My Libertarians Are Gone and It Feels Like the End of an Era, Jamming, 11/08/2014

The other day, my last libertarian friend unfriended me, and it was the result of a conversation that made me doubt if he ever really was my friend at all. I’ve mentioned G before, a guy I knew in high school who, when we reconnected online a decade later, had become a radically right-wing libertarian. He hooked me up with an internet friendship with C, a 40-odd year old doctor who was also a radically right-wing libertarian. 

The short version of my friendship with G was that he talked very dogmatic libertarian talking points about the evil of the state or any political organization that sought to redistribute wealth in any way whatsoever until, after about a year of this, he realized that I wasn’t going to convert to hardcore libertarianism. He once told me a remarkable story about his own life. In university, he studied political science and became a dogmatically radical Marxist, later abandoning this wholesale as authoritarianism to become an equally dogmatic libertarian.

C struck me as a different kind of person. He expressed his beliefs much less dogmatically, and had studied enough economics that he could back up his conclusions and perspectives with more nuanced points. Over the last few years, I came to value this friendship very much.

Ron Swanson is probably the world's most well-loved
libertarian, and I think it's because, despite his political
differences with almost all his friends, he respects their
humanity and personhood such that his friendship doesn't
depend on sharing exactly the same political beliefs.
I should say that this wasn’t because I was actually becoming a libertarian in any doctrinaire sense. I shared with that perspective a distrust of state power and bureaucracy. I needed no convincing that the massive government surveillance powers that had been amassed over the last few years were a bad thing. I valued this online friendship precisely because C’s perspective was so different from mine. I like having my views challenged, and being reminded that there are many equally well-thought perspectives on politics and life. I try to live online by the original values that inspired the internet: exposure to a diversity of opinions, biographies, and lives, so that this diversity could enlighten me and prevent me from falling into dogmatic self-certainty.

C and G changed my mind about some subjects. For example, they introduced me to the self-governing nature of many communities of gun enthusiasts, and the nerd-like joy they have in weapons and ammunition specs. This familiarity, lacking in so many among the urban left, destroyed my unfair image of all gun collectors as McVeighs in waiting. Some of the conversations and economics articles C shared with me were very informative, and helped me isolate the principles that I find precisely wrong in submitting our society to unfettered market forces.*

* A topic for another day: It lies in the market force that controls workers’ wages. They are set not by the cost of living in the area, but by the minimal wage that the most desperate labourer will accept.

There were also many questions on which we disagreed, such as precisely what the meaning of the Trayvon Martin case was. They saw a cocky young man who started a fight and a man defending himself against an attacker; I saw a terrible incident about which we still know nothing and the national outrage it sparked. They saw Barack Obama as a dangerous socialist sending the United States on the fast track to Stalinist gulags. I . . . disagreed.

This, I think, was the main reason why we ended up parting ways. C had a very simple conception of what the left was: statism. If you identified as left, then you believed that the state should control people’s lives and enforce total material equality among all. I recently published an essay on that critiqued our entire habit of using ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe political orientations as woefully inadequate to the actual complexity of how people thought and acted. Now, that piece was specifically addressed to an audience of leftists and critiqued the facile failure of triangulation electoral strategy. But it made a larger point.

I’m a leftist. I grew up with a family from the left, and I will always be part of the leftist community. I’ve spent too long struggling or otherwise on the outside of politically and economically powerful groups to think that the interests of self-identified right-wing political movements (religious extremism, Wall/Bay Street interest groups, laissez-faire economics, nationalism, social conservatism) would ever be a place where I’d be comfortable. That place is for Tories, and I'm a man of labour, if not Labour.

Yet I don’t conform completely to the stereotypical beliefs of the modern Western leftist either. See my above re-evaluation about gun rights. I share a shade of the libertarian distrust of the state, though I articulate it more in anarchist ideals because a powerful enough worldly power, whether state, corporation, family fortune, or feudal lord, can crush people beneath it. And, if I can mention a current controversy, I have never been a militantly anti-Israel person. 

But in a comment thread on a recent post I made about further incidents of violence against innocent Jewish people in the name of Palestinians, things got out of hand. Again.** In that swirl of madness, C posted that all leftists were essentially Nazis.

** More specifically, this has made me decide not to post such articles to Facebook anymore. Facebook was the medium through which I received actual racist insults and euphemism-soaked tirades. Twitter, despite its total publicity, has actually resulted in quite civil conversations when I post news of this kind of violence.

This was actually a common idea in our conversations, rooted in their conception of ‘left’ as implying total statism. I sarcastically tried to shut the conversation down, invoking Godwin’s Law and saying good night. It turned out that was the last straw for C, who broke his Facebook connection with me, saying simply “Buh bye, Adam. G was right.” When I checked through my Facebook messages last night, there wasn’t even the characteristic checkmark next to my apology for my curt behaviour that showed he had at least read it.

That made me rethink, over the last couple of days, what my former friend C’s motivations were in even talking with me over the last few years. C and I had always engaged in thoughtful political discussions. We often disagreed, but we spoke very respectfully to each other, and rarely dogmatically. I liked that I was exposed to this perspective and this life that was very different from my own precisely because it was so different. I could never become complacent with such friends.

But C’s own Facebook stream was a continuing stream of memes and articles about why leftism of any kind was tyrannical, why all forms of taxation were theft at the point of the military’s rifle barrel, why environmentalists were con artists, why poor people who couldn’t stop being poor deserved to be poor. I’d sometimes think, “Don’t you ever relax and post a cat video?” 

Maybe that thread revealed more about my former friend than his own conversations with me did. Because on all those hostile, confrontationally libertarian and right-wing posts were several likes and amenable, sometimes laughing comments. He seemed to be in a bubble, just like everyone else on the internet, preferring to surround himself with others who thought exactly as he did. Despite how well-informed and educated he was, and how respectful he was in conversation with me, C thought he was exactly right, and only interacted with other people to convince them to think just like him. 

G tried to convert me to dogmatic libertarianism by yelling that dogma at me, essentially becoming my Facebook profile's libertarian troll, and when I never changed my fundamental political beliefs, he disconnected from me. Perhaps C was more patient, more intellectual, more nuanced in the foundations of his beliefs. In that, I could learn more from him, and I did. 

Willard Quine understood belief as a network with hubs and peripheries among all our beliefs, and their links were dependency. You can change a peripheral belief fairly easily, but the fundamental beliefs upon which the entire shape of the network depends are appropriately tough to shift or overcome. After two years of talking with C as an intellectual equal, I never changed my fundamental political beliefs. 


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