NY Conversation has been off the air of late because I’ve been on another one of these press tour arrangements, this time to Roanoke, Virginia. These trips have proved an interesting way to spend time – not, as I’ve noted before, because they involve any pretence at actual journalism, but because they involve getting paired up with a bunch of people from around the country and then getting thrown into a part of America far beyond the civilised enclave of New York City.
The Roanoke trip was less fascinating than my expedition to Mobile, perhaps because I didn’t have a local to take me to the parts of town that the tour doesn’t want to show you. This time around, the interesting part was the people on the trip. In particular, I seemed to keep getting sat next to a genuine right-libertarian huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ type from Northern Pennsylvania. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met someone like this in the flesh before.
This gentleman was a bona fide blowhard with a fondness for hearing himself talk and substantially less interest in listening to anyone else’s opinion. This didn’t make him particularly appealing company, but it was perversely intriguing to hear views such as his spouted in actual real life, as opposed to by right wing caricatures on the television.
Over the course of four days, I got to hear Mr Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’ (hereafter referred to as Mr HSF) expound his views on everything from Hurricane Katrina to the midterm elections. These views were largely unpleasant and almost inevitably the complete opposite of mine – Katrina, for instance, involved him denouncing the people who got stuck in New Orleans and declaring that anyone so stupid as to stay in town with a hurricane approaching deserved no help at all, accompanied by an impression of these people that went mighty fucking close to evoking the lazy watermelon-eating cotton-picking niggers of popular 19th century stereotype.
This is a man who insisted on referring to Barack Obama as “skinny big-ears”, who could talk for hours about his fishing prowess, who likes to shoot deer in his spare time, who believes government should stay out of peoples’ lives as much as possible and who has strongly-held views on pretty much anything and everything, views that only rarely trouble themselves with bearing any relation to reality.
I’m well aware that I’m as much an urban pinko stereotype to him as he is a stereotype to me, and I honestly do my best to engage with such people rather than viewing them as one-dimensional figures. I don’t want to cast him as such here, because the whole point is that it was kinda fascinating seeing what sort of person might hold such views. He spoke with real passion about his love of the outdoors and, particularly, his passion for photographing wildflowers. In some ways, he wasn’t a bad guy (although, watching him discuss in excruciating detail what sort of equipment might best be deployed in catching fish in the local reservoir, I couldn’t help thinking of Ogden Nash’s poem The Hunter – “This grown up man, with pluck and luck/Is hoping to outwit a duck”).
But ultimately, I found his views abhorrent. If I was Matt Taibbi, I probably would have challenged him on his views and had a good old stand-up row. As it is, I try not to start political arguments with such people. The prospect scares me. It scares me because of how angry they make me, because I worry that I’ll get so angry I won’t be able to articulate myself. Because I might lose. And most of all it scares me because it depresses me.
So I listen. For four days, I listen, and I think about how a person could actually be like this. And the more I think, the more I come to the conclusion that this über-libertarian way of looking at the world is startlingly, fundamentally immature. It’s selfish and blinkered, refusing to acknowledge the needs of others and the necessities of society. It’s about you and no-one else.
Here’s the thing. Mr HSF and people like him want freedom. Freedom to be able to do whatever they see fit. Freedom to fish and hunt, freedom to drive big ol’ cars, freedom from onerous tax regimes and the world at large. Freedom.
“Freedom” is a word you hear a lot here. Of course, it’s thrown around a lot by the lunatic fringe – like the gubernatorial candidate in Denver who hilariously claimed that that city’s bike-sharing scheme was unconstitutional and a UN plot to take over the city:
(More on Mr Maes and his brave crusade against the oppressive bike regime here, if you fancy a chuckle.)
But raving nutjobs aside, “freedom” remains a concept that’s very important to the US – it wouldn’t be such an effective rhetorical device were it not so ingrained into this country’s culture.
And in theory, it’s admirable. The Bill of Rights and several other constitutional amendments go out of their way to specify individual rights and make clear that neither race, sex nor social status should stand in the way of those rights. The Revolution, the mythology of the Boston Tea Party and direct action against an oppressive government, the idea of the pioneers forging their way bravely into the Wild West, the concept of carving out your own patch of land, unconstrained by petty authority and free to live your life as you see fit… These are all potent cultural symbols, and thus evoking them makes for potent political rhetoric. (It’s no accident that the Tea Party chose to reference such an iconic event with their name.)
Unfortunately, such an emotive subject is wide open for exploitation by demagogues, and America is very well-stocked with such people (like, yes, The Tea Party). The word “freedom” is the “what about the children?” of the US political landscape, the rabble-rousing catch-all fallback for people whose ideas can’t justify themselves. As such, both the recent midterm elections and encounters with people like Mr HSF have provided plentiful examples of how the word “freedom” has become a byword for selfishness.
Can everyone have the freedom to live however they see fit, with regard only for themselves and not others? In the 1700s, when the West was a limitless expanse and the only people you were fucking over by staking out your piece of land were the unfortunate native Americans, whose rights and freedoms were conveniently ignored by all and sundry, then yes, you probably could. In 2010? No. No, you can’t.
In the 21st century, people like Mr HSF live in dreamland. This isn’t 1700. America is part of a global economic system, part of a world populated by six billion other people. If we all did whatever we wanted, the whole place would probably dissolve into a state that’d have Hobbes hiding under his bed with a copy of Leviathan to beat off the rats.
