The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Role of Fiction in Promoting Liberty

A woman sat down with some paper, pen in hand, and started to write. Line by line she wrote out in longhand the plot she had devised. The characters she would invent would become known to a large percentage of the public.

She had a message, something she wanted to say. And, when she was finished, she had written a novel that helped spawn a political movement that changed the face of America.

Many viciously attacked her. The literary elite would pan the novel, claiming it was too melodramatic, yet in the century it was written it’s influence was only second to the Bible. The novel created a firestorm, with many praising it highly, while others seemed obsessed with attacking it. In the first years it sold some 300,000 copies. Some years later, during a time of national crisis, it suddenly became a best seller once again.

That woman was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the novel was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe was appalled at the existence of slavery, and wrote in a white heat, trying to show the world the evil of this thing called slavery.

Many antislavery books had previously been written. Serious books discussing the detrimental effects of slavery were not uncommon. Theological treatises, for and against, were published and barely read. But, within one year of publication, Stowe’s little book had sold 300,000 copies. Although, only published in book form in 1852, no other book, except the Bible, sold more copies during the entire 19th century.

Let us contrast, for a moment, the reception of this work with the pamphlets of a hero of the libertarian movement: Lysander Spooner. Spooner, like Stowe, was an ardent abolitionist and his work, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, was important. But Spooner’s work was mainly debated by the already-converted. In comparison, Spooner’s work mostly influenced those already won over to the abolitionist cause.

Stowe’s novel did something no serious discussion of slavery, such as Spooner’s, managed to do — capture the attention of the public and create widespread disgust at the institution of slavery.

The role of fiction in promoting ideas is vastly underestimated by the friends of freedom. That is rather odd since so many of us became passionate about liberty because of novels they themselves read.

Storytelling makes issues real to people. Be it a novel or a film, or television show, a tale is told using specific characters as the vehicle for communication. Instead of reading some discourse on an issue you see the issue dramatized before you eyes.

The typical reader cannot but help identify with the main characters of a story. And, through their experiences, the reader too experiences what they do.

The American public, when they read Stowe’s book, could not escape the feeling that they too had been enslaved. The plight of slaves became their own. In this novel, the slave Eliza learns that her owner has sold her son. She cannot stand the idea her child will be taken from her and she flees with the boy, hoping to reach freedom in Canada. Now, what parent, mother especially, reading this story would not identify with Eliza?

Slavery was no longer something that happened to “other” people. They saw slavery through the eyes of Eliza. And it inspired many of them to become fervent abolitionists. Slavers so feared the book that they banned it from sale in the South.

It is often forgotten that many people adopt their political and moral views of the world from the mythology they consume, be it books, film or television. By interacting with the stories, and the characters, they come to investigate issues and ideas they often would not otherwise consider.

Many individuals are not even aware they adopt their beliefs about life through the popular culture. But, often when they try to explain why they believe something, they will refer to the character from a book or film. Many popular beliefs have entered the culture through the medium of story telling.

Yet, most advocates of freedom ignore this important transmission belt for ideas. They produce monographs and tomes on serious and profound topics. And, all this is good and well. But, they seem to have trouble getting these ideas across the general public. The vehicles they choose to express their ideas are not the vehicles of the popular cultur,e, but of the intellectual elite.

If you ignore the cultural tools that reach the general public then you shouldn’t be surprised when you fail to reach them. Yet, so many lovers of liberty will tell you how they were inspired to their lifelong pursuit of individual freedom through the reading of novels such as Atlas Shrugged or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Story telling has been part of human history from the very beginning. All the great religions of the world were spread by the method of telling stories. Every day the average member of the public is exposed to dozens of stories and rarely exposed to anything of an academic nature. So what do the advocates of liberty produce?

Clearly the role of storytelling, in all its formats, needs to be reconsidered and revived. Stories can have profound and lasting impacts on people. And, what story is more precious and more important than the story of liberty? So, why are we ignoring it?

Other novels, came to play important roles in American politics, after the Civil War as well, for instance, consider the rise of the Progressive movement with its socialist ideology. The public wasn’t reading Marx or Engels, but they were reading novels.

One of the most popular books of the early Progressive era was Ignatius Donnelly’s novel Caesar’s Column, which was a sort of Progressive Atlas Shrugged. Donnelly sets his story in 1988 where a vicious dictatorship controls America. He argues, of course, that because the Progressives were ignored in the 1890s this evil system was imposed because of the “greed” of the social elite. The system finally collapses and decays even further into a modern version of the French Revolution. New York City is finally destroyed, but as Hofstadter describes, “a saving remnant of decent folk escapes in a dirigible to the African mountains, where under the guidance of an elite of intellectuals they form a Christian socialist state in which the Populist program for land, transportation, and finance becomes a reality and interest is illegal.”

Crusading Progressive journalist William Allen White wrote a book in 1910 called The Old Order Changeth that Richard Hofstadter says is “a statement of what was probably the dominant popular philosophy of politics.” In the book White argues that: “Altruism is gaining strength for some future struggle with the atomic force of egoism in society.” He said: “Democracy is at base, altruism expressed in terms of self-government.” According to White individuals no longer would pursue their own self-interest but live for the sake of the collective good.

As influential as these books were, the one book that most changed American politics was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards. Bellamy wrote of a futuristic America where socialism reigns. In its first year of publication, 1888, the book sold 100,000 copies and eventually topped a million copies in print and was translated into 20 languages. As a work of American fiction it was only surpassed in the Nineteenth Century by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur. John Dewey, the advocate of state-controlled schooling, called Bellamy his “Great American Prophet” and said: “What Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery movement Bellamy’s book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new social order….” Dewey took many of his socialist ideals for education and indoctrination from Bellamy. Historian John Baer said Dewey “was ready to advocate Edward Bellamy’s type of education and to reform American society through ‘progressive education.”

In the novel Julian West falls asleep in 1887 only to awaken in the year 2000. He finds an America where the means of production are owned by the state and everyone earns equal incomes. The government assigns jobs to conscripts who must work for the state from the age of 21 until retirement at 45.

Edward, along with his cousin Francis Bellamy, were the two major spokesmen for what they called nationalism, by which they meant the nationalizing of all industry under political control. The Bellamy cousins helped form an organization to promote these ideas in 1889 called the Society for Christian Socialists who stated:

The principles [of the society] stated that economic rights and powers were gifts of God, not for the receiver’s use only, but for the benefit of all. All social, political and industrial relations should be based on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Capitalism was not based on Christian love but on selfish individualism.

These novels did not merely explain the social problems of the day. They did not rely on statistics, charts or make an empirical case for their solutions. They told stories and won people over to their ideas through them. They presented a moral lesson to the public through the use of mythology, or stories designed to teach us how to act.

The success of socialism cannot be explained by the obtuse writings of Marx, Lenin or Stalin. Socialism succeeded because it told stories about people. It projected real problems and posited solutions but it did so to a large degree through novels, films, songs, or television. Socialism tapped into the use of myths. And myths are stories that cultures use to transmit values from generation to generation and from person to person.

Lenin said of all the arts “the motion picture is for us the most important.” Why would that be? Because films tell stories. They make principles real. This is why Wordsworth Donisthrope, the British radical libertarian, in the 1880s was one of the first to study the technology of moving pictures. Donisthorpe and his cousin, also a libertarian, William Carr Crofts invented a moving picture camera in 1889 and filmed the traffic in Trafalgar Square in London in 1890, a small clip of that film survives. Donisthorpe said that new inventions of Edison, which recorded voice could be combined with his technology to produce moving pictures that talked. As an aside I should mention that Croft’s sister, also Donisthorpe’s cousin, of course, married the son of Charles Darwin.

Donisthorpe wanted to use film to promote libertarian ideas to the public especially to workers who were less inclined to read books.

Marx said the working classes would never be won to Revolutionary communism until intellectuals and artists are won over. In the Daily Worker the film producer Muzenberg said of film: “One of the most pressing tasks to confront Communist Parties on the field of agitation and propaganda is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda weapon, until now the monopoly of the ruling class: we must wrest it from them and turn it against them.”

Of course, while many took Muzenberg’s advice, and hoped to use film to promote collectivist ideals, Ayn Rand had other ideas. She said: “It’s time we realize — as the Reds do — that spreading our ideas in the form of fiction is a great weapon, because it arouses the public to an emotion, as well as intellectual response to our cause.”

Before she adopted the nom d’plume of Ayn Rand, Alyssa Rosenbaum enrolled in the State Institute for Cinematography, in 1924 to study screenwriting. She regularly attended films in St. Petersburg and her first published essay was entitled: Hollywood: American City of Movies. It told the story of Cecil B. DeMille, a man she would meet only a few years later and who would giver her a start in writing.

