Remembrance

A Wise Man of Liberty

April 09, 2009

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A Wise Man of Liberty

More years ago than I care to remember, Burt Blumert saved my life–with the sort of advice only a born wise man could proffer. During some crisis or other, perhaps personal, perhaps political or professional—I don’t recall the details—he told me just what I should do, and I promptly did it—with beneficent results all around. What was his advice? As I agonized over what course of action to take, he sagely advised me: When in doubt, do nothing. Let the situation cool off, and take no action that will further inflame the dispute. “Us ethnic types,” he confided, “are emotional: it’s the way we are.” Burt introduced me to what was, for me, a novel concept: the idea of self-restraint, which has stood me in good stead ever since—and saved my life on more than one occasion, when I thought: “What would Burt do?”

He was a great one for self-discipline: all good businessmen are, and he was the epitome of the entrepreneur in an almost Randian sense. As the proprietor of Camino Coins, he was in the gold business for decades, as long as I knew him: he was a principled businessman who knew the value and the meaning of what he was doing, and did it with zest.

I met Burt through our mutual friend and mentor, Murray Rothbard, the libertarian philosopher, economist, and prolific author and activist whose career as an intellectual entrepreneur spans the life of the modern libertarian movement. Burt was an enthusiastic supporter of Rothbard’s intellectual and political projects, from the Center for Libertarian Studies in the old days to the Ludwig von Mises Institute in the 1990s, from the Libertarian Forum, Murray’s feisty little newsletter started in the early 1970s, to the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, the last issue of which was dated sometime in the mid-1990s. Whenever there was something to be done, a practical matter to be attended to, a conference to put on or a special project that had to be undertaken in order to preserve the integrity and good order of the libertarian movement, Burt was there, with his clear-eyed no-nonsense view of things and his invariably affable manner.

Burt was in many ways like a father to me: he tempered my more angular personality traits and patiently helped me—in spite of myself—to survive my misspent youth relatively intact, and ceaselessly urged me to focus on the one project out of many that eventually became successful: Antiwar.com. It was Burt who graciously offered to take Antiwar.com under the wing of the Center for Libertarian Studies when we converted to the nonprofit model and professionalized our organization. Without that kind of assistance, we would never have survived.

Burt had a generous personality, and I mean that in several senses at once, including an ability to stand outside his own prejudices and see the humor in situation. I remember one time, at a Libertarian Party national convention held in Seattle, I believe, in which Ron Paul was slated to become the LP presidential nominee. It was one of those rare times when Burt and I were on opposite sides of the barricades: I had left the LP, along with a small group, having decided that the third-party strategy was a dead end, and that it was time to build a libertarian faction inside the GOP. This was 1987, or thereabouts: you might say I was a premature Ron Paul Republican. This meant—in 1987—that it was necessary to oppose Ron Paul, who was running on a third party ticket and not in the GOP primaries. So a contingent of us “Libertarian Republicans” showed up at the LP National Convention, with all kinds of printed propaganda, including a rather scurrilous and wrong-headed pamphlet attacking Ron—think of Matt Welch, only well-written. Indeed, there were two such pamphlets, both authored by yours truly, in which poor Ron was raked over the coals for every deviation from strict libertarian principle—both real and imagined—I could throw at him, and then some.

There I was, handing out these screeds at the front entrance to the convention, when who should walk up to me but Burt, with a more-in-sadness-than-anger look on his face. “Justin, Justin, Justin,” he said, shaking his head as he perused the contents of my screed and giving me a mischievous half-smile. “If only we could take all that energy and harness it for good.”

Well, later on, and not much later on, he did manage to harness it for good, as he and Murray eventually got sick and tired of the LP and its curiously non-political shenanigans. The Cold War was ending, and the divisions between libertarians and old-style conservatives were less important than the similarities. Burt was tremendously excited by the possibilities, and plunged into activities of the then-brand new John Randolph Club, meant to be a “bridge” organization uniting libertarians and traditionalists in opposition to the neocons. Murray was the first president of the group, and Burt served, I believe, as the treasurer—a role he often played in our little projects, and a vital one it was.

