"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
Slinging the A-Word for Fun and Profit
I couldn’t help myself. I let out an audible groan last week during a crowded screening of XXX, the new super spy flick starring Vin Diesel. It came when the film’s bad guys, plotting to biochemically handiwipe all humanity, were identified as Russian anarchists. Yikes! No wonder we anti-statists have PR problems.
Almost two decades ago, Marshall Fritz suggested we expunge forever from our movement lexicon what he dubbed the “A-word.” He said it stirs up visions of chaos, lawlessness, terrorism, and other naughty stuff. Of course, Fritz also had problems with words like liberty and freedom, which he called negative “void words,” absent of content. He argued that people hate a vacuum, and that we should offer them “self-government,” not liberty.
As silly as that idea was, Fritz made a fair point about the A-word. It’s pretty damn powerful. Even used properly, it’s very often misunderstood. My friend Zack told a co-worker recently that he considers himself an anarchist. She was horrified that he associated with “neo-Nazi skinheads.” And ’fess up. At one time or another, haven’t you intentionally misused the A-word for its shock value, not to mention the amusement factor? Caught in a pointless political debate, it’s a real hoot to toss in the A-word and watch your pompous adversary blink and sputter. Then you can quickly make your getaway while he struggles to regain his composure.
But none of this, including the lousy image the A-word suffers thanks to movies like XXX, should deter us from this truth: anarchism is the best description of our philosophy and anarchistsare who we are. Sure, libertarian may be a more palatable word, and I use it often. But in the long haul, libertarian has been corrupted by the Libertarian Party and other advocates of a limited “night watchman state.”
There’s no better term for the “no government” position than anarchist. And there’s real value in saying exactly what we mean and speaking truth to power. When we rely on “less offensive” synonyms for words like anarchy and anarchist, we start to dilute the honest radicalism of our ideas. Worse yet, watered-down language eventually waters down our mental processes. We begin to lose the vigor of our argument, and our focus drifts.
Saul Alinsky, the great Leftist union and community organizer, published a very useful tactical manual in 1971 called Rules for Radicals. (It’s such a great book that I plan to write a series of columns based on it.) In a chapter on the use of words, Alinsky wrote:
“To pander to those who have no stomach for straight language, and insist upon bland, non-controversial sauces, is a waste of time . . . . We approach a critical point when our tongues trap our minds. I do not propose to be trapped by tact at the expense of truth . . . . To travel down the sweeter-smelling, peaceful, more socially acceptable, more respectable, indefinite byways, ends in a failure to achieve an honest understanding of the issues that we must come to grips with if we are to do the job.”
I keep it simple. I call myself an anarchist.
Granted, doing so can be a tricky business, as my chum Zack found out. Judging your audience before unleashing the A-word is always a good idea. That’s why months of light political discussion may pass before I fully “show my hand” to an acquaintance. During that period, based on the progress of our relationship, I may call myself a libertarian, a Jeffersonian, or a radical individualist, if I label myself at all. More often than not, my “identity” gradually becomes clear without me even mentioning the A-word. “Why, you’re advocating the absence of government altogether!” my friend will finally say. “You’re an, an . . . .” And I’ll just smile and nod. By that time, we’ve been sharing ideas productively. On the other hand, if I detect that my companion believes anarchists are “neo-Nazi skinheads,” I’ll sidestep the A-word either entirely or until I’ve had a chance to diplomatically redefine it for them.
So if you agree with Thoreau that government is best which governs not at all, don’t fidget and mumble about being a “self-governor.” Declare what you really are. Call yourself an anarchist--and do it with confidence.
But don’t expect everyone to embrace you if you blurt it out at the next Rotary luncheon.