Flint and Steel: The Memoirs of a Superfluous Spark

by Kevin Cullinane
From Number 59 – December 1992

The other day I received an intellectual newsletter, of the small “l” (i.e. traditional) libertarian persuasion, in which the publisher invited subscribers to submit occasional columns. The invitation pushed my vanity button; I began to daydream: “Yes they say that this year’s Nobel selection was first published as a guest editorial in a small, libertarian newsletter. Really! How interesting… ”

Then that silent but baleful, uncompromising pile of half-finished projects on my desk pushed my pragmatic button, and the pleasant moment passed. “Besides,” the pile seemed to whisper, “You are a bit too vituperative, or sensational in style, to appeal to a thoughtful journal.” In self-defense I muttered that I wasn’t either, I’m a, uh, well …. an iconoclast! I write and lecture in an effort to discredit icons which need clasting, and that requires that sparks should fly off the paper – but, at heart I’m just a sweet, lovable guy who can’t get any respect. (The unfinished projects seemed singularly unimpressed.)

Most of us can remember the imagery of a “spark igniting a powder keg” somewhere within the stale, dead pages of the state-approved history books, force-fed us during adolescence. The hopeful phrase was a five-word promise of something exciting about to happen: KA-BOOM! (Subliminally, we hoped the explosion might actually leap from the pages to shatter the classroom’s catatonic ambience. – Maybe even blow a hole in the wall through which we could escape for the rest of the day!) The anticipation invariably fizzled out; the sterilized writers of approved histories having acquired the talent to distill even the most dramatic gore into “lite” history. But for a moment the powder-keg analogy would have sparked (?) a certain attentive anticipation.

As we all did, I survived the ordeal of state-fed history, “written by the winning side.” But my heart was always with those little “sparks” which, from time to time shook things up for a page or two of wearying world history. Perhaps that attraction was what steered me – during my criminal past – into a brief career as a Marine Corps insurgent and counterinsurgent “expert.” (it certainly was what attracted me, in more innocent days, to admiration of Robin Hood – bane of the sheriffs and bishops surrounding Nottingham Forrest.)

To Spark Or Not To Spark…
Any who have ever camped out, beyond reach of propane campstoves, know from frustrating experience, that most sparks die without having ignited anything. But, is it the job of a spark to succeed, or is its job merely to provide the potential for ignition? I’ve muttered imprecations at sparks for dying on me without getting my fire started, and I’ve sworn at them for igniting unwanted brushfires. The poor spark! As with Kipling’s generic infantryman, Tommy Atkins, it is shot at if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.

John Barrington observed that, if a spark (always termed, “treason” by the Establishment of its day), manages to touch off a significant reaction, it undergoes a certain identity crisis. He wrote:

“Treason doth never prosper.
What’s the reason?
For if it doth prosper,
None dare call it treason.”
The inflammatory’s words, enshrined for a brief season, are referred to as, “the sweet light of reason.” Of course, for every Tom Paine who succeeds in touching off a sheet-flame of revolutionary passion, a hundred others are rounded up by the thought-police or, (even worse!), ignored by one and all during their lifetime.

But, as Albert Nock pointed out in his MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLUOUS MAN, (or was it in his essay, “Isaiah’s Job”?), trying to second-guess the reception which it will receive, is counter-productive to the spark’s mission. It is not the job of the spark to know where the powder lies, or how much of it there is, Nock observed. Nor does the job entail knowing whether the powder is dry enough to ignite, or if, having sat overlong in an unfriendly climate, it has become degraded into a lump of nitrate fertilizer.

Good point. Any one spark has its brief season, then extinguishes; what it accomplishes during its time depends, to important degree, upon the situation in which it flares. But then, if the spark were to take the time to carefully analyze the situation, before touching its tiny fire to it, the spark would surely come to naught. (-rather than only, quite possibly. … This may be the place to observe that, given the unhappy odds facing an iconoclast, it is always well for him to have some other form of livelihood than the largess of a grateful populace!) In the face of such somber telefinalism, I suppose that it’s best that I speak and write-away; and let the sparks fall where they may.

There will always be those who counsel a “spoonful of honey,” and in most cases they will be correct. The impassive dignity of diplomacy, and dispassionate phraseology of academic respectability, almost always impress, even when they fail to persuade, or even motivate, don’t they? But there remains a place for “vinegar” within the intellectual affairs of passionate folks. It could be that, at present, the time has passed a point where politically-debased language is even capable of communicating genuine freedom consciousness to any significant number – but history comforts us that better times will dawn.

In the meantime, there is that all-precious Remnant whose unquenchable spirit should be fed. “Feed it to them straight” , Nock advised, “100-proof, and don’t be concerned about those who gag or turn away.” So, if there be a journal, here or there, still open to a bit of irreverent and rather highly seasoned commentary, perhaps its time to bring the flint and the steel together.


Kevin Cullinane teaches Freedom School in Spartanburg, SC.

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