Amazing Progress

 Posted by on 13 August 2012 at 10:00 am  Culture, History, Politics, Sports
Aug 132012

If I had to pick any time in which to live, I’d choose right now. Although I want to live centuries into the future, I wouldn’t want to jump to some unknown future, only to find humanity eradicated or enslaved to some alien species. Mostly though, I wouldn’t wish to live in anytime in the past.

I’d not wish to live in the past because past societies have been rigidly stratified by family, sex, and race. People from poor families, women, and ethnic minorities were severely limited in their powers to make something of their lives. I could not tolerate living in a society where racism and sexism were the norm — let alone oppression of gays, slavery, and religious homogeneity.

I’d not wish to live in the past because the politics would not be nearly as free as most people suppose. In early American history, the federal government was much smaller, but severe violations of rights by state and local governments were commonplace. Individual rights were not even known in Greece and Rome.

I’d not wish to live in the past because life was far, far more brutal and rough. Abject misery and suffering, including at the hands of others, was accepted as perfectly ordinary. Little could be done to alleviate it, due to the lack of wealth and technology.

I would not wish to live in the past because access to art was severely limited. In centuries past, you were grateful if someone in your family or social circle could sing well. Today, we can watch fabulous movies on demand, instantly download masterpieces of chamber music, browse gorgeous painting and order prints, and read any novel ever written on a Kindle.

I’d not wish to live in the past because so much awesome technology has been developed in the past century, the past decade, and even the past year. Heck, I don’t want to go back to the days of dial-up — or the days before computers — or the days before ball point pens. The thought of going back to medical care of 10 or 20 or 100 or 1000 years ago should make anyone’s skin crawl.

The simple fact is that humanity has made so much fabulous progress in the last century. So if you ever feel depressed about America’s political decline, take a moment to contemplate how much better your life is now, thanks to an amazing slew of social and technological developments over the last century. In fact, I’m doubtful that the politics is much worse than ever before: it’s better in some ways, worse in others.

Oddly, I was inspired to write this post after watching this video of women’s uneven bars from the 1950s to 2010:

This video of gymnastics from 1928 to 1968 is also revealing:

I’ve seen some amazing and inspiring performances in women’s gymnastics in these Olympic Games. Just imagine if one of today’s top gymnasts travelled back in time to perform in a competition from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. Everyone would be utterly flabbergasted because she’d be performing at a level so beyond their capacity to even imagine. That marked increase in human athletic ability — also evident in this infographic on the men’s 100 meter sprint — is another form of fabulous human progress that makes me so happy to be alive today.

We live in amazing times. Savor all the goodness!

Nathaniel Branden Institute Fashion Show

 Posted by on 1 August 2012 at 8:00 am  Ayn Rand, Culture, History
Aug 012012

Wow, it’s a Nathaniel Branden Institute Fashion Show. I kid you not!

It’s rather amazing to watch now, given what happened between these people later. (Also, I’m rather amazed by the fancy stay-at-home wear.)

The Seikilos Epitaph

 Posted by on 28 March 2012 at 1:00 pm  History, Music
Mar 282012

Seikilos Epitaph – Song of Seikilos:

The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone, near Aidin, Turkey (not far from Ephesus). The find has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100.

That’s pretty darn awesome. You can read more about it here.

The Age of Ships

 Posted by on 15 February 2012 at 8:00 am  History, Technology
Feb 152012

The August 2011 City Journal featured a fascinating article entitled, “The Age of Ships, subtitled, “A time before passenger jets, when ocean liners were ‘the greatest of the works of man’”.

Author Michael Anton covered the history and technology behind the luxury ocean liners in the era after Titanic, before airplanes displaced ships as the dominant means of passenger travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The competition between commercial lines was fierce, especially to be able to cite the fastest Trans-Atlantic crossing times.

There are lots of interesting tidbits, but I especially liked the story Vladimir Yourkevitch, who fled Russia after the Communist takeover and had to take a job in France as a riveter in the Renault factory. The image of an immigrant factory worker trying to persuade the chairman of a major French shipyard that his revolutionary new ship hull design would work is something straight out of fiction. But it did indeed work, and that ship would later set one of the speed records.

(Read the full text of “The Age of Ships“.)

Slavery and the Civil War

 Posted by on 24 January 2011 at 8:00 am  History
Jan 242011

Recently, the Washington Post published a good short essay by James Loewen on Five myths about why the South seceded. Those myths are:

  1. The South seceded over states’ rights.
  2. Secession was about tariffs and taxes.
  3. Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t secede for slavery.
  4. Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.
  5. The South couldn’t have made it long as a slave society.

