This is excerpted from Chapter 22 of my forthcoming.
“Every serious civilization, like every serious person, possesses an essence or a spirit,” she said. “A soul, if you like.”
Thus spoke the lady political refugee who was standing – and not sitting – at my bar one quiet Tuesday evening.
She was half Puerto Rican and half Cuban, born in Puerto Rico but raised in Cuba, her name Katya Reyes. Not tall, not particularly thin, no longer young, yet still strikingly good-looking, she had the kind of beauty thrown into sharper relief by the sheer strength of her personality, her eloquence: a fierce and fearless brilliance that shone like nitroglycerin inside her liquid black eyes. She had a way, as well, of drawing people in – even those who disagreed with her – and this too was largely the result of her multilingual articulateness combined with an unapologetic independence of thought and heterodoxy of thinking.
She was not speaking to me but to a small group who had gathered near her – almost, it seemed, unconsciously gathered – one of whom, having attended a campus talk she’d given earlier that same day, had started her upon this conversation, by asking her in a friendly but provocative tone an unmistakably antagonistic question, the main thrust of which, after much divagation in between on this young questioner’s part, was whether she supported the notion that slavery alone had built America. She continued in her reply:
“As the spirit of every individual human being is most authentically disclosed in the unconscious postures and gestures and expressions of each individual, so, too, is the spirit of every civilization most authentically expressed in the unconscious attitudes and actions” – here she interrupted herself – “the mores and mannerisms,” she said, “the modus-vivendi of its citizenry.”
She paused long enough to sip honey-colored rum from the snifter in which I’d served it – a snifter nearly as large as her face — and the sheer size of which snifter made it particularly easy for an amateur like me to over-pour.
“This fundamental spirit,” she said, swallowing her mouthful of honeyed rum, “may be described as the essence of a culture, or … what did you call it in your book about the young Navajo runner, Mr. Bartender? That other word for essence? Quiddity, yes, that’s right. A culture’s quiddity may be defined as the composite of characteristics which form that culture’s core – and by this I mean: the unconscious style and lifestyle of the people. This style is the outward expression of ideas that have been fully absorbed and yet tacitly so – tacitly and even unconsciously absorbed, I should say – ideas which may seem self-evident but which, in actuality, are the end result and consequence of a complicated synthesis of that society’s dominant ideas: ideas about human existence and the individual’s place in society. The sympatico Italians are an example of what I mean, or the proper English with their dry humors.”
She paused again and sipped from her big bulbous snifter, which glowed so softly under the creamy bar lights.
“A country’s politico-economic trends are the result of a long and chain-like sequence of ideas,” Katya Reyes said. “They are also the equivalent of an individual’s actions in practical reality. And just as an individual’s stated beliefs can contradict the values she or he has subconsciously adopted, so, too, a country’s quiddity can contradict its explicit policies.”
She paused and took another sip of rum.
“Also,” she continued, “just as it is psychologically dicey for any individual human being to neglect the task of consciously identifying the values she or he has come to subconsciously absorb, so for the same reason is it dicey for any country to ignore the ramifications of the policies this country has come to implicitly absorb. One thing is certain: the more insular a given society, the less context the youth have for evaluation and appraisal. Because, by virtue of living in that place and growing up among it all, the majority of young people do, in general, absorb the dominant ideas which ultimately go into shaping a given country or culture’s quiddity.”
She took a drink of water now and then chased it with another swallow of rum. Oh, she was doing quite well, I thought, and her over-pour of rum was holding up nicely.
“America’s quiddity,” she said, and then paused, ostensibly to clear her throat of rum — and yet now I wonder a little if maybe she hadn’t started to choke-up a little with emotion, for she was a passionate person who grasped and therefore felt things very deeply. “America’s quiddity,” she rebegan, “is independence.”
