Posts Tagged ‘selfishness’

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

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POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

October 1, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

 

In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:

 

            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

 

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]

 

 

So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.


[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30

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

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?

My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party

October 31, 2011

My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party (with comments)

            I’ve been grading some of my student papers.  I teach community college:  my students don’t generally have the leisure of a full-time retreat from the world of work and wages.  And they don’t take the leisure of just working and ignoring all that hard thinking stuff, either.  They are generally working hard at low-paying jobs, and then working hard in my classes as well.  They are learning to think critically, to examine their own beliefs and those of others, to apply abstract principles and philosophical theories to real-world life experiences and to the social/political debates that rile the news cycle.  They are health workers, they are soldiers, they are law enforcement, they are victims of violence and domestic battery, they are every sort of person.

One thing that struck me this semester is how diverse they are politically.  This is nothing new; but this year, while the political debates have been so cutthroat and virulent, it was the politically conservative papers that struck me.  My students simply do not vote their “class interests.”  They are poor to middle class and swimming for shore with all their might as the economic tides recede.  If anyone should be out occupying Wall Street, it is them.  Instead, I read time and again how they live, working sometimes two jobs while attending classes just to stay off welfare while taking care of their children.  Others may be accepting food stamps or other aid, but still they are working as hard as they can to get to the day when they can support themselves and those who depend on them.  But if they express any frustration, it isn’t for the hedge fund managers and investment bankers who make billions of dollars while millions of little people lose their jobs and their savings.  The only impatience they express is for those who are lazy, and particularly the lazy people who live in government housing that is better than what they can rent on their own, who buy food with food stamps so they can afford cigarettes and beer, and who seem to have the time to just hang around on their taxpayer-subsidized front porch.

Marx would say my students have been co-opted:  they have bought the lie that if they just work hard, they too can be rich, so they accept the system instead of seeking to change it.  In other words, the Left would say my students are selfish but deluded; they act against their own selfish interests unintentionally, while meaning to be just as selfish as any corporate raider, inside trader or war profiteer.  I wonder, though, how many of the people who would say that have read student papers like the ones I read?  I wonder how many of them actually know any real working stiffs?

I think this is why so many have so much trouble understanding the TEA Party movement.  The assumption is that people will act in their own interests, as best they can understand them; so they must simply be deceived by corporate masters and billionaire-funded propaganda.  Once they are informed of the facts and see that the rich are getting richer, that this “grass-roots” movement is funded by the rich, and so on, they will all throw off their Uncle Sam costumes and go join the protestors in Zuccotti Park.  But instead, the many people who call themselves “tea party” seem strangely immune to “facts” and appeals to self-interest.

Could it be, perhaps, that the so-called deluded, co-opted masses are not immune to facts, but are instead deaf to arguments based on selfishness?  I have three friends in particular who identify themselves with the TEA party in one way or another.  Now, I have seen the video footage and news reports, and I have read the e-mails people have sent me touting the TEA line.  I have seen plenty to reinforce the stereotype of TEA partiers as paranoids, ignoramuses, xenophobes, and so on.  But I have to say, my first-hand experience has not backed that up, generally.  None of them are stupid people; I know what jobs they hold and I’ve seen them engaged in mental activities.  They are not greedy weasels who would cheer the death of some poor schmuck if it saved them a few dollars; they are generous, at times to a fault.

They are patriotic and conservative Christians, which I don’t think comes as any great surprise.  But they are not “co-opted” or otherwise stupid.  If there is any one quality they share, and which explains their immunity to appeals to class interest, it is this:  they are all hard workers.  They do not work just because they have to; they go beyond the minimum required.  They want to work, they want to work well, they want to overcome and achieve and accomplish and fulfill whatever is there for them to overcome and fulfill.  They want to feel that they are contributing to their world and they are supporting themselves.  When they hear the typical argument “Let’s tax the rich, redistribute the wealth and close the wealth gap,” they are first of all offended that anyone thinks they would succumb to this bribery.  Next, they assume that anyone who would try to appeal to their laziness and selfishness in this way must be lazy and selfish.  By contrast, when they hear about “job creators” and “it’s unjust to rob those who worked hard to earn great wealth,” this has great appeal.  They are being asked to give up easy advantages they have not earned, and to sacrifice for the sake of justice.  It is precisely the call to take on the extra burden in a just cause that appeals to them.

