Posts Tagged ‘Ayn Rand’

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1

September 24, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP?

 

I recently had three doses of Ayn Rand:  listening to a panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Jennifer Burns on The Colbert Report, and watching The Fountainhead.  The two discussions raised a very interesting question, which the movie began to address.  These three together prompted me to reexamine my earlier discussions on Ayn Rand and the modern conservative movement in the U.S.

The Diane Rehm Show focused on Rand’s influence on Republican politicians, including Paul Ryan.[1]  The panelists discussed Rand’s philosophy, the various elements of it and whether she would support Paul Ryan today.  Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketplace, recounted Rand’s rejection of Ronald Reagan and her warning people against him, comparing this to the similar views expressed by Ryan.  Asked whether she would support Paul Ryan, Burns replied:

 

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.

And because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, “Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He’s a dangerous man who’s mixing religion and politics, who doesn’t understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don’t vote for him and don’t support him.” So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.

 

 

Journalist David Weigel, asked about the way conservatives pick and choose the elements they like from Rand, had a slightly different view.  He said:

 

 

There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer’s talking about, which she — what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it’s going to screw that up.

But take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That’s how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer’s putting that. I think it’s coherent in a couple of ways. It’s not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that’s not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.

And that’s, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it’s not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt’s speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They’re interesting, but I think, when people refer to “Atlas Shrugged,” they’re referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it’s a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it’s fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.

 

 

That is, of course, the question I asked at first:  is it legitimate to take elements of Rand’s philosophy, and not others?  Is it legitimate to borrow from Rand’s philosophy and Christianity, and claim to be honest to both?

It is not necessary to accept everything a philosopher says to feel indebted to that philosopher, or to reasonably claim to be a student.  Sometimes, there may be some minor part of the philosopher’s thought one chooses to ignore.  There have been many who thought of themselves as Platonists or Neoplatonists, but not all endorsed Plato’s ideas on censoring the arts.  Other times, a philosopher may have large parts of his or her thought that can be detached.  Many thinkers are influenced by Kant’s ethics, without having any interest in his epistemology.  But there are key concepts that are really essential to a philosopher’s thought, such that if one of those concepts is missing the whole thought is changed into something else.  If you decide you really like Aquinas, except for the Aristotleanism in his thought, you aren’t really a Thomist; you’re an Augustinian.  Returning to the question of Rand’s thought, what is truly essential, truly foundational in her thought, such that if it is removed the whole thing becomes something else?  What happens to her thought, if you do try to adopt Objectivism without that key element?

In watching The Fountainhead, I could see why someone like Paul Ryan might think he could just pick parts from Rand willy-nilly without the whole thing collapsing.  In a piece of philosophical fiction like that, there is dramatic development rather than systematic development.  Just as the movie-makers chose to ignore the atheistic elements and to only vaguely hint at the rape scene, so too a reader might selectively choose which scenes and lines were personally interesting, while ignoring others.  The character of Howard Roark is very compelling, and in some ways admirable.  He is creative, he is true to himself and his principles and his art, he demands no break or mercy for himself.  He is hard on others but even harder on himself, insisting that he will neither exploit nor be exploited.  He is called “selfish” by others, and does not dispute the word; but his claim that all interactions between people should be free exchanges rather than any sort of compulsion is the opposite of what most of us normally mean by “selfishness.”[2]  The movie is a celebration of the importance and nobility of the individual creative spirit, and an indictment (if not a straw-man slander) of “collectivism” and the forces of conformity.

Philosophical fiction can be very valuable.  It gives the writer the opportunity to present the abstract concepts in a more concrete and lively form.  Engaging the reader or viewer by head and heart together might help some understand concepts that they would misapply if they only had the intellectual side alone, and tried to integrate these concepts into their own affective existence.  On the other hand, philosophical fiction has limits and dangers.  The writer doesn’t necessarily have to present opponents fairly or accurately, and doesn’t have to present possible problems or flaws accurately.  The Hero is opposed by Villains.  The villains can be as despicable, stupid and ineffectual as the writer wants, and the hero’s plans and principles will always work out in the end.  It is easy to get swept up in the dramatic presentation, and to fail to ask the critical questions.  How many people really would say of themselves, as Toohey does, that they deliberately praise and cultivate mediocrity?  I’ve known some who did, but none who had the self-awareness to fully realize just what they were doing, and none who would have had the honesty to admit it to anyone else if they did ever realize it.  An insane tyrant like Stalin might have done so, but a supposedly typical newspaperman in America?  Roark may rape Dominque, but it’s okay because she falls in love with him because of it; this may be likely in a romance novel but in real life, such behavior is beyond abysmal.  But more concerning to the philosopher, in the film or novel ideas are weighted by their dramatic value, not their intellectual priority.  Roark’s claim that he wishes only to interact with others in a free exchange of equals is a clear statement of one of the essentials of Rand’s philosophy; but if I hadn’t first read her philosophical essays, I likely would have missed the full significance of that part.  Roark’s rationality comes through, somewhat, in his devotion to principles and to architecture; but the full ethical significance of it is really overwhelmed by the overarching themes of genius versus mediocrity and individualism versus the herd. The connections between his creativity, his devotion to his art, his willingness to labor in menial obscurity rather than to design products the marketplace demands, his invitation of martyrdom and his insistence on treating everyone as an equal rather than dominating where he can, all these connections are never made explicit.  To understand why Rand thinks the characters make sense and their motivations are believable, it is necessary to read more than her fiction.

To be continued….


[2] Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead,” (film) Warner Brothers Pictures, 1949

A modern philosopher in a postmodern world.

February 17, 2012

Well, I do intend to get back to my series on the philosophy of work.  However, I have been grading tests and so on, and thus have not had time to write.  Not, at least, here.  I did, however, have plenty of time to write a chat with my daughter.  Here’s part of it:

[2/14/12 11:21:57 AM] teh.parents: Two weeks is the midterm, then we move into the moderns.  I’m more of a modern philosopher.[2/14/12 11:22:05 AM] teh.parents: Using the term academically, of course.

[2/14/12 11:22:15 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i was about to say, but you were too fast for me…

[2/14/12 11:22:17 AM] teh.parents: Since “modern” actually means 100 years old.

[2/14/12 11:22:39 AM] JEUNE FILLE: ok then

[2/14/12 11:22:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: half modern.

[2/14/12 11:23:15 AM] teh.parents: I’m still inclined to think postmodernism was a mistake.

[2/14/12 11:23:35 AM] JEUNE FILLE: tu insultes mon pays actuel!

[2/14/12 11:23:52 AM] teh.parents: It’s one thing to say there are perspectives, another to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is no truth at all.

[2/14/12 11:25:06 AM] teh.parents: As Harry Frankfurt says, you can’t survive very long without truth.  Not Truth, but simple recognition of objective reality.

[2/14/12 11:26:07 AM] teh.parents: I think Stephen Colbert may have diagnosed the perils of postmodernism most succintly when he coined “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

[2/14/12 11:27:01 AM] teh.parents: The first says that truth is democratized, so “true” is whatever we all agree that it is; the second says that truth is a commodity to be produced and sold.

[2/14/12 11:27:44 AM] JEUNE FILLE: oui.

[2/14/12 11:27:45 AM] teh.parents: So in the first, the population of elephants is growing, and in the second, Microsoft is a caring company because they pay people to write articles about how caring they are.

[2/14/12 11:27:55 AM] JEUNE FILLE: haha

[2/14/12 11:28:25 AM] teh.parents: And the idea of checking reality to see if these are true seems almost quaint.