This was in direct response to the original question — immediately upon saying which, however, many among this small gathering of people began to object and protest, in a rising crescendo of murmurs. But Katya Reyes, the refugee, her articulate speech laced so strongly still with her lilting Cubano and Puerto Rican, would not be gainsaid. She held up her hand in an authoritative gesture, and she spoke over the rising crescendo of murmurs:
“A moment, please,” she said, not loudly and yet with great conviction. “I am well aware, my good people, of the faults and contradictions held by many of America’s primary theoreticians and philosphical architects. My statement stands, and I am fully prepared to back it up. I was asked a question, and I request that you now please pay me the respect of listening to my full answer, and I ask also that you seek to understand the nature of historical context and its intricacies and nuances and the complexity of trying to capture this in a reasonably brief way while standing at a bar. I repeat: America’s quiddity is her spirit of independence – the foundational idea that humans are self-sufficient and more efficacious without government intrusion. And no matter how egregiously this spirit of independence has been throttled or breeched and no matter how many contradictory views were held by the people who founded America, it is still, I say to you now, the essence of America, the soul of America, and it is precisely this essence and soul that must be fought for without rest, respite, surcease. America, unique among all civilizations across all human history, is the only civilization in human history that explicitly named, specified, and legally recognized the rights of each individual, which resulted in individual freedom from government authority at last: saying, in essence, humans don’t exist and flourish merely by government permission but by natural-born right. This idea was implemented neither fully nor thoroughly nor perfectly, but the error — an abominable error, to be sure, which, I agree, should never be forgotten — was entirely in the implementation and not the principle itself. The principle remains immutable and true, and it is a prodigious accomplishment which should not be cheapened or taken lightly … or forgotten. It should be remembered and respected over and above everything, in fact. Wait, please. I let you talk, young man, for quite some time, even while your question was a backhanded attack upon me — yes, I recognized it — and now it is my turn.”
She paused and looked over the crystal rim of her snifter, and then she took another sip of rum, her wet black eyes bright and gleaming. She resumed:
“The spirit I speak of,” she said, “is the sole reason that, even for all the contradictions and horrific breaches in America’s history – slavery, the treatment of American aboriginals, the treatment of women, and everything else – America became, in the shortest span of time by far, the wealthiest and in many ways the greatest civilization of all time. This spirit alone is what made America, and it is also what saved America, because the ideas behind America’s foundation won-out in a horrid and bloody civil war which killed approximately one million Americans, if you count civilians, all colors, all races, all sexes. They are the only ideas anywhere, ever, that can preserve human freedom. That is what I mean by ‘immutable.'”
She looked across the room. No one spoke.
“Americans were the first and only to break from the abhorrent ideology that had dominated human history since the dawn of humankind – an ideology which made slavery continuous and even commonplace across all cultures, on every inhabited continent on the planet: the ideology that individuals must depend not on themselves but on an overarching authority in order to live, to prosper, to thrive, an authority which alone, it was believed and is still believed across most of the world, can grant us our well-being, so that when good happens, we owe it not to our own individual resourcefulness or personal initiative or self-motivated and self-sustaining drive and desire but solely to the bureaucratic powers that be, who grant us, God-like, permission to live, since our lives are not ours by right but only by permission. It is in this sense, I say to you in all sincerity, that faith in government is just another superstition – perhaps the greatest superstition of them all.
