A Cross-Country Education in Liberty
by Ari Armstrong, September 1999
I filled the tank, checked the tire pressure, and chased the horizon for nearly a month on a cross-country educational adventure during June and July. Ultimately, Jennifer and I were headed for Burlington, Vermont, to attend a conference by the Institute for Objectivist Studies, the tolerant, more friendly of the two main organizations devoted to Ayn Rand's ideas. But along the way we toured much of the country, visiting friends, and friends of liberty, along the way. Here are some of the highlights of that trip.
Saint Louis and the Gun Culture
After camping at a lovely lake in Kansas that has forever shattered my image of that state at flat and desolate, we headed to Saint Louis to visit my cousin and her family. While there I had the chance to visit the publisher of Unintended Consequences, a novel by Saint Louis local John Ross about the gun culture and the problems with Federal anti-gun laws. (Ross is a first-rate author who deserves a wide audience -- I strongly encourage you to call Accurate Press at (800) 374 - 4049 and order a copy of the book, $33 hard-back postage included.)
The publisher -- Greg Pugh -- and I had a long, personable chat about the novel and about the gun rights movement in our two states. He was disappointed about the April, 1999 loss of a concealed carry bill in a Missouri referendum. According to Pugh, the anti-gunners had been able to alter the language of the measure such that it sounded like it involved higher taxes. Colorado and Missouri are among a handful of states in the nation without a "shall-issue" state-wide concealed carry law.
I told Pugh about how the Colorado concealed carry bill was pulled from the legislature after the Columbine shootings -- even though a wider carry of handguns is proven to reduce mass-murders. I also told him about the factionalization of Colorado's gun movement, with the Pro-Second Amendment Committee and the Firearms Coalition often working at cross-purposes with Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Pugh said that Missouri pro-gun groups too were once factionalized, but that they now hold monthly meetings in which leaders of the various groups meet to discuss strategy. According to Pugh's advice, "You don't have a chance until you're all speaking from the same page."
Pugh was pessimistic that his children will enjoy as much freedom as the current generations enjoy. I told him that I'm somewhat more optimistic, precisely because Ross wrote a book like Unintended Consequences, and Pugh had the courage to publish it. (It's highly controversial, to say the least.) Pugh realizes that the right of self-defense is only a part of the libertarian struggle. He said, "Guns are not the issue. The issue is freedom."
We spent most of our time in the District wandering through the Smithsonian and touring the monuments and memorials. Perhaps my favorite stop in the city is a room in the National Gallery which displays the works of Auguste Rodin, such as the peaceful, luminous Morning.
Another favorite is the memorial to Thomas Jefferson. It's quite impressive to gaze up at the old Father and read the text printed around the room:
I have sworn upon the alter of God
Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the Declaration agreed to "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." And the struggle for Independence did cost many of them those values. Today, many Americans don't seem interested in standing up for freedom even if it means interfering with the TV schedule.
One tidbit I hadn't known is that the Jefferson Memorial was erected by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Thus, the man perhaps most responsible for the slide of America into socialism paid tribute to the man largely responsible for the rise of America into freedom.
Of course, Jefferson was not without his flaws. He correctly saw that a rich education is essential to preserving liberty. But he supported tax-funded education, not forseeing that this would eventually lead to compulsary attendence laws and the accompanying problems for American culture. Too often government schools have themselves become a "form of tyranny over the mind of man," training children to become obedient conformists and failing to adequately educate them about the world.
New York City and the "Best Libertarian Writer in the World"
In New York, Jennifer and I had the good fortune of meeting up with Chris Matthew Sciabarra for a tour of Brooklyn. Sciabarra, author of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and the acclaimed Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, knows his city in incredible detail. He's also an amazingly nice guy.
(Photo: Chris Matthew Sciabarra (right), author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and other libertarian works, catches some rays with Ari and Jennifer Armstrong.)
We heard some information not likely included in your standard tour. None of the homes or establishments that belong to Italians with (shall we say) extra-legal connections are ever tainted by graffiti. Crime really has gone down drastically under Mayor Guiliani, even though a few cases of minority oppression by the police persist.
I'm taking this as gospel truth rather than an "urban legend" since I saw the nests: once a shipment of exotic birds escaped from the airport and made their homes in the warm lights of a school park, where they continue to reside.
