Burke vs. Reason

Reason believes that the world has become “groovier” since 1968, the year of that magazine’s founding. Not merely “groovier,” mind you, but “groovier and groovier.” In celebration, it has nominated “35 heroes of freedom,” freedom apparently being synonymous with grooviness. This list, and the reasons given for the selection of the “heroes” therein is sufficient to persuade me that modern libertarianism, at least as exemplified by Reason magazine, is not a philosophy suitable for adults.

What sort of person says “groovy,” anyway? The last time I heard it used non-ironically was by a crooked lawyer in the movie To Live and Die in L.A. He was shot to death directly afterward and quite deservedly so. With its connotations of kaftans, flower power and “The Pope Smokes Dope,” its use today suggests superannuated hippies nostalgic for the Golden Dawn of the 1960s. But Nick Gillespie, Reason‘s editor and presumed builder of the Pantheon of Groovy, is in his 40s and was thus barely toilet-trained during the Summer of Love. So the only nostalgia here is for a place that has never existed and never shall: Utopia.

To accuse someone or something of being “utopian” is normally considered an insult, for the reason that various attempts to mandate Heaven on Earth have resulted in the best approximations of Hell men can devise, but Reason thinks differently:

For all of its many problems, the world we live in is dizzying in its variety, breathtaking in its riches, and wide-ranging in its options. Malcontents on the right and left who diagnose modernity as suffering from “affluenza” or “options anxiety” will admit this much: These days we’ve even got a greater choice of ways to be unhappy. Which may be as close to a definition of utopia as we’re likely to come.

One would have thought it obvious that “a greater choice of ways to be unhappy” is a powerful argument against license. Certainly Edmund Burke thought so. Burke is considered the father of modern conservatism, but he was a Whig not a Tory, the champion of the American colonists and the people of India against the depredations of Warren Hastings. A classical liberal, in other words.

According to Burke,

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Certainly Thomas Szasz, one of Reason‘s 35 heroes, would agree with Burke. But Margaret Thatcher, another hero, would not. “There is no such thing as society,” she famously declared. Reason evidently agrees, which explains the presence on its list of William Burroughs, Larry Flynt, Madonna, Martina Navratilova and Dennis Rodman, who are celebrated for their antinomianism and their intemperance.

William Burroughs is praised for “irrevocably loosen[ing] up Eisenhower’s America. Not only is his fiction (JunkyNaked LunchNova Express) relentlessly anti-authoritarian, he proved that you can abuse your body in every way imaginable and still outlive the entire universe.” Like Rimbaud, Burroughs extolled the “derangement of all the senses”; unlike Rimbaud, his work is mostly gibberish and his literary influence baleful. Burroughs also killed his wife and got away with it, but misogyny is not incompatible with grooviness, it seems.

Which brings us to Larry Flynt.

Where Hugh Hefner mainstreamed bohemian sexual mores, hard-core porn merchant Flynt brought tastelessness to new depths, inspiring an unthinkable but revealing coalition between social conservatives and puritanical feminists–and helping to strengthen First Amendment protections for free expression along the way.

Never mind that the First Amendment protects not “free expression” but “freedom of speech.” What is the nature of Flynt’s expression? “Chester the molester,” the depiction of a woman being put through a meat grinder, the reduction of the erotic to the clinical detachment of the livestock buyer and the mortician.

Madonna is praised for leading “MTV’s glorious parade of freaks, gender-benders, and weirdos who helped broaden the palette of acceptable cultural identities and destroy whatever vestiges of repressive mainstream sensibilities still remained.” In reality, Madonna’s career poses the question, How can you épater le bourgeois after the burghers have embraced bohemianism? The answer is, You can’t. And so she has been reduced to publicly consuming her children, i.e., the likes of Britney Spears and Christian Aguilera.

Martina Navratilova is praised “as the first superstar athlete to admit she was gay and the first woman to play tennis like a man…she smashed stultifying stereotypes like so many poorly hit lobs.” But Navratilova has cheerfully admitted that even during her prime any one of the 100 top-ranked male players would have beaten her. As for stereotypes, she has firmly established in the public mind the conflation of female athletes with lesbianism. Which is not a good thing, is it?

Dennis Rodman is praised for “set[ting] an X-Men-level standard for cultural mutation. His flamboyant, frequently gay-ish antics place him in apostolic succession to a madcap handful of athletes such as Joe Namath, Rollie Fingers, and Muhammad Ali, all of whom challenged the lantern-jawed stiffness that had traditionally made sports stars such dull role models.” Rodman is a wreck of a man who wasted his talent, trashed his career and serves as a role model only for those that seek to emulate the insane, but what is that compared to the value of “gay-ish antics”?

It is worth noting that Reason‘s list excludes cultural figures of eminence. (Unless you believe Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein and Willie Nelson count.) It is not as if America has not witnessed the flowering of great artists since 1968: Tom Wolfe in belles-lettres, Stanley Kubrick in film and Philip Glass in music are three that come to mind. But these men fail the grooviness test. Wolfe and Kubrick are rather gloomy about the human condition. And Glass is a Buddhist, a religion that teaches that desire is the root of human suffering, while Reason teaches the exact opposite.

To be fair, Reason‘s list contains a number of worthies: Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Jane Jacobs, Ron Paul, Szasz, Clarence Thomas. But would they celebrate the destruction of all norms and the reduction of people to the level of atoms seeking ceaselessly and exclusively to maximize their utility? I think not.

In any event, Reason‘s list is based on a false premise. The world may be freer since 1968, but Reason‘s editors do not live in the world, they live in the United States. And only a fool or liar would deny that America is much less free than it was 35 years ago. There is no sphere of human activity that American governments do not seek to regulate–except the sexual sphere. Laws proliferate at such a rate that everyone is a law-breaker. There is nowhere Americans can go when they simply want to be left alone. Just ask Randy Weaver and David Koresh. Meanwhile, the range of acceptable opinion becomes ever more narrow. Just ask Al Campanis, Jimmy the Greek, Trent Lott, Rush Limbaugh, Gregg Easterbrook, et al. The world we live in may be dizzying in its variety, but America becomes less “diverse” with each passing day.

A glance at any newspaper serves to demonstrate that Americans no longer believe in personal responsibility. They have become as children; their woes are always someone else’s fault. “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” If Burke was right, then American liberty is in mortal danger. If the juvenile delinquents at Reason are right, that is as nothing compared to the constitutionally guaranteed right of the cabaret artiste to masturbate in public. To what will Americans listen and to whom? The counsels of the wise and good or the flattery of knaves? Burke or Reason? The future of the Republic rests on the answers to these questions.

Kevin Michael Grace is an unemployed journalist who maintains the website TheAmbler.com.

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