“Americans were among the very first of any nation to legally abolish slavery, and this fact should also never be forgotten. Nor should it ever be forgotten that this abolition of slavery was based explicitly upon and grounded thoroughly in principles and ideas born out of the Western Enlightenment. Americans were the first and the only people to as a nation identify and indict government for what it actually is: an apparatus of force. The overwhelming statist element required in order for slavery to persist is an element too often unacknowledged. Slavery cannot survive its legal repeal. Prior to America, for all human history, the entire world held to the opposite conviction: whether implicitly or explicitly, the world has always maintained that the natural state of humankind is a state in which government has legitimate primacy over the individual. This, the world has always believed, is in complete compliance with natural law, and one could even say that it was regarded as a sort of metaphysically determined fate. Citizens may, of course, disagree around the edges with this or that specific government policy or decree, and citizens may even rebel against it – yet only to replace it with a new state-ordered set of laws deemed ‘more suitable’ for humans to obey. The spirit which across the world make most people putty-like and therefore pliable, easy to mold and to rule, is still comparatively alien to Americans. It must be kept that way. It must at all costs be kept alien. Because human freedom is a birthright. In fact, it must be made more alien in the psyche of the people, the youth especially. This pundit thinks this should be legalized but not that, while this other pundit thinks that should be regulated but not this. This one believes (and will fight you to the death over the fact) that this amount of taxation is permissible in this specific arena of human activity, but not that amount in this particular arena. This other pundit thinks this sphere of human action should be regulated, but not that one, or that one (yet this one is okay). Another believes that this act should be decriminalized but not this other one. Listen to me, please: they all must be jettisoned and replaced with a sound principle: the principle of equal individual rights, which are purely negative liberties — specifying not what government should provide but rather what government and all other individuals must abstain from doing. This quibbling endlessly over details can get nowhere — except back where it all began: does each individual human being, regardless of race, sex, sexual-orientation, gender, color, class, or creed, possess the inalienable right to her own person and property — and only that — or does she not?
“Fundamentally, there only two types of societies possible: those which are built upon individual freedom and its corollary: voluntary exchange. And those which consist of compulsion, coercion, violence, and force. There is no other freedom than that which voluntary exchange can bring about. When societies are mixed, as all societies including America have been, bad principles drive out good principles – unless the good principles are fully defined and philosophically systematized. Then and only then will the good drive out the bad. Ultimately what ushers in bad principles and ultimately what creates the mindsets that support these bad principles and entrenches them, is, I truly believe, a sense of guilt – unearned guilt mixed with laziness in not questioning bad ideas – and that is precisely what today’s so-called racial-theorists, totally ignorant of the actual historical record of racism and slavery across all cultures on every single inhabited continents since the dawn of humankind, will stop at nothing to fully instill within Americans. And yet even in spite of their herculean effort, America has still retained its essential spirit: independence and liberty. You must not let it die. Whereas in every other place on planet earth besides America, service to state is still regarded as a duty – a duty and allegiance not ever to be questioned but simply obeyed – Americans have never felt any such sentiment, and that is a very good thing. Most Americans still admire achievement because most Americans still understand firsthand where achievement comes from, and what it takes to reach and hold.”
She fell momentarily silent and sipped her water through the plastic straw I’d harpooned down through the ice.
“Earlier today,” Katya Reyes said, “I was introduced to a middle-aged man – a visiting professor from Belarus who was new to America — and do you know what was the only thing he could talk to me about? He spoke to me over and over of his astonishment at how ‘at ease’ and ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘happy’ Americans of all walks of life are among each other. This man was only partly referring to the way bankers and Wall-Street types mingled and played darts and shot pool with the men who worked at the cement-plant or the road-construction fellows, or with the women who worked at the beauty salons and the bars. ‘People aren’t like that in Europe,’ he said to me. ‘People in America are easy-going, relaxed. Except for the academics,’ he said, ‘who seem angry and unhappy.’
“He’s right. The culture of worn-out, crumbling, shabby Marxism worshipping at the shrine of misery and suffering and victimization – trying to convince the rest of the world that humans absent government-coercion are helpless, miserable, impotent creatures, incapable of human flourishing — it’s pathetic and sickening. I told him that the easiness and enthusiasm and happiness is the natural state of humans when they’re left alone and free, and that this happiness which he saw in Americans outside of academia was the true spirit of America, and that America, for all her sins, for all her flaws, is the only place in human history to have discovered the secret, and to have striven to implement it.
“‘What is the secret?’ he asked me.
“The secret, I said to him, as I say to you, is in the very nature of what unleashes this easy-going happiness, this relaxed intermingling of people. It is the freedom of each individual to pursue her own life and happiness – and only her own life and happiness. It is the principle of individualism and individual rights which, even when breached, fundamentally defines America and which at all costs must not ever be lost. Because once it’s gone, it cannot be gotten back.
