Homer’s masterpiece, The Iliad, begins with these portentous lines that I used to make my students in a Greek class translate:
Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
:οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
(Sing, oh goddess, of the destructive anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, which brought grief to tens of thousands of Achaeans.)
The implacable wrath of the semi-divine Achilles drives Homer’s ancient narrative; and among the consequences of Achilles’s anger, according to this epic, is “dragging down the doughty spirits of many brave warriors to Hades and preparing carrion (heloria) for dogs and vultures.” In The Iliad we are told what happens to those who are afflicted with truly vengeful anger. But I’d like to speak this afternoon about a different menis, one that does not produce the grave results depicted by Homer. I’m referring to the creative fulminations of our late friend and mentor Murray Rothbard, who showed the positive aspects of becoming annoyed with fools and going after them with unforgettable mockery. The targets of Murray’s menis included agitprop leftist movies, Modal Libertarians, the Koch machine, and just about every neoconservative who came of age in Murray’s unfortunately abbreviated lifetime. Murray also convinced me from his polemics that I should fear Mensheviks more than Bolsheviks, and that the neoconservative crusade for global democracy could be traced back to Sidney Hook and even further back to the Devil. I also learned from reading him that the American regime had been going downhill, with only a few bright spots, since the presidency of Martin Van Buren, and that Lincoln and Wilson were hideous war-mongers who can never be sufficiently discredited.
Of course I didn’t need lots of persuading in order to take over the objects of Murray’s menis. His exasperated laments about lying historians caused me to think more deeply about views that had already begun to dawn on me before I read Murray. What also brought us together is that we shared the same combative stance in presenting our ideas. We were both compulsive debaters and sometimes landed up refining our arguments in the course of lacing into our targets. Murray’s outbursts against a dishonest historical profession influenced me profoundly. Among his revisionist works that changed or expanded my mind about historical subjects included his essay on the Progressives’ use of war for social planning (which has been included in his recent posthumously published The Progressive Era ably edited by Patrick Newman) and Murray’s study on Hoover’s foreshadowing of New Deal economic policies. And while I had always scorned the received interpretations of the origin and causes of World War One, I never encountered Harry Elmer Barnes, until his name came up in one of Murray’s essays. Murray assured me that Barnes was “a good guy,” and he did so in the presence of Ralph Raico, who seemed to agree. Because of these recommendations I read Barnes’s works on the First World War, and my newest anthology of essays should make clear that I now deeply appreciate Barnes’s intellectual honesty and the accuracy of his observations about the shared responsibility of both sides for the Great War.
Because of Murray’s critiques of the welfare state, which were buttressed by considerable evidence, I amended my own view of this modern Behemoth. At an earlier point in my life my negative judgment had been mostly quantitative: Public administration had grown too large and too centralized to be compatible with freedom and community. But it was possible, or so I imagined, to deal with runaway government, if we elected the proper Republican politicians. Various factors intervened to divest me of this illusion, and one of them was Murray’s writings and speeches proving we had an insatiable monster on our hands in the form of the modern administrative regime. Murray’s arguments were made more effective by his sarcastic wit and by his utter cynicism about the supposedly good intentions of those he criticized. Unlike conservatism, inc., Murray never ascribed high-mindedness to those who created the institutions that he despised. Like my friend Tom Woods, I follow Murray in denying to those who seek to enslave us from the Left the attribution of noble intentions. They are despicable dissemblers.
I’ll readily confess in this company that I suffer from egalitarian envy whenever I think about Murray as a polemicist. He was simply better at going after dead-heads and unprofessional professional scholars than I could ever hope to be, and especially now at my advanced age. Murray was the Mozart of polemicists, putting complicated concepts into understandable, resounding phrases and then deploying them brilliantly against his opponents. As polemicists most of the rest of us are at the competence level of Antonio Salieri; and I’m speaking here about the plodding Salieri of recent legend, not the real Salieri who was the teacher of Beethoven and Schubert and a distinguished eighteenth-century operatic composer. I can still recall competing against Murray in the late 1980s in what he called the “sweepstakes.” Several paleolibertarian and paleoconservative commentators volunteered to respond to a neoconservative critic in a very short-lived newsletter, which folded right after our contributions were published. All of us acquitted ourselves well but only Murray managed to produce a truly outstanding rejoinder. Although I agonized over my polemic, what Murray submitted was simply a lot better crafted.
I still read Murray’s movie reviews with egalitarian envy, but also delight at the vitriol that he poured over flics that he urged us not to see. One movie that Murray found ridiculously overrated is “The Piano,” and he maliciously exposed every ineptitude in this feminist film about a woman in the Australian outback being emotionally and artistically starved by her overbearing husband. Toward the end of the movie hubby cuts off a finger from the hand of his defiant wife with an ax, but just to spite him she goes on grinding out melodies at the keyboard with an artificial finger. The Piano includes one formulaic love scene featuring Holly Hunter that goes on and on. All we see throughout this ordeal is Holly Hunter’s bare back, which provided Murray with the opportunity to expand on the reasons that feminist movies so rarely produce convincing love scenes. He remarked at great length and with memorable humor on how truly bored he had been staring at Holly Hunter’s less than bewitching back for fifteen minutes. Murray’s review had the effect on me that every time I hear about Holly Hunter or The Piano, my mind is immediately drawn to the image of her bare back and to Murray’s searing comments about feminist love scenes. Let it be said that beside all his other achievements, no one to my knowledge ever did better skewering a chick flick-feminist movie than did Murray in this timeless review.