I found that photo on Facebook a while back, with the following caption:

This photo was posted on STFU, Conservatives Tumblr page last night [here]. The reason why I’m sharing it is not because of the photo itself (which is epic in it’s [sic] own right), but for the comments it generated.

One person wrote, “but then again, its kind like putting a meat suit on and telling a shark not to eat you”.

STFU responded (with bolded text):

We (men) are not fucking sharks!

We are not rabid animals living off of pure instinct

We are capable of rational thinking and understanding.

Just because someone is cooking food doesn’t mean you’re entitled to eat it.

Just because a banker is counting money doesn’t mean you’re being given free money.

Just because a person is naked doesn’t mean you’re entitled to fuck them.

You are not entitled to someone else’s body just because it’s exposed.

What is so fucking difficult about this concept?

Bravo.

Indeed. Also, Laura Jedeed has some really excellent comments on rape and this image too.

Happily, the rights of women in western countries are more widely recognized and better protected today than at any other time in human history. That’s a huge achievement, and part of why I’m grateful to live in modern America.

However, more progress awaits us. One example was in the news last year:

A recent court case just exposed a barbarity in California law, namely that it’s not rape to trick an unmarried woman into sleeping with you by pretending to be her boyfriend.

Julio Morales was convicted and sentenced to three years in state prison for entering an 18-year-old woman’s bedroom and instigating sex with her while she was asleep after a night of drinking at a house party in 2009. According to prosecutors, it wasn’t until “light coming through a crack in the bedroom door illuminated the face of the person having sex with her” that she realized Morales wasn’t her boyfriend. Holy shit.

But a panel of judges overturned the conviction this week because of a law from 1872 that doesn’t give women the same protections as married women because, as we all know, single women are always down for nonconsensual sex, even when they’re asleep and/or purposefully tricked into the act.

The court admitted that “If the woman had been married and the man had impersonated her husband” it would be rape. But since there was no ring on her finger, it’s not!

Eugene Volokh had some comments here. I agree that rape by fraud shouldn’t be a punishable offense, except in cases of impersonation of a lover or spouse. (I’m not sure of the case of mere friends.) As Eugene says of such impersonation:

It is, thankfully, apparently a rare sort of lie; it is very far outside the normal level of dishonesty that people expect might happen in their relationships; it is one for which there is no plausible justification or mitigation; and criminalizing it is unlikely to sweep in the garden variety lies that, unfortunately, often appear in people’s sexual and romantic lives.

California law obviously needs to be updated.

Here’s another example. The 2012 election was replete with politicians making ridiculous and offensive comments about rape in order to rationalize their across-the-board opposition to abortion. Most notable was Todd Akin’s justification for denying abortions to women pregnant due to rape:

… from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Conservatives need to recognize that forced pregnancy — not just pregnancy due to rape but any unwanted pregnancy — is a morally abhorrent violation of rights, not a gift from God.

Alas, the third example hits closer to home for me. In a February 2012 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said that a man is entitled to force himself on a woman if she has a few drinks with him and then goes up to his hotel room. Thankfully, he corrected that a few weeks later, but only in part. By a rather strange analysis, Peikoff concluded that a woman cannot withdraw consent after penetration. In reality, that means that the man can do whatever he pleases to the woman after penetration, even as she kicks and screams and yells and cries in protest. That’s seriously, seriously wrong — and dangerous too.

On a more positive note, you’ll find my own views on the nature and limits of consent in sex in this podcast. (It’s a pretty lengthy discussion… about over 40 minutes.)

Ultimately, my point here is that the rights of women matter — and they’re not yet fully protected. The image at the top of this post reminds us of that. The fact that she’s half-naked doesn’t make her any less of a person with the absolute right to forbid another person access to her body.

That’s a lesson that some people still need to learn, unfortunately.

Sep 172013
 

In last Sunday’s radio show, I answered the following Rapid Fire Question:

In his 1977 essay “Political Freedom and Its Roots in Metaphysics,” Moshe Kroy argued that Ayn Rand’s advocacy of government, in contrast to the libertarians’ advocacy of anarchism, stemmed from her having a different view of the nature of man than Murray Rothbard did. Is Kroy right?

I skimmed the article in advance of the broadcast, so I knew that the Kroy’s analysis was based on utterly ridiculous — as in, fabricated — claims about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I quoted a bit of the article in the broadcast, but I thought I’d blog a bit more commentary. The first example that Kroy offers is long and complicated, so I’ll skip that. Let’s look at the second:

A Randist judge would demand compensation whenever a promise was unilaterally made and broken (i.e., a promise of a gift, or of charity service). A Rothbardian judge would not consider these legal matters — though he may privately advise the victim to advertise the fact of default as much as he can, so as to make the defaulter realize that breaking promises is bad for your business reputation.