Rand acknowledged that she, and her philosophy, challenged two thousand years of Western tradition. The questions to be answered are: From whence did the Western tradition come and how is it that Rand has had such an impact?

As Rand noted, the dominant philosophy of Western society has been that of altruism. Man lives and exists for the sake of others. Individual initiative and individual profit, have been allowed at times, but always on the promise they serve others. Capitalism, when reluctantly justified, was at best excused because it produced good things for others.

Now very few people, in any culture, adopt their values through conscious thought. The dominant ideas in a society are usually absorbed though a process of intellectual osmosis. What then was the unifying source of Western values that led to the crisis the world faced when Rand threw down her gauntlet?

Western values were inherently Christian values. The stories of Christianity, far more than individual theological debates, were the foundation of the altruistic values Rand challenged.

At the center of the Christian mythology is the crucifixion: the idea of sacrificing the best for the unworthy. Most Christians, and hence most Westerners, had heard the stories of the rich man burning in hell while his servant was in paradise. Common in all Western languages are New Testament slogans such as: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” or “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

The story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man is a well-known parable of Jesus. Both die and the beggar is taken to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man “in hell …lifted up his eyes” to see the pleasures of the beggar. Many know the story of Mary being told she is to give birth to the Son of God. She praises God and then denounces the rich in the process. Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount said: “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe unto you that are rich!” James, the brother of Christ, warned: “Do not rich men oppress you and draw you before the judgement seats?”

Such stories were told for two thousand years. Long before a literate public could read the Bible for themselves they were aware of these stories and embraced them. As theologian Michael Novak admitted the “gospel accounts amply supply… a rhetoric to be employed against riches and the rich.” Author Barbara Ward, in Faith and Freedom, wrote: “Communism owes its immense vitality more to its biblical vision of the mighty put down and the poor raised up than to its theories of value or its interpretation of history.”

Conservative sociologist Peter Berger said in his book, The Capitalist Revolution, that capitalism is almost completely devoid of myths while socialism “has been singularly blessed with myth-generating potency”. It isn’t just that socialists invent new myths but their ideology can be tied in with myths already in dominance in our cultures. Berger said the roots of socialism, “are undoubtedly in the communitarian tradition of Western Christianity. It is an ideal of justice, equality, and redemptive community that goes back to the earliest times of the Christian Church…” Berger says Marx wove “this emotionally and religiously charged vision” with scientific jargon and explanations. Marx could appeal to Christian mythology and to scientific rationalism simultaneously. Without the Christian myths behind it, Marxism would have been another dry economic theory. In fact, Berger notes that hardly “more than a handful could have been converted to the revolutionary faith by the pretty much unreadable prose of those ponderous tomes.” Yet Marx was able to tap into the minds of millions. His appeal to envious resentment and his ability to use common Christian myths allowed him to win millions of fervent converts. Marxism has always been fundamentally a religious movement, not a political one.

Berger has also noted that other concepts of Christian mythology have been used to underpin Marxism:

As Nicholas Berdyaev and other critics of Marxism have argued (and some advocates of Marxism as well, notably Ernst Bloch), there is a more specifically biblical theme that has played an important role in the popular appeal of Marxism — the theme of eschatology. That is, Marxism can be understood as a peculiar secularised version of the classical biblical view of history as consisting of a fall from grace, a set of redemptive events embodied in a human community, and as a leading up to a great climax that will bring ordinary history to an end. Marxism has substituted private property and its “alienations” for original sin, the revolutionary process for the kairoi of God’s redemptive activity, the proletariat (and later, with Lenin, the party as the “vanguard of the proletariat”) for the church, and the attainment of true communism for the advent of the Kingdom of God. Critics of Marxism (such as Berdyaev) have, of course, taken these parallels as grounds for dismissing it as a sort of Christian aberration. It is important to stress, however, that some Marxist have taken the same parallels as grounds for claiming that this revolutionary creed rightfully embodies the deepest human aspirations of Western history.

The pro-capitalist Catholic conservative, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in his book Leftism, wrote that the “the ethical content of Christianity fosters and promotes the temptation toward socialism… Along the path of the socialist utopia lies a day of judgement when the humble will be exalted and the rich and might brutally dispossessed.”

