Jan 31

Keeping Freedom Alive: a response to Vodkapundit

In a trenchant essay he posted on the 30th of January, Vodkapundit
fulminates
against people he calls “doctrinaire libertarians”. While I sympathize in some
respects — I too have been attacked for my pro-war position — I
think there is some serious danger that Steve’s arguments are throwing out the
baby along with the bathwater.

I’m an individualist anarchist. In most peoples’ books that would
qualify me as a “doctrinaire libertarian”. I got reminded why
recently by watching a Babylon 5 episode, the 4th-season one in which
Sheridan is interrogated by an EarthGov psychologist who uses torture,
isolation, and drugs, to try and break him. But more frightening than
the torture is the ideology that comes out of the interrogator’s
mouth; the command that truth is fluid and must bend to power; the
disingenuous disclaimers of any responsibility for the hell Sheridan
is being put through; and beneath it all like a constant drumbeat, the
seductive invitation that if Sheridan will just surrender his will to
the State, his pain will end.

The interrogator is never named. Like his prototypes in Nazi
Germany and Soviet Russia, he is a case study in the banality of evil
— the true face, the night face, the real face of the State.
And what is truly terrifying is that the interrogator is not a mere
thug but a man with a subtle and flexible mind. There is an angle on
the world from which all his lies and acts of coercion issue from a
coherent moral position — but it is one that promises everyone
but his masters hell on Earth, forever and ever, amen.

In this episode J. Michael Straczynski gives us a fictional
depiction of a type that is all too real. Anyone who has read Arthur
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Aleksandr Solszhenitzyn’s
The Gulag Archipelago knows that if anything, JMS (who
clearly did his homework on the real-world techniques of brainwashing)
understates the soul-destroying depths to which the ideology
of statism can sink, trapping the interrogator and his victim in a
machinery of coercion that will ultimately consume them both.

The moral climax of that episode comes after Sheridan says “You
know, it’s funny I was thinking about what you said. ‘The pre-eminent
truth of our age is that you cannot fight the system.’ But if, as you
say, truth is fluid, that the truth is subjective, then maybe you can
fight the system — as long as one person refuses to be broken,
refuses to bow down.”

“But can you win?” the interrogator asks, almost gently. Sheridan,
knowing it is likely to mean he will shortly die under torture, rasps
out the bedrock libertarian reply “Every…time I…say…no!”

If I were the praying kind, I would be on my knees every day
praying that if there ever comes a moment when I must confront the
night face of the State, I too will meet it with that kind of courage.
And that day may come. Because the hell that spawns creatures like
that nameless interrogator is what waits for all of us down the road
to serfdom that is paved with good intentions like “welfare” and
“protecting the children” and “saving the environment” and, yes,
“necessary war”.

This is why I think we all ought to be grateful for “doctrinaire
libertarians”, even the ones more doctrinaire than me. It’s their job
to keep reminding all of us where that road leads. And it frightens
we when anyone replies to “War is the health of the state” by saying
fearfully “Let’s be blunt here, kids. When foreigners are rearranging
the Manhattan skyline because, in part, our women drive cars, then
goddamnit its time for a healthier state.” Because it’s in
the shadow cast by that kind of fear that creatures like the
interrogator and his masters grow and flourish.

Necessity, as wiser men than me have observed, is the credo of
tyrants and the excuse of slaves. It disturbs me to hear anyone
talking like a slave.

I agree with you in conceding that the state is at this time the
only way we have to answer the terrorist threat. The world in which
Osama bin Laden would be killed by troops hired by a consortium of
crime- and disaster-insurance companies rather than a government does
not yet exist.

But having conceded the present necessity of state action makes it
more necessary, not less, that we listen to the most
contrary, ornery, anti-statist libertarians we have, and to hold
harder than ever to our intentions for a libertarian future. Otherwise
we risk becoming too comfortable with that concession, and letting the
statists seduce us further down that road to serfdom.

Does this mean we can’t slam the LP for its attribution of the 9/11
attacks to American foreign policy? No, you’re right; that position
is not just wrong, it bespeaks a lack of moral seriousness and a kind
of blinkered parochialism that cannot actually see anything outside
of U.S. politics as having causal force.

But there is a big difference between observing that the LP is
contingently wrong about the liberation of Iraq (true) and suggesting
that our only course is to abandon our longer-term commitment to the
abolition of drastic shrinking of the state (false). Beware of
throwing out that baby with the bathwater. John Ashcroft is not yet a
greater threat to liberty than Osama bin Laden — but that day
may come yet. Only libertarian thoughts, libertarian words,
libertarian deeds, and a principled libertarian opposition to the
arrogance and seductions of power will prevent it.

