The Sickening Glorification of Criminals

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John
Derbyshire is feeling ill from contemplating John Gotti’s funeral:

These
tributes from neighbors and reporters turn my stomach, though.
They are so keen to tell us about Gotti’s personal qualities:
his courage, his loyalty, the warmth of his family life. I don’t
doubt that it’s all true. So what? Human beings are social creatures,
and our virtues are only praiseworthy when they are socially positive….
I
am certainly willing to believe that John Gotti was fearless,
loyal, a devoted husband and father. There is no doubt, though,
that from the point of view of free citizens in a free republic,
enjoying liberty under fair laws, Gotti was a very wicked man,
who died unrepentant in his wickedness. Bronze coffin? If the
law required that we be interred in a style appropriate to our
contributions as citizens, John Gotti would have gone to his mausoleum
in a trash can.

“[F]rom
the point of view of free citizens in a free republic, enjoying
liberty under fair laws, Gotti was a very wicked man…” Well, no
doubt that is true. My goal in this essay is not to offer a defense
of John Gotti. However, Derbyshire clearly means that Americans
are “free citizens in a free republic, enjoying liberty under fair
laws.” Is that also true?

At
first glance, Derbyshire seems to be making four contentions. As
we shall see, that is merely a rhetorical device, as they all come
down to the same thing. Let’s look at them more carefully.

Are
Americans “free citizens”? Butler Shaffer reminds us that, in one sense, the only person who really can
restrict your freedom is you. Factually, you cannot turn over control
of yourself to anyone else, and the realization of that truth leaves
you, in a meaningful sense, free. As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate
yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our
minds.” We can agree with the sentiment while still holding that
there is another meaningful dimension we can call political freedom,
and that even a liberated mind may not make us politically free.
And after all, if Derbyshire meant only our inherent nature is free,
then his statement is a mere tautology: all people everywhere are
free.

So
how might we categorize political freedom? As Hayek famously put
it, we are free when we live under the rule of law. “This, however,
is true only if by ‘law’ we mean general rules that apply equally
to everybody…. a true law… should especially not single out
any specific persons or groups of persons” (Constitution
of Liberty
). In that, I think he was correct. But he failed
to realize, or perhaps only realized quite late in life*,
that the institution of the state is incompatible with his dictum.
That is because a state, at the very least, collects taxes, and
tax laws inevitably divide the citizens into tax payers and tax
recipients, to whom the laws apply differently. Employees of the
state, for one, are always tax recipients, and the idea that they
pay taxes is an accounting illusion fostered by having the government
note a certain extra amount of income for state employees (their
withholding), which it merely never pays them.

Derbyshire
might answer that while Americans do not have complete political
freedom, relatively speaking they have more than most people. We
can grant his point, while insisting that it does not change the
fundamentals of the situation. A slave who only has to work two
days a week for his master is still a slave. He is still a slave
even if his master allows him a range of occupations for his servitude.
The master may try to convince him that he is not a slave by pointing
to the slaves down the road, whose master makes them work seven
days a week and gives them no choice of occupation. Certainly, most
people would prefer to be owned by the first master rather than
the second. But they would still be slaves if owned by either.

The
rest of Derbyshire’s line is just saying the same thing in different
ways. What can a free republic be but a republic made up of free
citizens? “Republics” do not act; people do, and freedom only applies
to agents. Don’t free citizens, by definition, enjoy liberty? And
aren’t fair laws exactly those that don’t unjustly deprive anyone
of their liberty?

The
fact that we are not free citizens, in the political sense,
but subjects of the state, is not unconnected to the praise of Gotti.
Consider another vicious murderer, lauded in the very magazine for which Derbyshire wrote his Gotti
piece:

[Winston]
Churchill, a talented amateur painter, brought an artist’s perspective
to bear on war. The selection of broad themes (a word which he
used often in both contexts) and the marshaling of detail to support
those large ideas formed an important part of his war statecraft
as much as it did of his palette. Painting cannot be done to hard
and fast rules or to a rigid schedule; it must be adapted to the
scene before it; and room must remain for creativity and adaptation
to shifting lights and the artist’s own flashes of insight –
such artistic truths applied no less to Churchill’s war leadership
than to his essays in oils.

Now,
when it came to murder, Churchill made Gotti look like a piker.
And at least Gotti probably only ordered people killed who snitched
or were in a turf war with his “family,” in other words, combatants.
When Churchill ordered the fire bombing of Dresden, in order to impress Stalin with Anglo-American
military might, the city was without military targets and was inhabited
mostly by women, children, and the elderly. Even rescue vehicles
coming to help the survivors of the first wave of planes were targeted
for destruction.

So
Gotti was a murderer with a sense of style, while Churchill was
one who killed artistically. Other than the fact that Churchill
killed perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands times as many people
as Gotti, the praise sounds pretty similar.

And
it occurs to me that Hitler was handy with a brush as well. He was
also pretty nice to cats and Aryan children. Perhaps NRO will run
an article on the many overlooked charms of Adolf.

What
about another mass murderer, Harry Truman, who melted a few hundred
thousand Japanese non-combatants in the closing days of World War
II? National Review praised a book touting him as one of the heroes of the Cold
War. National Review favorite Condoleezza Rice named him as her “person of the century.” The fact that he was
a “plain-spoken” man has been noted with admiration. (Gotti was probably fairly plain spoken
as well.)

What
justifies the praise these cold-blooded killers receive? Robert
Kagan nicely captures the “morality” of all worshippers of state
power. Reviewing Kagan, David Gordon says, “We learn from Machiavelli, [Kagan] holds, that in foreign
affairs morality must take a back seat to self-preservation.”

Why
wouldn’t that apply to inter-Mafioso affairs, as well? What is a
Mafia family but a sort of mini-state? And it’s the results of one’s
actions, not the means one employs, that matters, right? Gotti was
just a realist, in the best tradition of Churchill or Truman, doing
his utmost to advance the interests of his group. He was able to
make the “tough choices” when he had to. Why shouldn’t he be praised
as they are?

The
counter-argument that Churchill and Truman were heads of “legitimate
states” is merely circular. What makes them legitimate but the legitimacy
of their actions? Democracy certainly doesn’t: Would Gotti’s crimes
have been OK if he had been elected don?

In
the end, Churchill was knighted, and Truman is often championed
as one of America’s greatest presidents. When we bestow honors upon
and build monuments to mass murderers, it shouldn’t be too surprising
that people are willing to shower a little praise on a minor killer.

*
I say perhaps late in life because I have heard that Hayek told
a group of students, in the late seventies, “If I were a young man
today, I would probably be an anarchist.”

June
21 ,
2002

Gene
Callahan [send him mail],
the author of Economics for Real People, is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

Gene
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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