Berger notes that myths legitimise ideologies and systems. He wrote:

“To make the two statements offered thus far….to wit, that socialism has strong mythic power and that capitalism has little if any — is not to ignore other myths operative in the contemporary world. Throughout most of human history, of course, religion was the source of all myths. The ideas that legitimated social order and that inspired human beings to sacrifice their own interests if not their lives to a social purpose were rooted in religious experience. Indeed, speaking sociologically, one can say that such legitimisation has been the principle social function of religion from archaic times to the present.”

Berger is correct when he says that cultures use their myths. The myths of the past often point the way to the future. Socialism has the mythology of two millenniums of Christianity behind it. Capitalism doesn’t.

Liberal capitalism was undermined constantly by the Gospels and the Church. The fundamental institution of private property, and private production, cannot be found in the teachings of Christ. As Ludwig von Mises wrote: “No art of interpretation can find a single passage in the New Testament that could be read as upholding private property.” Mises said that the words of Jesus “are full of resentment against the rich and that the only reason he did not declare war on them was that vengeance belongs to God.” The teachings of Christ, said Mises, contained much which would “support those who incite the world to hatred of the rich, revenge, murder and arson.”

In his discourse on the various forms of socialism, he wrote: “Up to the time of modern Socialism no movement against private property which has arisen in the Christian world has failed to seek authority in Jesus, the Apostles, and the Christian Fathers, not to mention those who, like Tolstoy, made the Gospel resentment against the rich the very heart and soul of their teaching.”

The Church was impotent to ward off communistic attacks on property, said Mises, because of the New Testament. And it is equally absurd, he said, to attribute the rise of socialism to the Enlightenment. He wrote:

“It would be foolish to maintain that Enlightenment, by undermining the religious feelings of the masses, had cleared the way for Socialism. On the contrary, it is the resistance, which the Church has offered to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the destructive resentment of modern socialist thought. Not only has the Church done nothing to extinguish the fire, it has even blown upon the embers. … True, the official Church tried at first to resist these movements, but it had to submit in the end, just because it was defenceless against the words of the Scriptures.”

Rand countered this problem in two ways. She used the power of myth-building to convey contrary values. Her use of fiction, as the means to convey her thoughts, allowed her to reify ideas. She built up a countervailing mythology challenging the dominant ethics of the culture. Using traditional storytelling, in the form of a novel, meant she reached a wider audience in a way people understood. She did not attempt to explain ideas and their ramifications, as much as show them.

Secondly, Rand openly challenged the religious beliefs that were the foundation for these values. Rand said the problem with conservatism was it mixed religion with capitalism thus implying “there are no rational grounds on which one can defend capitalism.”

Conservatism also embraced the very ethics, which justified socialism. The conservative argument was inherently a self-defeating one. Christian altruism meant “men had to regard capitalism as immoral; capitalism certainly does not and cannot work on the principle of selfless service and sacrifice. This was the reason why the majority of nineteenth-century intellectuals regarded capitalism as a vulgar, uninspiring, materialistic necessity on this earth, and continued to long for their unearthly moral ideal.”

Rand’s mythic Promethean characters dramatized the results of altruistic morality. More than anything else this is the root of so much of the condemnation of her work. Her new myths inspired thousands of people to become passionate about the concepts of individual freedom and capitalism. For the first time in 2,000 years there was widespread enthusiasm for a morality that embraced rational self-interest.

Rand realized the economic errors of socialism had been “exposed and refuted time and time again” but: “This did not and does not stop anyone; it is not an issue of economics, but of morality.” And it is here that Rand made her greatest contribution. She directly challenged Christian altruism and then, by using the mythic tales of her novels to convey that challenge, she made real her values much in the way the parables of Christ made real the values of altruism. This dynamic combination of myth and truth inspired tens of thousands of people to embrace freedom and is directly responsible for much of the freedom movement of today. And that is a great achievement.

In conclusion I want to take some of what we have learned here and apply it to one of the hot political issues of the day. From my analysis I think we can see why the debate has shifted so dramatically in such a short space of time.

To illustrate my thesis let us look at the debate about marriage equality. Not long ago the Pew Research Center reported that 37% of Americans favored gay marriage and 54% opposed it. One year later those in favor had jumped by 5 points and those opposed had dropped by 6 points. If civil unions are included fully two-thirds of Americas favored some sort of legally recognized relationship for gay couples. If we go back to 2003 the same survey showed that for ever one person who favored legal recognition of some kind, two opposed it. In five years the numbers have reversed. One indication of the dramatic shift is that today the main opposition to allowing gays to marriage comes from evangelicals. Yet even 20% of them now support marriage equality. The first Pew survey to ask this question was in 1996, at which time only 27% of the public favored gay marriage while 65% opposed it. Today those numbers are almost entirely reversed! (Note: the most recent poll has support at 71%. Chart updated July, 2022)

Pollsters have long said shifts in social attitudes come at the pace of glaciers, or perhaps worse, at the pace of change within the Vatican. Social viewpoints change slowly.