Nothing in Ayn Rand’s writings — fictional or philosophical — supports this claim that mere promises constitute contracts. In fact, as William Stoddard observed, Hank Rearden’s thinking about his abysmal marriage — when Lillian drags him to Jim Taggart’s wedding — suggests the opposite view:

Then, as if a single, sudden blow to his brain blasted a moment’s shift of perspective, [Hank] felt an immense astonishment at what he was doing here and why. He lost, for that moment, all the days and dogmas of his past; his concepts, his problems, his pain were wiped out; he knew only — as from a great, clear distance — that man exists for the achievement of his desires, and he wondered why he stood here, he wondered who had the right to demand that he waste a single it-replaceable hour of his life, when his only desire was to seize the slender figure in gray and hold her through the length of whatever time there was left for him to exist.

In the next moment, he felt the shudder of recapturing his mind. He felt the tight, contemptuous movement of his lips pressed together in token of the words he cried to himself: You made a contract once, now stick to it. And then he thought suddenly that in business transactions the courts of law did not recognize a contract wherein no valuable consideration had been given by one party to the other. He wondered what made him think of it. The thought seemed irrelevant. He did not pursue it.

Basically, because Hank received no “valuable consideration” from Lillian in their marriage, Hank ought to consider that marriage to be a mere promise and not a binding contract. Hence, he’s not obliged to endure it, come what may — and ultimately, he doesn’t. In fact, when Hank divorces Lillian after the debacle with the “Gift Certificate” for Rearden Metal, he goes to considerable lengths to prevent her from benefitting from the marriage. He bribes judges and others to prevent any property settlement or alimony. That’s because Hank aims to leave Lilliam without another cent of his — whatever the promises of the marriage — precisely because she’s offered him no valuable consideration in the marriage.

If I read Atlas Shrugged through from beginning to end, I suspect that I could find more than a few promises broken by the heroes (mostly due to changed circumstances) that wouldn’t ever result in any kind of court case. Contracts are a kind of promise, but they’re not mere promises.

As for the third example:

A Randist judge would have to defend, in court, a contract in which a man sells himself to be a slave: once a man made a contractual commitment to be a slave, and to forego any further freedom of choice, he has to abide by his promise. A Rothbardian would consider the contract cancelled the minute the slave refuses to be a slave any more (thereby implying that the contract was never valid). At the same time, if the slave got some money, which he has been capable to continue to control independently, for becoming a slave, then he no more legally holds the money: the money belongs to the deceived, purported slavemaster. Thus, the institutions of justice should remedy the breach of control and ownership incurred.

Again, that’s a complete fabrication. Nothing in Ayn Rand’s writings would ever support that position. In fact, another example from Atlas Shrugged suggests that Ayn Rand held the opposite view — namely, when Dagny attempts to convince Dan Conway to fight the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule.”

“Dan, you have to fight them. I’ll help you. I’ll fight for you with everything I’ve got.”

Dan Conway shook his head.

He sat at his desk, the empty expanse of a faded blotter before him, one feeble lamp lighted in a corner of the room. Dagny had rushed straight to the city office of the Phoenix-Durango. Conway was there, and he still sat as she had found him. He had smiled at her entrance and said, “Funny, I thought you would come,” his voice gentle, lifeless. They did not know each other well, but they had met a few times in Colorado.

“No,” he said, “it’s no use.”

“Do you mean because of that Alliance agreement that you signed? It won’t hold. This is plain expropriation. No court will uphold it. And if Jim tries to hide behind the usual looters’ slogan of ‘public welfare,’ I’ll go on the stand and swear that Taggart Transcontinental can’t handle the whole traffic of Colorado. And if any court rules against you, you can appeal and keep on appealing for the next ten years.”

“Yes,” he said, “I could … I’m not sure I’d win, but I could try and I could hang onto the railroad for a few years longer, but… No, it’s not the legal points that I’m thinking about, one way or the other. It’s not that.”

“What, then?”

“I don’t want to fight it, Dagny.”

She looked at him incredulously. It was the one sentence which, she felt sure, he had never uttered before; a man could not reverse himself so late in life.

Dan Conway was approaching fifty. He had the square, stolid, stubborn face of a tough freight engineer, rather than a company president; the face of a fighter, with a young, tanned skin and graying hair. He had taken over a shaky little railroad in Arizona, a road whose net revenue was less than that of a successful grocery store, and he had built it into the best railroad of the Southwest. He spoke little, seldom read books, had never gone to college. The whole sphere of human endeavors, with one exception, left him blankly indifferent; he had no touch of that which people called culture. But he knew railroads.

“Why don’t you want to fight?”

“Because they had the right to do it.”

“Dan,” she asked, “have you lost your mind?”

“I’ve never gone back on my word in my life,” he said tonelessly. “I don’t care what the courts decide. I promised to obey the majority. I have to obey.”