“America is the only place ever to completely abolish, on a widespread and legally protected scale, the class-system and replace it with politico-ethical principles: the legal sanction for all humans – all colors, all sexes, all races, all walks of life – to strive for and become whatever their desire, ambition, and drive strives to achieve: to be self-made, as so many millions in America are and have become. It is not dog-eat-dog, as the propagandists never tire of describing it as, nor is it anti helping others or anti-charity. It is the very opposite: it generates the wealth that makes helping others and charity possible. Because America is still relatively free, the spectrum of wealth and achievement is still in America not fixed or static, as it is in a class or caste system, but can be moved along at any time, based chiefly upon individual desire, ambition, will. Luck plays only a minor role, no matter what the elites in academia have hammered into your head all these decades, and the statistics on this point are overwhelming. The legally guaranteed right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness does not, however, mean that you or I or anyone are guaranteed success or anything like it, but only that we all have the freedom to try, along with the legal guarantee (and this is crucial) that if you or I achieve it, it is ours inalienably. And this, my good young people, is why humans from all over the world have always flocked to America, and still do, even in spite of the horrifying erosion of her foundational principle.”
She drained her rum, and I refilled it the moment she set her big snifter back down. She seemed for a split second surprised at the speed of my attentiveness to her empty glass. Then she nodded once and winked at me, rapidly.
“The progressive-academic left,” she continued, “the so-called limousine liberals, they clamor for Marxism and Neo-Marxism and socialism, and yet none of them have ever lived under any Marxist regime nor could ever survive it if they did – for one reason, because they’d be gunned-down instantaneously by Che Guevara or one of his many wannabees or any one of the Castros or their lackeys – and for what crime? The crime of protesting and speaking aloud? Yes, precisely that. For the very protests they are allowed in America without question or qualm — the America they loathe: for the right to free-speech to which they’ve grown so accustomed and by which they’ve been so spoiled that they now have the nerve to want to abolish it for the rest of humanity – and replace it with what? I will tell you: an elite bureau who deems for all of us what is ‘allowable speech.’
“Yes,” she said to this small group at my bar on that memorable Tuesday evening, “you cannot quite crucify me for saying this, can you? Not as you would crucify your fellow Americans, at any rate, since I’ve lived under and survived two different regimes of socialism, and you have not. None of you. Since I’m a political refugee and know firsthand what bloodbaths these regimes are capable of creating and do routinely create, the oppression, the complete suppression of rights, which is an inherent feature of all forms of socialism, no matter the guise, no matter the trend, no matter the fad. Because I am not an American by birth but by choice, this automatically confers upon me an advantage which none among you have. So I will continue.”
She sipped her refilled rum.
“These same sort of academic elites, in Europe as much as in America, would abolish and destroy the American soul in an instant, if they could, and are attempting to do just that – with great success, in certain circles, especially academia, with all the young vulnerable minds ready to be molded and shaped, and also by intentionally pushing for and passing more laws upon more laws, followed by more laws, which breed incremental dependence upon government, so that, before anybody quite knows how it happened, there is nothing but full-fledged helplessness and dependence and apathy in the minds of a majority — the minds of young people inculcated with the poisonous doctrine that human beings acting voluntarily, without the, quote-unquote, ‘aid’ (i.e. coercion) of government, can never flourish and solve societal problems. If you only hear one thing I’m saying to you now, let it be this:
“The greatest threat to any country’s health and freedom is the incremental dependence and helplessness that government controls foster and breed. More controls mean that more controls will be necessary — in the attempt to fix the problems that the original controls created in the first place. The controls thereby mushroom, propagate, never end. Controls beget more controls. It is a cycle which is interminable. Only the uncompromising implementation of principles can stop it — by uprooting it completely.
