Dancing with the Infidel
by Greg Swann
A friend asked me how we might engage non-libertarians in a
non-confrontational, inclusive kind of way. She wanted to know if there
is some way that we can address the infidel in his own tongue, so to
speak, to attempt to show him that his goals are ours.
My short answer is: no.
My slightly longer answer is: his goals are not ours in any language.
And, pushing the flippancy suppression button: I don't think we
actually convert anyone.
With one exception, I have never seen anyone converted to
libertarianism. There was a time in my life when I thought it my duty
and my honor to convert the heathen masses, to lead the wretched
infidels to the path of noncoercive righteousness. I converted no one.
And of course, I am always surrounded (virtually, that is) by bright
young missionaries of freedom--flesh-pumping, bible-thumping,
hoop-jumping zealots with firm convictions and fast modems. They
convert no one.
And we all yak and yak and yak and the infidels yak right back, and it
seems that no one is ever converted.
And yet this is not a cause for despair. After all, I am here and you
are here and we are here and we are all together, all alone in our
finely-honed fanatical individualism. And thus you may say to yourself,
well, how did I get here?
It's a good question. For, on the one hand, we seem never to convert
anyone. And yet we seem to suffer no apostasies, no irredeemable
The obvious explanation is that we _are_, all of us, actually converts.
But, with rare exceptions that I will argue seem to prove the rule,
this fails the test of observation. We can each of us explain how _we_
came to be libertarians, using that term as a political or
philosophical category. But few of us can tell interesting and truthful
stories about converting the unwashed hordes.
The ludicrous explanation is that we are born, not made, libertarians.
That like Athena, like Minerva, we emerged from the head of god fully
formed and fully armed--with really cool hats and stylish but
comfortable hiking boots.
This is true of me, and it's true of a lot of libertarians with whom
I've spoken: I was very bad at taking orders from morons long before I
learned that there are good, stridently philosophical reasons for
objecting to the orders of morons. I was a rebel before I could speak,
and I'd bet a large dollar that I was a rebel in some intrauterine
fashion before I was born. My conversion to philosophical
libertarianism owes directly to the heroes of Ayn Rand, like whom I
behaved--in my imagination, and in reality in my very best moments. But
I have _always_ been constitutionally a libertarian--in my heart, in my
bones, in my guts--and I always will be.
This is part of me--part of _us_ I say--a founding stone of my ego, my
soul, my self. I am a libertarian because I am an individualist. And I
am an individualist because I am an egoist. I was all of these things
before I ever had concepts for them. And, as nearly as I can tell, I am
an egoist because I always was.
I think you always were, too.
Certainly that would explain why we have no apostates. There _are_
former libertarians, and most of them now more closely resemble
Republicans. But I have never met a person who once understood and
upheld individualism and yet is now a collectivist. It just doesn't
And the one exception I mentioned was this: I met a focused liberal
(already a rare bird) who was dangerously contra-doctrinaire on the
subject of speaking his own mind. Arrogantly, in some respects
manipulatively, I said to him, "You're a libertarian, you just don't
know it yet." A year later he was a libertarian. I claim _no_ credit
for this. All I did was make one snotty remark. In my opinion, he
didn't _convert_ himself to anything, he simply discovered what he'd
known and failed to notice all along.
That's what happened to me when I danced with Dagny. And I expect
that's what happened to you, too.
All of which tends to imply that we had no choice about this, and
perhaps we didn't. I certainly don't remember choosing self-interest
over self-sacrifice. A great many people helped me to learn how to act
for my self-interest and not the contrary, and I am very, very grateful
to those people. But a great many others attempted to teach the
opposite lesson, and somehow it never took.
Stipulate it, if you would. We're treading on ground that is entirely
pre-verbal, and virtually anything one says in this realm borders
dangerously on religion. The question I came here to ask is:
How did _they_ get here?
We are what we are for some reason. It's probably pre-verbal, possibly
pre-natal. What accounts for our collectivists, those wretched infidels
and their bizarre and incomprehensible language?
If we are born, not made, would not the same be true for them?
Could it be that they are born collectivists, doomed to suffer endless
self-sacrifice and to inflict their suffering on everyone else? Fated
by malevolence or simply perversity to strive endlessly and absurdly to
destroy every value human life requires? Robbed at birth or even before
of undiluted delight, the boundless joy that can only be known in
solitude, in the quiet of a mind in love with itself?
I hope not. And I wish not. And I think not.
It would be logical and very depressing to conclude that we are what we
are most fundamentally through no choice of our own, and that they are
what _they_ are without their choice. But another interpretation is
possible, and it's one that I assert not _just_ because it offers me
some hope for the redemption of the human race:
They are like us, but they've had it well and truly beaten out of them.