In the rest of the scene, Dagny continues her attempts to persuade Conway, but without effect. Notice, however, that Dan Conway embraces the view of the supposedly “Randist judge” in the example from the article. He agreed to abide by the majority, so he has lost all right to fight their ruling now. Dagny, on the other hand, vehemently asserts that Dan has every right to fight for himself and his railroad. Dagny’s view is clearly Ayn Rand’s view.

(For anyone interested in more direct discussion of this question of whether a person can sell himself into slavery, check out this podcast segment: 12 March 2012: Selling Yourself into Slavery.)

Ultimately… is it too much to ask that critics of Ayn Rand refrain from that time-honored traditions of “ignoring the text” and “making stuff up”? Apparently so.

 

On May 2nd, John McCaskey emailed me the following awesome bit of news:

Tonight in Manhattan, I went to hear Brad Thompson speak at NYC Junto. There were announcements before he spoke. A woman got up to alert the audience to a new development in libertarianism, the moral shift from Rand to Hayek and Rawls. She spoke for only a minute or two and then handed out copies of this:

Awesome, no? If you’ve not yet heard my interview with John P. McCaskey about “Libertarianism’s Moral Shift” from 10 April 2013… don’t miss out!

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Free Objectivists Books Project

 Posted by on 7 May 2013 at 2:00 pm  Activism, Objectivism
May 072013
 

Jason Crawford recently posted this announcement to OActivists, and I’m reposting it here with his permission. This is a great project, definitely worthy of support!

Free Objectivist Books

You may be familiar with my website Free Objectivist Books, where students sign up to read books by Ayn Rand or about Objectivism, and donors can choose which ones to sponsor. To date we have had over 2,000 students apply and have granted over 800 requests.

Until now, donors have been responsible for sending the books themselves (in the mail or online). Some of you wanted to participate but found this to be too much administrative work.

An easier way to donate

Now there is an easier way to donate, with no hassle. Instead of sending books yourself, you can make a contribution on the site to cover the cost of your books, and one of our site volunteers will send the book on your behalf.

If you’re not already a donor, I encourage you to sign up here.

Volunteers needed too!

If you would prefer to give time and not money, we also need more volunteers. Volunteering can be done online in as little as 30 minutes/week. Contact me personally to sign up.

Hundreds of open requests

There are almost 500 students with open applications, such as John Guarco, studying economics at Duke, who wants The Virtue of Selfishness and says: “I want to learn more about the philosophy of Objectivism. After reading Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, I want to delve more and learn more about Ayn Rand’s tantalizing philosophy.”

Or Shanae Brown, studying neuroscience and philosophy at Ohio State, who says: “I’ve only heard good things about Atlas Shrugged. As a student working and interested in politics I think it would be immensely beneficial to educate myself with the (objectivist) beliefs of Rand–especially in today’s highly entitlement minded society.”

You choose the requests, you receive a personal thank-you from the students, and you hear when they have finished the book and what they thought of it.

Not convinced? Read these testimonials from students and donors.

Free Objectivist Books is the simplest and easiest way to get Ayn Rand’s ideas into the hands of students who want to read them.

I recently donated. I particularly enjoyed seeing the requests of the students and getting their thank-yous, such as this one: “Thank you very much! Just got the book today. 5/6/2013 and starting to read……… NOW! Thanks again :) ” I love that!

Jan 082013
 

Some Objectivists are squishy on gun rights, so whenever the topic is raised, I prepare myself for the worst. In this case, however, I was pleasantly surprised. This Forbes op-ed by Harry Binswanger is far better than anything I’ve seen from him on this topic. Plus, his analysis of gun control as a kind of collectivism is a fresh perspective too. Here’s a bit:

In particular, the government may not descend to the evil of preventive law. The government cannot treat men as guilty until they have proven themselves to be, for the moment, innocent. No law can require the individual to prove that he won’t violate another’s rights, in the absence of evidence that he is going to.

But this is precisely what gun control laws do. Gun control laws use force against the individual in the absence of any specific evidence that he is about to commit a crime. They say to the rational, responsible gun owner: you may not have or carry a gun because others have used them irrationally or irresponsibly. Thus, preventive law sacrifices the rational and responsible to the irrational and irresponsible. This is unjust and intolerable.

Nice! Now go read the whole thing. (If you like it, share it on Facebook, email it to your friends, post it to gun forums, etc! It has already gotten tons of hits on Forbes… and more is better!)

Also, don’t miss this further comment from Dr. Binswanger:

There has been a lot of discussion here about extreme weapons, from machine guns to tanks to nukes. I didn’t want to get into those in the article, because they don’t affect the principle. The principle is that only objective threats constitute force, and thus the government can use its force properly only in regard to such threats.

Given that, either mere possession of a certain weapon (e.g., a nuclear weapon) is a threat or it isn’t. If it is (and you can easily make a case that nuclear weapons are), then it can be banned. If it isn’t, it can’t be-and why would you want to?

