Sun — cannot be universal if, while giving light to some, he withholds the light from others.
  2. Inti cannot be perfect if he can never remain at ease, resting.
  3. Nor can he be all-powerful when the smallest cloud may cover his face.

Therefore, the Council of Curicancha postulated the existence of Viracocha, an all-powerful, creator meta-deity that it imposed on all Inca subjects. Viracocha was more or less simply grafted onto what was becoming an extremely complex doctrinal edifice while not conflicting with minor, local deities, and the still intact Inti.

Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace.

Not only was Andean animism suddenly flirting with monotheism but its theological subtleties and elaborations — too numerous and esoteric to describe here, but including much practical wisdom in addition to abstruse arcana — were becoming every bit as mysterious and complex as the Christian creeds of transubstantiation and the Trinity. But instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it. Alongside the more traditional (at least from a Judeo-Christian-Muslim perspective) — and challenging — coming-of-age ceremonies, fasts and trials of endurance, there were feasts, sex, drugs (such as ayahuasca), alcohol, and music. Faith, commitment, and pleasure were celebrated.

An important part of Andean animism is its self-help aspect. Practical nuggets of wisdom that promote character, conviviality, and satisfaction — akin to combining the teachings of Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra with the Bible — are canonical in it.

Heady stuff.

But probably Andean epistemology’s biggest draw today is its reverence for Pachamama, mother earth, and her myriad natural constituents — soil, water, wind, plants, animals, and even rocks. In today’s enlightenment-seeking, ecology-conscious, hedonistic modern world, Andean epistemology seeks to provide a holistic balance — in living with oneself, society, and the earth.

Animism vs. Atheism? Hector Weighs in

One evening after dinner Wendy sought Hector’s advice on a matter that had been troubling her. She asked me to translate.

She recounted that the Inca Road Project, to her great surprise, had not been well-received by certain members of her Cree Band. In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill. At the last moment, Laurie, her husband, deflected the thrust. Still, the medicine man succeeded in casting a spell. Ever since, Wendy had been troubled by headaches, chest pains and neurasthenia. Could Hector recommend an Andean shaman who might lift the spell?

instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it.

By this time I was internally cringing and questioning my involvement with such people and this project. I braced myself for Hector’s response.

Hector looked at both of us thoughtfully and, after some moments’ reflection, said that Wendy had undertaken a big project with tremendous responsibility that generated a lot of envy and jealousy amongst a close-knit clan in an Indian reservation setting. She was no doubt stressed out and weary. Hector suggested rest, a positive attitude, and forging ahead with a clear conscience. When Wendy insisted on a referral to a medicine man, Hector recommended a more conventional doctor.

The contrast struck me. Wendy, a modern Canadian in every sense, had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. She had discovered her tribe’s animist Cree beliefs as an adult, and had embraced them — in my opinion — in a New Age-ish sort of way as a reaction to the hypocrisy that she believed she had encountered as a child. The dream catchers, medicine wheels, frequent allusions to Indian beliefs, and other paraphernalia that was now a part of her seemed necessary reinforcements for a new-found faith.

In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill.

Hector, on the other hand, had been raised in an Andean animist milieu that subtly permeated his practical character. His animism wasn’t a compensatory reaction. Their different approaches got me to thinking about my own epistemological evolution.

Keeping the Faith

Humankind’s oldest and most widely held religious beliefs are animism and ancestor worship — both almost always found together (a linkage that begs to be investigated) — and both labeled a bit too glibly by condescending observers with a monotheistic background, little regard for translation difficulties, and therefore scant appreciation for the depth, complexity, or subtlety of alien beliefs (especially the often slippery concept of hierarchical divinity).

Animism literally refers to a belief that everything — living or inanimate — has an essence — a soul, or anima, if you will — and that this soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with (other) animals, plants, natural forces, and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior to or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.

In the Aristotelian version of animism all things are composed of matter and form — the essence — the latter being the defining characteristic and corresponding to a “soul,” albeit one that is neither immortal nor deserving of any sort of worship. It was merely an expedient he proposed to account for things such as butterflies whose “matter” undergoes radical transformations during its life cycle but whose “form” ostensibly remains a butterfly. This concept was appropriated and greatly elaborated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

There is a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to New Age seekers. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees.

Likewise, ancestor worship is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. And it is better rendered as “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, often with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities or communication with them may or may not be present.

Today’s shift from a world-rejection zeitgeist to a more holistic, New Age approach to spirituality is by no means limited to Andean epistemology. The August 25 issue of The Economist (“With Spirits Kaleidoscopic”) reports on a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to these seekers: the Beloved Festival, SoulPlay, Sonic Bloom, Kinnection Campout, Stilldream, Wanderlust, Symbiosis, and, yes, Burning Man. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees. Tickets for the Beloved Festival start at $265.77.

