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Critique of Pure Reason

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Lanny Friedlander had pretty much disappeared from the world's sight for 40 years. As a college student back in 1968, he'd started a little magazine in his dorm room at Boston University -- with a ream of paper, a ditto machine, and a boundless enthusiasm for his own ideas.

But he had to give up both college and the magazine, which he called Reason, when the first symptoms of his mental illness appeared. He wouldn't appear in the public prints again until his obituary was published in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and stirred thoughts of What Might Have Been.

Before he dropped out of sight, he'd had time to issue Reason's manifesto, charter, and ideological battle cry. Marked by typos, misspellings, ALLCAPS, and general pizzazz-and-vinegar, it was as clear a paean to the goddess Reason as any pronunciamento since the French Revolution. To quote its first issue:

"When REASON speaks of poverty, racism, the draft, the war, studentpower, politics, and other vital issues, it shall be reasons, not slogans, it gives for conclusions. Proof, not belligerent assertion. Logic, not legends. Coherance, not contradictions. This is our promise: this is the reason for REASON."

If that paragraph had been a musical composition, it could have been titled Fanfare for a Magazine. You can almost hear the drums and bugles.

And if young Friedlander hadn't been so ardent a pamphleteer, he might have made an even more effective graphic designer, for his cover art and illustrations were among the most striking and effective since the Soviet poster art of the 1920s.

The Times, whose obituaries remain the best thing about that newspaper as it steadily dissolves into general NPRness, described Reason's founder as "an intuitive genius of design, publishing issues in the magazine's post-ditto period that had stark, evocative graphics; coolly elegant sans serif typefaces; and layouts that reinforced the editorial content." He seemed well on his way to stardom as a graphic artist with a minor in political philosophy of the Ayn Rand school.

For an ideologue dedicated to the worship of reason, Lanny Friedlander had a decidedly romantic streak that made his little magazine a work of art, its every issue anticipated.

Then something happened. The something had a name, or at least a catchall label: schizophrenia. It struck him in his early 20s and set him adrift. Unable to cope, Reason's editor and publisher had to sell the magazine to a group of its writers.

The magazine would eventually become a glossy publication with a circulation of 50,000, complete with a website that now records four million hits a month. Not to mention, which offers both original broadcasts and archival videos online. But its founder foundered.

An opponent of the draft, he enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but didn't make it overseas before his illness was noticed and he was discharged. He surfaced in New York, where he found work as a graphic designer and may have driven a taxi, like Robert de Niro's character in "Taxi Driver." He made a pilgrimage to Paris to visit the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors, but the authorities there sent him home when his behavior grew erratic.

After that, he slipped from sight. Nick Gillespie, who runs, remembers looking for a picture of its founder to hang on the wall when Reason opened its Washington office in 2007. He couldn't find one. Any more than Lanny Friedlander could be found. He was lost in more ways than one. People wondered, when they did wonder about him, if he was dead or alive.

Then, last December, after Reason ran an article about recent advances in genomics -- the study of genes and the mapping of the genome -- the magazine's science editor got a letter from Mr. Friedlander. "I think you should take your thinking one step further," he wrote the editor, "and write about the prospects of immortality in the immediate future. I also wonder if magicians can reverse the effects of old age." The letter ended: "P.S. I started Reason magazine in 1968."


Maybe he'd written the letter from one of the succession of psychiatric hospitals where he would largely spend the rest of his life. Or he might already have moved to the Veterans Affairs halfway house in Lowell, Mass., his last known residence. He resisted taking his medication, saying it slowed everything down -- like a 78 rpm record played at 33 1/3. The trajectory of his final years might be summed up as sad, sadder, saddest.

No more was heard of him till his obituary appeared. ("Lanny Friedlander, 63, of Reason Magazine, Dies"--New York Times, May 7, 2012) Requiescat in pace. At last.

Who knows what contributions such a mind unhindered by his mania might have made to the American political tradition? He might have founded a party of Pure Reason, or become a raging liberal in his old age, or somehow steered past the libertarian shoals and found safe harbor in the traditional conservatism of a Burke or Tocqueville.

Lest we forget, the godfather of American neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, began his intellectual parabola as a Trotskyite at City College of New York. He, too, founded a modest little magazine in his youth.

Lanny Friedlander's one, guiding idea still lives. It is the belief that all the issues in the world can be resolved by pure reason. Without reference to experience, prudence, tradition, custom or what Edmund Burke called moral sentiments. But this great believer in reason had lost his reason. Or rather everything but. To quote Chesterton: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

In the eyes of those who make a cult of reason, politics (and everything else in life) is reduced to a problem in logic, and the answer -- to everything -- should be as clear as a proof in plane geometry. That, too, is a form of madness.

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