If you ask me, an armed nuclear bomb inside a neighbor’s house is the equivalent of a pistol put up against my head. On the other hand, suppose it is an equally destructive device but it is in a state that would take 3 weeks of very publicly visible activity to make it ready to use. Further assume that a) there’s a good, peaceful use for this device, and b) there’s no evidence that the owner is taking even the first step along that 3-week path. In that case, I don’t see how it could be illegalized, *at this stage*.

I hope you can see that it doesn’t make any difference to the argument in the article how we come down on these extreme cases. Nothing decided about nukes is going to make an objective threat out of hunting rifles in the attic or concealed carry by some members of a school staff.

A further side-issue is that there is no right to assemble a private army or milita. The government can and should take forcible action to prevent that, because it has to maintain its legal monopoly on the use of force, even retaliatory force, within its jurisdiction. It cannot and should not allow the formation of a “competing government”-i.e., force on whim.

Finally, let me state that I wasn’t kidding when I said that until recently I was on the fence regarding gun control. In fact, for most of my 50 years in Objectivism, I leaned in favor of mild gun control. It was the thinking I did after Sandy Hook at Newtown that led me to my present position. So, to those worried about guns, yeah, I know very well how you feel.

Again, that’s excellent.

My own discussion of “extreme” weapons can be found here: Philosophy in Action Radio: The Legal Status of Automatic Weapons. Like Binswanger, my basic view is that the critical question to ask with any potentially dangerous property is whether mere ownership constitutes a threat to others. That’s not true of firearms, including fully automatic weapons.

My other discussions of firearms-related topics from Philosophy in Action Radio are gathered here.

 

Last week, I listened to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast question on the election results. Given my strong disagreements with his October statement on the election, I wasn’t too surprised to find that I disagreed with much that he said. However, I didn’t expect to disagree with almost his whole analysis.

Here, I want to focus on two points: (1) the reasons why people voted for Obama over Romney and (2) the “catastrophe” of these election results. However, before reading my comments below, please listen to Dr. Peikoff’s statement for yourself. It’s less than five minutes long.

First: The Voters

Peikoff claims that the election shows that some American sense of life is left, but less than he thought earlier. He claims that Obama effectively bought off the country, and that something like 47% or 50% of people are only concerned with handouts from the federal government. He claims that immigrants are coming to America en masse for the sake of the welfare state, lacking any American sense of life.

Such claims cannot be substantiated. The election concerned a wide range of topics, and people voted for one candidate over the other for a wide range of reasons. Yes, some Obama voters wanted their government handouts, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Similarly, some Romney voters wanted to impose a social conservative agenda, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Also, we should remember that most people just barely care about politics. As a result, they’re remarkably ignorant about even the basics of political events and elections.

As I explained in this blog post, this election was not any kind of referendum on fundamental values that could magically reveal America’s sense of life. Contrary to the claims of some Objectivist intellectuals of late, a culture’s sense of life is complex, multi-faceted, and far deeper than politics. It cannot be fairly judged by yet another election between two statist candidates of slightly different flavors. Judging America’s sense of life on the basis of this presidential election is about as reliable and fair as judging a person’s sense of life based on which of the two abysmal movies he chooses to see at his small-town duplex. (For a lengthy discussion of cultural sense of life, see Ayn Rand’s comments in “Don’t Let it Go” in Philosophy: Who Needs It.)

Much of the problem, of course is that Romney didn’t just run an “empty campaign,” as Peikoff claims. Romney wanted to initiate a trade war with China, crack down on illegal immigration, massively increase military spending (presumably for even more pointless and debasing wars abroad), force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, socialize medicine at the state level, and deny gays the right to marry and adopt children. Such positions are not “empty.” They are deeply wrong — and they clash with better elements of American culture, including its respect for individuals and their rights.

I do not blame ordinary voters for refusing to vote for Romney due to these abysmal positions of his. Even many Obama voters determined to preserve entitlements and subsidies were not motivated by personal greed for handouts, as Peikoff claims, but rather by a confused stew of semi-altruistic ideals. That’s bad, but it’s not the same as being bought off.

Undoubtedly, Obama will be worse than Romney would have been on many issues. Undoubtedly, Obama’s spending is dangerously out-of-control, and ObamaCare will be entrenched over the next four years. I fear another financial crisis. Yet the fact is that Romney didn’t even campaign for economic liberty. Instead, he consistently me-too’ed Obama on taxes and regulations, he supported state-level ObamaCare, and he planned to continue to spend like a drunken sailor. The result was that the two candidates didn’t look terribly different to voters, even on economics.

Second: The Catastrophe

Peikoff describes the election as a “catastrophe,” “the worst political event ever to ever occur in the history of this continent,” and even “worse than the Civil War.”