UPDATE: Gary Farber thinks I’m making the same error I slammed John Perry
Barlow for recently. But there is a large difference. Barlow
was being specifically paranoid about a short-term threat which he ties to
specific people he thinks are evil and has (at the very least) grossly
overestimated. I have a longer-term concern about structural tendencies
that are built into the nature of government, and which don’t require
specific evil people running things to take us to some very nasty places.

Or, to put it another way, Barlow has what is essentially a devil theory;
Bush, or Cheney, or Ashcroft or someone like them is evil and wants to put us
in camps next year. This is silly. I, on the other hand, don’t think it
much matters for the long term whether “good” or “evil” people are running
the government; the premises and the process of government,
and the collectivist ethos that underlies them, have a momentum of their own
that grinds away at our liberty regardless. The founders of the U.S.
understood this tendency and erected the Bill Of Rights as a firewall against
it. The fact that in many jurisdictions U.S. law now suppresses “hate speech” and
bans the possession of firearms demonstrates their failure.

The erosion of liberty which I fear is a far more gradual process than
the sudden collapse into totalitarianism that Barlow envisions. But it
is also more difficult to resist and counter. Because the end stages,
where only evil people can adapt themselves to politics, are
probably many decades away, few people can summon the concern and the
will to say “Stop now, before it’s too late!”. There is always some
short-term reason that seems good to accept the state’s poisonous candy
– the new entitlement program, the next round of farm- or steel-mill
subsidies, the airport metal detectors to make us “safe”.

Many (though not all) of the people who can summon that will are
libertarians. Which is yet another good reason to listen to them carefully,
even when they’re more doctrinaire than me.

(Exercise for the reader: Let’s stipulate that littering laws may not lead to 1984,
but can you defend the proposition that laws banning speeech and weapons don’t? Discuss
historical examples such as Nazi Germany and Tokugawa-period Japan. Be specific.)

Jan 07

The Web and Identity Goods

InstaPundit writes:
This seems to me to suggest that free downloads don’t do much to
cannibalize actual [book] sales.

I have more (or at least longer-term) experience with this than
anyone else. Back in 1991, The New Hacker’s Dictionary
was the very first real book (like, with an ISBN) to be released
simultaneously in print and available for free download on-line. Both
of the books I’ve done since, The Cathedral and the
Bazaar
and The Art of Unix Programming, have also
been released for free download at the same time they were in print.
You can easily find all three on my
website
.

Of all my books, only the very first (Portable C and Unix
Systems Programming
, 1987) didn’t get webbed. It was a decent
seller, but the least successful of my books. It’s now out of print, made
technically obsolete by things that happened in the early 1990s. All
three of my other books, the ones that got webbed, have remained
continuously in print.

My four books do not a controlled experiment make, but the

thirteen years of experience with simultaneous print and Web
publication that I’ve had suggests that Web availability has boosted
the sales of the print versions tremendously. And my publishers
agree. Even in 1991 I didn’t get resistance from MIT press, and
Addison-Wesley was positively supportive of putting my most most
recent one on the Web.

I’m one of a handful of technical-book writers who publishers treat
like rock stars, because I have a large fan base and my name on a
cover will sell a book in volumes that are exceptional for its
category (for comparison my editor at AW mentions Bruce Eckel as
another). I’m not certain my experience generalizes to authors who
aren’t rock stars. On the other hand, it’s more than
possible that I’m a rock star largely because I have been
throwing my stuff on the Web since 1991. It’s even likely —
after all, I was next to an unknown when I edited The New Hacker’s
Dictionary
.

So I don’t find the InstaWife’s experience very surprising.
Webbing one’s books seems to be really effective way to build a fan
base. My impression is that people start by browsing the the on-line
versions of my books, then buy the paper copy partly for convenience
and partly as what marketers call an identity good.

An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a
group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People
buy The New Hacker’s Dictionary because they are, or want
to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.

Here’s the causal connection: A Web version can’t be an identity
good, because it doesn’t sit on your bookshelf or your coffee table
telling everybody (and reminding you!) who you are. But Web exposure
can, I think, help turn a book with the right kind of potential into
an identity good. I suspect there is now a population of psychologists
and social workers who perceive the InstaWife’s book as an identity
good, and that (as with my stuff) that perception was either created or
strongly reinforced by web exposure.

If so, this would explain why webbing her book made the auction
price for the out-of-print paper version go up. The price of the
paper version reflects buyers’ desires to be identifiable as members
of the community of readers of the book. By making softcopy available
for download, the InstaWife enhanced the power of the paper version as
an identity token, by making it easy for a larger population to learn
the meaning of the token.

I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD)
that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than
less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be
identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping
populations. I suspect the InstaWife’s book has this quality too. About those
things which aren’t identity goods, I can’t say. Not enough experience.

