I’ve been reading The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. So far it’s been an amazing read but I have trouble recommending it simply because it requires a working knowledge of anarchism, Discordianism, and other forms of anti-state movements. The book also fails to maintain any type of continuous timeline. In one paragraph it will be covering characters and events from one scene only to jump to an entirely different set of characters, who may be in a different time period, without warning. Since I have a habit of reading 10 books at the same time this doesn’t bother me but I know it would present problems for many readers. Still, if you can get around those notable issues it’s an absolutely hilarious title.
One part of the book discusses a man named Emperor Norton. Emperor Norton was a self-declared Emperor of the United States that resided in San Francisco. What’s interesting about the man is that the people of San Francisco humored him. He even issued his own currency, which became accepted in the city. An except from the book makes an excellent point regarding Emperor Norton’s insanity and effectiveness:
Well, chew on this for a while, friend: there were to very sane and rational anarchists who lived about the same time as Emperor Norton across the country in Massachusetts: William Green and Lysander Spooner. They also realized the value of having competing currencies instead of one uniform State currency, and they tried logical arguments, empirical demonstrations and legal suits to get this idea accepted. They accomplished nothing. The government broke its own laws to find ways to suppress Green’s Mutual Bank and Spooner’s People’s Bank. That’s because they were obviously sane, and their currency did pose a real threat to the monopoly of the Illuminati. But Emperor Norton was so crazy that people humored him and his currency was allowed to circulate.
Emperor Norton effected actual change in his area simply by being crazy. Even though he issued his own currency the state never moved against him as they did with other individuals who attempted to introduce competing currencies. He was never tried for treason, labeled a terrorist, or otherwise targeted for state agression with the exception of one incident where he was kidnaped by the police who planned to have him involuntarily committed. Needless to say the townsfolk didn’t agree with the police’s actions:
In 1867, a policeman named Armand Barbier arrested Norton to commit him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The Emperor’s arrest outraged the citizens and sparked scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered Norton released and issued a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Crowley wrote “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” Norton magnanimously granted an “Imperial Pardon” to the errant policeman. All police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
How many individuals do you know can be arrested and wind up having the police salute him? Sometimes sanity is a liability. When you’re serious about something people often refuse to take you seriously but if they believe you’re insane they will often humor you. While they may be humoring you they are still participating in what you advocate and that participation can give you an opportunity to point to and say, “See! You’ve been doing exactly what I’ve been preaching and things have turned out just fine!” Joshua Norton effectively became emperor by merely declaring it. Since people thought he was insane they humored him and began acting like he was an emperor. For all practical purposes Joshua Norton was an emperor, at least a legitimate of an emperor as any other that has existed.