If you’d like to do some serious reading on the Civil War, I highly recommend James McPherson’s stellar history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. And I’d recommend the stellar trilogy of historical fiction by Jeff and Michael Shaara: Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels, and Last Full Measure.

Jun 222010

This course by historian Eric Daniels is just now available for purchase through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, and I highly recommend it. (I highly recommend everything by Dr. Daniels, in fact!)

Religion in American History
by Eric Daniels

This course investigates the historical development of religion in American history from the importation of the Puritan theocracy in the seventeenth century to the growth of evangelical ideas in the twenty-first. It illustrates how religion developed institutionally and in American culture. Dr. Daniels evaluates the role religion has played at crucial moments in our history and arms listeners against those who would give religion a central role today.

(4 hrs.,35 min., with Q & A)

Audio CD; 6-CD set: $61.95

John Lewis Interview in USN&WR

 Posted by on 31 March 2010 at 2:00 pm  History, Military
Mar 312010

The March 4, 2010 issue of US News & World Report has a nice interview with John Lewis on his new book Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History.

Here’s a sample:

Why should nations go to war?

The actual goal of war, what we want, what we’re after when we fight, shouldn’t be the destruction of the hostile world. The reason we’re fighting… is because another side has decided to attack. The purpose of a war is to reverse that hostile decision. What we were after in Japan in 1945—and in Germany, for that matter—was to end those countries’ drives for aggressive military dominance.

(Read the full article.)

Deism in the Declaration

 Posted by on 26 January 2010 at 8:00 am  History, Religion
Jan 262010

Crossposted from Politics without God.

My husband Paul Hsieh (of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine) recently pointed me to an essay by Eric Raymond entitled Deism and the Founding Fathers. I’d definitely recommend reading the whole essay, but I wanted to except a few critical passages:

Religious conservatives are fond of replying by pointing excitedly at the references to “Nature’s God”, “Divine Providence”, and the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.

Raymond then quotes the relevant passages of the Declaration:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights;

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Raymond then cites some other passages in Jefferson’s writings where he displays as obvious hostility to Christianity. So Raymond asks, “Of what ‘God’, if not the Christian one, was Jefferson speaking?” He replies:

The answer to this question — which also explains the references in the Declaration of Independence — is that Jefferson, like many intellectuals of his time, was a Deist. The “Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, and the God of Jefferson’s altar, is not the intervening Christian God but the God of Deism.

Deism was an early attempt to reconcile the mechanistic world-view arising from experimental science with religion. Deists believed in a remote sort of clockmaker-God who created the universe but then refrained from meddling in it afterwards. Deists explicitly rejected faith, revelation, religious doctrine, religious authority, and all existing religions. They held that humans could know the mind of God only through the study of nature; in many versions of Deist thinking, the mind of God was explicitly identified with the laws of nature.

Thus “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; in Deist thought these concepts blurred together. The phrase “endowed by their Creator” could be rendered accurately as “endowed by Nature”. In modern terms, this is an entirely naturalistic account of human rights.

That’s exactly right. Finally, Raymond notes:

Jefferson’s “altar of God” quote and the references in the Declaration of Independence are easy to misconstrue today because Deism did not long outlive the Founding Fathers. In their time it functioned as a sort of halfway house for intellectuals who rejected traditional religion but were unwilling to declare themselves atheists or agnostics. As the social risk of taking these positions decreased, Deism waned.

Given the bravery of the early Americans in opposing the British Empire, I doubt that intellectual cowardice was the reason for their deism. I suspect — although I’ve not much researched the subject — that they accepted some version of the Argument from Design. Absent a solid grasp of the fact that physical laws are the necessary expression of the identity of entities and absent an explanation for the great diversity and complexity of living organisms, the Argument from Design would seem quite plausible. It’s still flawed, purely on philosophic grounds, but the mistake was understandable in the 18th century. Deism was the rather benign result of that mistake.

Today, people have far less excuse for believing in God’s existence on such grounds, as the scientific and philosophic objections to the Argument from Design are well-known and devastating. They have no excuse for leaping from such arguments to claims about the truth of Christianity. The Argument from Design, even if sound, could not lend the slightest bit of support to the myths and dogmas of Christianity.

For more, see my three podcasts on the Argument from Design: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Part 4 is forthcoming.

Invented Only Once?