Perhaps Mr HSF really thinks he could live off his own means, trapping pheasants for dinner and fishing to his heart’s content, defending his property as necessary and living the dream of unconstrained independence. But I don’t think so. I think he just wants to live as he sees fit. I don’t think for a moment that he considers a wider context for his dogma, and that if he did think through the hypothetical outcome of his ideal view of the world, he’d come to the same conclusion as me: that the reality would be closer to The Road than The Call of the Wild. But I doubt the thought ever crossed his mind. Freedom is about individualism, and as such, I doubt the thinking ever goes beyond individual freedom. As I said, it’s fundamentally selfish.
But hang on, where does this cherished freedom come from, anyway? It would probably gall Mr HSF no end to acknowledge that his ultra-libertarian playpen is made possible by exactly the things that his rhetoric claims to despise. “Government isn’t the solution to the problem; it is the problem,” said Ronald Reagan, a slogan that appears on posters these days to much right-wing applause. But wait, without the rabid left-wing pinkos of the environmental lobby, the forests in which he does his HSF would probably have been logged long ago. Without some sort of corporate regulatory regime, there’d probably be a factory upstream pumping something nasty into the river. And without tax dollars to pay for park rangers and wildlife conservation, there’d most likely be no deer left to shoot.
Ah, yes. Tax dollars. If death and taxes are the only two certainties in life, they’re closely followed by GOP bleating about tax cuts come election time. Predictably enough, over dinner one night in Roanoke, Mr HSF claimed that the US was the laughing stock of the world because its welfare recipients were all obese, as ever blithely ignoring reality (in this case, the fact that America’s food supply system is so monumentally fucked up that it’s cheaper to buy shitty ultra-processed meat than it is to get fresh vegetables) in favour of a rant about the evils of paying taxes and subsidising the bone idle lifestyle of others.
I mean, shit, no-one likes paying tax. But unless you’re part of the lunatic fringe, it’s a pain in the arse and a drag on the wallet, not an unconscionable assault on your god-given personal freedom.
A brief tangent: back in a previous life I ended up with a job at KPMG in London as, of all things, a tax lawyer. I was young and impressionable and the whole thing paid well, basically. But as the months passed, I got more and more uncomfortable with the idea that what I was doing for a living was basically helping rich people pay less tax. There’s a quote that’s often thrown around in tax avoidance circles (never tax evasion, mind – that’s a crime, y’see):
“Every man is entitled if he can to order his affairs so as that the tax attaching under the appropriate Acts is less than it otherwise would be. If he succeeds in ordering them so as to secure this result, then, however unappreciative the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or his fellow taxpayers may be of his ingenuity, he cannot be compelled to pay an increased tax.”
This quote comes from a judgement handed down by Baron Tomlin in IRC v. Duke of Westminster (1936), and it’s often used to justify the whole idea of paying as little tax as possible, usually to much applause and haw-hawing about his Lordship’s way with words and the good sense of his judgement.
Basically, without all the waffle, it says this: do whatever you can get away with. There’s a whole industry devoted to “ordering one’s affairs” accordingly. It’s entirely correct in law. And when you actually stop to think about it, it’s pretty fucking childish. Sure, avoid as much as possible. Avoid it altogether, if possible. We all do it every year come tax time. But wait, what if everyone paid no tax?
Your average conservative is always happy to rant and rave about welfare recipients playing the system, living off the state and not doing their share. But how is tax avoidance any different? Actually, it’s exponentially worse when you’re earning a few million dollars a year, and can bloody well afford to pay your share. It’s selfish and, no matter what the cult of individual freedom says, selfishness is a shitty business. Paying tax is one of the prices you pay for living in a society that facilitates your freedom.
The reason that certain people can quote his Lordship’s snide remarks about the Inland Revenue is that not everyone else chooses to dodge tax like they do – or, perhaps, they lack the resources to do so. If they all did, there’d be no society to live in. And that mightn’t be much fun at all. It’s hard to concentrate on how to order your tax affairs when there are people trying to break through your front door.
And so, back to my friend Mr HSF and his ilk. Right-wing types are fond of throwing about the slogan “Freedom is not free” in relation to the deployment of troops abroad. They’re right, although not in the sense that they think they are. Freedom isn’t free. The only reason Mr HSF et al can live the way they do, fishing three days a week and spending the rest of the time ranting about how Obama’s never going to take away their freedom, is that the rest of us facilitate them doing so. Their liberties don’t exist despite society and government; they exist because of those things. The whole idea of being able to live like they do is predicated on others picking up the slack. So perhaps a bit of respect for everyone else might be in order?
But no. Here’s the final insult: this crew are only ultra-libertarian insofar as it extends to their own chosen liberties. They just want the government to leave them alone. They don’t really want to abolish society and big government and income tax – they just want to be the ones to be exempted from the whole affair. If anyone else wants liberties, and particularly liberties that they don’t happen to agree with, tough.
So it was that there was much back-slapping and celebratory microbrewery quaffing amongst the right-wing element of our Roanoke group when the news came in that Proposition 19 in California – the measure that would have legalized weed smoking in the state – had been defeated. Drinkin’ beer and shootin’ deer is just fine, it seems, but smoking a spliff sends you straight to hell.
Or what if, say, you want the freedom to go and terminate an unwanted pregnancy? Well, hang on now there, little lady. That’s a whole different question. Or what if some Muslims in a city to which Mr HSF has never been want to build a cultural center – not a mosque, a cultural center – near Ground Zero? Well, that’s an insult to our freedom. Fuck their freedom and their right to religious expression, even though that particular right in enshrined in a Constitution so often referenced in right-wing rhetoric (go on, look it up – it’s in the First Amendment).
All in all, the views of Mr HSF and his fellow libertarians can be summarised as follows: liberty and justice for me… and a big “fuck you” to everyone else. Grow up, kids.