Posts Tagged ‘Occupy Wall Street’

Reflections on my students’ economic and moral values: Winter/Spring 2012

May 9, 2012

Blog Post May 8, 2012


Well, I finally finished the semester.  Papers and tests kept me from writing the last several weeks.  I feel like I’m out of practice!  So, before I finish my reflections on Hume and work, I’d like to stop for a bit and look at my students for the last week.

This semester, I noticed a distinct trend in my students’ answers and essays.  We’ve been discussing economic and social justice for the last month or so in Ethics class, so I’ve read a lot of reflection papers and a lot of test essays on issues like wealth gaps, taxes, property rights and so on.  Very few thought these were unimportant questions.  Almost all seemed to think that there was something wrong with a society where the rich get fewer and richer, and the rest get poorer:  not just mechanically wrong, but also morally wrong.  In a sense, then, it seemed as if the Occupy Movement had gotten a discussion going.  At the same time, though, most of them said the best way to close the wealth gap and to increase opportunities for poor people is to cut taxes for the wealthy, and let the wealth trickle down.  Not one was an out-and-out socialist, and a handful at most thought that it was morally acceptable to simply let more and more wealth be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.  So in a sense, they rejected the Left and they rejected the Right.  But in another sense, they accepted the Left and accepted the Right.  They agree with the Occupy Movement’s diagnosis of the national economic/social/moral condition, but also agree with the Tea Party’s proposed solution.

A Marxist would say they had been co-opted and are all dupes.  Given Marxism’s historical successes as a political movement, I don’t take their word for who is a dupe very seriously.  But there is something schizophrenic in society.  As I’ve mentioned, I teach community college.  That means my students work for a living, for the most part.  They don’t have trust funds and they don’t have dorms and meal plans and a Student Activities office to make sure they never have to leave campus ever if they don’t want to.  They are a much more realistic sampling of society than any student body I was a member of.  And from what I’m seeing, neither major political party in the U.S. should feel very comfortable.  Republicans can take heart that their message of hard work and fiscal conservatism is resonating with many people.  After all, my students are poor or middle class people who believe that if they work hard and get an education, then they will be able to get better jobs and move closer to achieving the American Dream.  They are not looking for handouts.  When the rabbi said, teach a man to fish and you’ve helped him for a lifetime, my students were listening.  They want to learn; they don’t want to be dependent on someone handing them fish, and they don’t want the government taking fish away from someone else to give to them.  It makes sense, then, that most of them would believe that the system basically works if you play by the rules; if they didn’t believe that, they wouldn’t be busting their keisters to take night or on-line classes to get college degrees while working full time during the day.  My polling sample may be more inclusive than, say, a poll of the student body of New College or Union Seminary, but it is skewed to that degree I suppose.

Democrats should probably be discouraged that their message is not getting out.  After all, my students are the very people who Democrats are trying to reach:  the middle class and those poor with the ambition to become middle class.  And when my students are told that the health care system needs reform, that the tax system is biased towards the rich, or that the wealthy should pay 50% inheritance tax (or any) to redistribute wealth back down to the lower and middle classes, many of them just do not buy those strategies.  They don’t think they’ll work, and in many cases they don’t think they’re moral.  Even when they’ve read Marx, Rawls, or Mill and understand their theories, they just don’t buy those; they do buy Locke or the libertarians.  But when it comes to the analysis of the situation, there the Democratic message is winning out.  My students do not want to see the current economic trends continue.  They do not want to see the wealth gap grow, the middle class shrink and the 1% expand their dominance of the nation’s economic and political life.

In the short run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Republicans continue to score big with my students, and with voters who resemble my students.  Some of this is because they are convinced by the Republican economic message, and part is because of the Republican moral message.  My students believe that hard work and personal responsibility matter greatly, and they hear those values echoed by Republican rhetoric more than by Democratic rhetoric.  But in the long run, a moral commitment to those values probably won’t be enough to keep them voting Republican if Republican promises fail and Republican policies make the problems worse instead of better.  If the wealth gap continues to grow and the only thing Republicans say to my former students is, “Well, you just don’t work hard enough or you’d be rich,” that could turn into a Democratic revolution.

I’m not just hypothesizing blindly here; Kevin Phillips has been saying the same for more than ten years.  Phillips was once Nixon’s economic advisor, and is the man who predicted the Republican revolution based on his conclusion that the Democrats had failed the middle class and become the party of handouts, taxes and graft.  In the 1990’s, though, Phillips began predicting a Democratic swing of the nation, based on his economic analysis and his belief that Republicans had become the party of plutocracy and kleptocracy.  My belief is that people don’t just vote their pocketbooks.  I know some people, at least, who become positively angry if told they should vote for X because it would benefit them financially.  But if they are convinced that X is moral and fair, and that Y is somehow morally wrong, they will vote for X gladly.  It matters to many people to see themselves as good and responsible; political rhetoric that does not appeal to their moral sensibilities will fall on philosophically deaf ears.

The day people start to feel shafted, start to feel the system is rigged, and start to feel as if their Most Trusted News In America is not telling them the truth, the voters could turn on a dime.  But if it does happen, it won’t just be because people are voting for handouts for themselves.  It will also be because they are convinced that the values of the Republicans are fraudulent and the values of Democrats are honest and worthy.

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

* 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