Carryin' on With Ol' Isaiah

by Steven Yates

A few days ago – the day after U.S. and British forces began their air assaults against targets in Afghanistan – I found myself revisiting one of my favorite essays: Albert Jay Nock's classic Isaiah's Job. I had been a bit despondent. One remark in an email commenting on my recent essay on the need to re-explore this country's founding principles had been weighing on my mind. The email had begun, simply but forcefully, “Excellent article but you are preaching to the choir.” Despite all the other email this was the phrase that remained in my mind.

It is easy to sink temporarily into doubts whether writing about such ideas as adhering to this country's founding principles has any point. After all, the political elites who make decisions capable of affecting millions of people, such as whether or not to go into battle, do not appear to be listening. For all I know, of course, some of their stooges may be keeping little black books on those of us who have taken to the Internet to stand up for Constitutionally limited government. There is reason to think that at least some LRC writers are regarded as a threat in some quarters. Just read Jonah Goldberg. But the point is, probably no one close to President George W. Bush has so much as glanced at LRC's archive of articles critical of U.S. foreign adventuring. Likewise, it is doubtful that Alan Greenspan has taken note of Lew Rockwell's recent critique of the dominant economic policy since September 11 – which was really just a modification of the dominant policy of centralized micromanagement of the economy that preceded the attacks.

So with those making the decisions not reading, and others in positions of influence (at, for example, neocon hotbeds like National Review) being caustically if defensively dismissive, is it worth it? That was my question, and then my eyes fell once more upon my volume of Albert Jay Nock essays containing the wonderfully inspirational Isaiah's Job.

In this essay, Nock is recounting his explanation to an acquaintance, "a very learned man, one of the three or four really first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation," why, despite his acquaintance's conviction to the contrary, he has no "mission to the masses." Nock refers him to the story of Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet. The time was around 740 B.C. The society Isaiah lived in was prosperous, relative to the times, but decadent and complacent. Then, in the year of the aged King Uzziah's death, as Nock tells it, "the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. u2018Tell them what a worthless lot they are,' he said. u2018Tell them what is wrong, and why, and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up….'" It is clear that Isaiah will have an uphill battle, for as Nock's version of the word of the Lord continues, "u2018I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you … that it won't do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you, and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.'"

Naturally, Isaiah asks the same fifty-dollar question: is there any point? The Lord's answer is a resounding Yes. And then come some of the most important words one who promotes individual liberty and Constitutionally limited government can read these days: "There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up, because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society, and meanwhile your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."

This, of course, is the answer – a message from 1936, when Nock's essay first appeared, to a country in late 2001 rapidly shifting into Crisis mode. This is the answer, and it has many applications.

When we inveigh against the political correctness that has turned colleges and universities into Stalinist re-education camps and even spread to corporate America, we are writing for a Remnant that may be trapped in those institutions but knows better. Those with elementary horse sense know that radical feminist rants against men and the traditional family unit are just so much rubbish born of resentment. Members of the Remnant no doubt concluded long ago that multiculturalism is not a live option, because members of all cultures and ethnic groups prefer the company of their own. This explains campus re-segregation in all-black dorms, etc. We are speaking here of natural human behavior, not hatred or hostility toward other groups. Today, however, those who have reached these conclusions probably have a strong sense of isolation, since the view that every group should mix with and feel good about every other group is so popular and so widely endorsed by the intelligentsia.

Likewise, when we criticize the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve and the federal government to micromanage as much of the economy as possible, we are taking care of the Remnant. This Remnant may not have read Mises and Rothbard but still instinctively realize the ultimate futility of the project. Its members recognize that enterprises down here in the South Carolina boonies (for example) cannot operate at peak efficiency if they have to answer to directives issued from hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C. The situation is worse if these directives change every year, as do the nation's tax-slavery laws, and the small entrepreneur finds himself having to consult a lawyer (and pay him) just to keep up with the IRS's latest whims. Again, a sense of isolation and discouragement may result from a sense of swimming against the dominant tide.

When we urge a serious reexamination of those aspects of U.S. foreign policy that may have helped motivate the September 11 terrorist attacks, we are addressing a Remnant. This Remnant knows that no peoples, whatever their religious or ethnic background, are likely to take it very well when their cities and factories are bombed into rubble by a U.S. president trying to distract attention from how much trouble he is in at home. To urge such a reexamination is not to be "anti-American," as some are now saying. It might be anti-Empire, as part of the positive and healthy goal of someday resurrecting a Constitutionally limited government whose foreign policy is limited to protecting our borders. If this is ever possible, then America might again be a beacon to the rest of the world rather than an Empire hated for its materialism and its need to meddle constantly in everyone else's affairs. (If not, then when the Empire finally destabilizes or its power centers face even more devastating attacks than those of September 11, then setting up new Constitutional republics in regions that have seceded becomes a live option.)