[2/14/12 11:28:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: lol

[2/14/12 11:28:56 AM] teh.parents: wol

[2/14/12 11:29:03 AM] teh.parents: Weeping out loud

[2/14/12 11:29:07 AM] JEUNE FILLE: what has the philosophical response been to it all though?

[2/14/12 11:30:14 AM] teh.parents: Well, I’m not really a 21st century philosopher.  But I’m not sure anyone else is, either, since there hasn’t been a new job created in ten years.  So all the work is being done by 20th century philosophers.

[2/14/12 11:30:59 AM] teh.parents: The Wittgensteinians would say that we all play our separate language games, with some debate over how permeable the borders of different language games are.

[2/14/12 11:31:08 AM] teh.parents: So that’s one for postmodernism.

[2/14/12 11:31:37 AM] JEUNE FILLE: hm.

[2/14/12 11:32:02 AM] teh.parents: The Marxists would say our intellectual categories are created by our material substructure, so the very world we live in is an intellectual construct of our economic situation.

[2/14/12 11:32:07 AM] teh.parents: That’s two.

[2/14/12 11:32:28 AM] teh.parents: Sartre— well, you know.  That’s three.

[2/14/12 11:33:22 AM] teh.parents: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the other new Platonists—-against.

[2/14/12 11:33:38 AM] teh.parents: But they’re hardly discussed, really.

[2/14/12 11:33:52 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i know of people in france and europe thinking beyond etc, but mainly they just take what has been given and analyze according to that, which in turn creates new things, but isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking i think.

[2/14/12 11:34:04 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i see

[2/14/12 11:34:30 AM] teh.parents: Weil is really interesting to me, but I haven’t had time to work on her in years.

[2/14/12 11:35:43 AM] teh.parents: The Objectivists try to stay rooted in objective reality, and to maintain an epistemology of receptivity instead of assuming that we actively manufacture our world (with the further idea that since it’s manufactured, there is no shared reality).

From here on, the conversation wanders to the relative merits of Rand; so I’ll end the discussion.

I know that this is a rather superficial description of “postmodernism.”  And to an extent, I intend it as such, since I’m more interested in its manifestations in popular culture than in the more nuanced formulations that may be put forth by philosophers and literary critics.  I see the abandonment of truth as a widespread social-political movement.  Once it was Marxists who would say that our minds construct our world, and our truths are only the ideologies of oppressors.  Now, one is even more likely to hear this argued by a radio shock-jock with a high school education (and a drug habit and about 400 extra pounds).  In the USSR, people starved by the millions because agricultural policy was set by political and ideological agendas, and damn the science.  Only those scientists who were willing to abandon the essence of scientific method, and conform their “scientific” pronouncements to suit the party’s politics, were listened to at all.  Eventually, the denial of truth virtually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and they were forced to import food from people who did not deny the effects of selective breeding on crops.  In the U.S. today, economic, climate, energy and other policies is largely set by people who deny climate science for political and ideological reasons.  Even a reasonable and harmless gesture towards acknowledging the science, like Chu’s suggestion that we could significantly reduce global warming by lightening the color of roofs and highways, is met with violent resistance, ridicule, contempt and even rage.  Those who use science and observation to reach conclusions are met with the same hatred that the Soviets turned towards those scientists who spoke a scientific theory that seemed to conflict with the economic-political structure of the power elite, and for the same reason.  Just as the Left used to deny objective truth to defend ideological convictions, so now the Right demands the same privilege today.  Just as a Soviet scientist could be branded a traitor for speaking a scientific truth that offended against political orthodoxy, so now the Right brands any scientist whose theories are “bad for business” as a traitor.

The “modern” mindset insisted that there was such a thing as “truth” and that we could find it.  It erred, often, in mistaking some narrow vision of the truth (European, imperial, etc.) for all truth.  For this, postmodernism was and is a valuable corrective.  But what has replaced modern hubris is postmodern chaos.  As the postmodern conception has played out in the wider culture, it has come to mean that there is no truth, not even objective truths about reality going on under one’s nose.  And as Frankfurt has said, a society that doesn’t know what the truth is can’t really function.  It doesn’t know what to do, how to respond to events or even what those events are.  Our politics today seem like the spasms of an amoeba shocked by an electric spark.  Blind and deaf, it can only twitch and try flowing first this way, then that, until the assault either stops or kills it.  We don’t know what to do about climate change, or the recession, or most of the other important challenges facing us, because we refuse to listen to any truth we don’t like.  And in the Disinformation Age, you can find any truth you want, somewhere on the internet, to save you from the inconvenience of objective reality.   You can live in your own world, with the “truths” of your own race or class or party or religion, until actual, objective truth kills you.  Or as Frankfurt might put it, you can choose bullshit and hope for the best, or you can choose truth, simple reality about the world around you, and try to guide your life accordingly.

On Integrity in an Extramoral Sense

January 30, 2012

On Integrity in an  Extramoral Sense

 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

R. W. Emerson

 

Why do we philosophers care so much about integrity?  Should we?  Or is this a sham value that we are attempting to foist onto the masses?

Usually, people use the word “integrity” to mean something like moral uprightness, honesty, or reliability.  This meaning is based on a more fundamental sense:  to be integrated.  When a person’s actions are consistent with each other, with the principles he or she professes and (usually) the values of society, we say that person “has integrity.”  The person holds together, his or her life is of a piece, and we admire this.  It may be an esthetic admiration before it becomes a moral one.

If anyone admires consistency, it is the philosopher.  Most people say they admire the person of integrity, but it is hard to find much evidence.  Most people value social harmony more than personal integrity; those who support the values and goals of the rest of us are “good” even if those values are inconsistent with each other, or if those values espoused conflict with the “good” one’s personal actions.  But to the thinker, consistency of thought is the very defining characteristic.  If you can’t or won’t put thoughts together consistently, you aren’t a thinker.  And while the mathematician can be a consistent thinker but a dissolute fellow, the philosopher deals in ethics.  Ethics is the marriage of rationality and behavior; to be a philosopher is not only to have thoughts, but to have thoughts about life and values.  So the philosopher values integrity in behavior as a manifestation of consistency of thought.  From an amoral love of rational consistency, the philosopher developed this moral evaluation of integrity.

Kierkegaard argues that truth (particularly truth about life) is paradoxical, so it may seem inconsistent.  However, he does offer the first argument in favor of integrity of thought and action.  In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript he has the fictitious author Johannes Climacus argue that “Truth is Subjectivity.”  This is not a claim that truth doesn’t matter, that it’s all opinion and that all that matters is sincerity.  As argued in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, “subjectivity” means first of all moral subjectivity:  the striving to find what is true and good and then to live accordingly.[1]  Primarily, it is a plea for integrity.  Again, though, this sort of lack of integrity seems so universal that we must ask whether there is anything wrong with it.  It may even be the human norm.  But Kierkegaard goes further, in the first volume of Either/Or.  There, the esthetic person is the one who lives on whim, and is unable to find one unifying goal or principle for his or her life.  Lacking this, the self dis-integrates:  the person collapses to a mass of conflicting and contradictory psychological forces.  Kierkegaard’s writings use several words to describe this condition, including “despair,” “perdition,” “insanity” and “the demonic.”  Only when the person chooses to live reflectively and to adopt rational, universal values does he or she find integration and fulfillment. [2]

From another direction, the Objectivist says the same thing:  “To introduce into one’s consciousness any idea that cannot be so integrated…. an idea that clashes with the rest of one’s concepts and understanding of reality—-is to sabotage the integrative function of consciousness, to undercut the rest of one’s convictions and to kill one’s capacity to be certain of anything.”  (Nathaniel Branden, “Mental Health versus Mysticism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).  Or as Rand puts it, “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).  Happiness is impossible without integrity, since without it one is at war with oneself; and ultimately, to reject reason is to reject the means we humans have to pursue life itself.  To reject integrity is to reject survival.