Jan 06

Narcissism and the American Left

John Perry Barlow, referring to the 2004 elections, writes:

We can’t afford to lose this one, folks. If we do, we’ll have to set our watches back 60 years. If they even let us have watches in the camps, that is.

“If they even let us have watches in the camps.” This is a perfect example
of a kind of left-wing rhetorical posturing that makes me want to go out and
vote for conservatives I normally loathe. In this it has exactly the opposite
effect from what John Perry Barlow intends.

Barlow wants to leave us with an if-this-goes-on image of a Bush-dominated
future in which Barlow and his friends are hauled off to concentration camps
by mirrorshaded thugs, crushing dissent as though the U.S. were pre-liberation
Iraq or something.

I would love to be able to echo Charles Babbage and say that I am
not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that
could provoke such a statement. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I find it
all too comprehensible, and not in a way that’s very flattering to
John Perry Barlow or others like him. It’s a form of posturing by
anticipatory martyrdom, simultaneously demonizing Barlow’s enemies and
inflating his own importance.

“Oh, look at me!” it says. “I’m a brave speaker of truth
to power, so brave that I’m going to say bad things about Republicans
despite the fact that they will certainly throw me in the gulags as
soon as they think they can get away with it.” I’ve been around long
enough to know that this is a line lefties of Barlow’s and my age
originally learned in order to pick up women back in those halcyon
radical-chic days of forty years ago. It gets a bit old after your
third decade of waiting for the Man to bust your door down.

Let’s get real. Even supposing Bush were really the concretization
of all those 1960s nightmares, an evil bastard backed by a cabal of
goose-stepping minions, from their point of view throwing John Perry
Barlow in the Lubyanka would be a ridiculous thing to do.
Remember how conservatives think: from their point of view, Barlow is
just another aging hippie burnout given to occasional quasi-coherent
rants about that Internet thing. In their model of reality, all
they’d be doing by giving him the Solzhenitzyn treatment is conferring
an importance on him that he doesn’t possess.

I have somewhat more respect for Barlow myself, enough that it
survived the fact that the last time I was actually face-to-face with
him he was obnoxiously drunk and patronizing. He’s an erratic but
occasionally brilliant polemicist. But trying to imagine anybody in
the inner circle of Skull & Bones (or whatever the left-wingers’ hate
focus is this week) taking him seriously enough to bother bagging and
tagging him just makes me laugh.

And if I can’t believe John Perry Barlow is enough of a threat to
get gulaged by the mythical Bush stormtroopers, how seriously am I
supposed to take the-Man’s-coming-for-us posturing from the rank and
file of the Bush-haters? Yeah, sure, the black marias are coming for
all of you, all you twentysomething unemployed sysadmins and riot grrls
and latte makers with your piercings and your Green Party T-shirts.
As if.

There are lots of objective reasons this scenario is silly. One of
many is that our institutions won’t support it. I know the police in
my town; they wouldn’t obey orders to throw Dean voters in jail. I
just got through reading a book about the force structure of today’s
U.S. infantry, and I can tell you that even if the second Bush
administration were to complete the trashing of the posse
comitatus
laws that Clinton began and withdraw every damn grunt
from overseas, there aren’t enough troops. Even assuming
100% of them signed up to be concentration-camp guards, there
wouldn’t be enough of them to man the camps.
And the trends are all
towards a smaller, more skill-intensive military, so in the future
assembling enough goons for a darkess-at-noon scenario will be
harder rather than easier.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that Attorney-General Ashcroft is
not pushing for federalized gun control and a ban on civilian
firearms. Which is the first damn thing any right-wing cabal (or any
left-wing one, for that matter) would do if they were contemplating
really serious dissent-crushing. Again, the trend is in the other
direction — the assault-weapon ban is going to lapse, and the
Bush crowd is going to let it happen. Much of the American left
fools itself that civilian firearms don’t matter in the political
power equation, but conservatives know better.

For that matter, I am certain — because I’ve discussed
related topics with him — that John Perry Barlow himself knows
better. Which makes his willingness to posture about the Man coming
to throw us in concentration camps less forgiveable than it would be
in someone who’s a complete moron on the subject, like (say) Michael
Moore.

But what really repels me about the kind of posturing I’m nailing
John Perry Barlow for isn’t the objective silliness of it, it’s the
fact that it represents a kind of triumph of paranoid self-absorption
as a political style. People in the (mainly left-wing) anti-Bush
crowd snort with derision when they hear hard-right propaganda about
how the Zionist Occupation Government is going to come after all true
American white men with those black helicopters; why do they tolerate
rhetoric that is just as narcissistic coming from their own?

Idiots. They make me want to go vote for somebody like Pat Buchanan
just out of spite. Fortunately, I’m not a spiteful person, and have so
far resisted this temptation.