It was around this time that I decided to write my first book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, a history of the “Old Right” in American politics from the New Deal to the present day. Murray encouraged me to write it, and, once it was finished, Burt naturally took a leading role in seeing that it was published. The first thing he did was get me a good editor—an idea that had never occurred to me, and would never have occurred to me.  After all, I didn’t need an editor, or thought I didn’t. In any case, this decision was a godsend, as it cut down the size of my book to a manageable length, made it much more readable, and gave me the book the sort of polish it would otherwise have sorely lacked. Burt arranged for the actual production of the book—printing, binding, etc.—and when it came time to publish a new edition, he gave the go-ahead without a moment’s hesitation, although, of course, he knew that the whole enterprise was a money-losing proposition.

Armed with our new book, which was hot off the press, we—Burt and I—descended on a “National Review West” conference, and therein lies a story, one that is emblematic of Burt, his salutary influence on me, and his mindset in general.

One day, shortly after the publication of Reclaiming, I was thrilled to get an invitation to speak at a West Coast conference sponsored by National Review magazine. This was back in the (relatively) good-old-days when John O’Sullivan was editor-in-chief, and there was still some life in the old girl, albeit not much. I naturally attributed the invitation to the appearance of my book, which, I assumed, the conference organizers had no doubt read. However, as it turned it, that was very far from the case. Indeed, the National Review-niks had heard of me, but not, alas, of my book: and what they had heard about me apparently qualified me to appear on one of their panels, entitled “The New Sexuality: A Conservative Response,” or some such nonsense.

I was aghast. A book on the history of the Old Right was of no interest to them, but my, uh, private life was: what kind of a conservative movement was this? I was determined to go to the conference, burst their bubble, and let them know just what I thought of their ridiculous priorities. Burt, however, reined me in: “Don’t say anything, Justin. Just keep your mouth shut. Go along with their game, for as long as you have to, and then when you get to the speakers’ podium—let them have it with both barrels! Let this be our Pearl Harbor!”

My panel was the second-to-last or perhaps the last one on the last day of the conference: we had to sit through an entire two sessions of this Soviet-like congress of neocons without giving ourselves away, and I have to tell you that I almost gave away the show on more than one occasion. Sitting at dinner with Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jack Kemp, and a host of mini-cons, deep in a discussion of the benefits and absolute justice of unlimited immigration, was quite an experience, the culinary equivalent of being waterboarded. Burt had to kick me under the table more than once.

Finally, the last day of the conference dawned, and I sat through the perorations of the various speakers wondering how the audience would respond. The panel was chaired by Bill Bennett, who was at that time engaged in a nasty public spat with Pat Buchanan. Bennett had called Buchanan a “fascist,” and the inevitable comparison to Father Coughlin had naturally come up. Pat was running for President (it was his first presidential campaign), and the neocons were going after him hammer and tongs.

The attacks on Pat made Burt furious, particularly the charge of anti-Semitism. We had been hammering away at the neocons in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, defending Pat from these odious accusations and showing how the definition of “anti-Semitism” had somehow morphed into anti-neoconservatism. Burt, being Jewish, took all this very personally, and he was determined that the neocons wouldn’t—mustn’t—be allowed to get away with it unchallenged.

I had plans for Señor Bennett, that living incarnation of neocon “morality,” and I was savoring the look of horror that would take hold of his features once I began speaking. But that moment was far, far in the future, or so it seemed, as David Horowitz droned on, and on, and on. His subject: homosexuality, and its attendant evils, illustrated by a rather lurid tale of his trip to a gay bathhouse.

As Horowitz’s motor mouth droned inexorably on, his voice excited as he described the various exotic sexual practices—some of which not even I have witnessed or even heard of!—and I could see the faces of the white-gloved little old ladies in front turn a paler shade of white. All I could think about, however, was the spectacle of Horowitz’s fat hairy misshapen body revealed in all its unglorious imperfection except for the decency of a towel wrapped around his thickened middle, the stomach spilling over the knotted rag—a sight that must have sent the gay boys running in the opposite direction with all speed.

Bennett finally cut the loquacious Horowitz short, who swiftly and mercifully concluded his oration, giving way to Midge Decter, who hectored us about the evils of feminism whilst exhibiting all the annoying mannerisms of the species she derided. The floor was then given to a Marine colonel who rambled on about the “Lavender Threat,” theorized that the gay movement was really aimed at sapping our military strength, and possibly connected to International Communism, which was in turn just a front for the Democratic Party. Midge Decter, by the way, sat next to me the whole time making sympathetic noises and patting me on the hand, as if to comfort me in the face of this unrelenting barrage of “homophobia.”