I think Rand would agree with Kierkegaard that such integrity is in fact rather rare.  Most people simply believe whatever the group around them believes, or what gives them the most comfort and confirms their own prejudices. Many, including most self-appointed leaders (whether the TV preacher, the politician, the campus prophet or the water-cooler maestro) don’t even know the truth; they just say what will have the best results.[3]  The result is that both the individual and the group dis-integrate.  Truth is reality, and while reality is at times paradoxical or obscure, it is what it is.  Contradictory ideas cannot both be true in the same way at the same time; that’s simple logic.  Integrity, in the epistemological and extramoral sense, means that truth matters; and that is to say that reality is real.  Integrity is sanity.

 


[1] W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation:  from Philosophical Fragments to Two Ages (London:  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) p. 91

[2] W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion:  from Either/Or to Philosophical Fragments (London:  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 20-23

[3] See Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2005) for more on this

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today? (pt. 3: The Thugs)

January 24, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Thugs

I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduces mankind—a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.    Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy:  Who Needs It

 

Ayn Rand clearly would not be a Democrat.  She states clearly that such things as Medicare are steps on the slippery slope to socialism, collectivism, and the death camps of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Only physical force can compel a person to give up his or her wealth to support complete strangers.  That is true whether the strangers are some king or Dear Leader in a distant capital, or the poor one one’s doorstep.  “In a fully free society, taxation—-or, to be exact, payment for government services—-would be voluntary.” (“Government Financing in a Free Society,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)  Taxation, with or without representation, is slavery.

But there are other forms of slavery.  In fact, any government based on irrational principles must resort to violence; and chief among the irrationalists are the mystics. The mystic does not make laws based on rationality; “Faith is the commitment of one’s consciousness to beliefs for which one has no sensory evidence or rational proof.”  (Nathaniel Branden, “Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)  The same Republican party, and generally the same individuals who denounce the “economic enslavement” that is the forced payment of taxes to support Medicare, also support paying taxes to fund Bible classes in public schools.[1]  If anything is a violation of Ayn Rand’s rationality, it would be requiring her to fund a course in a public school that teaches as historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead—not as a matter of faith, but a matter of fact as well-proven as the fact that George Washington did not rise.  If anything is a violation of the Objectivist’s rationality, it is forcing that person to pay taxes to support a school system that treats the religious doctrine of Creationism as a scientific fact, just as well documented as the theory of evolution which is endorsed not only by 99% of all professing scientists but even by the leaders of most Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church (the largest religious organization on the planet and in the U.S.).  The only way the radical agendas of the Christian Coalition, or the state school boards of Texas and Kansas and similar institutions can be carried out is through the barrel of a gun.

The mystic is a person who abandons reason, and therefore is left rudderless to navigate reality:  “A mystic is a man who treats his feelings as tools of cognition.  Faith is the equation of feeling with knowledge.”  (“Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice”)  Every Republican presidential candidate who is considered “mainstream” has publicly done this.  Republican strategists deny the science of global climate change by saying, for example, “I think that every American, if they really thought about it, would have a gut feeling that some of the numbers that these scientists are putting out are not right.”[2]  Not “evidence,” not “rational belief,” just “a gut feeling.”  And based on that gut feeling, we have a tax code that subsidizes oil production and use while even minimal steps to curb global climate change (like painting roofs and highways white) are ridiculed.  Evolution, which is pretty much a foundational concept in biology, is dismissed.  Presidential contenders openly discuss outlawing homosexuality, while contending that it violates the rights of energy producing corporations to limit fracking, even if it causes earthquakes in Ohio or combustible drinking water in Pennsylvania—-because God hates homosexuality but supports commercial property rights.*

But in a contest between mystics and socialists, Republicans and Democrats, which is worse by Objectivist standards?  Given Rand’s deep-seated  hatred of socialism (which she identifies with Stalinism and the murder of millions of her people), I suspect she might fear the Democrats more.  She does, after all, say that government is the greatest potential danger to the rights of an individual—a thought often on the lips of many Republican politicians (lips, but perhaps not minds).  But before we decide, consider this paragraph from “The Objectivist Ethics”:

The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and the validation of their ethics.  The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as “the standard of the good is that which is good for society…

So the mystics and the socialists are in fact morally equivalent.  Both are irrational, both subordinate the needs of the individual to some “greater good” which is determined by the irrational impulses of the leadership and their desire for glory, and both depend on a combination of force legitimized with propaganda.  If you accept the argument that the Democrats are socialists (something they would deny since they advocate what can be called a mixed economy at most), you have to accept the other side of Rand’s argument:  that the mystics are in fact no different, except that one subordinates the rational individual to the good of society and the other subjugates the rational individual to the will of an unknowable God, as interpreted by theocrats and divines.  Both lead, inevitably, to the rule of the thug.

The thug is one who uses force instead of rationality to deal with others.  Essentially, this is criminal, as in Rand’s repeated catch-phrase “the looters and the thugs.”  You can’t loot effectively without thuggery; even if you manage to obtain your loot through trickery rather than force, you won’t be able to hold onto it when others come to reclaim what was stolen.  But thuggery can be carried out under the guise of government too, whenever the government resorts to force or threat to trample on the rights of individuals.  And this is so whether it is a socialist regime trampling on individual property rights, or a mystical regime trampling on the rights of rational individuals to live according to their own reason.  Rand would say there really is no difference between the looter, the socialist, the thug and the mystic.  All agree that society and ethics are based on irrational whim; it is only a “question of whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s.”  As soon as you abandon rationality as the basis for human interaction, the only alternative is brute force.  Socialism government and theocracy alike are, in the end, only thuggery legitimized by calling it “government.”

I’m not sure what Rand would have made of the spectacle of teenage girls, pregnant women and grandmothers being pepper-sprayed while protesting noisily but nonviolently.  She might have seen the OWS movement as a bunch of moochers, as their critics have described them.  However, listening to them speak for themselves, I find the argument unconvincing.  I’m sure there were plenty of moochers in the group, but the same can be said of a Tea Party rally—-after all, Rand considered Medicare to be an archetypal example of mooching and socialist folly, so anyone who protested “Obamacare” to defend “Medicare” would strike the Objectivist as just another socialist.  But plenty of people protested, and still protest the looters, those who got away with fraud and criminality for personal gain.  And from the Objectivist standpoint, even those who demanded bailouts not because they were crooks, but merely because they ran their banking and investment firms incompetently were immoral.  They did not take responsibility for their own failures.  If the world economy was ready to collapse because a bunch of 1%ers were reckless and foolish, how is that my fault?  Then why did I pay to save them?  The bailout was explained as necessary to save everyone from an economic depression.  If I set a fire in my backyard and burn down my neighbors’ houses, I will be liable for the cost of repairing the damage I have done.  I certainly won’t be allowed to profit from playing with fire.  Why, the OWS movement asks, should the billionaire and multi-millionaire executives of financial institutions be rewarded for playing with fire, instead of being compelled to clean up the mess their own incompetence and/or criminality created?