Assuming that both individualism and collectivism are in some sense
unavoidable pre-dispositions is not an _utterly_ hopeless posture. At
least we can out-breed them, if we get busy. And we can lend some
support to this position by observing that the classical liberal
argument was advanced by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, himself
the father of what we call the Western political tradition. What
distinguishes West from East, fundamentally, is individualism. It was
the Nazarene who so stunningly made the individualist argument by
choosing to be gruesomely executed rather than renounce his ideas and
comply with the orders of morons. We love this story so much that we
have made it the core of _every_ story we love, including Rand's. And
the people who loved it before us crafted the philosophies and the
institutions we now uphold and improve upon. And they were commanded to
go forth and multiply, and they did it with abandon.
But we could use the same data to support the contrary position: that
it was the life-loving values of the Christians, and not their sheer
numbers, that won the West. They bred like crazy, yes, and out-bred
every potential competing creed. But they _also_ raised their many
children to pursue self-interest at least _most_ of the time.
And stipulating _that_, we come back to the infidels. If they are not
genetically different from us, not inherently different due to some
irreversible pre-disposition, not sprung from the behind of Hades,
frailly deformed and forlornly disarmed, then how _are_ they
different from us?
Surely no one who has ever been to the supermarket can doubt that bad
parents can be horribly and yet casually brutal to their children.
Properly speaking, self-destruction is the dismantlement of the ego
_by_ the ego. But what becomes of a child whose proto-egostuff is raped
and murdered before he even has the conceptual facility to _abstract_
the ego. We know what becomes of these children if they are stupid:
they become drunks or addicts or criminals or apathetic wretches and,
in most cases, the next generation of abusive parents.
But what about the smart ones? Words are a way of apprehending and
categorizing reality. But they can also be a way of avoiding or
rationalizing reality. If you take an ego-mangled child who
nevertheless has a fine mind, a deft ability to manipulate concepts,
what do you get?
We all know the answer, don't we? We yak and yak and they yak right
back. And we say to ourselves, "the lights are on, but on one's home",
and we don't know that no one _is_ home. That the rebel we expect to
find inside every fine mind is cowering in some cognitive basement
while its imaginary evil twin--Ivy Starnes, Karl Marx, Nero,
Herod--enacts a pantomime of a person upstairs.
We cannot speak to them in their language because what we have to say
cannot be said in their language. We utter the pidgin of the absurd:
"Self-interest is the best way to practice self-sacrifice," is
self-consuming. "The best way for the group to advance itself in the
aggregate is for each individual member to pursue his own objectives
relentlessly," is mere babble; the group is what there is, and there
_are_ no individuals. And, "Freedom is even _better_ than slavery," is
suitable only for Madison Avenue Orwellians.
What we _can_ do, to offer up the smallest smidgen of hope, is help
them learn to speak _our_ language. We have an ally, in the sense that
that mangled ego _yearns_ to break out of the basement. And we have a
powerful enemy, since the evil twin is entrenched and _very_ well
defended. Nature is just, and in the long run one cannot pursue
self-destruction with the mind without achieving it with the body, and
so the unhappy consequences of error can serve as reinforcement of your
gentle sermons. I wouldn't expect much progress, and I certainly
wouldn't expect it rapidly, but--I fervently believe, and I believe I
can _prove_--people _can_ discover that they have been wrong, and they
can change their behavior accordingly.
It's not a matter of enormous concern for me, really. My missionary
days are done, and my long-term goals are rather more ambitious than
Peter's. But we _can_ talk to the infidels, not in their language but
in ours. And if they talk wisely and if they talk well, someday they
may learn to dance.
True fact: often when I'm alone and working and when I love the work
I've done, I yelp, I bark. Not like a dog, particularly, and
onomatopoeia conceals more than it reveals. But I yip, loud and proud,
a boisterous and liberating expression of delight undiluted. I don't
want to dance with the infidels, nor even to talk with them. For the
most part I am happy enough to let them stumble to their own damnation,
and there are days when I would hasten them. But there is inside me a
yearning to have everyone know, if only for an instant, what it feels
like to love life in the way that I do when I bark for joy.
We are libertarians, and we define ourselves, in large measure, by what
we rebel _against_. But we are as much defined by what we are loyal
_to_. The infidel won't be converted when he claims to hate the state
or to uphold the individual. He will be converted when he discovers
that the interests of one's own self come before any other claim. When
he acknowledges that _no one_ but himself can imprison him in a dank
basement of fear and doubt and humiliation. When he permits himself to
embrace life, the precious life that each of us should treasure and too
many of us squander. He will be converted when he lets himself yip like
the fox puppies romping in the dewy dawn. He will be converted when he
dares to dance, awkwardly, gracelessly, proudly, joyously free...