As long the TEA party hears that they are dupes, that they are astro-turf instead of grassroots, or that they are racists or selfish, they simply become defensive.  And why not?  The TEA partiers I know are not racists or selfish, and they are sincere in their allegiance to their cause.  If the TEA party will call them to sacrifice and strive for the good of their nation and to earn whatever rewards they can honestly, they will answer that call.  And if they believe the Left wants them to take from others what they themselves have not earned, they will reject that easy way with scorn.  They want work worthy of themselves.  Some know the past, and perhaps Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; some may know the future as depicted in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; some may know the eternal truths as described in Plato’s Republic.  These all agree on one basic principle:  democracy is destroyed if the people believe they can simply vote for whatever they want, and get it without sweat or blood or tears.  The conservatives that I know believe that they have earned what they have, or perhaps more accurately, that they have worked for what they have.  They want to work; they want to be challenged.  They believe that this is how they preserve society.  And this is how they know they are alive, how they feel the life that was given them as a gift, but which they renew by their efforts.

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.

The Need for a Defense of Charity Act (pt. 2)

September 9, 2011

Changing the meaning of the word “charity:”  I need not look any further than Ayn Rand’s own words:

My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.[1]

These words from a (probably the) most important political theorist for the so-called conservative movement show us immediately not only how opposed this philosophy is to our Christian heritage, but more importantly how this secular philosophy seeks to change the meaning of my relationship with my neighbor.  The Bible tells us clearly that charity is absolutely the most important thing.  Consider Matt 5:43-48, where Jesus tells us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect;”  love your enemies, do good to everyone, and don’t ask who is “worthy of the help.”  It’s no wonder Rand despised religion!  Her conservative values and the political movement they inspire today are the very opposite of our Christian heritage.  Jesus describes the kingdom of Heaven as a great wedding banquet where everyone is invited (Luke 14:12-24); but today some people want to make it some sort of tea party where only the right sort of people are allowed, the ones who can help you socially and invite you to parties of their own.  The generosity that the Bible says is the most important thing in the world, today’s modern Sodomites want to say is “a marginal issue”!  (Compare James 1:27)

When the Randian sodomites change the meaning of the word “charity,” they change the meaning of my charity.  Charity is supposed to be a marriage of opposites:  rich and poor.  It is not a purely arbitrary arrangement between two people who are basically the same for their own pleasure and convenience; it is based on the differences between them.  The rich are to provide the capital that is the seed of industry; the poor provide the labor, and together they give birth to wealth (perhaps that’s why they call it “labor”).  Without the poor to do the work, there is no wealth and hence no wealthy persons; without the wealthy to hire and pay and invest and develop, there is no work to do, or only the barest of subsistence hunting and gathering.  The economic sodomites claim that the poor are waging class warfare and that they will destroy the rich; but historically we can see that generally it goes the other way around.  This is also what Scripture teaches:

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.  For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord. (Ps. 10:2-3)

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.  May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.  May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.  May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…..  For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.  (Ps. 72:  1-4, 12-14)

The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice. (Prov. 13:23)

But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?  (James 2:6-7)

The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts. (Isa 3:14-15)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (Isa 58:6-7)

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—  they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned;  they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts  (James 5:4)

So it is clear from the Word of God that the poor need far more protection from the injustice of the rich, than do the rich from the poor.  There are many passages that speak of the oppression of the poor by the rich, or the wise by fools, or the poor wise man by the rich fool; there is almost nothing of what we hear so much of today, about how the rich are being robbed and oppressed and enslaved by the poor.  In fact, given what the clear Word of God tells us in loud cries and thunderings, we should probably be asking if God hates the rich!  But a closer examination reveals that this too is mistaken.  After all, God blessed Solomon with wealth as well as wisdom.  Wealth is said to come from God, and sometimes poverty is said to come from sloth or dishonesty.  It is clear that the Bible assumes that there will always be economic disparities.  What God demands is that we treat these disparities as opportunities to serve one another, not as excuses to condemn.  Christ said that whatever we do to the least of our neighbors, we do to Him; so the one who serves the poor serves Christ (see Matt. 25:31-46).  At the same time, when the rich one shares with the poor, that rich one does the work of Christ on Earth.  So in the giving and the receiving, each finds Christ in the other.  And in giving with humble generosity and thanking with humble gratitude, each finds God personally.[2]

The Rand-postmodern individualist agenda turns the marriage between rich and poor, ordained by God to be an equalizing relationship bringing the different sides together, into a matter of personal comfort and convenience only.  The relationship that should have been the foundation of society becomes just an idle fancy, and matter of personal individual rights rather than social responsibility—as Rand said herself, and as the conservative Sodomites who follow her in worshipping the calf of gold continue to say.  The entire meaning of “charity,” and “generosity” and “almsgiving” and every other related concept is completely turned upside down.  These people should not be allowed to take the sacred bond of charity from us and turn it into an excuse for individual self-indulgence.  This is one reason why it is so important to have a Defense of Charity Act.