I’m not saying that Rand would agree with this.  For my purposes, I don’t even have to be right.  My point is this:  there are rational arguments in favor of the OWS as well as against it.  This is an argument that should be settled rationally.  It was not settled before the Occupy movement began; in fact it wasn’t even addressed.  If anything, the looters who profited by causing the financial firestorm were investing a small part of their profits into making sure the problem remained buried, by hiring lobbyists and paying politicians and buying advertising anonymously through Super PACs to make sure people debated everything else except why the economic arsonists were not being held responsible.    Rather than engage the OWS movement and argue rationally, clubs and toxic gases were used to silence them.  Seems to me, and to a lot of people, like the Republicans who called for and cheered this force were evolving (pun intended):  from mystics, to looters, and finally to thugs.

What difference does any of this make?  Who cares what Rand would say about the Republican Party today?  For an answer, I must resort to Rand herself:

If man’s thinking is to be valid, this process must be guided by logic, “the art of noncontradictory identification” —- and any new concept man forms must be integrated without contradiction into the hierarchical structure of his knowledge.  To introduce into one’s consciousness any idea that cannot be so integrated, an idea not derived from reality, not validated by a process of reason, not subject to rational examination or judgment—and worse:  an idea that clashes with the rest of one’s concepts and understanding of reality—-is to sabotage the integrative function of consciousness, to undercut the rest of one’s convictions and to kill one’s capacity to be certain of anything. (“Mental Health versus Mysticism,” italics author’s)

When some conservative blogger or commentator or radio pundit parrots Ayn Rand’s phrases such as “moochers and leeches,” it may seem no more harmful or significant than a parrot who endlessly repeats, “Bird’s can’t talk; I’m an elephant.”  But in fact, this mass of self-contradictory premises can only be maintained by a self-induced psychosis.  It is insane and the insanity will only grow.  And it is this insanity that lies behind not only the violence against the OWS movement, but also the endorsement of secessionist militias by Republican politicians in Oklahoma, and the threat of armed violence by Tea Party politicians in Nevada and elsewhere.*  No individual or group can be this schizoid and defend the freedom of anyone.  Either be Christian, or follow the atheist Ayn Rand:  don’t try to schlep her along on your trip.  You will always have a voice in the back seat shouting at you that you’re going the wrong way—-or perhaps, you’ll find her driving and shouting at you believers to shut up and stop your nonsense right now!

Or as the mystics would say:  “Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” ‘  1 Kings 18:21.


[1] as in, for example, Ft. Myers FL in the 1990’s; see http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week146/cover.html

* Oh, and have you read what the Bible says about private property?  For example, if you buy someone’s land, you have to give it back after fifty years; no permanent property transfer is allowed.  You can’t even plant crops on your own land unless the central government/Temple allows it.  Lev. 25:3-13

Quick comment on voter registration

January 16, 2012

I find it curious that there are so many people who are interested in passing new restrictions on voter registration, and who it is who is interested.  Awhile ago, this story ran:  http://www.abcactionnews.com/dpp/news/political/league-of-women-voters-accuses-legislature-of-voter-suppression  and more recently, this one:  http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2012/0111/Partisan-feud-escalates-over-voter-ID-laws-in-South-Carolina-other-states/%28page%29/2.  So it’s an ongoing issue, now front-and-center in the South Carolina Republican primary elections.

On the one hand, this is presented as an example of the Federal government trampling states’ rights.  Surely, states have a right and even a duty to prevent voter fraud; requiring strict rules on who can register to vote and holding registration workers legally liable for any voter fraud is simply an attempt to prevent subversion of our democracy.  There are two problems with this argument, though.

The first point raised is states’ rights.  As Ayn Rand says, “there can be no such thing as the “right” of some men to violate the rights of others” (Ayn Rand, “Racism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 153 in the centennial edition).  However, she also goes on to point out that “It is true that the Federal government has used the racial issue to enlarge its own power and to set a precedent of encroachment upon the legitimate rights of the states…”  So that is one issue here:  is this a necessary concern, or an unnecessary and illegitimate intrusion by the Federal government?  But the other important issue is, are these restrictions on voting legitimate and necessary, or are they illegitimate and criminal intrusions on the rights of individuals?  Anything that prevents a person from voting is an intrusion; the only question is whether it is legitimate or not.  In the case of the Florida law, the burdens placed upon voter registration workers were so daunting that one of the oldest, most respected and most legitimately nonpartisan voters’ rights organizations pulled out rather than face criminal prosecution for accidentally registering a voter who might have deceived them by registering illegally.  As a result, many people will not register to vote, either for lack of knowledge how to register, or knowledge of when the cut-off date is, or for any of the many other reasons the League of Women Voters has found its work to be so necessary for so many decades.  In the case of the South Carolina law, “10 percent of blacks don’t carry government IDs, compared with 8.4 percent of whites” (see “Partisan Feud Escalates Over Voter ID Laws…” via the link above).  That actually doesn’t sound like a big deal, although that small percentage would be more than enough to swing an election.

Again, part of the problem here is the question of where the right to vote comes from.  If, as Rand says, our rights come from our human nature— or if, as others say, our rights come from God— then denying a person the right to participate in choosing his or her government is a denial of that person’s inalienable rights.  Denying a person the right to vote is just as serious as denying a person the right to liberty; it is just less visible.  We do deny people liberty all the time, if those people are criminals or mentally incompetent or something of that sort; but to do so without a damned good reason is nothing short of slavery.  But if, as these states claim, it is state that decides who gets to vote and the individual’s rights are dependent on the will of the state, then the state does have every right to restrict voter registration.  Since conservatives generally emphasize individual liberty, you would think they would want to expand individual rights, not find ways to restrict them.

It is, of course, legitimate to restrict rights to prevent lawbreaking and fraud.  Libraries require cards, cities ban driving 70 mph through school zones, and so on to prevent fraud and protect the public welfare.  But again, conservatives are generally known as the ones who promote individual liberty, even at the expense of the greater good of society.  President Carter lowered the speed limit to 55 mph on interstate highways to lower our nation’s fuel consumption and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  President Regan raised the limit as soon as he was inaugurated.  Cars are 17% less efficient at 70 mph, 23% less efficient at 75 and the fuel use shoots up the faster you drive (source:  http://mpgforspeed.com/), so Regan’s policies made us more vulnerable to the whims of foreigners (even if we produced our own oil, the costs would fluctuate as the worldwide supply fluctuates; that’s simple economics of supply and demand, assuming you believe in free markets and the rights of multinational corporations, who are people too, to sell their goods to the highest bidder).  So it isn’t enough to restrict individual liberty just to make the states’ job a little easier; there has to be an overriding concern.

Conservatives are very concerned about individual rights.  For example, when the Federal government sought to limit access to guns, the NRA and many Republican politicians campaigned against this intrusion of big government into our individual rights.  From the shooting of Ronald Regan (which inspired the Jim Brady law), to Columbine, to the shooting of Gabby Gifford, the debate has raged.  It seems there are legitimate concerns about fraud when it comes to gun ownership.  Even children and the mentally unstable are able to obtain high-powered weaponry, which they use with alarming frequency. But conservatives would undoubtably agree with philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that it is better to inflate a right than to unduly restrict it; to inflate a right inconveniences society a little, but restricting the rights of an individual is a denial of that individual’s humanity.  So even in the case of gun ownership, where fraud and criminal acts are known to occur on a regular basis with the result that many people lose their own individual right to life every day, it is wrong to limit the individual right to own a gun.  The police will simply have to work harder to prevent lawbreaking that comes from gun use.