“Do you know the most insidious part about this entire process? It is that once controls are in place, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to remove them. And why? Because aided by the relentless propaganda machines, right, left, or middle — it doesn’t matter at all — which push for and push through these controls to begin with, there is established in this process a kind of indoctrinated mindset within the people, so that life with so many regulations and controls and arbitrary laws becomes completely normalized, the only thing people know, human existence unthinkable without them. It thus becomes the only option in the minds of the people, the only way: a way of life. The independent mind, the thinking mind and critical faculty, once suspended, become hampered almost irreparably, thus making it inconceivable to most humans that humans could ever survive and flourish and prosper without a government who distributes and redistributes and provides all these things that they’ve become so dependent upon and accustomed to. Do you think I exaggerate? Look at how quickly this precise process of entrenchment took hold in the Soviet Union or China or Cuba, where once self-reliant people were made into total dependents and automatons in a matter of almost no time. The spirit of self-reliance was crushed so thoroughly, in so short a time, that it can really never be revived. Yes. That is what you must fight against. Fight it to the death, and do not cease fighting it, and do not let anyone convince you that you are cold-hearted or mean-spirited or anti-charity if you do not believe that helping others should be forced upon you or anyone at the point of a gun: a government gun. Forced charity is a contradiction in terms. Do not let the spirit of independence and freedom from government force be crushed out of existence.
“The thing that made America great and unique was not slavery — which was commonplace, everywhere, and has always existed, before the Western Enlightenment ideas took hold — but rather the mindset and attitude diametrically opposite the insidious process I’ve just described: specifically, I mean, the implicit conviction most Americans had and still to some extent have that humans do not need government in order to prosper and act charitably — and always-always-always remember: the wealthier the country, the healthier the country — and that government is in its best state a necessary evil and in its worst state an intolerable one, as Thomas Paine said, and as such government has one and only one legitimate function: to protect against the instigation of force, which includes jurisprudence and courts to adjudicate.
“The inanities of today – inanities at which most sane people now laugh – become the seriously taken shibboleths of tomorrow. This is an iron-clad truth which all of history bears out, and it is no small matter, my good people, and remember: those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities, to improvise a little upon Voltaire. Mr. Bartender, how’s my hair?”
“Sleek and fair.”
“Neither politics nor economics is primary,” she said in closing, “but rather the results of more fundamental philosophical ideas. The political-economic implementation of these ideas is always the final piece in a long and complex chain, and these idea-chains form the underpinnings of any given civilization. One cannot, therefore, fight or change the consequences without first fighting for the ideas that caused the consequences.
“A country is not some strange and sacrosanct thing but merely a large grouping of individual human beings, united by certain specified geographic boundaries. The individuals who compose it must never be subordinated or subjugated to any tribe, group, or collective — no matter how purportedly necessary or admirable the cause.
“Upon the battleground of ideas, one does not need to win the majority. One does not need to convert everyone. History is made – and won – by intellectual ideas and ideologies and movements, which are in turn created not by majorities but small, splinter-like groups: groups composed of those individual people who are able and willing to take on the challenges of thought — who in so doing come to grasp and articulate the philosophical-intellectual issues of the day. Upon this battleground, it is not sheer numbers that matter most but rather the consistency and, even more, the quality of the ideas for which one is fighting.
“An intellectual movement does not start with organized action. Ideological tides do not begin with a campaign or an organization already fully in place. Philosophical battles are first, last, and always a battle for the human mind – specifically, I mean, the battle to demonstrate, through reason and proof, the truth or falsehood of ideas. In this sense, intellectual battles are philosophical battles, which are in turn battles of education: the battle to persuade one’s fellows by elucidating the nature of the ideas being propounded and fought for. The logic and truth of the ideas being put forth – including the back-and-forth exchanges and counter-arguments – determine the degree of persuasiveness. It is for this reason that clearly defined, clearly articulated, thoroughly elaborated, and closely reasoned arguments are the most persuasive – because they are the right and true arguments: because humans have at their disposal only one method by which to demonstrate error, and that method is reason.”
Katya Reyes stopped speaking here and immediately, in one large swallow, drained the last of her rum. She then set the big bulbous snifter down gently onto the bartop, placing a one-hundred dollar bill beneath the snifter’s thin and crystal foot. “It’s all yours, Mr. Bartender,” she said. “For your service to me and for the shots you devilishly over-measure.”
“It was my pleasure.”