[1] Ayn Rand, interview with Alvin Toffler, Playboy 1964 (http://www.ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html) accessed September 3, 2011.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 152-153

The Need for the Defense of Charity Act (pt. 3)

September 9, 2011

Imposing their values on the rest of us:  As we have seen, the Bible teaches that wealth comes from God.  God makes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust, all and everyone. As the apostle James writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”  Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.  Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.  (James 4:13-17)

Therefore, God has every right to demand that we share that wealth, and both rich and poor benefit when God’s will is done.   It comes from God, it belongs to God while we have use of it, and all we have and are will return to God.  But that is not what Ayn Rand and her followers teach.  In June of 2011, they came into a Christian school under the name of “The 9/12 Project,” and set up a summer camp for children—-and in a Christian school!—-where they taught children that “”I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to.”[1]  We know from Scripture that God calls this the sin of Sodom (see Isa. 1:10-17), but here they are, teaching the sin of Sodom to the children of Christian parents in a Christian school.  And now they have continued, opening up schools for blasphemy in two churches in Tampa alone.[2]  If they want to practice their sodomy among themselves, that’s one thing; but their agenda is to recruit our children, and they don’t even try to hide it!  And to do this, they are imposing their perverse values even in our churches.  They claim they are fighting government attempts to force them to be charitable; but really, it is they who are trying to force selfishness, greed, injustice and all the sins the prophets warned against on the rest of the nation, by perverting our laws and our churches alike.

This will bring God’s wrath down on America:  Do we want to be destroyed as was Sodom (Isa 1:9)?  The prophets of the LORD call to us with loud voices, or rather with one voice, the voice of God:  The nation that does injustice, that oppresses the poor, that piles up wealth while the weak go hungry, that nation will be destroyed (Isa. 1:23-24).  Ayn Rand’s disciples teach that “Government cannot force me to be charitable;” but it is in fact God that demands it.[3]  This is a Christian nation; why does a minority that follows the teachings of a godless Russian philosopher get to impose its will on us, and bring down all the disasters of God’s wrath?  Shouldn’t our laws reflect our Christian heritage?  Of course they should!   We Christians have fought and continue to fight to make sure that Christian teachings rule here, whether it be that marriage is between one man and one woman, or that life begins at conception, or that murderers should be executed by the state; how can we not also insist that God’s will be done in something that matters so much less, in money?  And yet, while money may mean so little, charity to the poor matters so much.  The Law demands that those who have give some of what they have to those who have not (Lev. 19:10, 23:22; see also Ex. 23:11, Deut. 24:19-22).  It does not say “make the rich poor too;” rather, it demands only that those who have leave what is basically their spare change, the leftovers from their fields, which they can do without but which the poor desperately need.  The Law of Moses also states that the rich shall not charge interest on loans to the poor (Ex. 22:25; see also Deut. 24:12).  And in Lev. 14:21, God lays down the rule that while the rich must pay tithes, the poor are to pay less.  Since at this time the priests ruled the land, those tithes were taxes on the people; and the taxes were higher or lower based on what an individual could afford.  So obviously, it is God’s will that the laws protect the weak, feed the hungry, cloth the naked (again, read the passage about returning a debtor’s cloak), and taxes and tithes are due according to what one can pay.  The government not only has a right to demand charity; it has a duty to do so, a duty to God, and if it fails in that duty it will be swept away like the rebellious rich of Samaria and Jerusalem.

So, to protect the nation from God’s just punishment, to prevent Randites from imposing their values and agenda on the rest of us, and to keep them from changing the meaning of Christian charity into something it is not, I call on our government to pass the Defense of Charity Act.  DOCA is the only thing that can stem the tide of ungodliness that has swept through our politics and our churches.  It is the only thing that can restrain the libertine individualism that threatens to destroy the social fabric of our nation.  And it is the only thing that can heal the breach between the super rich and the vast majority of the country, restoring us to the sort of patriotic community that our Founding Fathers hoped for and God requires.


[1] Marlene Sokol, “Tea Party Group Offers Summer Camp;” June 14, 2011, St. Petersburg Times (http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/tea-party-group-offers-summer-camp/1175119); accessed Sept. 5, 2011

[2] Marlene Sokol, “Tea Party Organization Will Offer More Classes for Children;” August 31, 2011, St. Petersburg Times (http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/tea-party-organization-will-offer-more-classes-for-children/1188952) accessed Sept. 5, 2011

[3] “Tea Party Group Offers Summer Camp”