Let’s get some perspective. The secession of the southern states threatened the very existence of America, including the union of the northern states. The secession of the southern states, unless crushed, would have set a very dangerous precedent in which secession would become the solution to any political dispute. As James McPherson describes in his stellar history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, the secession of the southern states inspired northern states and cities to contemplate their own secession from the union. (Bye-bye, New York City!) The result of that would have been very bloody anarchy. Lincoln knew that, and that’s why preserving the union was his primary objective.

However, preserving the union was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The Confederacy might have won the war, particularly given the skill of Lee in comparison to the string of abysmal Union generals before Grant and Sherman emerged in the west. An independent Confederacy would not have been content to remain in its own territory: its longstanding agenda was to create an “empire of slavery.”

Also, the Civil War killed over over 600,000 Americans. Proportionately, that would equal about six million people today. That was truly catastrophic.

The secession and Civil War constituted a grave existential threat to the United States. To say, as Peikoff does, that it was known that “freedom and normalcy” would return at the end of the war is false. Americans didn’t know who would win the war. They didn’t know what kind of government or nation they would have after the war. And they didn’t know what freedoms would or would not be respected and upheld by the government after the war. Such is only known to us now, when the historical perspective smooths away the painfully rough edges and unknowns of the past.

Another four years of President Barack Obama will be damaging, undoubtedly. (Four years of Romney would have been damaging too, just in somewhat different ways.) Yet that cannot be fairly compared with the Civil War: they’re not even remotely in the same category.

In addition to the comparison to the Civil War, Peikoff said that Obama’s re-election means that “it’s going to be four years of a government single-mindedly out to destroy America at home and weaken it abroad.” Such a dire prediction is not supported by Obama’s record or by his plans. With the House controlled by the GOP, Obama will not even have the latitude that he did in his first two years in the White House, let alone any “single-minded” government at his disposal. Moreover, when is government ever “single-minded”?

Obama is not a defender of individual rights by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, as I explained in my own post-election podcast, his views are significantly better than the Republicans on some important issues. Hence, Obama’s second term offers hope for strengthening abortion rights, reforming our insane immigration laws, and repealing of the Defense of Marriage Act. Those would be positive developments not possible under Republicans.

Peikoff also indicated that totalitarian dictatorship was now perilously close, although “even after four years [of Obama], it is too early to achieve complete totalitarianism.”

Undoubtedly, America has its share of political problems. Many of those problems are quite serious, and most are unlikely to improve under Obama. Still, I simply cannot take secular apocalypticism seriously: the full context of facts paints a very different and far more hopeful picture of our future. Moreover, as I explained in this post, accurate political prediction are nearly impossible even for those immersed in the political news, and Peikoff’s 2004 prediction about the effects of a second Bush’s term is grounds for doubting his current prediction about the effects of a second Obama term.

In my view, the roots of American culture run deep — deeper than Peikoff and many other Objectivist intellectuals seem to think. On the whole, America respects the rule of law, free speech, and political dissent. It lauds achievement, technology, and hard work. It values honesty, integrity, and justice. These core values were not undone by this election, nor revealed to be illusory. They cannot and will not be undone by four more years of Obama in the White House.

America will survive Barack Obama — just as America survived George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and so on. America will survive Barack Obama — just as America would have survived Mitt Romney.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, many Objectivists have been griping of late about how the election revealed the supposedly dismal state of the American culture. That’s unwarranted and unproductive in my view. You don’t win hard-working, responsible people over to your side by painting them as America-hating welfare queens.

American culture is far from perfect, but it’s improved tremendously in recent decades in many ways, as Dr. Eric Daniels explained in this interview on Progress in American History. Still, I recognize that free market ideas have taken a beating of late. The cause was not Obama: Obama just cashed in on the utter failure of the pragmatism and “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush and his fellow Republicans. Honestly, I’m slightly relieved that Mitt won’t be able to inflict further damage of that kind on America, as he surely would have done.

At this point, instead of bemoaning the abysmal state of American culture, advocates of free markets need to start asking themselves: “Why aren’t these ideas resonating with more Americans?” That’s a critical question to ask because many, many Americans are intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking, fair-minded, benevolent, and reasonable people, yet they don’t understand or support free markets.

I will not blame Americans for that disconnect. I want to strengthen and leverage the genuine values and virtues commonly found in Americans, whatever their political views at present. It’s my job as an intellectual to figure out how to do that well, not bemoan the supposed death of America.

Personally, my focus with Philosophy in Action Radio is finding effective ways to persuade people to embrace the principles required to live happy, healthy, and joyful lives. I want to strengthen people’s understanding and practice of justice, independence, responsibility, rationality, and other virtues in their relationships, careers, and parenting. Based on the growth of my audience (here too), I’m doing something right.

Basically, my goal is to foster people’s rationality and value-seeking — and thereby create a more rational, value-oriented culture. I don’t often gripe about the current state of politics. When I discuss politics, I much prefer to discuss the contours of a free society. I’d rather offer a positive vision of what the future can and ought to be, rather than bemoan the problems of the present.

