April 21, 2011

Demonize and Delete the Austrians (XI): Joe Sobran, An Inconvenient Anarcho-Catholic

According to Mr. Ferrara, the sort of praise one finds in a tribute marking the departure (or anniversary thereof) of a notable and affectionately remembered figure can count as prima facie evidence that a cult has formed around that person.
Excuse me, patient reader, Mr. Ferrara didn’t put things so directly.  He wrote: “The [Austro-libertarian] movement has taken on the aspect of a cult” and “clearly savors of a cultic dulia.” (Emphasis added.) Perhaps clearly to Mr. Ferrara, but not to anyone who knew Murray Rothbard (and knew what he thought of political cults of personality). I grant Mr. Ferrara’s claim that the “word ‘cult’ is not used lightly” (9): I’m sure he gave it all the thought of which he is capable.
His evidence for his bizarrely counter-intuitive charge? “Rothbard’s innumerable ‘anarcho-capitalist’ tomes, tracts, articles and speeches are foundation stone of Austro-libertarianism . . . .” And the connection between literary production and cultic dulia? That’s apparently for him to know and for the reader to figure out.
Mr. Ferrara then mentions an implication of Rothbard’s political philosophy that has nothing to do with supporting the specific charge under review: there is “a legal right to allow unwanted children to starve to death.” (9) Now, in his reference note, Mr. Ferrara quotes Rothbard to the effect that he distinguished the question of the moral obligation one may have to feed one’s children from that of the justification a third party may have to use legally organized violence to force one to do so. He argued that there was no such justification. The implications of ignoring or denying that distinction go far beyond ensuring that a child’s natural protectors carry out their moral duty.
Mr. Ferrara does not put that distinction into the body of the text, let alone discuss it, for doing so would digress from his dulia ­charge, intolerably so even by his standards of literary composition. In accordance, therefore, with our policy of dealing with Mr. Ferrara’s charges serially, but only on a level of detail corresponding to the level on which he makes them, we must postpone our scrutiny of his distortion of Rothbard’s argument until we get to that section of TCATL (about sixty pages from our present context). For now we can only bring to the reader’s attention yet another symptom of Mr. Ferrara’s propagandistic style: the out-of-left-field, “Let-‘em-starve!” insinuation has one purpose: to poison the well (a fallacy given its name, we are happy to note, by Blessed John Henry Newman.) Now, back to the matter at hand.
In 2005, on the tenth anniversary of Rothbard’s death, the Mises Institute published a mostly prosaic summary of his life, work, and influence.  One may judge its purpose and tone by reading it in its entirety here. Of its nearly 2,000 words, Mr. Ferrara cites the last paragraph as though it were suggestive of dulia:
And so, to dear Murray, our friend and mentor, the vice president of the Mises Institute, the scholar who gave us guidance and the gentleman who showed us how to find joy in confronting the enemy and advancing truth, the staff and scholars of the Institute offer this tribute, alongside the millions who have been drawn to his ideas. May his works always be available to all who care to learn about liberty and do their part to fight for the cornerstone of civilization itself. May his legacy endure and may we all become happy warriors for the cause of liberty.
This would be the first cult to my knowledge that regards the object of its veneration or dulia as a friend and addresses him by his first name (even prefacing that by “Dear”). Again, Mr. Ferrara’s S.O.P. seems to be: throw it and see if it sticks. There is no empirical basis for his smear.
I wonder what he thinks of these words:
And may God also bless the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which for 20 years now has been promoting freedom without compromise.  I make it my habit to start the day by reading its excellent website, lewrockwell.com. Congratulations to Lew Rockwell for carrying on the work of von Mises and the late, great Murray Rothbard, both of whom would be justly proud of their brilliant, dauntless disciple.
Well, there you have it: Rockwell was the “great” Rothbard’s “disciple,” and upon his “excellent” work God’s blessings should be poured out.  How many readers would guess that they have just read the words of Joseph Sobran, R.I.P., arguably America’s greatest Catholic social commentator and wordsmith? They were published in the November 2002 issue of Sobran’s.
It is hard to imagine anyone less likely to join anything redolent of a cult than Sobran, whose credentials as a faithful and courageous Catholic I hope are beyond doubt. Sobran was intellectually converted to Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, just as many years earlier he had spiritually converted to Roman Catholicism. I hope my readers will read his apologia in “The Reluctant Anarchist” (published in his newsletter’s December 2002 issue.) No one to my knowledge ever thought him any less a Catholic for his public, eyes-wide-open conversion to anarcho-capitalism.
I am one of many who learned of Joe’s painful last days through the reports of his friend, literature professor David Allen White in Catholic Family News and kindred traditionalist Catholic organs. One looks in vain through all the obituaries in that genre of journalism for any mention of what, to them, must have been at best a serious lapse in judgment on his part, at worst an accommodation of evil. (Nil nisi bonum .  .  .?)
The fact of Sobran’s conversion to anarchocapitalism does not, of course, constitute a formal argument in its justification, or even a premise in such an argument. For those who admired him, however, and who subscribe to Aristotle’s approach to virtue (namely, that we learn what virtue is, not from reading books, but by observing the habits of men deemed virtuous), it is, I submit, a strong suasive consideration. For if his fellows regard a man as good independently of his assent to a controversial thesis, the principle of charity counsels us to presume that the assent is a reflection, not a betrayal, of that goodness until evidence to the contrary defeats that presumption.
Sobran’s “high favorable” rating among traditionalist Catholics like Mr. Ferrara (and, of course, not only them) does not cohere with the “strong unfavorable” rating they give Austro-libertarians. As he was a member of that class, however, they face the following dilemma: either Austro-libertarianism is not as evil as they say it is, or Joe Sobran was not as good as they say he was. So far they have refused to enter the arena occupied by that horned bull (who evaporates upon the sacrifice of either of those opinions).
Now to let some sunshine in on this otherwise gloomy dialectical business.
Sobran wrote at least three characteristically perceptive tributes to Murray Rothbard. One of them, published originally in The Washington Times, January 14, 1995, is available online as part of In Memoriam, pp. 38-39. It begins: “It wasn't like Murray Rothbard to die. Nothing he ever did was more out of character, more difficult to reconcile with everything we knew of him, more downright inconceivable. Murray dead is a contradiction in terms.” (More dulia, I suppose.)
The other two obits are not, to my knowledge, so readily available. Until now. Typed from clippings of the original columns, the text of these gems is appended below for your reading pleasure. (The exact dates are lost to me; can any reader supply them?) I envy those of you who will be reading them for the first time. May those among you who incline to Mr. Ferrara's point of view be willing to experience a little cognitive dissonance, in the interest of the truth of the matter: a charitable, Catholic reception of the legacy of Murray Rothbard as well as Joe Sobran.
(To show I’m an equal-opportunity pain-in-the-neck, I ask my fellow anarcho-Catholics: why was the archive of Joe’s LewRockwell.com articles culled from 212 down to 22? Here’s the current list.  Compare it to the list archived on the Way Back Machine. Limited space? Reversion of copyright? No explanation is given on LRC.)
Allow the words of this great anarcho-Catholic to disinfect the well of discourse that Mr. Ferrara’s propaganda has turned into a septic tank.

