June 11, 2004

Strakon Lights Up
"Puto deus fio"
   — Vespasian's last words (attributed to him by Suetonius)

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In some basic way, my dad and I are just out of it.

Now, unlike me, my dad is not a heavy ideological type. And he and I disagree on all sorts of issues. I'm sure we disagree to a considerable extent on — how to put this — let's say, the value of Ronald Reagan. But watching the telescreen coverage of the Reagan funeral cortege on June 9, and surveying the masses of people lining the streets in Washington's psychopathically murderous heat and humidity, Dad said:

"I don't get it."

And I replied:

"Me neither."

One of the issues Dad and I disagree on is the significance and rightness of America's role in World War II. But Dad, who is a combat veteran of that war, had previously confessed to me that he just didn't get it when all those thousands of vets congregated for the opening of the government's memorial to the war. He allowed as how he might go see the thing if he ever happened to be in Washington on general tourist business — but to join a huge mob of visitors just so you could say you'd been there on opening day? Well, what would be the point of that?

Dad and I are both small-town Midwesterners, born and bred, and although I've spent time in cities I share his distaste for crowds. We're horrified at the prospect of standing in a long line — or along some city street — for hours and hours waiting for something to happen that's not really going to be that interesting. Even when there's a movie in our bailiwick that we're hot to see, we hold our water and wait until its run is about over, and then we hit the second matinee, which is always the least-well-attended showing. That way, we can be almost alone in the theater. Happiness!

Dad's not a libertarian, but I have to wonder whether the tendencies I've inherited from him (and don't you dare call them "anti-social") laid down some fertile soil for my becoming one.


As a libertarian, I am mystified by popular goings-on even more often than Dad is. For instance, I'm mystified by all those people who rush out and vote at every opportunity. I'd like to ask them, without being too confrontational about it, exactly what it does for them — you know, what they get out of it. It's a burden, being a devotee of a philosophy that renders you mystified in the face of things that everyone else takes for granted. It's enough, sometimes, to make me wish I were normal. (Of course it works the other way 'round, too; we pro-Western libertarians often shrug and ask "So what else is new?" in the face of enormities that normal people greet with bewildered surprise.)

Voting often entails some queuing, especially if you live in a place where ballot abuse is popular, but overall it involves far less discomfort than taking part in that stationary marathon on Constitution Avenue. Still, I see parallels between voting and what that misguided multitude was doing June 9. Parallels in pointlessness.

Imagine, standing along a steamy, broiling street all day merely to catch a glimpse of the cortege of a ruler who's been out of office for 15 years! The spectators who were interviewed on TV said they'd showed up to "pay their respects," and I suppose that's what they thought they were up to, but we libertarians would win a little victory if somehow we persuaded them to think again. (I guess cheering, clapping, and howling like an animal, rock-concert style, qualifies as paying one's respects nowadays.)

Making oneself a faceless little speck in a backdrop for what was — let's face it — a ceremony of Empire, designed to display the Empire's majesty in the middle of a less-than-majestic foreign adventure, is not the same thing as visiting the funeral home to pay your respects when your neighbor's uncle dies. You may not have known the uncle, but at least you know your neighbor; and he knows you; and he probably knows you dropped by. If he missed seeing you, he might at least spot your signature in the visitor book.

Though people apparently understand that their rulers don't know them personally, they unfortunately harbor the conceit that they know their rulers; Ronn Neff has written eloquently and cogently about that fantasy in his classic essay "Cognitive vanity." People believe, too, that there is some sort of connection between them and their rulers — I mean not the sinister and all-too-real connection inherent in robbery, slavery, and tyranny, but rather a benevolent and mystical connection. During the funerary season for Diana Spencer, certain sentimentalism-junkies placed flowers and little notes at an appointed place in her memory; and now the same sort of people, on this side of the pond, are placing flowers and (plus ça change ...) jelly beans at an appointed place in memory of Reagan. Well, I suppose they'll remember doing it, even if no one else does.

It gets worse. On June 10, again haplessly watching the telescreen, I saw women weeping as they were marched past Reagan's bier in the Capitol Rotunda. Were they related to the man? And on the late news I heard that the wait to enter the Rotunda was running at four hours. At 11:10 p.m.