Over the past few months, I’ve realized that promoting a free society requires more than just the usual “moral arguments for capitalism” typically offered by Objectivist intellectuals. For most people, such arguments are too far removed from their daily lives and values to even capture their attention, let alone resonate with them. That’s part of why the surge in interest in Ayn Rand hasn’t amounted to much cultural or political change, including in this election.

In my view, lasting advances in freedom require that people connect political liberty with their own deeply-held and actively-practiced positive values. First and foremost, people need to personally experience the benefits of pursuing their values on the basis of rational principles. Before they can understand and embrace rights as a principle, they need to live by reality, reason, and egoism as dominant themes in their lives. In essence, political activism can be worthwhile, but it cannot create cultural change by itself. Ultimately, I think, political change depends on cultural change, and cultural change depends on personal change.

Over the course of decades on the air, religious conservative advice talk show host Dr. Laura gradually drew that connection between practical ethics and politics for the religious right, and we’re reaping her bitter fruit today. We need to use that same method to create a culture that preaches and practices reason, egoism, and ultimately, rights.

I’m not belittling political activism. It matters, and if that’s what you want to do, that’s wonderful. My point is that lasting political change requires strengthening the basic philosophic values of the culture, at a deeper level than most Objectivists suppose.

America has time to do that, in my view. So as I work on it via Philosophy in Action Radio, I’m busy enjoying all that America has to offer, culturally and economically, thanks to the fact that we are still a fundamentally free society. That’s what I was most grateful for during this delightful Thanksgiving holiday.

On Ayn Rand’s Style of Writing

 Posted by on 12 November 2012 at 10:00 am  Ayn Rand, Literature, Objectivism
Nov 122012
 

A while back, someone asked me about a blog post on Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged by Aaron Ross Powell — Atlas Shrugged: Initial Impressions. The post begins:

Sans its message, sans its historical significance, sans its ability to turn young people into libertarians, the first thing one picks up on when starting Atlas Shrugged is the poverty of the prose. Ayn Rand, no matter her or her followers’ opinion otherwise, just isn’t a very good writer. The language is plodding, non-lyrical, and often often awkward. For example, in one scene she writes, “He stood slouching against the bar.” To my knowledge, one stands against a bar or one slouches against a bar-but one does not stand slouching.

The only other bit of substance is the following:

What else comes to mind, a mere 200 pages into this monstrous novel? Well, I can’t imagine wanting to hang out with any of these people. Her good guys are, without exception, awful human beings. They display no compassion and evidence no empathy. A world filled with such super men would be a terrible place, indeed. Her bad guys, on the other hand-her collectivists and leftists and academics-are ugly little toads who snivel and beg from the arch-capitalists we’re all supposed to look up to when we aren’t looking for an excuse to leave. Objectivism, at least as presented in this seminal text, affords no nuance.

So, what did I say about that criticism of Atlas Shrugged to my correspondent? Let’s see:

That post was rather offensive, but very typical of some libertarians, unfortunately. It stuck me as little more than a series of snide, cutting remarks without any real substance.

Here’s my view: Ayn Rand’s style is definitely different from standard American novelists, as well as from classic English literature. It has much more in common with the stronger style of the Russian and French classics that Ayn Rand read and loved as a child and young woman. But even relatively well-educated Americans are less familiar with those, if familiar at all, so her style can seem a bit foreign. However, I cannot dislike it.

Moreover, many of the standard charges made — including in that post — are just strange. About the “slouching,” the actual sentence is “Bertram Scudder stood slouched against the bar.” That’s perfectly sensible: a person can slouch while sitting or standing, and in doing so the person might be leaning against a bar. So her sentence seems like a precise and economical description to me.

Moreover, contrary to the blogger, Ayn Rand’s characters are filled with nuance. Francisco seems to be a worthless playboy, yet also so much like his old self; Hank Rearden struggles with his view of sex as depraved; Dagny knows that she is helping the looters yet she will not join the strike; Dr. Stadler betrays his values time and again, with ever-worse results; the “wet nurse” slowly rejects all that he has been taught; Cherryl Taggart sees Jim clearly for what he really is after much painful struggle. Even the villains grow worse over the course of the novel: they work out the logic of their premises.

Oh, and notice the implicit moral standard in the post: Ayn Rand’s good guys aren’t good because “they display no compassion and evidence no empathy.” But that’s exactly part of Ayn Rand’s point: Jim Taggart is plenty empathetic: he’s definitely tuned in to people’s emotions. Yet he’s still downright evil due to his systematic refusal to think. In contrast, Dagny, the woman supposedly without feeling, displays profound depths of emotions. She loves her work passionately. She is beloved by her employees because she is just to them. In fact, due to that concern for justice, she displays the utmost kindness toward Cherryl in her desperate flight from Jim’s evil. Emotion is not what makes a person moral or not; it’s not a primary but an effect of a person’s basic adherence to facts or not.