It should be clear, through all this, that those Nock and others call "the masses" are largely hopeless. Who are "the masses"? Just the run-of-the-mill, go-along-with-the-crowd range of people who buy miniskirts solely because miniskirts are popular (it could just as easily be pet rocks), or fly the American flag solely because all their neighbors are doing it and isn't it a good thing to stand up and be proud of America? "The masses" are chronic followers and joiners; they have neither the cognitive ability nor the character to evaluate the flow of the popular tide and decide on their own whether to swim with it or against it. As Nock expresses this, "[t]he mass-man neither has 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, overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses." The masses, it goes without saying, will log on to the Internet to look at entertainment sites rather than read They will buy millions of copies of People but are unlikely to have the slightest interest in, say, Chronicles.

The masses are unlikely to heed the warnings issued by Samuel Adams, that those who trade liberty for security will end up with neither, or those being sounded now about the dangers of trusting government officials who state openly that it "may be necessary to curtail some civil liberties" in the fight against terrorism. The masses, most of whom graduated from government schools, lack sufficient knowledge of or interest in history to realize that in every past Crisis, the federal government has arrogated new powers to itself. Although supposedly temporary and created to deal with the emergency, these powers always turned out to be permanent fixtures that were taken for granted by the government-school educated next generation. There is no reason to think our present situation is any different.

In short, in Nock's essay the masses do not come off very well. So allow me a few remarks in their favor. Most, I think, are fundamentally decent and mean well (however much all of us are fallen creatures). Many are specialists, and very good at what they do. A functional society needs all kinds of people, from philosophers to common laborers and everything in between. It is not necessary that everyone be constantly pondering the weighty issues of our time – most likely a lot of important work would never get done. So the masses have their place. The mistake is to believe, as so many Enlightenment-influenced political philosophers and activists have, that the masses provide raw material for some kind of social utopia, if "we" (meaning the activists) can just create the right environment. That kind of thinking has always been a recipe for totalitarianism, just because the masses always refuse to cooperate. They simply lack the altruism, or interest in acting for "the good of the whole" that Utopia would require. At a more modest level, this is the fundamental mistake of thinking we can really have a permanent functional democracy, as opposed to the Constitutional republic the Framers had in mind.

This is because the masses are easily misled. Their thinking and planning is generally directed toward whatever affects them and their loved ones directly. They are not drawn to political power. Thus they do not really comprehend the thinking of that minority of the population that is drawn to power; it simply isn't on their radar screens. This makes them vulnerable to a wide variety of behind-the-scenes manipulations, ranging from the encroachment of political agendas into the classrooms their children attend to the mass media's hammering everyone about the need for "unity" in this time of Crisis. Unfortunately, their very nature makes it unlikely that more than a few will respond to our counter-hammering about the dangers of trading liberty for security.

But be all this as it may, the Remnant is also out there. Nock tells us there are only two things we can really know for sure about the Remnant. That was the first, "that they exist." The second is that, if you do your best, "they will find you." We are speaking and writing to those who question – perhaps almost instinctively – "what everyone knows" and decide to snoop around on their own in search of truth. As such, they are naturally drawn to others who do the same. Beyond this, "working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness … [for] … you do not know and will never know who the Remnant are, or where they are, or how many of them there are, or what they are doing or will do."

Of course, the Internet has changed things since Albert Jay Nock's time, as Gary North observed in an essay last year. My own correspondence plus the steadily accelerating number of hits websites such as receive every month is all the evidence I need that the Remnant exists, and that some of its members have indeed found us. I can even say with confidence that I know who some of them are. They exist in all occupations (except government bureaucracy, for which I hear they have very little aptitude), at every socioeconomic level and in all walks of life. They don't look any different from the masses necessarily, but they think differently, and that makes all the difference in the world. All of us have come to certain realizations: Multiculturalism is silly. Central economic planning has not worked; does not work; can never work. Empire-building makes enemies. We may not have influence now, but we have confidence that some ideas work if put into practice, while others lead nowhere except to trouble. The federal government cannot pile economic quick-fix on top of economic quick-fix indefinitely. The educational system cannot produce feminized, hypersensitive drones forever. Nor can American political elites continue trying to manage the rest of the world when they cannot even fulfill their proper functions at home. One of the few Constitutionally legitimate functions of the federal government is the protection of our borders. The federal government as it exists today cannot even do this effectively. A just-released report shows that 13 of the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing almost 6,000 innocent people, entered this country legally, in full accordance with federal immigration laws (some had overstayed their visas). Records on others are incomplete or simply missing. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, federal stooges in airports cannot even protect us now.

According to Nock, working on behalf of the Remnant is unlikely to lead one to attain riches or fame. But "There are other compensations to be got out of a job besides money and notoriety…. Many jobs which do not pay well are yet profoundly interesting…; and the job of looking after the Remnant seems to me … to be as interesting as any that can be found in the world." Now it is true that writing for the Remnant may involve quite a bit of what seems to be "preaching to the choir." But it affects the thinking of new readers who discover it all the time, and sometimes "an idea … lodges in the Unbewisstsein of a casual member of the Remnant, and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man's conscious mind … and in those circumstances the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do."

Our raison d'etre, then, has not changed since the time of the prophet Isaiah. Our mission, as was his, is to conquer our occasional self-doubts and "be off now and set about it." So let us carry on with ol' Isaiah, in full confidence that truth, righteousness and ultimately, history, are on our side. Even if it takes a while, and even if the road ahead has a few bumps in it.

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