Brigands and Bandits

A letter of marque is not a letter of reprisal. A letter of marque informs interested parties that the issuing sovereign grants entry into enemy territory. A letter of reprisal grants license to loot enemy property. Typically, these letters of marque and reprisal were maritime boons to give legitimacy to piracy in the interest of the crown. From the perspective of King Charles II, it made no practical difference if Bill Dampier had the blessing of William II or not. The Cygnet was a damned menace, papers or no. Of course, one crown’s menace is another crown’s subcontractor. Dampier was court-martialled for cruelty, not for piracy.  Continue reading “Brigands and Bandits”

Still Baltimore

There were riots in Baltimore, responding to what to many seems to be systematic police abuse of force on blacks. Some have blessed the riots, claiming that at some point, violence is the only answer. Others have condemned the riots, claiming that destruction and violation of property rights is never a good long-term solution. Some say that the majority of rioters were simply opportunistic looters, taking advantage of the moment to steal from the very groups that had already been harmed by the prevailing injustices. Some say that destruction and violation of property is precisely what is necessary to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the systems responsible for the particular distribution of property that exists.

Perhaps it would have been better if the riots had taken place in Chevy Chase or Annapolis instead.

My question is: was this an organized riot or a wildcat riot?

James C. Scott in “Two Cheers for Anarchism” talks about the wildcat riot and how it is the most threatening form of protest to those in power. This is exactly right, from a public choice point of view, and perhaps right anyway.

When a protest is organized, we can count upon the organizers to act in their self interest. They will attempt to control the protest such that the marginal cost of the protest, in terms of the organizers’ loss of credibility with existing powers, is equal to the marginal benefit, in terms of the organizers’ capacity to gain influence over the existing powers. But it is really all about the organizers.

In a wildcat riot, the real point is that the entire system is broken. Community leaders are recognized to have no power to change the situation for the right. The bargaining and compromise necessary for marginal reforms is recognized to lead to insufficient reforms for those most urgently in need of change.

I hereby invoke the transitional gains trap. When the reform that is possible through the usual channels of politics is known to be insufficient, the only way to sufficient reform is an exogenous shock. We have to enter a prophetic stage, in which voices at the fringes, those who have no political capital and who do not stand to gain any political capital send the people scurrying about as independent agents to burn the system down. The riot will destroy. It will take lives. It primarily says to the system: you do not work for us, and we know it. The riot does great harm, and in my understanding is the only ultimate alternative to the sacrificial altruism that I preach. And those two options are polar opposites in terms of strategy, but of the same end.

The riot will go on, and will send the correct message, so long as it remains wildcat. But the moment demagogues arise within it, the moment some leaders start to gain some social capital, the moment it becomes apparent to some agent that they can get some goodies for the riot while quelling it and appeasing the establishment, and the moment that the riot yields to these demagogues, the wildcat nature is gone. It is politics as usual.

I’m afraid that the failure of the Burkian good folks to do the right thing led to the alternative of the wildcat riot, but that then the demagogues arose. The riots will be meaningless in the end. Some innocent bystanders will have been harmed. Some new demagogues will arise. Mostly the same old demagogues will take advantage of the situation.

When it all settles down, it will still be the same Baltimore. I am grieved.

Battling Anxiety Through Free Range Parenting

A further response to Samantha, who does not like the term free-range parenting, as she says, “Free range just means kids are allowed to be kids.”

This resonates. I have several distinct memories as a kindergartener. Two of them are: 1) I wept uncontrollably when Mommy left me with the stranger in the building with the cold floors and the big windows to let you see outside. 2) Later in the year, I struggled with the math, undecided whether I should count kindergarten as one year toward the completion of 12th Grade. I could not cope with the idea that THIRTEEN YEARS OF THIS PRISON HELL?!?

