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Jan 12, 2016

A Review of Culture and Liberty: The Writings of Isabel Paterson ed. Stephen Cox

Paterson’s prose is a joy to read, and her insights into human freedom have enduring relevance, writes Presley.

Many libertarians are familiar with Isabel Paterson’s book The God of the Machine.  Indeed, Cato credits her as one of the three progenitors of the modern libertarian movement, along with Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand. But Paterson did much more than just write one book.  She was a journalist who wrote a column for the New York Herald Tribune from 1924 to 1949, as well as the author of several novels.  She was also highly influential as a literary critic.   

Paterson was known for her acerbic wit; in this new collection by her biographer Stephen Cox, we are treated to delightful glimpses of that wit and much more.  When she commented unfavorably on socialist Upton Sinclair’s Nobel Prize in literature, a critic noted that many people had made favorable remarks about him. Paterson then quipped: “Why? We can think of lots of better things to do than reading over the same stupidity—even a stupidity of clever people—for a year on end. Fifty thousand Frenchman can be wrong fifty thousand times.”

In 1932 Paterson remarked that “Our present difficulty is that our ‘best minds,’ both big business men and intellectuals, have already got the political machinery dangerously entangled with the economic system, disrupting both; and they are now demanding that they government should save them from what they’ve done to it. They are infants yelling for pap.”

In 1942, ridiculing the idea that material progress can result from the sacrifice of liberty, she quipped: “Freedom is just freedom from restraint. And what Communism, government control, brings about is freedom from soap, freedom from shoes, freedom from food.” Modern American politicians are still trying to pull that one over on us.

Paterson was, of course, a staunch individualist and this showed in most of what she wrote, from her essay “The True Individualist: Thoreau” to her dismissal of the dictates of a then-current anthropologist saying that everyone was simply conditioned by their environment, or as she charmingly described his view, “human beings are nothing but so much protoplasmic dough baked in a mold of external influences.” Paterson would be relieved to know that social psychology has advanced beyond that primitive view of human nature.

Suspicion of “do-gooders” was a running theme throughout Paterson’s commentaries. In writing of Thoreau’s disdain for humanitarians, she notes “the benefactor approached with halter in hand. Every argument of the humanitarian—the pleas of security, of uplift, of the duty of the privileged to assist their inferiors, the inability of the unprivileged to help themselves—was put forward in Thoreau’s day to excuse slavery.” Thoreau, she also notes, unerringly identified the means by which slavery must be instituted and maintained—political power. In her essay “A Question of Privilege,” Paterson chides the remedies for female inequality—government protection—suggested by Virginia Woolf. Echoing Thoreau, she writes “For our own part, a proposal to do us good, by some self-appointed “leader,” is the one thing that instantly arouses our suspicion…And taking it all around, we’d pretty near as soon meet with a thug with a blackjack as a do-good with a plan for our special benefit.” Libertarians still make such arguments but rarely with such style.

Other objects of Peterson’s justified wrath included those who waxed eloquent about communism and the Soviet Union, failing to see how authoritarian it was. In excoriating journalist Quentin Reynolds for his glossing over of the atrocities committed by Stalin, she notes that he had an excuse for every failure—for example, he claimed that his secretary in Russia, who had spent years in a Russian concentration camp for no good reason, a “mistake,” wasn’t bitter. “You don’t suppose she was under any fear that they might make another such mistake if she had any hard feelings, would you?” was Paterson’s crisp retort.

Though many of Paterson’s commentaries were naturally timely, especially during World War II, most of them still speak to modern concerns. In her essay “Freedom and Control,” written in 1936, for example, she laments those willing to give up freedom for security and to censor writing. Reading from a booklet that proclaims “[t]olerance is no virtue when human liberty is at stake,” she quips, “One of the best ways to lose [freedom] is to subscribe to the fallacy embodied in the above quotation. In the vernacular, it means: ‘I’m for freedom, so you shut up; or I’ll put you in jail.’” She adds, “[t]he same fallacy maybe concealed by various highbrow phrases, as, for instance, this from The New Republic: ‘Liberty is a positive purpose, not an absence of restraint.’ Bosh. Liberty is an absence of restraint. And nothing else whatsoever.” One might easily write such comments in response to Donald Trump or the current New Republic!

And speaking of modern concerns, Paterson’s writings about the pseudo-scientific bunkum of her day—in the words of her editor, “a craze for explanations of history based on race and genetics”—are not so different from criticisms of today’s evolutionary psychology and other genetic determinism theories.  In her essay “Adventures in Biology and Bunk,” she comments on scientist John Langdon-Davies’ book The New Age of Faith. It could have come right out of modern criticism of evolutionary psychology (like mine): “He says explicitly that people believe what they want to believe [modern social psychology!], twisting the facts to fit whichever theory flatters them the most. No matter; it is vastly refreshing to come across such a witty and unsentimental exposure of current fallacies concerning genetics, ‘racial superiorities’ [in current times, read “sex superiorities”], and the human aspects of biology generally.”

The anthology also contains letters to and from her friends, including Ayn Rand. Imagine criticizing Rand (almost) to her face. Paterson could get away with it. Other correspondents are not as well-known but the letters still reveal interesting bits about Paterson.

I could go on quoting from her fascinating works but by now I hope that I have convinced you that Isabel Paterson is well worth reading both for her content and her style. (If you’re still not convinced about the importance of Paterson, read this essay by David Beito and Linda Royster Beito on Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston.) Like other of her contemporaneous libertarian writers—Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and Suzanne LaFollette—Paterson had a witty and often acerbic style that was a delight to read. Few, if any, match that kind of engaging style today. So reconnect with some of our libertarian roots. It is well worth the journey.