Murray Rothbard, R.I.P.
by Joe Sobran
The Wanderer, early January 1995
Murray Rothbard, a great champion of liberty, has died, felled by a heart attack at 68. The loss to libertarians is immeasurable; but so was Murray's achievement. His mind was profound, energetic, skeptical, versatile, imaginative, insistently lucid, and delightfully humorous.
I hardly know how to describe Murray: He was a wisecracking guy who could change the way you looked at the world. That was the effect he had on hundreds of people, including me. He had a breathtaking style, challenging common (mostly liberal) attitudes on every front. Many's the time I've blushed to think I'd accepted some cliché until Murray whacked it. He exposed more nonsense than any man since Socrates.
His reputation will rest largely on his economic thought, which I'm not competent to assess. He was also the most trenchant libertarian polemicist and political analyst of his time, and there I can say with assurance that he deserved the high praise he got.
Only last month [December 1994] Murray's close friend Neil McCaffrey died of cancer. Murray's disciples were also his friends, and he unaffectedly treated them as his equals, though there was no such thing as Murray Rothbard's equal. He had no self-importance; his manner was earthy, friendly, direct, and attentive. To be with him was to think, and to laugh. He wrote 25 books and countless articles and enlivened hundreds of gatherings with his uproarious speeches. The way the young libertarians loved him and looked forward to hearing him speak is moving to remember now; Murray never aged, never wound down. He seemed to use, and enjoy, every minute of his life.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Murray wasn't religious, but he had deep sympathy for Catholicism, which he considered the mother of freedom and also of the Western culture he loved. He passionately defended the Church against historic slanders, including those propagated by some of her wayward sons.
It's sad, even stunning, to lose him. But what a wonderful life his was. My deep sympathy to all his friends, but especially to his best friend of all, his wife Joey.

by Joe Sobran
The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, 1995
Murray Rothbard was one of a kind. He didn't remind you of anyone else, and nobody else will ever remind you of Murray. I hardly know where to start. He was an extraordinarily deep thinker who didn't act like it. His many books include Man, Economy, and State, hailed by Henry Hazlitt, among others, as among the greatest works of its kind, ever, but in person he was earthy, unpretentious, and wonderfully funny. He was so much fun to be around that you could easily forget what an imposing thinker he was; it never occurred to him to try to impress people. He had more opinions on more subjects than anyone in the room, but he always listened. The minute he took a liking to you, you had a loyal friend for good. But his best friend was Joey, his one and only wife; they went everywhere together, and she was with him when he collapsed with a heart attack at the optometrist's office.
Murray was born in New York in 1926 and spent most of his life there. His family were Communists, and as a boy he managed to shock them all by asking precociously, at a family gathering, just what was so bad about Franco. That was the beginning of a lifetime of arguing and laughing and refusing to let anyone else make up his mind for him. Pretty soon he was a libertarian, at a time when there was almost no such thing; for a time he belonged to Ayn Rand's circle, but even the Randians were too orthodox for him, and he struck out on his own, rethinking politics and economics from scratch. He argued with conservatives, liberals, socialists, Communists, Cold Warriors, and most libertarians; eventually he concluded that there is no justification for the state and called himself an anarchist—an "anarcho-capitalist," to be precise. Always willing to stand alone, he found his deepest affinity with the Old (and all but forgotten) Right, including Garet Garrett and John Flynn—"isolationists" who opposed both the welfare and warfare state. Above all he revered his mentor Ludwig von Mises, whose work he extended to new heights and applications in 25 books and about 10,000 articles. (The latter figure is neither hyperbole nor misprint.)
I could praise him all day and still feel I'd hardly told you a thing about him. He was hilarious, he was sweet, he was endlessly energetic and stimulating and startling. His mind was strong and decisive but always open. His latter years didn't seem like latter years, because he never slowed down. May the world catch up with him.