Not Keeping the Faith

Sometimes, when pressed for my religious beliefs, I’ll respond — as a heuristic device with a less polarizing tendency than, “I’m an atheist” — that I’m an adherent of reformed ancestor worship-animism. In other words, I venerate the DNA line that I now represent; and my habits are respectful and frugal — about life and the things that support it. Is there a conflict between these values and atheism? I don’t think so. What do you think?

Epilogue

After a few years, the Royal Inca Road Project was put on hold indefinitely. Wendy and Laurie, the Cree principals behind the project, waged a (so far) losing battle to maintain adequate funding from corporate and government donors while holding on to full-time jobs. But their efforts continue. They moved to Stavager, Norway where Laurie worked as a pilot for a subsidiary of SAS airlines and Wendy managed a branch of Statoil’s international office for indigenous affairs, a position that allowed her to pursue their quest.




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Maybe We’re Not Paranoid Enough

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Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI and former interim director of the FBI, has produced a book about his bitter experiences with Donald Trump and is now puffing that book in interviews. In an interview with CBS he recalled his (hysterical) reaction to the firing of the egregious James Comey, director of the FBI, whose career of government-enabled arrogance Trump finally ended.

McCabe said that he, McCabe, immediately decided to instigate a high-profile probe of the president’s alleged obstruction of justice in firing Comey and of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. He decided, in addition, to institutionalize these probes so firmly that they could never be stopped without additional charges of obstructing justice.

McCabe also said that he discussed with his boss, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, the latter’s plan to enlist cabinet members to consider taking Trump out by means of the 25th Amendment, and that this project was seriously considered.

From McCabe’s point of view, Trump’s offenses, besides firing the FBI director, included daring to criticize the FBI’s activities (imagine that!):

The president had been speaking in a derogatory way about our investigative efforts for weeks, describing it as a witch hunt, publicly undermining the effort of the investigation.

Intolerable, is it not, that Trump should have spoken in such a way about investigations of himself?

McCabe himself was subsequently fired for lying and leaking, and his accounts of other people’s actions have been denied by some of them. He has tried to soften the impact of a few of his statements. That having been said, we can assume that his first account of his own doings, which he delivered with self-righteous braggadocio, can be given credence. He bragged about trying to stage a coup d’etat — exactly the kind of thing that supposedly paranoid libertarians have always suspected that “intelligence” agencies are able and willing to do. This is something even worse than the soft coups that such agencies have chronically staged, leaking or merely letting it be known that they possessed damaging information against public figures whom they distrust. A good example is J. Edgar Hoover’s stranglehold on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and his threats against Martin Luther King.

Whatever libertarians think of President Trump — and there is a wide range of opinion — they should receive McCabe’s revelations as a sign that their paranoia was fully justified, and as a warning about what will happen if libertarians ever do predominate, or look as if they may soon predominate, in government.

Picture it. Murray Rothbard Jones, senator from Idaho, is thought to be the likely nominee of the Republican Party. Jones is an antagonist of government surveillance and of what he calls “our institutionalized system of prying, snitching, and intimidation.” He has attacked and ridiculed the “process violations” that the FBI uses to send people it dislikes — such as Martha Stewart(!) — to jail. He has vowed that if he becomes president, one of his first objectives will be a “full house cleaning at the FBI.”

What do you think will happen to Murray Rothbard Jones?

Here’s what. As soon as Jones shows any chance of winning, the FBI will covertly investigate him for collusion with corporations that seek the repeal of antitrust and other trade-restrictive legislation. Is he not in favor of such repeal? And has he not taken contributions from corporate executives? So investigate; you’re likely to find something — on anybody. And of course you can leak it.

Meanwhile, the CIA will covertly investigate Jones for collusion with foreign countries. Is he not in favor of reducing tariffs? And has he not traveled to foreign countries and conferred with their leaders?

Information will be stockpiled, doctored, invented, and divulged. The FBI and CIA will collaborate in sponsoring stories about Jones’s nights in a Beijing luxury hotel, where he paid prostitutes to piss on him in a bed where Huma Abedin once slept. This purported information will be assiduously leaked by the same people who will proceed to vouch for its value. Investigation will follow investigation, paralyzing the Jones regime — as mobs roam the country, denouncing all Jones supporters as racists and sexists (after all, doesn’t Jones want to end racial and gender preferences?).

Well, this is more or less what happened to Trump. Now comes the part about the 25th Amendment.