In the case of voter registration (as opposed to gun registration) a different standard applies.  There is in fact no evidence that significant amounts of voter fraud occur (except with the collusion of the local government, as in Chicago under the Daly Machine, which these laws do not even attempt to stop).  Here, even before a person has been shown to be criminal, laws are being put into place to prevent that person from possibly committing voter fraud.  It is as if tighter gun registration laws were being passed even without any evidence that anyone was being killed by criminals, crazies and children with guns.  Instead of telling the police to invest more money and effort into finding and punishing criminals who vote illegitimately, as is done routinely when it comes to gun violence, the states (Republican, conservative states, that is) are saying that individual citizens are to be inconvenienced and perhaps even denied their rights, just to make the state’s job a little easier.  And while fraudulent gun ownership often leads to the death of decent citizens, if there were fraudulent voting it would harm no one unless it were so massive that no one could fail to notice it.

If, as Republicans routinely say, it is wrong to restrict the rights of the law-abiding just to make things easier for the State, then it is wrong to restrict voting rights with new laws and procedural obstacles.  Only big-government liberals are supposed to sacrifice the rights of the individual for the greater good of the community.

Kant: the intersection between Rand and Sartre (short preliminary sketch)

January 9, 2012

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. ….I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

J.P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

 

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. ….Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.

I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

So every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others….

A. Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

 

So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

How remarkable that Sartre and Rand, despite their different politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and on and on, both end up reverting to Kant when it comes time to describe what, exactly, is the good that one should do.  Sartre says that by making a choice, I am in effect saying that this choice should be made by every human being; so when I choose monogamy or not, or choose a Christian trade union over a Communist one, I am choosing as every human ought to choose.  My actions are therefore of utmost seriousness; whenever I choose, I am to choose as if my principles were to become a universal law.

Rand justifies ethics on the personal satisfaction of the individual, which Kant would roundly reject.  Rand despises the existentialists, who (she claims) base their life-view on impulse rather than rationality.  But when it comes time to describe the content of Objectivist ethics, she falls back on the “second formulation” of the Categorical Imperative:  treat rational beings as ends in themselves, never as mere means to another end.  Neither a victim nor a victimizer be.

I’d like to follow up on this sometime.  How many other philosophers start out from how many different starting points, only to end up with some version of the Categorical Imperative?  And why should this be?  I suspect the common element is individual freedom, though this would need to be examined in detail.

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today? (pt. 2: The Looters)

January 4, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Looters

“If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing.  Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”  Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand is celebrated today for her denunciations of the “moochers and the leeches,” the poor who demand to be supported by the rich.  Less often repeated are her denunciations of “the looters and the thugs,” those who steal not through the welfare state but through criminality, or crooked laws, defrauding those who work to become rich off the labors of others.  Of course, Rand is no Marxist; she celebrates the entrepreneur and capitalist who take risks with their own talents or their own resources, and bear the costs of their own failures.  These are the responsible, productive individuals.  They deserve whatever their intelligence and industry brings them.  They choose not to be victims of others, and not to victimize others either.  Rand says that either is a denial of one’s true humanity, which is to say one’s rational nature.  To victimize others is not to survive as man qua man, since it is to live not as a human being but as a parasite.  To be human is to be rational and productive.  These are the traits that lead to survival of the human individual and species.  The looter, like a tapeworm, survives only because there is a productive being it can sap life from; as long as it kills its host slowly enough, it can live.  But the looters are ultimately destroying humanity.  One tick may not kill a dog, but a dog with enough ticks will bleed to death; and when the last dog is gone the ticks will die too.

For this reason, the rationally selfish person chooses to live by trade, not by looting.  Trade is the honest and open exchange of goods, services, talents and knowledge.  It strengthens the human race, and in doing so it strengthens every individual who participates in it.  As Rand puts it, the purpose of ethics is one’s own life and happiness; but the standard of ethics is human life.  What does not preserve and promote human life—-not just my life, but man qua man—-is not ethical.  So the moral person lives by trade and not by looting because this is what preserves human life, the life and continued existence of humanity.  That is the standard of what is ethical.  My own purpose may be my own preservation, but the measure of whether the means I would choose are proper is human life.  Rand thus starts from an egoistic purpose, it seems, but ends up sounding very much like Kant:  “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—-and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Press, 1964:  p. 30).

Rand would approve of the one-percenter who earned his or her wealth and now resists giving it away to support the lazy leech.  The rich one has every right to give his or her wealth away voluntarily, but must resist being forced; not to resist is to betray one’s own human nature.  But “the principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice…..  A trader … does not switch to others the burden of his failures….” (pp. 34-35).  From the savings and loans crisis of the Reagan era (which cost 3.2% of our GDP) to ENRON to the TARP bailout (which is estimated to have cost us 1% of our GDP) and the other bailouts, it is clear that business in the USA is not being carried out under Rand’s principles of trade.  It is being carried out by the looters, under laws made by the looters and for the looters.  And whenever some regulation is proposed to prevent these CEOs and CFOs from gambling with other people’s money and keeping the winnings while sharing the losses, the lobbyists and the SuperPACs come out and make sure nothing comes of it.  Today, virtually every major banking institution suckles from the taxpayer’s teat.  By threatening to crash the entire world global economic system, rich banks and rich bankers have set themselves up with a sweet deal.  Today, the big banks borrow from the Fed at no interest, and then loan that money back to the government at interest.  The taxpayer’s money, that was supposed to allow banks to start lending again so the taxpayer could start borrowing and entrepreneurs could start investing and inventing and producing, is instead being recycled to pay huge bonuses to bankers.  It’s not the 1%, but the 0.1% that are pulling this scam.  Cut them off, and we go into a Second Great Depression.  Regulate them, says the GOP, and we’ll be squelching the “productive” class.  But when the GOP and FOX whines about the leeches draining the poor productive class, who are they defending?  Not the traders.  The SuperPAC money from the banking industry is raised from the looters, to pay for laws to protect the looters.  The fact is that at this point, the banking industry is funded and supported by the taxpayer.  They are both looters and leeches.   And the GOP has made itself the party that defends the anti-competitive monopoly in its efforts to squelch the small entrepreneur who tries to start a small business, the multinational corporation that dumps its wastes in drinking water and expects someone else to pay to clean it up, and the big manufacturer that accepts shipments from small businesses and then refuses to pay them for months at a time so it can use small businessmen as its own no-interest bank.  In short, the GOP is the party of the looters.  (The Dems take their share of money from looters, too, but they haven’t made defending the looters part of their stated party platform.)

From the Regan-Bush bailout of the S&Ls to the Bush bailout of the banks, the GOP has chosen to be the party of deregulation, not in the name of free markets but in the cause of crony capitalism and kleptocracy.  When the financial industry has been deregulated and allowed to take greater risks, the profits were raked in by the top executives while the risks were assumed by the taxpayers.  When polluters are deregulated, the profits go to the 0.1% while the costs in health and cleanup go to taxpayers.  Even Ron Paul has said that libertarian principles do not mean polluters can use their neighbors as mere means to their own ends.

Rand wrote that we should have real capitalism.  She would have defended Bush’s decision to let Lehman Brothers go under; the executives and the stockholders who hired them should go bankrupt for their own follies.  But this also nearly destroyed the nation’s economy, so the decision was made not to allow any more major financial institutions to fail.*  Fine:  I’m not looking forward to a Second Great Depression either.  But would Rand really demand that we allow a few reckless, foolish looters to destroy the wealth of millions of rational, productive individuals?


