Friday, January 16, 2009

Jacob Levy Will Teach You All


Like the Phantom Stranger, the comic book superhero about whom he used to maintain a webpage, McGill polisci professor Jacob Levy has multiple origin stories, all of which may be inaccurate, at least as told by me, all perhaps inspired by the deeper truth that he was educated at Brown and Princeton, clashed a bit with some Continental Philosophy types while teaching at University of Chicago, and settled at McGill in Montreal. Or should I say:

•Was he banished from his home country to become the Wandering Jew?

•Is he the science-loving survivor of a previous universe, possibly a pariah?

•Is he a being of great power who refused to side with either faction in a great war (perhaps left and right, or perhaps the armies of Satan and Yahweh)?

•Did he lose his original religious faith, later being reanimated to serve good?

•Might he be an entity born in the timestream through a fusion of extraterrestrial might, ancient ideals of peace, and a grim sense of vigilante justice?

•Is he humanity’s first wielder of arcane forces a la Lovecraft?

•Perhaps the forbidden spawn of right-wing and left-wing coupling?

We may never know for sure, but at this time of crisis, this halfway point in the Month of Liberty (i.e., Property), mere days before Jacob’s fellow University of Chicago veteran Obama is inaugurated as President, I might do well to turn away from the potentially-strident property-only message of the month so far, to examine the subtler ways in which — within the broader liberal tradition that now so clearly dominates both academia and society in general — political ideals informed by but not reducible to property rights are mediated and weighed against other issues and framing narratives. I mean mushier but unavoidable modes of discourse such as constitutionalism, the rights of minorities, parliamentary procedure, due process, etc.

After all, the number of people willing to say property should decide all (or virtually all) legal and political issues is small. Indeed, even within the political movement most closely identified with strict property adherence, libertarianism, readers of this blog have seen how the larger cultural forces of right and left inevitably tug, producing factionalism. Indeed, absent a careful opinion survey (and perhaps even then), I can’t be sure just how many nominal libertarians are now right-leaning in a Ron Paul-like way (loving liberty yet averse to illegal immigration, etc.), how many are left-leaning (seeing drugs or free-spirited sexual attitudes as priorities perhaps as high as or higher than free trade or complete abolition of the welfare state), and how many are sticking to the simple “culturally-neutral” (to oversimplify) promotion of basic econ, budget cuts, deregulation, etc., which I still think is our safest path. I hope the movement won’t be torn into three portions, with the rightward-pulled and leftward-pulled factions largely dissolved unnoticed into their respective attractors — or exhausted by fighting each other, antiglobalists on one side and neo-hippies on the other.


But Jacob has long resisted the left-vs.-right narrative, at times to my frustration but perhaps wisely. For a sampling of the sorts of things he focuses on instead, this year you might check out his article about the importance of analytically separating legal constitutionalism from (largely-fictional) social-contractarian popular philosophical consensus, or his upcoming McGill talk about Lost and why it makes reference to figures like Locke and Bentham, or his impending talk to the Federal Bar Association about laws affecting Native Americans — or, eventually, his books on pluralism and federalism to add to the already-existing book Multiculturalism of Fear.

Given his interest in truce-like social compacts between factions or ethnic groups (rather than the likely-doomed Enlightenment rationalist dream of near-unanimous philosophical agreement), it is little wonder he liked the short-lived but popular and acclaimed comic book series Green Lantern: Mosaic, in which alien refugees from multiple worlds had to learn coexistence as fellow citizens of the planet Oa — until DC pulled the plug on the series (despite its popularity), admitting that it didn’t fit into the solo Green Lantern plans they had at the time — which means that in some sense then-new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner destroyed the Mosaic World even before he literally destroyed the Mosaic World (temporarily putting the most prominent black Green Lantern out of a job in the process).

It may seem inappropriate to go on about Green Lantern like this, but keep in mind Jacob and I were among those who wore Legion of Super-Heroes flight rings — like those glimpsed on a fun Smallville last night — to our friend Ali Kokmen’s wedding. And you can’t always easily separate the politics geek from the comics geek, as many of my readers know. Surely Jacob’s resentment of the X-Men character Gambit is born partly of the fact that Gambit is at times supposed to be a loveable and heroic thief, and thus a chronic property rights violator (I avoid “heist” movies on principle myself). Jacob should take heart, though, from the fact that Gambit seems to be cast in the role of one of the villains in May’s Wolverine movie.


In a spirit of pluralism and compromise, I should note that comments are now active on Jacob’s blog, and that fittingly he just posted an entry noting a West Coast version of that East Coast panel on liberal-libertarian commonalities that he was on in October, which helped inspire my Month of Feminism and this Month of Liberty (i.e., Property). (As I’ve said before, if I sounded like the narrow one at times, it was really out of a desire to avoid seeing a potentially-simpler libertarianism contorted into unnecessarily specific shapes.) I will also exhibit moderation, if all goes according to schedule, by using the next few days on this blog for the less-right-wing purposes of (1) acknowledging some tricky cases for a property philosophy, (2) recommending an NPR piece, (3) admiring jazz, and (4) marking the Obama inauguration.

Let no one think, though, that I have ceased to believe, in essence, that property rights not only are the best means of settling social conflicts but, on a more intellectual level, hold out the hope of creating, someday, a language in which social conflicts can be discussed that beneficially displaces much of the language of politics and social philosophy we now know, possibly leading to the junking of much of what currently goes on in polisci classes, women’s studies programs, the halls of Congress, and newspaper editorial pages — where people without the conflict-settling tool of property flail about in search of other, far messier and far less efficiency-enhancing weapons with which to beat back their opponents: democracy-invoking speeches, claims about “autonomy” or “cultural integrity,” ostensible messages from God, what have you. It never ends, and most people are left on the sidelines to watch the intellectuals (or just the good talkers) duke it out and determine everyone else’s destinies, possibly while boring them to death. Far better a culture in which each person can say, with as much authority as any senator or professor, “Get your garbage off my damn lawn.”

Or to put it in terms simple enough for comic books yet no doubt appreciable by at least one polisci professor as well (Jacob did once win an online contest of Robert George’s by identifying a Jack Kirby character, after all): if authoritarianism is the Anti-Life Equation (as seen in this week’s Final Crisis #6), I still think the Life Equation looks something like this:

avoidance of conflict over resourceses –> property –> liberty –> efficiency –> preference fulfillment –> happiness = morality –> the good

But there are a lot of smart people out there, and maybe they have some better ideas.

P.S. As a gift to Jacob, I will also just note, without naming names or giving details, that I’ve heard one of his critics (the only person I know of who ever accused Jacob of being part of a right-wing attack machine), New York Times “ethicist” Randy Cohen (who was a comedy writer before getting that rather high-faluting position) is an unpleasant jerk who treats women badly. This should come as no surprise, as what publicly passes for morality and political insight these days is often an indicator of bad character.

P.P.S. To embarrass Jacob, though, I also have to mention that his two worlds once fused in what may be the most nerdy typo of all time: On, he referred (in typically serious and erudite fashion) to the Landsraad when he meant to refer to the Bundesrat, the latter being the German upper parliament and the former being the governing body in Dune. I almost envy him the neural pathways that led to that mix-up, though they are much like my own in some ways.

(On a vaguely related note, check out anarchist blogger Michael Malice’s latest batch of embarrassingly real old comics panels. I wonder if he and Jacob both saw the Legion on Smallville last night.)


Jacob T. Levy said...

The Landsraad post itself got corrected, but this post links back to it and acknowledges the mistake.

In the spirit of the post I’ll also link back to my Guy Fawkes Day post, since what could be more appropriate for than a commentary on the relationship between Ron Paul and Alan Moore?

Jacob T. Levy said...

And I’m pretty sure my objection to Gambit is entirely aesthetic, and can be shared by all right-thinking people regardless of political persuasion.

Mark said...

Re: your comments about not watching “heist movies”. While I don’t think this will change your mind about the genre, I think they are the only kind of film that actually celebrates the entrepreneurial ethic, albeit in it’s most debased, perverse, and immoral form.

This celebration achieves a kind of apotheosis in three films starring Jason Statham – Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and The Bank Job. The Bank Job draws the most explicit and interesting contrast – Statham’s character owns a failing car sales lot/garage before embarking on the bank heist.

Mark said...

Well, heist and gangster films..

Todd Seavey said...

Yes, and likewise (as I think Jonah Goldberg has observed), gangster shows sometimes have a more profound sense of duty, honor, and tradition than shows in which people _don’t_ whack each udda.

Still, it’d be nice if someone (like me, if I weren’t busy already) would write books, films, and TV shows that managed to make productive activity as exciting as violence, theft, lies, and betrayal, tall order though that is.

I bought a bunch of cheap, old VHS tapes at the library bookstore across the intersection from me yesterday, and part of the reason I bought a Winnie the Pooh tape is that I have often said perhaps the world would be a better place if kids like me had loved Pooh more than, say, Doctor Doom as children, if you follow me — but there’s a place for both, of course.

I also bought the tape because I noticed it’s the one where Eeyore is attempting suicide by drowning after everyone forgets his birthday, and that’s something admittedly _darker_ than most kids’ shows these days. It’s a complex world.

Mark said...

I thought Arrested Development and Peter Bagge’s Hate had a sympathetic view of businessmen, although I’m not sure how intentional Jason Bateman’s portrayal of a straight laced entrepreneur was. Ben Mezrich also does a good job of writing about sympathetic financiers.

I think what should concern people, and what irks me, is the fact that perfectly normal, harmless human behavior, like buying and selling financial products or widgets, is too often portrayed as a pathology or full blown criminal behavior.

I don’t think it is a very healthy state of affairs, and regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, it would be a good idea to reverse this trend, as demonizing any particular group of people on a regular basis is just wrong.