Another Review of Thomas Knapp’s Book

Thank you, Thomas, for your Big Freakin’ Book
By Neil Lock

I have the PDF of “Kn@ppster’s Big Freakin’ Book of Stuff” by Thomas L. Knapp. There’s lots of good stuff here, though most is very US-centric. Meaning, that it won’t be understood by those from east of the pond, except for a few oddballs like me.

(Factoid and disclaimer: Of the 48 states of the contiguous USA, I have only visited 37.)

I started out intending this as a blog comment; I didn’t intend it to be a book review. But it seems to have grown. So here we go…

I haven’t met Thomas, but I have had cordial exchanges with him on a UK libertarian blog. I read RRND, which he edits, regularly. And I’ve read, and sometimes agreed with, quite a bit of the work of his C4SS friends. Which makes me receptive to his thinking – even when I go a different way. Perhaps, as a result, my comments may be unduly kind.

Being what I am, a bottom-up thinker with a long-ago degree in mathematics, I’ll start with a technical matter. I strongly applaud Thomas’s efforts to make his prose easy to read. I took his Introduction and four essays at random, and used Word to measure the Flesch Reading Ease of each sample. Bitch about this index if you wish, but can you define a better measure of readability?

Two of these sections, including the Introduction, scored above 70. Unusually easy reading, indeed! Two more scored above 60 – the level to which I aspire in all my own writing. The fifth was down at 51; perhaps it was a complex subject, or just an off day. But even that is way above most newspaper editorials. And, may I suggest, above the great majority of blog posts on liberty sites?

Thomas has changed his political views over the years. And for the better, I think. The book shows the change clearly; and that alone makes it useful as a document of our times. I like to think that, in 50 years or so, historians will pore over works like this, asking questions like: “How the hell could so much bad stuff possibly have happened?” And “Why did even the most intelligent people take so long to see through the crap?”

Thomas says he has moved from “right” to “left.” I’m not happy with either of these labels; but I do understand what he’s saying as I’ve been through much the same myself. My equivalent was from confused brought-up-as-a-conservative (no clear view or idea of direction) to radical individualist (bottom-up view and forward looking). And I think I detect another positive change in his thinking; that is, that he now understands the futility of trying to play the enemies of liberty at their own political game.

Now, I don’t agree with by any means everything in this book. For example, I take a rather more conventional view on copyright than Thomas does. I reject any suggestion of alliance, or even engagement, between libertarians and greens. (The big problem with greens is that they aren’t interested in truth.) And I’m not sure how well Thomas understands the vital difference between ethical obligations and political principles. I may be being unfair to him on the last, as the essay on this subject is from 2001 – I’d be interested to know what he now thinks. But all that said, there’s a lot of good stuff here..

If there is one improvement I might suggest, it would be to precede each essay by an introduction explaining the context, and any culture-specifics which might not be understood by all readers. (For example, I had to look in Wikipedia to find out who is “Miley Cyrus” and what is a “twerk.”) As the book stands, it is only of interest to US libertarians and anarchists, and to their eccentric friends like me. I think it could be made much more effective and inclusive by aiming it at the rational reader who has no cultural preconceptions, and by making it clear just what prompted each essay.

In conclusion, the book gives a fine and very wide-ranging selection of the work Thomas has done over the last 20 years. And the later essays in Part 6, and several in Part 7, are particularly good. So thank you, Thomas, for your Big Freakin’ Book!




  1. Thanks for the review, Neil!

    I agree with you that the book is largely US-centric. I have excuses for that, but they’re only excuses:

    – A lot of my writing, especially the stuff prior to 2000 or so, was written specifically for local newspapers in the US and was often written in response to other people’s letters or op-eds on issues that were either of purely local interest or were of interest in that locale at that time.

    – I am not well-traveled. I’ve left the US twice in my life: Once for six months to kill people in the Middle East and once on a day trip to Tijuana (in Mexico, on the Baja Peninsula). Technically I guess I’ve also been to Italy, but that was just 90 minutes sitting in an airplane while it refueled in Rome on its way from the US to Saudi Arabia. I do hope to travel the world in the future, but until I do I will likely keep much of my focus on the places I know and understand.

    It’s interesting that you would grade my writing on the Flesch Reading Ease scale. For many years now, I’ve made a practice of running a piece now and then through the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level mill. There’s a story behind that:

    In 11th grade (next-to-last year of “high school” — I don’t know how that translates into “forms” in the UK, but two years before university), my composition class was invited to submit essays for analysis by a computer program at the University of Missouri-Columbia for grade level analysis (I don’t know if they used Flesch-Kincaid or some other measuring system). Mine came back saying that I wrote at grade level 17.5 (so about half way through an advanced university degree).