What more proof do you want that Jones is unfit to discharge the duties of his office than his insane ideas about reducing military expenditures, ending American interference in foreign countries, and (gasp!) stopping the government’s subsidies to schools? The one thing lacking might be skepticism about the usefulness of the FBI and CIA, but now we know he’s crazy in that way too. If Jones survives, it will be a miracle. If he accomplishes any part of his program, it will be an apocalypse.

So, speaking of apocalyptic thought: libertarians should not imagine that their only enemies are demagogic pols, social scientists with incomplete educations, and the people standing behind the counter at the DMV. They’re just some of the hosts arrayed against us. The others are the guys in expensive suits whom St. Paul pictured as “powers” in “high places,” and “the rulers of the darkness of this world.”




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If the Shoe Fits

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Raising the Mob

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I don’t know whether Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax committed rape, as he has been accused of doing, and I’m certainly in no position to decide. Yet the idea of involving the country at large in such decisions is the premise behind virtually all the publicity given to the matter, and to many other matters of recent note.

Before this era of what is laughingly known as our national discourse, it would have been inconceivable for official statements to be issued about something like this by such ephemeral citizens as bit players in Hollywood and (alleged) nightclub comedians. I don’t recall that even Cary Grant or Rosalind Russell considered it their business to render judicial determinations on the sex affairs of Virginia politicians. But in the case of Mr. Fairfax, and innumerable others, judgments, pro or con, now fly into the public air space within moments of an accusation.

How did this happen? It isn’t just because ignorant people think they’re important (they’ve always done so), or have Twitter accounts.

State officials are the leaders of this mob, as they have been the leaders of so many mobs during the past few years.

Until now, I’ve generally pictured mobs as composed of private individuals who have at least momentarily lost their minds. Individuals’ penchant for forming mobs is a matter of human psychology that libertarians need to think about much more than we ordinarily do (which is not at all). But now the libertarian view of the state as the ultimate foe is getting some renewed support — because who has been leading most of the recent mobs? Who was it that immediately, right off the bat, without taking a second to weigh the evidence, with no investigation or possibility of investigation, started yelling for the conviction of Mr. Fairfax (and countless others) in the court of public opinion?

It was state officials, legislators of this republic. They are the leaders of this mob, as they have been the leaders of so many mobs during the past few years.

The state has other powers besides legislation and the enforcement of legislation. It has the power to destroy the sense of fairness and self-restraint on which any decent society is based. It’s not enough for the modern state — bloated, ignorant, and indiscriminately cruel — to pass ridiculous and indecent laws. Now it is raising mobs to destroy the very idea of decency.




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Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill,Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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How Less Becomes More

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Roma is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Oscar contender for Best Picture of 2018. It’s filmed in black and white, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, and told with very little storyline, no musical soundtrack, and no well-known actors. It’s set in the 1970s but feels more like the 1940s or ’50s. And it moves as slowly as a sloth. The Cannes Film Festival rejected it because it was made for Netflix instead of theatrical release. Netflix! It was available for free on the Internet before it went into a few art theaters. Nevertheless, like Italy’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), it has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Unlike Life Is Beautiful, Roma does not have a strong, charismatic protagonist or a compelling conflict. It simply presents a dreary year in the dreary life of a young Mexican working girl. It is the most personal film Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) has ever made, told as a series of vignettes that come directly from Cuarón’s childhood memories and filmed by Cuarón himself. It is dedicated to Libo, a servant in his childhood home on whom the film is based. Cuarón said of the film, “It’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’”

The story centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two full-time domestic servants working in the home of a middle-class family in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) share a small room where they also do the ironing after the regular workday is done. They chatter together congenially throughout the day, and the children in the family seem to genuinely love Cleo; one of the boys (perhaps representing Cuarón himself) holds her hand affectionately when she kneels on the floor beside the couch to watch TV with the family after dinner (until the mother absently sends her away to fulfill another duty.)

But while Cleo is the subject of the movie, she is not our POV — we don’t see the story through her eyes. Instead, Cuarón uses wide angles so that we observe her only in her interactions with other people. This technique objectifies her to a large degree. Since we don’t see what she is seeing, we also don’t see any eye contact from others looking at her. Consequently, we can feel sympathy toward her, but it’s difficult to feel empathy. Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’” We don’t. At best we can observe what she experiences, and think of how we might feel ourselves.

So why does this film merit ten Oscar nominations, and why does director Guillermo del Toro call it one of his top five favorite films of all time? The key is not in the two Best Picture nominations, but in the eight other categories. Most significant is the cinematography. Cuarón often uses award-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot his films, but this time he chose to handle the camera himself in order to keep the film as personal and true to his intent as possible. The result is often dreamy and reflective. Indeed, reflection is a recurring theme throughout the film. It begins with water washing repeatedly over a brick sidewalk, almost like waves, reflecting the sky, the trees, a building, and even an airplane flying across its reflected surface. Reflections are often seen in windows, cabinets, the table Cleo is polishing, the car fender as the man of the house parks in the narrow garage.

Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion; the devastatingly authentic hospital scene may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

Nominations for sound editing and sound mixing are equally impressive, especially considering the lack of music. Instead, the sounds are entirely natural — the wash of water against the bricks, the bickering of birds in the trees, the sounds of dogs barking and people conversing in the distance. And the acting! So natural, and so introspective. With very little dialogue, Avaricio and de Tavira, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, portray the unspoken thoughts and desires of the two young servants. The hospital scene is devastatingly authentic; here Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion. The moment was filmed in one take and may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

The lack of a traditional storyline and a traditional soundtrack makes the film seem slow, even plodding at first. We meet the servants, the family, the dog, but nothing much happens — until Cleo goes to the movies with a friend on her day off and ends up going off with a blind date instead — probably her first date ever. There we begin to see how her past, her class, and her future blend into a kind of inescapable destiny. The vignettes become compelling, and in the end, we can’t stop thinking about this young girl who has had so few choices in her life. We realize that she has had no control over the biggest factor determining her options — the circumstances of her birth — and thus no real control over any aspect of her life, beyond how dedicated she will be as a servant. It’s almost as though she were born dead — a metaphor that becomes significant at one point in the film.

Roma ends mostly as it begins, because Cleo’s life will end mostly as it began. Many important events have occurred during the year, politically and historically as well as within the family, but these events really haven’t affected Cleo personally. She is loved and appreciated by the family members, but she still lives in the small room above the garage that she shares with Sofia. She will never truly belong to this family she serves. But in making this film about his beloved nanny Libo, Cuarón gives her a place at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Roma," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix, 2018, 135 minutes.



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Fools and Their Folly

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Ralph Northam, governor of Virginia —perhaps soon-to-be ex-governor of Virginia — is a fool. On that we can all agree.

But until a few days ago, he was not a fool.

He was not a fool when he was running for governor and some of his followers ran an ad suggesting that his opponent was a violent racist, an ad that he first defended, while implicitly disavowing, and then disavowed, while implicitly defending. A few associates of his opponent’s party remember that, but nobody really cares.

Someone finally publicized what must have been known to many, a page from Northam’s med-school yearbook showing a man in blackface and a Klansman drinking happily together

And he was not a fool when, on January 30 of this year, he commented on a bill advanced by his party in the legislature that seemed to allow abortions during normal-term birth, with the option of infanticide, by saying:

So in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.

Conservatives pounced on this saying, asserting that Northam was a baby killer, although it was easier to show that his comments about “exactly what would happen” were more like the maunderings of a fool than any declaration of specific intent. But few people called him a fool.

Then, in early February, someone finally publicized what must have been known to many, a page from Northam’s med-school yearbook glorifying alcoholic beverages and illustrating their glory by showing a man in blackface and a Klansman drinking happily from their cans of (presumably) brew. That’s exactly what you want in your med-school yearbook, right? If you do, you’re a fool.

Northam then proceeded to prove, and overprove, that you cannot part a fool from his folly. He confessed that he was one of the men in the picture, though he didn’t say which one, and apologized for the harmful effects of what he had done. A day later he decided that he was not one of the men in the picture and had, in fact, nothing to do with the picture — although, he added, he had once done a blackface imitation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk routine. It is said that Northam’s wife had to prevent him from showing the press that he could still do the moonwalk.

The root cause of racism and all its ridiculous symbols and tokens is folly, mindlessness, sheer stupidity.,

Instantaneously, cries arose from every quarter, including Northam’s own party, that he must resign forthwith. There were even cries, from outside his party, against the allegedly culpable inaction of his lieutenant governor, an African-American who, perhaps, did not wish to be seen staging a coup d’etat. Northam was now everything vile and vicious, and the whole nation appeared to agree.

But the root of this vileness was not identified. The root cause of racism and all its ridiculous symbols and tokens — symbols and tokens that may sometimes exist without any particularly racist thought, or any thought at all — is folly, mindlessness, sheer stupidity, the conviction that you are thinking when you’re not, the conviction that you can get through the world without any mental activity, and that nobody else will notice.

Apparently, the odds on doing so are pretty good, because Northam did get through 59 years in this world without anyone noticing what a dope he is. It’s only the “racism” that was finally observed. And I suppose that this is the way the republic needs to continue, because where could political leaders be found if every fool were identified as such, and driven from public office?




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Along for the Ride

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