The title of James Altucher’s article is “How Dylan Stole the Nobel Prize and You Can, Too.” But of course Altucher being Altucher (either an Outlaw masquerading as a mainstreamer or a mainstreamer cleverly pretending to Outlawdom), that’s not what he’s actually talking about.
He’s parsing the Dylan/Hendrix song “All Along the Watchtower” (Hendrix classic version here). Which is, of course, a classic of Outlawry. Here are the lyrics:
“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief.
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
Altucher’s take on the song is spot on: both the joker and the thief are truth tellers, but the joker (a paid employee of the king) is trapped within the system. The thief is friendly to the joker, but clearly sees himself as superior for being a complete outsider. The walls and their watchtowers are a fortress for the powerful but a prison for the powerless. Ultimately those walls become a trap or a prison for the powerful, too. At the end it’s perfectly clear who the “two riders” are who so threaten the order within the well-guarded walls of power.
They are the joker and the thief. They are, among others, us.
As usual, when I talk about Outlaws, I don’t mean crooks. There’s no virtue in being your basic, garden-variety, meth-driven thief. I mean Freedom Outlaws. People who refuse to accept unjust rule (which may, depending on the particular persuasion of Outlaw mean all rule other than self-rule). People who slip outside the system, even if they remain nominally within it, and work to undermine what they see as wrong.
We get outraged when we learn that the FBI or the DHS has issued a bulletin calling us “domestic terrorists.” We’re furious to realize that the NSA is scanning our mail. We may laugh when Hillary Clinton attributes all her problems to some “vast right-wing conspiracy.” We may rise up in defiance when Friends of the Establishment (e.g. F*c*b**k, Twitter, and the MSM) try to ensure that genuinely free speech becomes a thing of the past.
Yet it’s perfectly understandable (even if contemptible and unlawful) that the powers within the walls consider us threats for the mere act of opposing them and aiming to live by own consciences. We are threats to them, in so many ways.
First we threaten their comfort. Both jokers (e.g. modern political comedians) and Outlaws puncture the pomposity of power. But the joker (think modern political comedian) is an insider, a member of the team. If he goes “too far,” the powers within the walls can silence him. And what do you know? These days the jokers tend to skewer the loyal opposition more than the kings and queens themselves; guess they know who signs their meal tickets.
Not so the Free Outlaw. The Outlaw’s ability to threaten the comfort of the princes goes beyond merely making them objects of derision. It reaches, ultimately, to the ability to topple them and their watchtowers. And although Outlaws can be arrested (think Manning) or isolated (think Assange), discredited (think those who tried to show what really happened at Waco) or scorned, we can’t easily be controlled. And unlike the paid joker, there are millions of us. More every day.
We go on to threaten the princes’ illusion of respect. We can’t “keep them honest” (they’re rulers and we’re nobodies, after all), but we can expose their lies and double-dealings and constantly remind the world that such things can’t be “fixed.” We can (and do) refuse them our consent and lead others to do the same. Ultimately, though more rarely, we threaten the very institution that lends them legitimacy. Outlaws, when they get both angry and plentiful enough, threaten the very philosophical walls and cultural castles that give princes their claim to power.
We are the riders approaching. We are the servants quietly slipping out from the walls in the darkness. We are the thieves stealing the stores of goodwill stocked inside the keep. We are the betrayers of secrets that never should have been kept. We are the peasants who refuse to give our share of tribute. We are the traders in the black market, the market that forever eludes princely control. We are the ones who, when the martial music starts thumping and the mob is cheering … stop and think.
So okay. Merely by existing, thinking, talking, typing, rallying, disobeying, disregarding, mocking, and going about the private business of our own lives, we’re a threat to pompous princes everywhere. But how does that make us (remember the title up there?) agents for the betterment of society? That’s a pretty hoity-toity claim, after all.
But what I’ve just described is precisely how society gets improved.
Remember the old “My country, right or wrong”? That get-out-of-jail-free pass for politicians? That permission slip for every form of governmental wrongdoing? That declaration of pre-support for any war crime, any abuse of power, any rape of the citizenry, any theft of rights, any tax, any corruption? Picture a society governed by compliance. Oh, how the princes would love it and oh how the peasants would suffer.
Now picture the opposite. Picture the self-governors, the Outlaws, tearing down the walls of secrecy and corruption and the privilege of pull. Picture them joining with the jokers and the peasants and the newly freed to use the stones of those walls and watchtowers to build anew, to build useful things. And there we are. Much better — as all but the pompous, self-protecting princes and their flattering flappers and conniving cronies would agree.
There should be more outlaws by now. Thanks for being the voice of reason versus the grand Milgram experiment. Keep up the peerless work, Claire.
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Sometimes those who think they are the ones making the law are the real outlaws!
Bravo Claire. Thanks for the inspiration. All the government worship is making me sick these days. Now I’ll have your thoughts to ponder with an already good song!