    I was very proud of myself until I started writing a lot of letters and op-ed pieces.

    At some point an editor (my recollection, which may be incorrect, is that it was Robert Leger, who was opinion editor of the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader) took the time to explain to me that the average American newspaper reader reads at 6th-grade level (e.g. “good” literacy for someone 12 years of age or so), and that since my material would be competing with sports scores and comics for that kind of eyeball, I should keep it as simple as possible.

    I try to do that. I also try to get those I work with to do that, and have had a success or two with some fine writers who just needed to stop throwing around “nugatory” and “usufruct” and “antedeluvian” and so forth every other exceedingly long compound sentence. I need to get more systematic about it, though.

    Anyway, thanks much for the review. I naturally enjoy the compliments, but will also try to take the criticisms to heart and to remember to thank you 20 years from now for any improvements those criticisms help bring about in the second collection 😉

    • I hope it’s less than another twenty years before the next collection.

      As for writing styles, I don’t understand the American belief that you have to use long or uncommon words to be taken seriously. If you look at the three best English essayists of the last century – George Orwell, C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell – you’ll see that they wrote very simple prose, even when discussing complex matters. You can say the same of American writers like Mark Twain and Milton Friedman.

      Your writing is fine. My only complaint is that there’s hardly ever enough of it.

  2. Even I know who Miley Cyrus is and what “twerking” is (I am not wildly impressed by it all – but I know what it is) – so I do not think that Thomas has to explain those aspects of popular culture.

    On “left” and “right” – the terms are used to mean so many different, and contradictory, things that they are almost useless (although I plead guilty to using them myself – laziness).

    If Thomas (I am not saying he does – “if”) wants to say that Presidents who reduced the size and scope of government, such as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, were “left wing” and Presidents that increased the size and scope of government such as Franklin Roosevelt or L.B. Johnson were “right wing” that is no more absurd than any other use of the terms “left” and “right” (including my own use of the terms) so it is hard to fault him there.

    On the “Greens” there is a simple test – which I have often used. Although I took the idea from a leading Green, Lovelock [the “Gaia” man]- I did not invent it myself.

    If someone sincerely believes in the C02 emissions are terrible theory (as George Lovelock and others sincerely do) then they will support the deregulation of nuclear power (the regulations do not make it any safer, rather the contrary, and they massively push up costs), if they are phonies they will not support nuclear power.

    It is a fairly good test – not for the scientific truth or falseness of the man-made global warming theory, but for whether or not someone sincerely believes in the theory or is just mucking about with windmills and Chinese made solar cells (which will make bugger all difference).

    As for primitive methods of farming land use (which led to disaster in Ireland and so on) and opposition to the agricultural and industrial revolutions (neither caused by state intervention) – well such matters have not come up in this review, so I need not go into them.

  3. Sean – the obsession with complex language and so on, was imported into American academia from German academia (Johns Hopkins was important at first – Harvard and others later), and went into the American media via “Schools of Journalism” (a concept alien to this country – up till quite recently), which started to gain a stranglehold in the early 20th century.

    In the 19th century the American press was much like the British press – with different newspapers openly holding different points of view (openly on the news pages as well as the editorial pages). But then the cult of “scientific objective journalism” came in as part of the Progressive movement (both Democrat Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson and Republican Progressives such as “Teddy” Roosevelt – although he eventually fell out with his own party and founded his own party, rather like Sir Oswald Mosely’s “New Party” accept 20 years before).

    Basically this “scientific objective journalism” can be summed up as – government should always be bigger (never smaller – even as a proportion of the economy) and that “big business” and “the rich” are to blame for the ills of society, and these ills can be cured by bigger and more intrusive government – this being known as “reform”. This is also the position that dominates American schools and universities. It is not actually Marxism (after all Karl Marx rejected such “reform” – root and branch), but it shares some assumptions with Marxism (not surprising as both American Progressivism and Marxism have common ancestors in German thought – although they are different things). American popular entertainment (which is also British popular entertainment) shares the same assumptions – with the “corporation” or the “rich businessman” being a stock villain of Hollywood films or television shows (even cartoon shows on Fox – which is supposed to be different from the other networks, although the gulf between Fox Entertainment and Fox News is rather large).

    Mark Steyn maintains that the problem with American journalism is not so much its left wing ness (if I may use the term), which is no worse than the Guardian or the BBC in Britain – but its incredible boringness. American journalists, especially “important” ones, treat the whole thing with pompous seriousness. Treating their opinions (off the peg assumptions they picked up at university – and never question) as “unbiased objective truth” and using very strange language – for example referring to themselves in the third person “this reporter…..”.

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