* Instead FOX News defended paying the executives big bonuses, with taxpayer dollars, because it is necessary to attract “top talent.”  Talent for what?

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today? (pt. 1: The Mystics)

December 29, 2011

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

Mysticism

“Mysticism is the claim to the perception of some other reality—other than the one in which we live—whose definition is only that it is not natural, it is supernatural, and is to be perceived by some form of unnatural or supernatural means.”  Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force:  The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy:  Who Needs It

            Ayn Rand was a vigorous opponent of religious belief, and an ardent advocate for scientific reason.  To Rand, reason is the use of logic and experience to understand the world of fact.  Religion is “mysticism.”  While the rational person pursues knowledge of the world as it really is, using the essential human quality of reason, the religious person (or “mystic”) relies on supernatural awareness, revelation, and on the word of spiritual authorities.  The rational person believes that this life is or can be good, if we use reason as it was meant to be used:  to understand and control the world for the good of human beings.  The river floods, Rand writes, and animals die; the river floods, and humans build dykes and levees.  The rains stop, and animals die; the rain stops, and humans build canals and cisterns.  To be a human (man qua man) is to use one’s reason for one’s survival.  To choose any other way to survive, whether hedonism or religious revelation and obedience, is to be subhuman, to fall back to the level of the irrational animal.

The rational person values this world; the mystic hates life and this world.  The religious person proclaims that the most important thing is to please and obey God.  What our “natural” self loves —– self-reliance, enjoyment of life and its pleasures, ambition and striving and achievement, pride in one’s own ability and success —- this is sin, this is arrogance.  What is good is to admit one is weak, stupid, impotent, corrupt, unable to know anything except what one is told, unable to enjoy what is truly good while taking pleasure in what is evil, unable to do anything meaningful for oneself.  While the rational person values what leads towards survival and flourishing, the mystic values the afterlife, Heaven or Nirvana or Paradise, and those virtues that one can live out in this world that will lead one away from this world and towards the afterlife—in other words, away from life and towards death.

The rational person values knowledge, logic, self-reliance; the mystic values ignorance, reliance on the authority of others, and supernatural inspiration and revelation.  If our reason and science contradict our religious dogma, we must reject reason and embrace faith.  Rand says that reason is the key to survival.  This is true in two ways.  First, pragmatically, we live by following reason.  Reason tells us about the world; to ignore reason is to ignore reality.  This will surely lead to destruction.  Second, the essence of humanity (man qua man) is rationality.  To refuse to be rational is to refuse to be human.  You cannot survive as a human while rejecting what it is to be human.  Even if you continue to physically exist, it is an animal’s life, not a person’s; as man qua man you’re already dead.  But the mystic is precisely one who relies on irrational impulses and feelings and whims.  The mystic may begin by relying on his or her own “religious inspiration,” but in the end the mystic surrenders his or her individual thought completely to the authority of another, either a single authority like a pope or swami or, particularly in Protestantism, surrendering to the standards of the community of faith, what “they” say is true and good.

The Republican Party today is dominated by mystics, known as “the Evangelical movement.”  It is hard to find a Republican politician today who will admit to believing in evolution, or climate change, to name just two truths proven by the most rigorous scientific methods and endorsed by all scientists who have not embraced revelation over experimentation and remain scientists in name only.  And these are two truths that are vital to our survival.  To deny evolution is to deny, for example, that germs really evolve due to our abuse of antibiotics; the emergence of untreatable diseases is simply the mysterious wrath of a vengeful god.   To deny global warming is to choose policies that may make the planet unlivable, while insisting that the dying oceans, the droughts, the hurricanes, blizzards, and scorching heat which climatologists predicted decades ago are simply the signs that the End of Days is upon us and soon all the good people will be raptured away to a beautiful garden to live forever.

The rampant distrust of science is truly mystifying.  The U.S.A. became the greatest nation on Earth by embracing science.  Our scientific know-how gave us the technology to bomb, invade and conquer Nazi Germany.  That same scientific genius, and government backing for scientific research gave us the means to defeat Imperial Japan without needing to invade its home islands.  We went to the moon, something no other nation has done for forty years (and counting).  We won the Cold War because we won the science race, both in economic technology and in weapons of war such as Stealth bombers and the SDI.  It simply became too expensive for the USSR to try to keep up with our ability to invent and produce new technologies.  Rand would be the first to say that the U.S.A. won because it embraced reason, while the Soviets embraced irrationality; and now that we have the victory politicians dreamt of for so many years, the Republican Party seems hell-bent on throwing it all away and embracing irrationalism.

The distrust of science is built on the fear of the peer review process.  When one scientist makes a claim, others test that claim experimentally and publish articles supporting or refuting that claim.  Since only scientists can do this (that’s why it’s called “peer” review), politicians who lack the scientific background to understand the claim in the first place simply brand the whole thing a conspiracy by the brainiacs to dupe all of us good, moral, religious, righteously ignorant people.  The same Republican Party that says we don’t need to regulate businesses because competition will keep abuses in check, rejects the scientific process of peer review because it relies on scientists to prevent the abuses of other scientists.  Competition between businesses will cure all ills; but competition between scientists is something Republicans deny even exists.  But in fact, we don’t even need to wait for peer review to make at least preliminary judgments. Anyone who is willing to learn and willing to accept reality, and who is capable of graduating high school, is able to choose to learn enough science to grasp the main points of evolution or climate change, or many other big, important scientific arguments.  We may not know for sure which side is right, but we can at least evaluate whether an argument is plausible and logical.  Or, as Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour does, you can simply reject science and scientists if you have a “gut feeling” that scientists are lying, with no attempt to prove anything.  That, says Rand, is the way of the mystic, the way of the animal, the way that leads away from Life and towards Death.

If Rand were alive today, she would not be acceptable to the Republican party.  It is dominated by the mystics, by the willfully ignorant, who reject reason and the values of life in favor of obscurantism, authoritarianism, irrationality and death—-both death of the believer, who wants only to leave this world and be with God, and death of this world which is “passing away” and awaits the Second Coming to end all troubles.  At the very least, Rand writes, the rational person in such an irrational situation must state, clearly and directly, “I do not agree with you about this.”  But the Republican Party today is the party of ideological purity.  The Tea Party, FOX model/spokepersons masquerading as news anchors, radio stars and bloggers may love to mine Ayn Rand for sound bites and to echo her denunciations of “moochers and leeches,” but not one of them will denounce the mysticism that rules the GOP and has for more than forty years.  No doubt she would approve of Republican policies such as ending Social Security and Medicare and taxes on the wealthy.  However, even if she made common cause with them on these and similar issues, she would have to denounce them for the religious superstition (in her estimation) that dominates them and undermines everything good they might stand for.  And if she were alive today, the best she would receive would be occasional appearances on FOX News as some sort of fringe character.  Her support for free-market principles would make her a Republican the way his support for the war in Afghanistan made Christopher Hitchens a Republican.

My 9/11 Reflections (this is a long one)

September 9, 2011

My 9/11 Reflections

 

Good Lord, has it been ten years?