Institutionalized school is a place, first and foremost, to develop the several kinds of social anxiety. My favorite was performance anxiety, namely that I had to make good grades or I could not possibly succeed in life. On the face of it, this is an entirely contentious statement, but I don’t care: I hated school from day one; during the school year I hated every day of my life, knowing that if I misbehaved, Teacher was going to pin a note to my shirt, sending me home to tell Mommy that she needed yet another conference in order to strategize behavior modification. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong: I just wouldn’t sit still. Nevertheless, the first thing I learned in school, about school, at age five, which has never been unlearned, is that the institution is always watching me. From those moments forward, life has been about coping with this intrusion into my personal emotional space.

Roger Waters captured this intrusion perfectly in his little ditty, having the children sing so sweetly, “We don’t need no education.” That record has been played about a billion times over the past thirty years, and not just because it has a good rhythm and a beat you can dance to. The song embodies musically a visceral response to all kinds of anxiety, even the same anxiety you feel when the IRS or CRA demands to know your every wage, tip, and other compensation.


This anxiety is the primary reason my wife and I practice a free-range parenting, as it were. It’s not that there is no anxiety out there, no magical escape from anxiety, no anxiety-free monastery (as one of my friends has remarked about certain quarters of the home schooling world: “the denim jumper brigade”), but that learning the ciphers necessary for groping through this mortal coil can be done in a lower-anxiety environment.

The home, in other words, can be relatively free from institutional intrusion into the emotional world of a child.

Readers who have successfully emerged from the gauntlet of institutional education can attest that success in “real life” (whatever that is) didn’t require so much behavior modification, such competition to achieve, such confrontation with the institution. Again, I’m advocating a via media here: behavior modification is necessary, competing to achieve must be instilled, the confrontation with the institution is inevitable. Too much of these things threatens to create a person who struggles to experience pleasure in the challenges of everyday, ordinary experiences, whether they are climbing their way to the top, or are satisfied in a low-ceiling career, or find their way to the end somewhere in the middle.

Therefore, I submit to Samantha another term: low-anxiety parenting. Failure is always an option, and failure is probably good for you. Every once in a while.

This post is the second post following up “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “The Structure of Free-Range Parenting.”

The Structure of Free Range Parenting

A commenter on my defense of free-range parenting mentioned that she doesn’t like the term “free-range.” I take it as an implication that the burden is on those who dislike unstructured, unsupervised free-time for children. Unfortunately, the social context has changed so that the burden is on those of us who are risking our children being kidnapped by the zealots of the state, complete with badges and everything.

It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that we also practice something called “home schooling,” where my wife and I inculcate ciphering skills unto our children at home, without any help or compulsion from the state whatsoever, meaning, that in a state of total anarchy, without government schools, private schools, parochial schools, or even community one-room schoolhouses, our kids would still be able to cipher.

New York state, being interested as it is in the ability of her citizens to cipher, tests us, and our children have not been found lacking. The implications of this are rather clear, with respect to so-called free-range parenting: there is a some sort of structure in our household.

In fact, on reflecting upon our home life, I am convinced that we are very structured; it’s just that I wouldn’t know how to describe it: our daily life must resemble, to an outsider, one of those outlandish perpetual motion machines of the Medieval Era. And then the door opens, two boys stumble out, the door slams behind them, and they do not return inside for a very long time.

Nathanael D. Snow makes the point elsewhere that children have been referred to in ancient times as arrows in a quiver. He further remarks that arrows, however, are not made for the quiver; they are made for the bow, to be nocked and fired into the world. Children, in other words, have potency. They are, now, in the neighborhood, within a literal arrow’s shot, carrying our life into other people’s lives, and there our philosophies and beliefs are being tested. Later, they will be fired into the world at large, to lodge into it, hopefully wounding it with justice, morality, virtue, and every other sort of good (to stretch the metaphor). I mean, we hope we’re moral and virtuous in our household, and we measure it against what we consider moral institutions, and we further hope that what we are trying to teach sticks to our arrows, like a healing elixir to act as an antidote against all the poison out there.

Who knows? We’re only one family. And who knows if we are actually moral and virtuous? Not knowing, nevertheless, we’re willing to be tested.

This post is the first of two as follow-ups to “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting.