And I don’t think it’s just me that sees people like John Perry
Barlow actually dealing themselves out of the future when they make
remarks like this. Narcissistic politics is not a luxury we can
afford any more. It was OK during our holiday from history,
1992-2001, between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11, but we’re in
serious times now. Our nation, and our civilization, are under
continuing threat by terrorists who have demonstrated both the will
and the ability to commit atrocities against Americans, and who loudly
trumpet their intention to keep killing us.

We need people like John Perry Barlow to be in the debate
about how to cope with this. That means we need people like John Perry
Barlow not to trivialize and disqualify themselves with silly
posturing. Please get real, people. George Bush has flaws I could
list from here to Sunday, but pretending that you’re all doomed
victims if he’s re-elected is pathological.

And deep down, you know better, too. The last two years have given
us not just relatively smart people like John Perry Barlow but legions
of mindless show-biz glitterati making a particularly ironic spectacle
of themselves — protesting the crushing of dissent in front of
huge audiences. Thereby demonstrating their own lack of
contact with reality in a way that can only help the very opponents they
think of as a sinister cabal. With enemies this visibly stupid and
feckless, who needs friends? They’ll drive the big middle of the
electorate right into Republican arms.

Let’s state the consequences very simply: Every time somebody like
John Perry Barlow goes on in public about how the camps are waiting
for us all, Karl Rove laughs and, quite rightly, figures his guy Bush
is more of a lock this November. And you know what? He’s right.
Because if I hear much more of this crap, even I am going to
vote Republican for the first time in more than a quarter-century.

Jan 03

War is the Continuation of Journalism

StrategyPage reports that Baathist dead-enders in Iraq are now using
press credentials as cover
. Some Iraqis working for Reuters were arrested
after an attack on U.S. troops guarding a downed helicopter. Reuters is now
protesting that this was an error.

Considering the virulently anti-American slant of Reuters coverage, this
is bleakly funny. Those Iraqi employees thought, perhaps, that they could
earn a nice bonus by doing with lead what Reuters does with ledes. Why not?
After all, the terror network and Reuters share an important objective
— the breaking and humbling of U.S. power.

Watch the aftermath closely. If (as seems not unlikely) there were
Reuters stringers involved in the attack, you will probably see
Reuters condemn the actions of its employees only on the general
grounds that actually shooting Americans jeopardizes the
customary privileges and immunities of the press, not because attacks
on American troops are in any way intrinsically a bad thing. The
anti-American slant of Reuters coverage will doubtless continue —
in fact, any suggestion that it might have contributed to or enabled
the violence of yesterday will be met with shock and indignation.

In the warped moral universe that Reuters and the BBC and much of
America’s own elite media inhabit, American power is so frightening and
loathsome that Islamist barbarians are actually preferable to George
W. Bush. They’ll print with a straight face quotes by al-Qaeda apologists
condemning the U.S. as a ‘rogue state’ and U.S. policies as
terrorism, while refusing to use the word ‘terrorist’ for
Al-Hamas attacks that target Israeli children for mass murder.

Reuters stringers firing bullets at American troops makes concrete
a drama that has previously been abstract. Today’s war on terror is
not just a war between the West and fundamentalist Islam, it is a
confrontation of the healthy versus the diseased portions of the West
itself. The disease is Julien Benda’s trahison
des clercs
and all its sequelae. And Reuters, marching in step
with Old Europe and the American left, is objectively on the side of
the West’s enemies.

UPDATE: Three Reuters employees who were alleged to have been involved in the attack have been
released. This does not change my evaluation that anti-U.S., pro-terrorist bias is
pervasive and deep in Reuters international coverage, sufficiently so to put them on the enemy side.
As an index of this bias, consider that by editorial policy Reuters will not use the word “terrorist”
to describe groups like Hamas or al-Aqsa.

Jan 01

Donald Sensing is so right

Donald Sensing is dead on target in his post suggesting the U.S
military re-adopt
the M1911 .45ACP pistol
. I’ve fired a Beretta 92F and it’s an
ugly, awkward gun that neither feels good in the hand nor inspires
confidence in its stopping power. Those who have actually seen the
sharp end of combat generally agree that the M1911 is a far superior
weapon; even today, more than fifteen years after it was officially
deprecated, many troops carry it by choice. My own carry weapon of
choice is the Colt Officer’s Model, a short-barrel M1911 variant.

If the M1911 design is too old to be politically viable or the
single-action design is an insurmountable obstacle, then my next
choice would be Glock’s double-action 45ACP design, I think it’s the
Model 30. Glocks are very accurate, and rugged in the field. I think
the lighter frame is actually a disadvantage; you don’t get thrown
off target as much by the recoil when you’re shooting a big hunk of
steel, so your second shot with a 1911 is more likely to count.