Last week, I was so ready to write a thoughtful, invariably inside libertarian baseball response to Jeffrey Tucker’s piece in the The Freeman. Or I was going to write about horrible police brutality for the various outlets who enjoy that sort of thing. But then my Montana-dwelling aunt called, and we discussed the imminent spring, and the greatness of the Coen Brothers — with me evangelizing about Ralph Stanley, and both of us agreeing that the Greenwich Village-style of folk was not the platonic ideal, being a little too earnest English balladish, and not high and lonesome enough.
And then of course politics faded from my soul, as it does. I subscribe to the Tucker and the Radley Balko school of politics (and, really, most of the Reason writers agree) which says that it is a vile thing, and the victory of libertarianism would mean an ability to ignore politics without feeling as if you were betraying your imprisoned and oppressed fellow man. I just wish I knew how to channel a career into dissecting how Ralph Stanley sounds, as opposed to how endlessly sick the prison state makes me.
I had a lovely birthday on the 8th. I had lovely people come to visit me and gather around. But before I went to my own party, my mom and I went to a church down in Pittsburgh that was doing their monthly shapenote singing sing.
Shapenote singing was a 19th century method of teaching folks who couldn’t read music how to do four-part harmony. There are some great modern and older recordings of it on the internet — One of my favorites, from the famous Harry Smith anthology of folk music, is below:
At its best, shapenote singing has am unpolished eerie quality that undermines and delightfully clashes with its stodgier sort of choral aspects. Instead of just beauty, it has roughness and resonance. Like the voice of Ralph Stanley (who grew up in a Primitive Baptist Church, which bar instruments) sometimes does, the strongest shapenote singers have this quality that can only remind me of bagpipes. It just has this huuuugh gut thing.
Mom, who used to play the saxophone and plays piano and guitar, knew enough music to be baffled. I didn’t know enough to know where to begin or how to follow, plus read, plus hear other people, plus hear myself.
In our post-O Brother Where Art Thou?, post-Mumford and Sons world, I was not surprised that the demographics of the singers were middle age nearing old age and younger, scruffier types. I was not the only singer with a pierced nose, for Christ’s sake.
There was someone who swore, and people who seemed devout Christians. The most powerful, ceiling plaster-endangering singer was a middle aged woman with long brown hair who came from God Only Knows, Alabama. She was all down home encouragement and June Carter sass.
Here’s a more recent kind of shapenote singing — less weird and ancient, more just loud:
Though the traditional text, The Sacred Harp, contains mostly songs about Jesus, and other folk I don’t know well, shapenote singing is so perfectly American and strange, and I think it’s wonderful. It is not mine, but I like to borrow it.
My birthday party had a cacophony of people I love very much talking too loudly in too small a space. It was fun, but the diminishing returns of socializing were lurking at its loudest points.
However, S.T. and J.K., musical friends from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, decided to crash and give me musical celebration. When they play together, they are called the Dirty Mallards. I drank my first moonshine in their presence one summer day in 107 degree Richmond weather. From them I learned that “Tommy” without clarification means Tommy Jarrell, the great North Carolina fiddler.
S.T. and J.K. are more libertarian than not. J.K. is more personally conservative, but he has recently attempted to go off the grid, internet-wise, and I have to assume the National Security Agency is a big reason. When I first met S.T. he seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic, for all that implies about his views. And that’s not all wrong, but it’s not everything about him. He’s a student of history — and some of his conclusions I might disagree on — but he’s incredibly well-read, as well a an instinctual, leave me alone libertarian. They are both good people who provided with with the best birthday present since my cousin T. got Jello Biafra to insult capitalism just for me.
Now, my one association with Jeff Tucker is that he is endlessly optimistic about the non-state. Culture, markets, music, fast food, all of these do and will continue to bring freedom and choice to people. All of this is beautiful and chaotic instead of planned from above.
So when Tucker uses his “brutalist vs. humanitarian” libertarian metaphor in The Freeman essay, he almost pulls it off. The brutalists stripped down architecture to its cold, practical essence. Brutalist libertarians do the same with their liberty. They say, I have my freedom to be as awful as possible, you have yours, we need not encourage social goodness and kindness and need not discourage racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. within libertarianism. If it ain’t the state, who cares! Is that really what he thinks will happen in Libertopia? Is that what he thinks will happen without an implied litmus test? Does he think that defending pure liberty is implicitly saying we desire to live in small, mean tribal societies? If Tucker truly believes most, or even a lot of people would pick that, he is not the optimist I thought he was.
Though Tucker does not say as much, and his version of this question is better than any of the ones I have seen recently, the artificially of the two camps still gives me a moment’s pause. Are libertarian J.K. and S.T. and their politically incorrect jokes humanitarian or brutalist? How about my conservative-leaning libertarian father? My an-cap atheist friend who professes to hate feminism, who I recently saw defend the Duke porn star from another Facebook commenter who was calling her trash? My Christian an-cap friend with whom I disagree about gender roles and religion, and who has argued with me about that long into the morning?
Even in Tucker’s Libertopia, I would not surround myself only with the angels of tolerance who are always saying just the right things. So, I certainly don’t want to discount flawed creatures before we get to that free land. We live now in a world in which minorities of ALL stripes are put upon by the state: Religious weirdos, the peaceful, bunker-dwelling racists, the cultists, or for fuck’s sake, just the people who maybe don’t want to use college liberal terms to filter the world. I want them all in my tent as well. I want them if only because more people than any libertarian would wish think they are right-wingers — inherently suspicious, likely bad, for wanting less or no government at all.
Libertarianism and friendships both have a sort of Miller Test. Or, rather you “know it when you see it” — know the good people you want in your life, or in your fight for freedom. I can’t tell you who they are for you, and you can’t tell me either.
I think I know good people who are are not PC and who are also a net gain for liberty in the world. This is not to say that we can’t say, as individual libertarians, or as groups, say we prefer tolerance of gay people to not tolerance. This is only to say that the divisions between libertarians, like anywhere else, are rarely as purely simple as paleo vs. cosmo, conservative vs. liberal, or humanitarian vs. brutalist. Tucker is, again, incredibly deft and fair in his piece. He doesn’t seem to be trying to kick out anyone at all. But the two camps idea still didn’t seem real enough to justify it as an exercise. There is a danger in making people, even just libertarians, seem that A) or B).
I wanted to write a political response to Tucker’s piece. I was distracted by the pleasures of voluntary culture, and life, and music instead. Hopefully that’s still the point.