Perhaps it is a physiological idiosyncrasy peculiar to me alone, but I have despised hiking downhill for as long as I can remember. Controlled descent requires keeping seldom-used fine muscles under tension for the duration of each step, and the consequences of poor timing or inadequate control are considerably more severe than a comparable uphill misstep.  Continue reading “Thorn”

The Rhetoric of the Grand Romantic Gesture


In college, I was a slacker. I procrastinated on all of my assignments and I cut most of my classes. Until the very end, I believed that I could compensate with a handful of heroic catch-up sessions for the homework and all-nighters to study for exams. Fact is that I rarely ended up actually doing this, but the idea that I could was a comfort during the middle period of the semester which I treated like an on-campus vacation.

After I started taking the whole thing seriously, I was astonished at how much of a difference just going to class could make. Even if you procrastinate your assignments until the last minute, even if you only studied for your exam the night before. Just being present in the class, listening to your professor, asking questions and developing a relationship with them, was 80% of the journey. At least, it was for undergraduate history at GMU.

There’s an analogy here, I think, with grand romantic gestures. Often, the idea that you could do this dramatic, one-time thing is comforting to those too cowardly to do anything most of the time. Working yourself to do one thing, even one apparently bold thing, was a lot easier than the vulnerability of attempting to flirt, or just asking someone on a date in a fairly normal and straightforward way. The gesture becomes a shield you can hide behind; it puts the ball in their court, and it draws on a well-developed grammar we’ve all been exposed to by movies and TV.

I should know—I was always a coward, always really bad at flirting, and on a handful of occasions did the big gesture thing (though it was rarely all that big).

To the boy, the intended message is: “Look at how much I love you! This thing I have done just proves it!” He hopes to come off as a hopeless romantic with a pure heart.


I am reminded of a saying, I’m not sure from where, that what men fear most is rejection, and what women fear is getting raped and murdered. The stakes are rather different, and so the possible experiences of The Grand Romantic Gesture are quite different.

The gesture usually involves showing up to where the girl lives or works. So part of the message must necessarily be “I’m the kind of person who will show up without warning somewhere you live or work.” I don’t think I have to explain why that might not be well received.

From Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest


The difference in interpretation often comes down to a matter of trust. If you really believe that this is just a nice guy trying to do something sweet to get a chance at being with you, you might not be swept off your feet, but you probably won’t be creeped out.

With the exception of some very trusting people, most such trust has to be earned. More importantly, no relationship is going to be determined by the quality of its grand gestures. Like my college experience, there really is no substitute for the slow, day to day experience of being present and developing the relationship.

Happy Birthday, Thomas, From Nicaragua

It’s my son’s 12th birthday today. I was in Nicaragua for his 9th birthday, doing some leadership training. “Do you have any children?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Two boys. Thomas is turning 9 tomorrow.” And then I heard a lot of chattering about “sus hijos,” and I was pleased that they thought so much about it, but I had work to do, so I returned to the task at hand.

The next day: Que sorpresa! They sang a happy birthday song to him, knowing that I could get it uploaded to him by that evening. At first I thought they were going to sing “Feliz Cumpleaños,” which is what all good Grade 9 Spanish language students learn, but they didn’t. Well, they did, but it’s nothing like you can imagine until you’ve heard it. There was a moment when I wasn’t sure what paradise I had come into. It was a kind of ecstasy of love that electrified and healed. For those of you who have an ear for a proper Spanish accent, I do not, and for my own pronunciation I offer you mis más sinceras disculpas. Take a listen:

Some notes:

  • I was there at their request.
  • It was not a mission trip.
  • They paid me to be there. I watched them do it, each individual, with cash, every day, for two sessions per day for ten days.
  • Suyapa Beach is a magnificent place to rest and relax during that all-important free weekend.
  • They apply what I teach them, for better and for worse, all around. That is, I learn, and they learn. My learning is far easier than theirs. Describing it requires a lengthy post, mostly involving family relationships.
  • I got sick. Look: I get sick when I visit Michigan, so it was a given that I was going to get sick visiting the tropics. At one point I convinced myself that I was going to perish of a tropical fever, but they took care of me, and I had the distinct impression they liked that they could take care of me.
  • A little bragging: after my first time down there they have requested me by name, that I come to them to teach them, cycling through new students once every three or four years. We have a mutual respect–love–for each other.