Today my dad tells me that local funeral homes are spinning up the peculiar marketing campaign they ran when the race driver Dale Earnhardt died: they're putting out books that you can go and sign, again, I guess, as a way of "paying your respects." Why would anyone get in his car, drive to a funeral home, and sign some ridiculous book that no one's ever going to look at? Do they imagine that Nancy Reagan, in her leisure time, is going to sit down and leaf through it? Oh, I see that Fred Schwanz, of Upper Lower Overshoe, Missitucky, signed on page 62 of book number 841. How nice!

Making a cult figure out of a sports champion such as Earnhardt is bad enough — massively silly and infantile — but to do it to a former ruler!

Who are these people? Are they Americans? Gad, I'm sick of asking that question.


Whether the cultists realize it or not, their irrational reverence for state-figures slides unstoppably and insensibly into reverence for the state itself, and emotional dependence on the state. That makes jonesin' for NASCAR look like Mormon sobriety.

By the way, please forgive me if I give short shrift to all the wisecracking we hear, from funnymen both professional and amateur, about the failings of "the government" and its functionaries. People aren't serious about that comedy. If they were they wouldn't slather on clown makeup themselves every November and go cartwheeling into the voting booth. I could also cite ten thousand situations where state-cultists suddenly stop snickering at Big Uncle and solemnly extend their grubby little mitts for a bit of his boodle; but all of this is making me very tired.

It is complicated; inconsistency always complicates things. Americans revel in the "born in a log cabin" folklore, in all its permutations, even though many of our rulers are actually recruited from the plutocracy; and most of us revel, too, in the "unspun" moments we are permitted to see of our rulers — as they spit on the Palace lawn, vomit at state banquets, laugh and joke on their way out of funerals, lose their place in a speech, blabber illiterate malapropisms, break out in a sheen of flop-sweat, and so on. In the 1970s the entertainer Chevy Chase confected a popular impression of one of our more obscure rulers, Jerry Ford, that depended largely on Fordish pratfalls.

Insofar as American children are still taught anything, they are taught that anyone, even an obvious fool, can become president. And it's true, mostly (though it does help to be a member of Skull & Bones). A man doesn't really have to boast much in the way of native talent to slip into the Presidential Palace, and everyone knows it. Reagan was a Great Communicator, I'll be reminded. No, sorry, Shakespeare was a Great Communicator. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were Great Communicators of ideas on Liberty (and how many people went to their funerals?). Any propaganda about a leviathan-politician's having been "great" at anything, apart from wickedness, puts me in mind of what Samuel Johnson said about women's preaching: it was like "a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Substitute "politician" for the lady preacher, and Bob's your uncle.

If you listen to any opening monologue on "Lenoman," you can just about convince yourself that that's the demotic wisdom. But let leviathan throw a big state funeral for some expired pol, complete with horses and a lot of spit-and-polish robo-soldiers strutting about, and Americans turn out in their thousands. Even if they have to stand and sweat for hours. (Excuse the paraphrase, but they also serve who stand and sweat.)

In old-fashioned totalitarian regimes the authorities used to order everyone in state offices, shops, and factories (i.e., almost everyone, period) to show up for the big state ceremonies. The Ceausescu gang in Romania bused reliable proletarians into Bucharest to bulk out the crowds they needed as a backdrop for the Great Man's speeches; and that was one bus ride you couldn't refuse. The old-time state-thugs also made voting compulsory (and I believe they've been imitated by some "progressive social democracies" around the world). Since we're supposed to have freedom of religion in this country, all of that is still voluntary here. So what do we see millions upon millions of those free men and women do? Troop off to state-church on their own hook. And I use the word "hook" advisedly, as in "hooked."

Vespasian's ironic jest at death's door, "I seem to be turning into a god," is apposite for the political culture of the American Empire just as it was for the Roman. After they finish snickering at them, Americans do turn some of their rulers into demigods, if not gods. Like the Romans, they usually wait to do it until the fellow is safely dead. But it's still unseemly, to say the least. Not to mention, un-American.

Who are all these people? I just don't get it.

June 11, 2004

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