I appreciated the gesture, and smiled at her in turn, but, honestly, I couldn’t have cared less what anyone there thought of homosexuals, myself, or anything else for that matter. I just wanted the chance to strike…

When that chance finally came, I took full advantage of it. With one more squeeze of the hand from Midge, who smiled at me as I walked to the podium, I thought: “Boy, is she ever going to be surprised!” At which point I launched into a discussion of how and why “civil rights” for homosexuals became part of the litany of the Politically Correct. It was all derived from the black civil rights movement, and the idea that discrimination, of any sort, was socially and politically verboten, which conservatives had adopted uncritically. And yet, I averred, Barry Goldwater had been right to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbade “discrimination” in housing and employment, because once conservatives acceded to that, and joined the cult of “saint Martin Luther King,” the jig was up, and they had—by the force of sheer logic—to accept all the other “civil rights” revolutions that followed in the wake of King’s movement—the women’s movement, the “differently abled” movement, and, yes, the gay civil rights movement.

Like Goldwater, I said—looking straight at Burt, who was sitting up front and smiling—Pat Buchanan was and is right to oppose the “gay rights” agenda,  and reassert the conservative position—a stance for which he has been excoriated “by some sitting right here in this room,” said I, looking pointedly at Bennett. The rest of my speech was a campaign stump speech for Buchanan—and I even got in a jab at the Kosovo war (avidly supported by all the neocons in attendance) by remarking that I had seen a “Free Kosovo” contingent in that year’s Gay Freedom Day parade in San Francisco, and that Buchanan was right to oppose the American effort to export “gay rights” to the former Yugoslavia at gunpoint.

The audience loved it, as the sustained applause indicated, but I was only looking at Burt, who was giving me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

The neocons, on the other hand, were glum-faced all ‘round. The horrific Horowitz was horrified: he jumped up out of his seat, screaming that I was a “racist” and that I just didn’t understand “this country,” and no one should pay any attention to me. Incorrectly claiming that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was all about securing voting rights for blacks, he demanded that this sacrilegious crime-think be disavowed, ignored, and sanctioned. “I cannot sit here silently,” he yelled, and I thought: ain’t that the truth. I was limited in my rebuttal to correcting his egregious description of the Act, since Bennett was practically frothing at the mouth. Ms. Decter turned to me, and said: “That was the ballsiest speech I’ve ever heard!” Of course it was, I thought—Burt helped me to write it.

After my speech, we got out our literature table, and started selling my book: dozens of copies were sold to rank-and-file National Review-niks, most of whom were good people and enormously sincere, and all of whom congratulated me on my speech. Only Bill Kristol failed to compliment me as he slithered up to the table and bought a copy: obviously it did him no good, but, what the heck, we’ll take anyone’s fifteen bucks.

I could fill an entire volume with similar stories of my adventures with Burt in the ideological jungles of the American Right, but the hour grows late, and, by now, my readers have some idea of just who Burt Blumert was and what he meant to the freedom movement—what a gift he was, one that we didn’t always deserve. Yet he just kept right on giving, right up until the end.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Burt in his final days. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer took us all by surprise: Burt, after all, was a pillar of our movement, a veritable rock. It was no more possible to imagine him felled than it was for me to imagine the giant redwood outside my front door leveled to the ground. And he was the one who found his condition most unimaginable of all: he insisted on making a trip to New York right after his diagnosis, and a trip to Auburn, Alabama, where the Mises Institute is located. When I first moved into my Sonoma county digs, way up north of him, he made the long trip to see me: we had lunch outside on my deck, under the looming redwoods, and talked of the dark days ahead—Obama was sure to win, he thought—and our hopes (and fears) of the future. I shall not soon forget that sun-dappled day, and Burt’s boundless optimism and good humor in spite of everything.

Writers don’t have a lot of friends—close friend, I mean, the kind you can turn to in times of trouble as well as times of celebration—and this writer is no exception. Burt’s passing thins their ranks considerably: indeed, there is a great gaping hole where our friendship once flourished, like a garden flower of rare beauty that has suddenly and unexpectedly expired. Yet Burt’s impact on the world, his wisdom and his spirit, will leave more than mere memories of a good man and his works: he was a nurturer of ideas, and he understood their importance. The ideas that he championed—the freedom philosophy—will live on in large part due to his efforts. In that sense, he is still alive—and still cheering me on to one, two, many “Pearl Harbors” on behalf of liberty.

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