A truly great essay. I hope you’re setting it aside in an archive somewhere for inclusion in your next book. “The walls and their watchtowers are a fortress for the powerful but a prison for the powerless.” Perfect!
You ask (rhetorically) how our Outlawry makes us “agents for the betterment of society”. Coincidentally, just this morning I read the following about a recently deceased economist:
“We’re all part of the equilibrium.”
“With this short observation, Bob [Tollison] meant to cheer scholars who cannot perceive the consequences of their work on public policy and law. These few words – which I heard Bob say verbally several times in his distinctive and warm South Carolina accent – are an economist’s way of saying to scholars whose work he admired ‘No matter how bad things might be, they’d be worse if you hadn’t done what you do. Although you might not realize it, your good work at least helps to keep things from being even worse and just might, one day, be part of the impetus that makes for positive improvement.’ ” (http://cafehayek.com/2016/10/robert-tollison.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CafeHayek+%28Cafe+Hayek%29)
I think that describes us, too. We’re all part of the equilibrium.
I hadn’t realized just how many people have covered “All Along the Watchtower.” Look it up on YouTube and there are hundreds of versions. One of my favorites was recently performed by Tom Ellis on (of all places) the TV series “Lucifer”. https://youtu.be/3TKvNu8vTvg (Incidentally, that show is based on characters created by Neil Gaiman, so I knew it was bound to be interesting. It is.)
Probably, if you are motivated by a desire to “embetter” society, you’ll have the opposite effect. If you are motivated by a desire to avoid violating anyone’s life, liberty, or property, you’ll be a net benefit for society whether you intend to or not.
One thing I wish I could get across to some of my statist acquaintances is the inner freedom that comes when you stop seeing government employees/agents as anything other than bullies. Sure, there will always be bad guys out there looking for ways to violate you, but seeing them honestly takes away so much of their power to mess up your life. Bullies bully. It’s just what they do. Deal with it however you need to. Stop pretending they deserve any sort of respect. Sure, if they have you at gunpoint, do what you must to survive, but don’t excuse them, or support them, and certainly don’t celebrate when they violate someone else (except perhaps, one of their gang brothers).
I feel my Outlawry to my core. When the “law” is wrong, good people are already outlaws whether they know it or not. Embrace it.
“The Outlaw’s ability to threaten the comfort of the princes goes beyond merely making them objects of derision. It reaches, ultimately, to the ability to topple them and their watchtowers.”
This reminds me of the little boy who said the Emperor was wearing no clothes. He grew up to be an Outlaw.
And… beautifully said,
“We are the riders approaching. We are the servants quietly slipping out from the walls in the darkness. We are the thieves stealing the stores of goodwill stocked inside the keep. We are the betrayers of secrets that never should have been kept. We are the peasants who refuse to give our share of tribute. We are the traders in the black market, the market that forever eludes princely control. We are the ones who, when the martial music starts thumping and the mob is cheering … stop and think.”
[…] Thoughtful, as always. […]
[…] The role of the Outlaw in the betterment of society […]
thank you as always for the paring knife on the times.
Wonderful post, Claire! I think the key to life as an outlaw was captured by Dylan in the phrase “life is but a joke.” It all reminds me of the opening of ‘Scaramouche’,
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
There is only one thing that I will say about this… Nice.
AFAICS, Parliament does not create “law”. It cannot; there is no new Law to be made or discovered.
What Parliament creates are “exceptions to law” … thus, murder and theft can become “legal”, at the whim of “our legislators”.
Well, I say that it’s done by the legislators; but, really, it’s done with our active collusion. There are very few innocents in this sorry tale.
[…] http://www.clairewolfe.com/blog/2016/10/25/the-role-of-the-outlaw-in-the-betterment-of-society/ […]
Excellent! It’s good to connect with the understanding that we cause the illegitimate rulers stomach distress. Just with our “Fuck You” attitude toward them, we achieve a small measure of victory. Through our small actions that cut them out from their demanded piece of the action whenever we trade, we achieve more victory. We need not obsess about how many people fail see the light: they will come, or not come, by their own choosing. We can still flip the criminals off the live our lives in peace and freedom. We can still carry out robust self-defense when necessary.
Marvelous, Claire. I always appreciate your insights.
We can’t “keep them honest” (they’re rulers and we’re nobodies, after all),
I think it’s not a matter of relative power. There’s a theme among statists that enough regulations, or the right regulations, or consistent regulations can “take the corruption out of politics.”
Nope. Folks who are honest, who behave ethically, will not be corrupted. No power on Earth can keep dishonest people on the straight and narrow.
“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
I would rather be an outlaw than a quisling!
You got linked at American Digest
Thank you, Fred. (And damn, that’s a great version of “All Along the Watchtower,” too.)
Oh yeah, Claire, Eric Clapton ripped it up!