If you’re interested in studying Atlas Shrugged in greater detail, check out my Explore Atlas Shrugged series of podcasts and discussion questions. (Yes, I have a major update of that site to do, but I make no promises as to when that will happen!)

Mr. Deity and The New Testament

 Posted by on 8 November 2012 at 2:00 pm  Conservatism, Funny, Objectivism, Religion
Nov 082012
 

Mr. Deity isn’t so thrilled with the new ideas that his son is peddling in the New Testament, but he’s going to enlist Ayn Rand to help him.

(The second half of the video on the election isn’t worth watching.)

Nov 062012
 

I received the following fabulous story about teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China from Dr. Robert Garmong in November 2009. I meant to blog it at the time, but I forgot about it until I interviewed him in September on Teaching in China. As I often say, better late than never!

Tonight was my first night teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China.

Last spring, I made the decision to petition The Ayn Rand Institute for support via their free books program. At considerable expense to the Institute, they shipped me several hundred copies of Anthem, free for my students. I think they were as excited as I was to introduce Ayn Rand’s ideas to China in a systematic way for the very first time. I handed the books out three weeks ago in my graduate-level course on American Literature.

It’s a slightly risky move, teaching any work by Ayn Rand here in China. China is still a country with censorship — for example, the Ayn Rand Institute’s website is blocked by the government. Professors have been expelled from the country for teaching ideas critical of the government, and what could be more critical of the government than a radical assault on collectivism?

On the other hand, I’ve been told that all ideas, per se, are more or less tolerated here: censorship is directed mainly at direct criticism of the Party, especially with regard to tender issues in the provinces. Those professors who have gotten in trouble, I’m told, were using the classroom for open advocacy, and/or were very unpopular jerk-professors of the sort we’ve all experienced once or twice.

The edge of uncertainty about Anthem was heightened slightly last week, when some students told me they had read the book, with a little shock in their voices. One asked what the real message was, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was reading individualism in a Chinese government-university classroom. “It is too radical,” whispered another.

Last week, the students watched “Freedom Writers,” a good movie in the “great teacher shapes up hopeless misfit students” genre. The students loved the film, and I used it to set up Anthem by emphasizing the theme of individualism versus racism. I talked at some length about the “melting pot” idea, and how that is only possible if individuals are judged as individuals, not as members of their racial or other collectives.

Then, tonight, I introduced our discussion of Anthem by asking for initial gut-reactions. That’s often a very useful barometer of students’ context and understanding of a text. If they respond to a trivial or superficial element (“I don’t like red hair, so The Fountainhead is no good”), I know they’re going to need a lot of remedial concept-formation. If they respond to the right things, but with ill-formed judgment (“Locke’s argument for individual rights condones immoral selfishness”), I know they are going to need help expanding their philosophical context in order to understand the possibility of arguments for the other side.

Teaching Anthem in China, I got a little of both. When I asked for initial reactions, one brusque-faced student dressed in black faux leather jumped in immediately with: “I do not like this book, because Ayn Rand is Russian.” I expected some sort of anti-Russian nationalism to follow (and there is strong anti-Russian sentiment here), but instead he followed up: “She chose to move to America, so she betrayed her country. Why she must betray her country?” Um… “Her country?” Why must IT betray HER?!

While I was attempting to process this, like a 1970′s calculator trying to plumb pi to too many digits, his woman-friend jumped in with a wickedly calculated “I-gotcha” look on her face. “This book is wrong. Socialism does not mean what she says. She presents collectivism nai-ga-tively, yet she calls her fur-losofee Objectivism, as if it is objective. It is not right. It is too radical.”

Then a grinning guy in the back row, wearing a military-green wool coat, jumped in. “Our China requires collectivism for its moral survival. We cannot have individualism.” (Corrupting the Morals of China, by the way, is a crime that carries the death penalty, so Grinning-Guy had thereby issued what amounts to an oblique and distant death threat. Not that it would likely be carried out, but still… everyone knows it’s there as the ultimate punishment. That has a funny way of shutting people down.)

I was attempting not to literally reel. The plurality of non-aligned students were avoiding my eyes, as Chinese students will do. I looked to my support group, the three or four students in the class who clearly and profoundly love me, my class, and all things American. They smiled exaggerated, disarmed smiles of attempted support, but they were obviously folding up inside. I was on my own.

A woman in the front-right raised her hand to say: “My Marxism professor in undergraduate university told us that all Western thinks is metaphysical. Westerner wants to find the one, and maybe it’s a little radical, but makes sense logical. China understand that there is other side, maybe not just one side. Maybe this book like that.” It’s possible was trying to throw me a lifeline, saying “this book isn’t evil, it’s just too extreme.” Not much of a lifeline, I have to say.

