Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: Molôn Labé!

Molôn Labé!
by Boston T. Party
Javelin Press, 2004, $24.00, 454 pp.

Synopsis: A group of libertarians relocate to Wyoming, assume political control of the state, and create a libertarian society.

My rule of thumb when reviewing books -- especially books whose authors have sent me free review copies -- is "if you don't have something nice to say, say nothing at all." I adhere to that rule rigorously enough that I generally interpret it to mean "unless my quibbles with the book are so minor as to be inconsequential, I'm just not going to review it -- it's impolite to bite the hand that sends review copies."

From the next paragraph, the reader might reasonably construe this review as a violation of the rule. That's why I'm going to take the unusual measure of asking the reader to mentally commit to reading beyond the next paragraph. Okay, then:

Molôn Labé! is a train wreck as a novel, repugnant as a philosophical treatise, annoying as a political manifesto and unrealistic as a tactical or strategic blueprint or plan.

And I love it.

Yes, you read that correctly. I've read the book twice now. I intend to read it a third time. I heartily recommend it as required reading for anyone who claims to be interested in the future of freedom on the North American continent. As a matter of fact, I can't help but consider a willingness to read it as a test of the seriousness of those making such claims.

Let's take this from the top, going through my objections and why those objections don't matter.

- Molôn Labé! is a train wreck as a novel

I have a great deal of respect for Boston T. Party as a writer, based on public and personal correspondence, and on his non-fiction work, especially Boston's Gun Bible.

I was therefore surprised to find that, as a novel, Molôn Labé! is, to quote a number of other reviewers, a "mess." The story changes tenses, seemingly at random and sometimes within the same sentence. The typos and grammar problems occur frequently enough to peg my "insane obsession with incorrect usage" meter. The book jumps from vignette to vignette. Interspersed between the narrative elements are speeches, quotes, synopses of political and cultural developments at the point the plot has reached, and other distractions which constantly threaten to overwhelm the story.

But ... they don't overwhelm the story. It comes through loud and clear. Somewhere around the middle of the book, I paused in my obsessing over this ... this ... this literary calamity ... and realized that I hadn't put it down since picking it up. That I couldn't put it down. And that I was desperate to know what happened next. Congratulations, Mr. Party. Your writing style is highly irregular, as were Joyce's and Faulkner's. I've still never finished wading through Finnegan's Wake or The Sound and the Fury. But I've finished Molôn Labé!. Twice.

The measure of a book's worth as fiction, it seems to me, is whether or not it engages the reader. Molôn Labé! does.

- Molôn Labé! is repugnant as a philosophical treatise

There's some overlap between this complaint and

- Molôn Labé! is annoying as a political manifesto

... so I'll handle both complaints at once.

Boston T. Party is, it seems, a "conservative" libertarian. Or, at least, he regards conservatives as more philosophically and politically inclined toward comity with libertarians and sympathy with libertarian ideas. This translates to the political realm in the statement (included in the non-fiction appendix The Wyoming Report), "Since 57% of Wyomingites are registered Republicans, and since Republicans are closer to our political philosophy than are Democrats, we must focus most of our efforts on them."

Party's culturally conservative orientation (and apparent Christian faith) does not dominate the book, but it certainly colors the judgments that Party renders, both in the fictional realm and where he crosses over into actual advocacy.

Now, I happen to be a partisan Democrat, a "left" libertarian and, in many ways, about as un-conservative as one can get (and I think I have a fair handle on what conservatism is). I don't have a problem with conservatives as such. I believe that a libertarian polity would enable them to realize their core values. But I believe that a libertarian polity would also allow non-conservatives to realize their core values, and I disagree with Party's contention that conservatives are by nature more amenable to adopting libertarian ideas than liberals.

All in all, however, this is a minor defect. Molôn Labé!'s audience is probably primarily on the "conservative" end of the spectrum to the extent that that spectrum has any meaning at all. And if Party's plan proceeds, the worst result of his apparent miscalculation is likely to be a pleasant surprise when Wyoming's Democratic counties turn out to be more supportive than expected.

- Molôn Labé! is unrealistic as a tactical or strategic blueprint or plan

Well, uh, c'mon, folks. The book is about a bunch of libertarians moving to Wyoming and, in a coordinated political "attack" spread over 15 years, turning it libertarian and bringing it to the point of effectively seceding from the United States.

It has to be unrealistic. Here's why:

1. If it was realistic, Boston T. Party wouldn't have time to write it, because he'd be in the middle, instead of at the beginning of making it happen.

2. If it was realistic, the book wouldn't be necessary. It is the promotion of unrealistic ideas which, over time, creates the context in which they cease to be unrealistic.

When Molôn Labé! was being written, and at the time of its release, the 2004 election had not yet occurred. Who would have predicted, prior to that election, that the Left would be bandying about secessionist ideas by the beginning of 2005?

The last great American secession -- that of 1860-1865 -- seemed to explode out of nowhere. But that is an historical illusion which exists largely because the winners of wars write their histories. The roots of secession went back nearly to the beginning of the nation, and a number of individuals (William Yancey, Edmund Ruffin et al) had been working hard for southern secession for decades before it "suddenly" became a reality.

There's a growing body of secessionist literature -- fiction and non-fiction -- proliferating in America right now (see, for example, The Third Revolution by Anthony F. Lewis). A decade or three from now, when secession "suddenly" arises as a reality, that body of literature will be largely responsible, whether it is acknowledged as such or not.

I'm still not ready to move to Wyoming (although I hope to visit the state again next year). I'm already committed to eventually moving to New Hampshire pursuant to the Free State Project's plan, and as yet see no reason to seek release from that commitment, and I have an interim enclave in mind as well (without being explicit, I'll just point out that I am a southerner by both birth and inclination). But those who write off Party's Free State Wyoming project are making a serious mistake. I already know of libertarians who have relocated there, and they are people of quality and character with records of doing what they set out to do.

A number of friends in the tech industry have noted, in various words, that the slicker a startup's business plan and prospectus, the less likely it is that there's any underlying substance. People compensate for a lack of substance with a slick presentation. They're hoping to clean up and sell out before the thing caves in. And while the opposite is not necessarily true, I suspect that in the case of Molôn Labé!, it is. Defects in Boston T. Party's writing and a rough-hewn presentation of his plan do not diminish the power of his vision. And a fine vision it is.

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