The Remnant Goes Surfing

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In
a previous
essay
, “Isaiah’s Digital Job,” I wrote about Albert J. Nock’s
classic 1937 essay, "Isaiah’s
Job.”
I argued that the World Wide Web is the digital incarnation
of Nock’s vision of how the Remnant operates. I want to expand
on this thought briefly.

I
got my first full-time job in 1971, when I was hired by the Foundation
for Economic Education, located in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
I suspect that more people back then knew FEE more by its odd-sounding
location than by its full name. FEE was Leonard E. Read’s foundation,
the midwife of all libertarian organizations. (The mother was
the William Volker Fund, but that’s another story.) Read established
it in 1946 with a loan from the Volker Fund. A decade later, FEE
acquired the rights to the name of Nock’s old magazine, The
Freeman. It became FEE’s flagship. FEE was better known for
The Freeman than for its name or its address. (Recently,
The Freeman’s name was changed to Ideas on Liberty,
the magazine’s old subtitle, which I regard as comparable to changing
the name “Coca-Cola” to “Dark Sweet Fizzy Water.”)

The
Freeman became the entry-level monthly publication for tens
of thousands of libertarians and conservatives, back when there
were no right-wing think tanks or computerized mailing lists.
In 1971, Jerome Tuccille wrote a little book on how a lot of people
got into libertarianism. It was titled, It
Usually Begins With Ayn Rand
. He was wrong, even though
the book was fun to read. It usually began with The Freeman.

When
you talk to someone with gray hair, who begins jabbering about
the bad old days in the ideological trenches, pre-Reagan or even
pre-Schlafly, ask him how he found out about free market economics.
More than likely, you’ll hear, “Somebody handed me a copy of The
Freeman. I don’t recall who.” It’s not that Alzheimer’s is
making an early appearance. Almost nobody remembers who did the
deed. (I do, but she was memorable: part of a feminine cadre in
Southern California famous for their obscure book collections,
their newspaper clippings with underlines, and their car-less
garages stacked with old Congressional Records. She had
trained many of those women. Then she trained me. You may have
heard of the little old ladies in tennis shoes. She bought me
my very first pair of nut-case Keds. They fit just fine.)

The
Freeman became the premier tool of the libertarian Remnant.
People selectively handed out copies to a few of their friends.
One by one, readers gravitated toward what Read called the freedom
philosophy. The ones who really understood Read’s philosophy remained
low key. This is why almost nobody can quite recall where he got
his first copy.

The
Masses

Understandably,
Nock had little use for politics. Politics requires votes. Votes
require campaigns. Votes require mass appeals to the masses. In
his essay, Nock contrasted the Remnant with the masses.

As
the word masses is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of
poor and underprivileged people, laboring people, proletarians.
But it means nothing like that; it means simply the majority.
The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to
apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane
life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles
steadily and strictly as laws of conduct, and because such people
make up the great, the overwhelming majority of mankind, they
are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation
between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality,
not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect
are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character
are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are
those who are unable to do either.

Nock
was convinced that it was futile for someone with a new, path-breaking
idea of merit to attempt to persuade the masses of its truth.
This is not how good ideas spread and take hold of a culture,
he said.

“Don’t
Call Them. They’ll Call You. Maybe.”

The
Remnant is the proper target for really good, really innovative
ideas. But members of the Remnant are not easily identifiable.
In fact, Nock said, they are invisible.

You
do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them.
You can be sure of those — dead sure, as our phrase is — but you will
never be able to make even a respectable guess at any else. You
do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor where
they are, nor how many of them there are, nor what they are doing
or will do. Two things you know, and no more: first, that they
exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties,
working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness;
and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most
effectively to pique the interest of any prophet, who is properly
gifted with the imagination, insight, and intellectual curiosity
necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.

This
brings me to the topic at hand: the Web. The
Web was invented by. . . . you don’t know, do you? Well, maybe
you do. It was an application for the Internet that was developed
by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990. He even named it. But he did not patent
it. He gets no royalties from it. He is not well known. He does
not own 80% of the shares of a billion dollar dot-com. He is,
in the best sense of the word, a member of the Remnant. He invented
what is probably the ultimate tool of the Remnant: a digital place
that is not a geographical place, where the Remnant’s members
can pursue ideas without calling attention to their presence.

Hierarchies
of power are being quietly undermined by the Web. The Establishment
hardly knows what to do about this. A case in point: late Saturday
evening, on January
17
, 1998, a high school drop-out named Matt Drudge sent an
e-mail to his mailing list regarding a Newsweek article
about an unnamed White House intern. This article had just been
suppressed by a Newsweek editor — “spiked,” as they
say in the industry. Drudge sent out e- mail follow-ups over the
next few days, also posting them on his Web site, www.drudgereport.com.
From Monday through Wednesday, the White House’s Press Secretary
did his best to keep a lid on Drudge’s report, making it difficult for
reporters to report on it
, but by Thursday, it was the hottest news story in America.