Ten years ago I was finishing up my doctoral thesis and the stay-home day parent for my kids while my wife worked days for the church.  At night it was her turn to be parent while I taught Religion in America and Introduction to Ethics at the local community college.  So I was mostly on a nocturnal schedule.  I had no idea what was going on until hours later, when I woke up and played the phone message from my sister assuring me that she was all right.  Why wouldn’t she be all right?  What could be wrong?  What was going on?  I found out as soon as I turned on the television, of course.  She was at the State Department, and everyone had been sent home after a plane hit the Pentagon a few miles away.  Now she was home with her husband waiting to see if any more planes would hit, if any of her friends would die.  And I still had children to care for that day, piano lessons and school buses and all the rest.  School was cancelled the next day, and we had a departmental meeting to determine how we could help our students.  Of course, I rewrote my syllabus:  we wouldn’t be waiting until the end of the course to discuss Islam this year.

I remember how even MTV, which pretty much has always glorified excess, self-indulgence and generally short-term thinking in all its forms, suddenly became one of the best sources explaining Islam to its viewers.  I remember Dan Rather on the Letterman show, nearly breaking down in tears.  I remember Jon Stewart saying that he used to look out his window and see the World Trade Center.  “Now,” he said, “I look out and see the Statue of Liberty.  You can’t beat that.”

That was what most of us felt:  pain, anger, fear, but also an immense love for our country, maybe deeper than we’d ever realized now that someone was trying to take it all away from us.  There were, however, stupid people.  I remember them too.  On the left, we had idiots like Ward Churchill, who said the terrorist attacks were because of our nation’s foreign policy.  On the right, we had idiots like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, saying the attacks were because God was punishing us for the feminists and liberals.  I’d already read enough about Islam, in seminary and as part of my teaching for five years, to know that both of these were wrong.  Way back before the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had complained that Muslims were “Westoxified:”  intoxicated on Western things and values, like MTV and women being allowed fully human status in society.  The only way to stop the rising and growing Muslim bourgeoisie from developing bourgeoisie values, he taught, was for Muslims to destroy the West, and in particular to destroy or at least neutralize the United States, which he saw as the leader of the industrialized, capitalist, democratic world he so hated.  And in the Sunni world, bin Laden had taken up that same line of reasoning:  that if the U.S. was the source of modern values around the world, the only way to keep Muslims in a truly primitive mindset was to eliminate that cultural influence.  So I knew it wasn’t God’s judgment on us; while the U.S. isn’t perfect, the idea that God would kill thousands of innocent people because there were liberals in the nation is just obscene.  And the thought that bin Laden had any specific motive for the attack is absurd; his gripe is that we breath the air Allah intended only for Salafi Muslims, and that our culture is so powerful and so inviting that the only way to keep the whole world from embracing it is to destroy it utterly.  It couldn’t possibly be the case that Muslims were even then becoming more prosperous and more politically aware, and their rising bourgeois expectations were completely natural and spontaneous!

So we had some American idiots on both sides of the Culture Wars, trying to say how the terrorist attacks were because of the other side.  But most of us, including me, were simply outraged that anyone would be in such a hurry to return to the partisanship, the shallowness, the shortsightedness and the selfishness of September 10, 2001.  We knew, even if Churchill and Falwell didn’t, that we had real enemies out there; we weren’t in a hurry to create or hold onto enemies at home.  We all felt a tremendous unity.  I have to go back now and check old news stories to verify that, so little is that feeling evident today.  At the time, Churchill and Falwell and all of those who were so eager to join the terrorists in trying to tear our country apart were vilified; Falwell apologized and Churchill was fired.  We were all in this together, we knew, and whether you like the guy on the seat next to you or not you all have to row together or the ship’s going down in the storm.

Dan Rather is known for many things; blind allegiance to the State isn’t one of them.  But that night on Letterman, he said, “George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions … wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” …… “He’ll make the call.”  And that’s how all of us felt.  As a Floridian who voted for Gore—-I think—–I had serious doubts about his legitimacy.  I didn’t base it on phony-baloney doubts about his birth certificate; I had real reasons to wonder whether the votes had been tallied properly.  But at that moment, I knew we had to put all that aside.  Gays, straights, religious, atheists, men, women, black, white, Christian, Muslim—-all Americans had to come together, and by and large most wanted to come together.

The other thing I remember is how much I wanted to help.  Again, I have to go back and look at news stories; these days selfishness is a virtue (literally; Ayn Rand is the most important philosopher to the Right, and she has a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness).  Today I am preparing my lesson for tomorrow in Introduction to Ethics, and we’re talking about altruism.  On Religion and Ethics Newsweekly there was a marvelous story on the subject some years ago.[1]  As one of the subjects of the interview put it:

 

The immediate response when people from all over the world just left their normal lives, got in cars, got on planes, and came to New York to say, “How can I help?”….. The way we were — people were running in to sacrifice themselves for others. It was like a huge revelation of how precious we are to each other, even total strangers. To me that is where God was in this.

 

 

That is what we were:  a nation wanting to help, to help total strangers, even people we would have scorned a day earlier.  My wife and I donated money to help the victims.  We were also, I think, just more caring in general.  And I wished I could do more, wished someone would ask me to do more.

But again, from the start there was the entrenched, pre-9/11 mentality at work.  While the partisanship and the finger-pointing and divisiveness came from both ends of the political spectrum, the push towards a return to selfishness came almost entirely from conservatives, and most troublingly, from our government.  Bush’s speech to Congress on September 21, 2001 was wonderful in recalling all of us, as Americans and even as civilized people around the world, to join together against the forces of violence and division and destruction.  But that speech, and the others from that time, never told us what we could do.  I was told to stay home, to buy things to revive the economy, to keep living my life as I always had, to accept a tax cut, and in short to just sit back and let the government take care of everything.  I really felt, and still feel, that the Bush administration thought we were all still too childish to accept a call to strive and do.  The Afghan war was to be fought almost risk-free, with very few Americans on the ground.  And really, that probably was for the best since the Afghans would have just seen a hundred thousand American troops as proof that we were planning to conquer and occupy them as the Soviets had tried.  But there was also that undercurrent that the American public couldn’t take casualties, and that it was better to fight a war by proxy than to risk even one casualty because we were too soft to endure it, too fickle to put up with it.  I think they sold us short on that; at that time I think we would have gladly fought as long as our grandfathers had fought the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  As Yamamoto had said at that time, we could have said to the Taliban:  you have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.  But our own government was afraid to test our resolve.

If our government had called us to a real wartime effort, we would have done anything:  rebuild our infrastructure so we’d have an economy that would dominate the world for the next hundred years, paid taxes to buy more body armor for our troops and to support our soldiers adequately when they came home, anything. At the very least, we could have postponed the tax cut so we would all have felt like we were doing our part.  But as it turned out, the government didn’t have a part for us to do.  The only sacrifice we were asked to make was of our privacy, our civil liberties, and our rights as Americans to due process and habeas corpus and the other rights our Founding Fathers had fought, killed and died for.  They didn’t fight for lower taxes; they fought for the right to tax themselves, for a representative government, but not for an absence of government or of responsibility to it.  Today, if you talk about your “rights” you’re scorned as selfish, unpatriotic or at least naïve; but if you demand your taxes be cut even lower than the historically all-time low rate they already are, you’re a patriot like the ones at Boston Harbor.

Our leaders were afraid to call upon “the better angels of our nature;” instead they appealed to our basest instincts, fear and partisanship and selfishness.  When the call came for war against Iraq, I initially supported it; but it was obvious to me that again, our government was treating us like babies.  Any idiot could see that when Rumsfeld and Cheney told us the war would be over in six weeks and that Iraqi reconstruction would pay for itself, and that we might even make a profit out of the whole thing, that they were either liars or fools.  An eight-year old child could have seen that if the Iraqis chose to blow up their own oil, the oil profits would not be there to pay us back for rebuilding their country.  That’s what we would have done if some foreign occupier had come into our country; how could it have been a surprise to them?  Did they really think it would be like the U.S. Army marching into Paris in 1944?  Did they not see that it might be more like the welcome we got when we crossed the Rhine?  They aren’t that dumb.  They simply believed that the war against Iraq was a good idea, and that if we citizens knew the true costs likely to be demanded of us that we would refuse to do this important thing, so we needed to be lied to, and treated like silly children who won’t take their medicine unless they get a lollipop.