Why such shifts? Compare the political discourse of the two sides. Those who oppose marriage equality attempt to appeal to tradition, to religion, or to vague, imagined threats that might befall us if two men or women can get married. They argue theoretical possibilities as the main foundation for their case.

On the other side there are millions of gay people who respond by telling their stories.

Consider Patrick Atkins who met his partner, Brett Conrad, in 1978 when both were students at Wabash College. Over the years Patrick built a very successful business. It was on a business trip to Atlanta where he suffered a stroke that left him unable to fend for himself.

His mother, who was fanatically religious, rushed down there and ordered the hospital to keep Brett away from her son. She felt their relationship, then of 25 years, was sinful and against her faith. She put her son in a nursing home, not wishing to personally care for him personally, something Brett was willing to do. When the nursing home allowed Brett to visit, during times Jeanne Atkins wasn’t around, the woman had her son transferred to her home and hired a nurse to care for him. She refused to allow Brett in the house and hung up on him when he tried to call.

Meanwhile, she had taken the business her son had built up, confiscated his bank accounts and grabbed his home as well, ordering Brett to move out. A judge, who looked at the custody dispute recognized Brett and Patrick had been together longer than Brett had ever lived with his parents. But under marriage law Brett had no legal relationship to Patrick. The judge very reluctantly allowed Jeanne to keep custody of her now disabled son, and his wealth, saying there was nothing he could do.

Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond had been together for 18 years. They had four children in their family. The two women and their three oldest children flew to Florida to join a cruise for gay families. But shortly after boarding, before the ship sailed, Lisa suffered a stroke and was rushed to hospital.

For 8 hours she laid alone in her room dying. The woman she had loved for 18 years was forbidden to visit because she wasn’t family under Florida law. Even the children were told they were not family. The couple had legal documents granting one another such rights but the hospital refused to recognize them because of Florida’s anti-equality laws in regards to marriage. Pond’s sister was allowed to visit, she was family.

It was only when a priest came to perform last rites that he sneaked Langbehn into the room so she could hold the hand of her partner as she died.

Charlene Strong and Kate Fleming were partners for 9 years. Kate owned a major audio book company and did much of the narration herself. One day Kate was working in the basement recording studio set up for audio books. That day the house was hit by a flash flood, trapping Kate. Charlene tried to rescue her but couldn’t. The fire department attempted as well and failed. They finally drilled through the ceiling to get to Kate. Kate was rushed to hospital but Charlene was denied access because she was not “related” to Kate. The hospital said she must first have a distant relative’s permission before she would be allowed to be with her spouse.

One reason for the dramatic shift in public opinion has been the increase in story-telling. Gay couples have stepped forward to speak out about their lives and the difficulties imposed by second-class citizenship.

As they have, the popular culture has reflected that as well. Today it is no longer shocking that gay people exist, that gay relationships exist. People have watched films and television shows which tell stories. And from those stories they drew conclusions about life. We have seen a dramatic shift in public opinions because so many people have finally heard the stories of gay couple and responded to those stories. Many of these stories, such as these three, are true stories. Others are fictional depictions.

I dare say that more young Americans got their attitudes about gay people from Glee, Will & Grace, and other TV shows than from the Bible.

But fiction, or non-fiction, stories are the way our species has learned values since shortly after we first climbed out of the trees. We have always used stories to transmit values from one generation to another, from one person to another. The power of story telling to produce change should not be underestimated. The shift in the marriage debate is largely due to it.

This illustrates precisely why libertarians need to spend more time telling compelling stories. We have economists aplenty. There is no longer a shortage of libertarian philosophers or academics. But the tools by which ideas are transmitted to the public, the story-telling industry of films, novels, cartoons, and television lack our input.

Libertarians who want to change the world should now turn their skills, not to economics, but to scriptwriting, not to philosophy, but to novels. We need to follow the example of Rand and tell stories. Fiction is the major means by which the bulk of Americans learn their values. Yet is one area libertarians too often neglect.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.