Helter Skelter

Right ascension 06h 45m 08.9173s declination −16° 42′ 58.017″ in the constellation Canis Majoris sits Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. A binary system, the colloquial name for Sirius is the dog star, and it is an ill omen. Those hellish dog days of summer, when the sweat pools and the hungry files swarm owe their name to the pre-dawn arrival of the beast star, Lucifer, light-bringer, the scourge of nations.  Continue reading “Helter Skelter”

Negotiating with Anger

In the Stoic psychology, anger, like all of the passions, is a source of irrationality and vice. Seneca has the most complete treatment available to us, and it includes many descriptions of the undignified behavior of people in the thrall of this passion. The Stoic ideal was apatheia; the absence of passions. This did not mean the absence of emotion; the distinction between destructive passions on the one hand, emotions on the other, and reason, is a not entirely untenable taxonomy. That apathy has come to mean not only a lack of passion, but a lack of motivation, initiative, or willpower, is surely a mark of the triumph of Stoicism’s intellectual enemies.

Aristotle had a different take on anger. For him, all emotions were to an extent cognitive; they had intentionality and were based on beliefs. Moreover, having the right emotional response to the right degree for the right reason was an important part of a virtuous character. Erroneous of inappropriate anger was a sign of a character flaw.

Yesterday, I was very angry about something. It began to boil first thing in the morning, on my way to work. It hit me very hard for a duration of about 20 minutes later that afternoon. This anger is of a very particular kind. I remember the first time I felt it—it was, in fact, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then, I indulged in some very spiteful and nasty plans for the objects of my anger. Fortunately, my lack of self-restraint was coupled with a complete and utter cowardice, and so no rash actions were taken.

Yesterday morning, I had spent my commute talking myself down to a reasonable state of mind. Once at work, I threw myself into my responsibilities. When the time finally came to discuss the object of my anger, it went very well—I had less to be angry about than I thought I did, if it’s even appropriate to think of the situation in terms of what I have to be angry about.

Yet it was after that conversation that I was really overtaken by the anger. I very nearly saw red; it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming or thrashing about or otherwise making a scene. I did keep myself from such childish behavior, and thankfully the moment passed.

In Aristotle’s scheme, I exercised self-control but lack true temperance. In the Stoic binary of 0 = non-virtuous, 1 = virtuous, I am a clean 0.

For my part, I don’t know why I got so mad when I got so mad. Mostly, I am glad I weathered it without doing anything stupid. Maybe that’s the most that can be expected from someone so intemperate.

It’s certainly a start.


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Paper Lotus

Enkidu. Iolaus. Robin. Wiglaf. Patroclus. Jōtarō. Tonto. Watson. Short Round. Samwise. Little John. Without the sidekick, the hero dwells in a void, defined only by the story’s adversity. The second fiddle is the alternative. The reader is invited to don the mask of the doughty Gilgamesh, to shoulder Frodo’s burden, because in the real world that is, that was, in the world that invited us to read, to forget for a moment our frailties—in this world the sidekick is us. The old stories weren’t told to give the few Bruce Waynes that exist nor the occasional Gandalf in our midst insight into the secrets to living a life of mighty import. Rather, the audience is assumed to be the unwashed wild man sitting at the feet of the immaculate hero. The author’s bitter moral lessons are sweetened when sipped from the hero’s chalice. Only when the epilogue is finished and the credits roll does the audience resume their grim toil, buoyed a little perhaps by a lingering lesson. A thousand browbeating sermons can’t match the persuasion of a single story, well told. Virtue is an aspiration, not an obligation. And aspiration is a hardy weed. Continue reading “Paper Lotus”