Is it any wonder that today, ten years later, the most amazing thing is how little has changed?  As one headline puts it, Post-9/11 ‘new normal’ looks much like old.”[2]  And in fact, it does: just as partisan, just as petty, just as selfish, just as cynical, just as depressing as it did before the shock and pain of those attacks taught us that we are all Americans, and that as Americans and just as decent human beings there are things that bind us together that matter more than the things that push us apart.

Looking back after ten years, I see that we had an opportunity to become the generation that our grandchildren would have called “The Greatest.”  We didn’t miss that opportunity.  We fled it at warp speed.  Too many of our pundits and political and religious leaders were terrified of giving up the Culture Wars.  They preferred the pre-9/11 mentality, which they were used to and which had rewarded them so well.  I didn’t vote for Obama in the primary; I voted Hillary.  I mention that just to emphasize that I was not and am not the empty-headed romantic that the cynical, selfish liars have tried to claim all Americans who don’t drink their tea are.  I am a true patriot; one thing 9/11 taught me is that I love this country and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had because of it.  It is worth fighting for, and it is worth paying for.  Somehow, being willing to pay for your country has become unpatriotic.  However, being willing to pay more in payroll taxes so the CEO of the bank that foreclosed on your house can have a tax cut—that is patriotic.  When I think of the past, when I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Into the Fire,” or watch my tape of the National Memorial Service, I still get choked up.  But when I look at today, I see a nation that has come through a culture war, and the culture lost.  Bin Laden attacked us because he thought he could bankrupt us, and that the fifty states would turn on each other and dissolve our Union.  That was insane.  But after eight years of tax cuts we couldn’t afford and still can’t, we seem much closer to realizing his dream.  We have the so-called patriots of Oklahoma openly discussing taking up arms against their own elected government.[3]  We have a candidate for President who has said that Texas has a right to secede and that if the government elected by the majority of Americans doesn’t suit Texans, they might do so.[4]  People who call themselves Christians ridicule “Kumbayah.”  Paul wrote, “These three things abide:  faith, hope and love”—–but today “hope” is a dirty word.  The Bible says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” and “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”—-but today “change” is a dirty word (Isa 43:19;  2 Cor 5:17).

So yes, I was excited when we had a President who called out for hope and change.  If the president before him had done that, we’d still have a Republican in the White House.  Instead, the party of hopelessness and inertia fought tooth and claw for its own power.   So now, after ten years, I still feel pain and loss when I think back to those days; but ten years later, I feel pain and loss now, too.  Bin Laden sought to divide and bankrupt this nation, and now thanks to the Tea Party we are closer than ever to that very thing happening.  I mourn the loss of what we could have been, what we should have become after 9/11.  It breaks my heart and it fills me with dread.  Once you were a terrorist if you suggested taking up arms against the government of the United States; now advocating the very things bin Laden did makes you a tea-party patriot.  I fear for my nation more deeply than I did then, since I fear treason more than any foreign enemy.  And I weep when I see how simple logical thought has died, how people can advocate treason and be thought patriots, can embrace the philosophies of atheists like Ayn Rand and be called Christians, or can drop out of college, mock Nobel Prize winning scientists and economists, and be thought wise and responsible.  Patriotism is dying, my country is bleeding out its life’s blood, and even the words that could cry alarm or give aid are turned inside-out and upside-down.  It’s as if our whole nation has aphasia, so no matter what anyone says at this point it won’t matter.  I wonder if this is the way Babel fell (Gen. 11:6-7)?

Well, what can I say?  I am worried for my country, and for the world, and for my Christian faith, all of which are perverted and imperiled by the elevation of selfishness and cowardliness and sloth to supreme virtues, while altruism and courage and the urge to do great things are mocked by the very people who claim to be “patriots” and to speak to and for God.  The Hell-spawn who dreamed up the 9/11 attacks must be delighted to see their plan at long last coming to fulfillment, thanks to those who claim to be the most fervent patriots and Christians.  Seriously, when Ayn Rand can say, “There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them;” and the Satanic Bible can say, “Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!” and no one sees the parallel, but Rand’s philosophy and language (like calling the poor “moochers and leeches”) is taken up by those who claim to be the true patriots and true Christians (though Christ called the poor children of God)——how can any thinking, feeling person not mourn and worry?  If even the leaders of the Religious Right, the most influential pastors and preachers, embrace Rand’s philosophy though it resembles nothing so much as Satanism, then we should all weep—-for our nation, for our faith, and for the loss of our minds.


[1] Lucky Severson, “Altruism,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly; first aired March 24, 2006 (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week930/feature.html) episode 930; accessed September 7, 2011

[2] Calvin Woodward, “Post-9/11 ‘New Normal’ Looks Much Like Old;” Associated Press Sept. 5, 2011 (http://news.yahoo.com/essay-post-9-11-normal-looks-much-old-140032192.html)

[3] Sean Murphy and Tim Talley, “Oklahoma Tea Party Plans to Form Armed Militia,” The Huffington Post April 12, 2010 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/13/oklahoma-tea-party-plans_n_535412.html) downloaded September 7, 2011

[4] Associated Press, “Gov. Rick Perry:  Texas Could Secede, Leave Union;”  The Huffington Post April 15, 2009 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/15/gov-rick-perry-texas-coul_n_187490.html)

The Need for a Defense of Charity Act (pt. 1)

September 9, 2011

The Defense of Charity Act

            The Bible tells me all I need to know about what’s right and what’s wrong.  Some things are good, and God promises to bless the nation that does them.  And some things are wrong, and the Bible says that the nation that does them will be punished.  If we allow sin and abomination to rule our land, we will be smote like the wicked city of Sodom (Ez 16:49).  And what was the sin of Sodom?  “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

How are we to defend our nation, our Christian faith and our very souls from the corrupting influence of these Sodomites and their abominations?  There is only one answer:  we must have a Defense of Charity Act, or DOCA.  As a first step, it can be implemented as a federal law; but if states should try to introduce greed, selfishness, and oppression into our nation by passing state laws that limit aid to the poor, we should force Congress to implement a Constitutional amendment to defend charity.  Now, I know that there are many people in this secular, post-modern society who will fight this tooth and nail.  They will say everyone should just be free to do whatever he or she wants, regardless of the corrupting effects on society.  Many of them follow secular, atheist, foreign philosophers, like the Russian Ayn Rand, who say that selfishness is good and charity is evil and individuals should do whatever they want with their bodies or their money or anything else.  “What business is it of yours how I live my life?  If you want to live in a primitive Christian way and give generously to the poor, that’s your right; go ahead and do it.  But why impose your Christian values on us? We’re not hurting you!”

In fact, though, these Ayn Rand sodomites are trying to impose their secular agenda on the nation, and all of us are suffering as a result.  There are at least three distinct ways in which they are harming the moral majority of Americans:  by changing the meaning of charity, generosity and other essential Christian words, by imposing their perverted values on the rest of us, and by undermining the Christian nature of this nation and bringing God’s wrath down on us.