A
funny thing, though: salaried reporters in the conventional media
were not impressed with Drudge, or so their silence implied. On
Wednesday, January 21, Michael Isikoff, who had handed in the
original article about the unnamed intern only four days before,
wrote a detailed, hot-off-the-digital-press account about why
there were perfectly good journalistic reasons why the Monica
Lewinsky story had been spiked. Yes, he had been working on the
story for a year, but he had needed more time, more confirmations.
Somehow, he also failed to mention Matt Drudge’s role in the news
distribution process. Isikoff wrote the following on Newsweek’s
America Online
page: “On Tuesday, Jan. 20, the story began
to leak out to a number of news organizations.”

Leak
out? This is reminiscent of Wilford Brimley’s great lines in "Absence
of Malice," a 1981 movie about journalism and government
officials who get caught in a scandal. Brimley, who plays a senior
government lawyer with a down-home, country-boy accent, confronts
the panicked lower officials. They tell him that their sincere,
well-intentioned efforts had been undermined by a leak. His response:
"A leak? You call what’s going on here a leak? The last time
we had a leak like this, Noah built hisself a boat."

How
was Drudge able to do all this from his apartment? No one really
knows, including Drudge. It surely was not planned. As Adam Ferguson
put it 250 years ago, this was one of those events which was "the
consequence of human action, not of human design."

Today,
there is no other Web site even close to his in the size of its
dedicated readership. Why is his site the first choice daily for
who knows how many tens of thousands of readers? Who puts up the
money to keep it on line? It has two unobtrusive banner ads. There
is no mailing list. Yet the day after the undecided Presidential
election was held, 70% of those who tried to access his site could
not get through. It jammed up.

Spontaneous
Order

There
is a Remnant out there. There are many Remnants. They have search
engines and cheap access to the Web. They send out brief e-mails
with addresses embedded or Web pages attached. They develop mailing
lists of interested people. They leave few traces.

No
one organized this. It is what F. A. Hayek called the spontaneous
order. It has happened in a 60-month period. It has already changed
the world. The changes have just gotten started.

What
do we see so far? E-commerce? By the billions. Price
competition beyond anything imagined five years ago? It’s here.
Political recruiting and mobilization? Of course. A universal,
free encyclopedia? Yes. But, far most important, and without much
awareness on the part of social theorists or news anchormen, the
Web has become the impersonal digital tool of highly personal
groups of people, who, one way or the other, find out about a
site in much the same way that people found out about The Freeman
four decades ago. “Somebody sent me a link. I can’t recall who.”

Lenin
sought to create the ultimate transmission belt of political power.
He wanted to push here and get a predictable result there. He
believed that Communism’s hierarchical structure, coupled with
terror, would provide this. Some version of this has been the
vision of every builder of every top-down empire in history. The
vision is misguided. The systems always fail. Life is not structured
in terms of a transmission belt. But fools who think they can
create one always adopt the transmission-belt model to gain control
over the flow of information. The Web is the greatest technological
veto in history against a centrally planned flow of information:
links and networks and free e-mail newsletters — set up in a foreign
jurisdiction, if necessary.

A.
J. Liebling’s line is appropriate: “Freedom of the press belongs
to the man who owns one.” The Web is one giant printing press
— without paper, ink, or a huge capital outlay. We have been
present at the creation of something new in man’s history: publishing
without gatekeepers
. This will shake the foundations of all
those institutions that have relied on information gatekeepers
to retain the support of the public.

There
is something else worth mentioning: the enormous power of humor
to undermine important people and institutions that rely on solemnity
and grandeur to successfully maintain their public images. Consider
the French Revolution. Standard history textbooks fail to mention
the fact that a lewd joke about Robespierre was what toppled his
seemingly iron rule in a matter of days. (Otto Scott, Robespierre
[1974].)

There
are some very clever, very funny, and quite unawed people out
there. A cartoon, a poem, or a joke can now spread to millions
of people in hours. The “Forward” button on 110 million American
users’ e-mail programs accomplishes this feat. Balloon-popping
humor that you would never see on TV or in your local newspaper’s
editorial page is in your e-mail box on the day the item is created.
A recent Web-based image, “Voting for Dummies,” which imitated
the bright yellow cover of one of those Dummies book, is
a good example of effective political humor. Even better was the
conversion of the Gore-Lieberman campaign logo to the Sore-Loserman
logo. That bit of creative image-shifting appeared first on FreeRepublic.com,
and it spread everywhere, fast.

It
used to be believed that a widely distributed, anonymous, mimeographed
cartoon of a scowling Richard Nixon — “Would you buy a used
car from this man?” — probably cost him the very tight 1960
election. What if it had been on the Web?

Conclusion

Who,
six years ago, would have foreseen a one-second indexing system
for over 1.3 billion pages of information sitting on his desk?
And who would have imagined that it would be called Google?

Who
would have believed that e-mail would replace first-class mail
in the United States, except for Christmas cards, window-envelope
monthly bills, and warnings from lawyers?

Nock’s
vision should be ours. Forget about the masses for now. Let others
worry about transmission belts. Let us stick to our digital knitting.

(Note:
you may want to forward this article. Feel free.)

December
4, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and
Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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