I asked the students how they had responded to the writing style. One support-group woman finally jumped in to say, with a bold smile but a timid voice, that she’d found the book exciting. “I thought the Equality character was changing much through the story, so I could not stop reading to find out how he would think and change each time.” I explained the concept of a “page-turner,” which seemed to return some portion of the class to learning mode.

It was time for a ten-minute break, and damned if I wasn’t ready for that break!

After break, I decided to launch into a substantive lecture on individualism versus collectivism. I hit the issue as straight-on philosophy, not trying too hard to tie my entire discussion to Anthem. I drew examples from the movie they’d watched, I laid out a grid of premises, such as “collectivism: Individual has no value. Individualism: happiness is the purpose of life.” Collectivism: The good is service to society. Individualism: The good is to promote your own well-being. I talked about how collectivism implies the metaphysical premise that the individual is nothing, and society is everything.

This time, I thought the students really understood and were enthralled. They hopped with examples and questions. The same students who had earlier disparaged individualism, now leapt to its defense.

Chinese students are fun.

Robert Garmong’s blog — professor-in-dalian — has more fabulous stories from his life as a professor and now husband in China. If you missed my fabulous interview with him, you can stream or download it here:

 

Recently, Leonard Peikoff posted some comments urging people to vote for Mitt Romney. I’d recommend that you read it for yourself before continuing with this blog post.

I’m not insensitive to his argument: I agree with many of his observations on Obama and Romney.

For example, I am worried by the concentration of power in the executive branch under Obama. Yet such concentration of power seems to happen just as much under Republicans as Democrats: George W. Bush was hardly a paragon of restraint, and Obama has merely taken up where Bush left off. We have every reason to expect that Romney would do the same, albeit perhaps at a slightly slower rate than Obama. But maybe not… perhaps Romney would only differ from Obama by the areas in which he usurps even more executive power.

Also, I’m not remotely upset about the particular case that Peikoff cites of “Obama’s practice of ruling by executive order” … (e.g., his latest edict on immigration).” In fact, Obama’s policy change is really excellent, and it’s hardly clear that Obama overstepped his authority. In general, our immigration laws are a disgraceful mess of unpardonable rights violations, not to mention a major drag on the economy. They should be liberalized, with or without welfare reform. However, Peikoff has expressed strong support for heavy restrictions on immigration given our current welfare state in his podcast, so that might explain why he cited that example.

Also, I disagree with Peikoff’s approval of Paul Ryan. Ryan is only a fiscal moderate, not a fiscal conservative. Even if he were to become president, the deficit would continue to expand under his watch. Plus, Ryan is far more theocratic than Mitt, as can be seen from his support for “personhood” for zygotes.

Those are minor quibbles. My major disagreement with Peikoff concerns voting strategy. As I’ve argued in this blog post and this podcast segment, fiscal conservatives need to stop trying to “buy time,” as Peikoff advocates. (As Paul said about the second presidential debate: “We’re now seeing just how little time Romney would buy us.”) Instead, we must demand that the GOP earn our vote by refusing to vote for GOP candidates who are not true fiscal conservatives. That means accepting some pain in this election for the sake of major gains in future elections.

America has time for that, in my view: we’re facing slow and steady decline over the course of decades, not a sudden crash into dictatorship. Hence, for reasons explained in this podcast segment, I reject Peikoff’s apocalypticism: Obama will do significant damage in a second term, but likely far, far less than opening the door to totalitarian dictatorship, as Peikoff suggests.

Recall that Peikoff predicted sweeping repression and theocracy if George W. Bush were elected to a second term in 2004. Nothing remotely that bad came to pass. Instead, major damage was done on other fronts, particularly thanks to Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” in foreign policy and his explicit repudiation of capitalism in his response to the financial crisis.

So Peikoff was wrong in his predictions in 2004, but that’s hardly surprising. Accurate political predictions are nearly impossible, even for professionals immersed in the political news. (That’s not Peikoff, by his own admission.) Such predictions depend too much on unforeseeable events, including the free choices of many, many people. Hence, I just don’t place much stock in anyone’s political predictions over the next four years, except to say that that apocalyptic predictions will very likely be very wrong. (Again, my reasons why can be found in this podcast segment.)

Mostly though, Objectivists need to understand that we might as well vote for the Man on the Moon as Mittens. We are a completely insignificant voting block. Our votes just don’t matter. So for Objectivists to make asses of themselves based on the pretense that a person’s vote reveals his deepest character is pointless and destructive. (Just to be clear: Although I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson, I don’t fault anyone for voting for Mittens based on their own personal judgments, so long as they’re based on fact.)

That doesn’t seem to be happening so much in this election, and I’m pleased about that. Or maybe I’ve just unfriended most of the asses. Either way, here’s to another crappy four years of American politics!

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha