He played boxers, a gay priest, an evil scientist in Scanners, and an evil king in Braveheart, but Patrick McGoohan was best known for playing No. 6 in The Prisoner, a character who may or may not have been the same character he played in the earlier series Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent, whence the great title song “Secret Agent Man”). Though my friend Christine Caldwell Ames once dismissed The Prisoner as “the libertarian Gilligan’s Island,” since it depicts repeated, failed escape attempts by a resigned secret agent trapped in a surreal island prison called the Village, the show was markedly stranger and more intelligent than almost anything else on television, and its concluding episodes — including a trial conducted by masked officials representing “Nationalism” and other collectivist impulses, a machine gun battle set to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” rocket launches, and semi-improvised absurdist dialogue — are among the strangest hours I’ve ever seen on television, up there with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
McGoohan was reportedly influenced by the surrealist G.K. Chesterton novel The Man Who Was Thursday, and his Queens/Ireland/England upbringing seems to have left McGoohan with a sense of both absurdism and moral outrage, something any intelligent libertarian can appreciate (and any rational person trapped in an insane situation). It led to episode plots that should, ideally, cause people to rethink some of their most basic political assumptions, as when No. 6 is told that despite his complaints he is in fact free — because the Village is a democracy, you see, and he’s even allowed to run for office. Who needs escape when you have democracy, after all? One big happy family.
Parodied on The Simpsons at surprising length (for a relatively obscure, old show) with McGoohan doing the voiceover, The Prisoner gave us ambiguous catch phrases such as “Be seeing you” (the standard farewell in the Panopticon-like Village) and “I am not a number, I am a free man!” — which became part of the recurring opening sequence. His most memorable speech may well have been inspired by the same anarchist philosopher who inspired the title of this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar (“Is Intellectual Property Theft?”), by the way. No. 6 says “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” In a similar vein, Proudhon wrote (as one of the debate participants reminded me):
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
Precisely. Would that Proudhon had seen property as an alternative. No one’s perfect.