We swung by Brooklyn College, where on January 2, 1962, Ayn Rand addressed Professor John Hospers' class on Ethics. On January 10 she addressed his graduate seminar.
We gave pause to somber reflection as we visited a small outdoor memorial to Holocaust victims.
In New York, a breathtaking array of ethnicities interact more or less amicably. Chris pointed out the manifestations of culture from various Jewish groups, Italian Catholics, Arabians, Chineese, and others.
Obviously proud of his home, Chris is fond of pointing out those elements of New York which are "biggest" or "best in the world." Such as, "the longest board-walk in the world," "the longest bridge of its type in the world," "the most frightening wooden roller coaster in the world," and "the best pizza in the world." I must say it is an impressive city, and the pizza was damn good.
And I would argue that, kidding aside, Sciabarra really is among the best libertarian authors now working. A long-time libertarian nonetheless mentored by a Marxist at New York University, Sciabarra's main project lies in rescuing "dialectics" from the Left and synthesizing that methodology with libertarianism. Without getting into a technical discussion, "dialectics," according to Sciabarra, has its roots in Aristotle and involves keeping in mind historical context and not treating as independent phenomenon which in reality are inter-dependent. In Russian Radical, for instance, Sciabarra discusses how politics, culture, and individual ethics affect one another and what this implies for libertarian strategy.
Sciabarra's new book, Total Freedom, forthcoming next year, discusses Murray Rothbard and the radical libertarian critiques of the State. I for one am eagerly anticipating the book's arrival.
Sciabarra's web page is located at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/.
Boston: A Cradle of Freedom
Jennifer and I walked the Freedom Trail, seeing the tombstones of those who risked their lives and died to found a nation rooted in liberty. We also saw "Old Ironsides" and relived her valiant struggle against the British navy.
We experienced the night-life of Boston with one of my college friends who let us stay at his place. We drank great beer and ate great sea-food, and we saw a local band the lead of which is a skilled fretless-bass player. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the band; it's a three-piece with a cello.
In stark contrast with the heritage of freedom of the city is the modern Statist influence. As a minor example, I got a completely unwaranted parking ticket when we were exploring the art museum. (To read "My Boston Parking Ticket Party," click here.) More onerous are the licensing requirements placed on local businesses. One guy who lives near my college friend was telling us about the car shop he wanted to open. He wants to install stereo equipment and the like. He was making progress toward his goal but having trouble coping with the thousands of dollars it cost him in licensing taxes. He even had to get an "entertainment license" in order to play music in the store! These glimmers of fascism are both angering and frightening.
On June 30 I happened to see Ralph Nader on CSPAN2. He said, "If it can't survive without government support, then it shouldn't survive." Of course he was talking about corporate welfare, but if he would apply that insight consistently he would be a great friend of freedom, instead of its enemy.
Vermont: A Milestone for the Objectivist Center
I took great comfort in the fact that everyone around me in Vermont was legally permitted to carry firearms for their protection. I wasn't packing, but I was safer because others were. Vermont, of course, is the ideal from a civil rights standpoint because of its pro-gun laws.
And Vermont is a beautiful state. Lake Champlain's gorgeous beaches are nestled in green forests. After a reading of the Declaration of Independence, participants of the conference I attended watched a fireworks show over the lake on the Fourth.
The Objectivist Center, formerly the Institute for Objectivist Studies, held its tenth annual summer conference in Burlington. Just under 300 people attended the event, which hosted talks by top Objectivist and libertarian theorists. Several members of the Cato Institute participated.
Over the week, participants attended lectures concerning politics, culture, and philosophy. One of my main reasons for going was to hear a series of lectures on education, which was superb.
William Thomas presented a series of talks in which he explained "The Logical Structure of Objectivism," which is the subject of new book he and David Kelley are currently writing. (Kelley is the founder of the Center and widely regarded as the best contemporary Objectivist philosopher.)
Besides attending lectures, participants had plenty of time to socialize, make new friends, and discuss ideas. The closing dinner, an elegant affair complete with awards, talks, and a band, was great fun and the perfect way to close a stimulating week.
The Objectivist Center is on the web at www.ios.org.
It was an exciting trip, my kind of vacation. Jennifer and I probably won't be able to travel like that for years to come. Having taken the journey, I'm more optimistic than ever about the possibility of living in a fully free society within my lifetime, even though our challenges are many and great.