 Posted by on 4 December 2009 at 8:00 am  History
Dec 042009

In Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, there’s a scene where villain Ellsworth Toohey looks at the New York City skyline and muses about modern civilization:

…Look at it. A sublime achievement, isn’t it? A heroic achievement. Think of the thousands who worked to create this and of the millions who profit by it. And it is said that but for the spirit of a dozen men, here and there down the ages, but for a dozen men — less, perhaps — none of this would have been possible. And that might be true.

(Part 2, Chapter 8)

When I first read that passage, I wasn’t sure whether it was historically accurate or not.

But as it turns out, there a number of crucial innovations that some claim to have only been invented and/or discovered once in history, then spread to the rest of humanity from that single source.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all of the following, but some purported examples include:

The wheel

The alphabet

Dog domestication

Iron smelting

And probably the most crucial to Western civilization:

Logic (Aristotle)

If these claims are true, then it may indeed be the case that our modern technological society (including my ability to compose this blog post on a MacBook Pro and upload it onto a remote web server where it can then be read by people around the world) would not exist were it not for a half-dozen mostly-anonymous innovators.

Nov 302009

The Objectivism Seminar is working through Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s all-too-topical book, The Ominous Parallels. In it, he explores what gave rise to to the fascist, totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany — and analyzes whether and how a fascist, totalitarian regime could emerge here in America.

Our focus this week was Chapter 10, “The Culture of Hatred” — a reference to the rise of Nihilism in the German culture. Topics we discussed included:
  • We explored how “the first truly modern culture” in the world emerged, more accepting of contemporary-everything: the “Weimar culture,” shaped by the “free spirits” of the German Republic, the avant garde in the humanities, sciences, commentary, journalism, and so on. A key question to answeris: what is “modernity” is in this sense? What principle unites Kaiser, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Mann, Barth, Freud, Heisenberg?
  • Touring the culture, Peikoff started with literature (“art is the barometer of a culture, and literature is the barometer of art”). The prominent philosophical novel by Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain) was characterized by a contemporary as the “saga of the Weimar Republic.” “To a country and in a decade swept by hysteria, perishing from uncertainty, torn by political crisis, financial collapse, violence in the streets, and terror of the future — to that country, in that decade, its leading philosophical novelist offered as his contribution to sanity and freedom the smiling assurance that there are no answers, no absolutes, no values, no hope.” It was a hit that resonated with the culture.
  • Turning to poetry like that of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Christian mystic admired across the board, as well as Kafka, Peikoff finds them offering “nightmare projections of nameless ciphers paralyzed by a sinister, unknowable reality.”
  • Turning to the philosophy of Existentialism and Martin Heidegger, it underscores existence being unintelligible, reason invalid, man a helpless “Dasein” — a creature engulfed by “das Nichts” (nothingness), in terror of the supreme fact of his life: death and doomed by nature to “angst,” estrangement, futility. Heidegger’s works rejected any systematic defense of his ideas and were praised as the “intellectual counterpart of modern painting.”
  • In contrast to Heidegger’s rejection of religion and God, the avant-garde theologians tried to reconceive these in modern terms — “Avant-garde religion, in short, consists in ditching one’s mind, prostrating oneself in the muck, and screaming for mercy.”
  • Next was the new psychology with the psychoanalysis of Freud. In the name of science it leaves us “Caught in the middle between these forces — between a psychopathic hippie screaming: satisfaction now! and a jungle chieftain intoning: tribal obedience! — sentenced by nature to ineradicable conflict, guilt, anxiety, and neurosis is man, i.e., man’s mind, his reason or “ego,” the faculty which is able to grasp reality, and which exists primarily to mediate between the clashing demands of the psyche’s two irrational masters.” More generally, the “new science — like the new philosophy, the new theology, the new art — becomes instead a vehicle of the willful, the arbitrary, the subjective.”
  • Finally, touching on sociology, political science, education, art historians, social commentators, philosophers… and even physics and math, we find everywhere that “The notion of ‘reason enthroned’ disappears into myth, and the rational man collapses…”
  • In sum, we find that what is new and distinctive across the board is Nihilism: hatred of values and of their root, reason — this, Peikoff contends, is the essential that underlies, generates, and defines “Weimar culture.”
  • How Peikoff traces Nihilism as a cultural force back to Kant’s philosophy.
  • How this new culture compares and contrasts with other eras of mysticism — and how Peikoff’s framing of it in this book relates to the way he is framing similar phenomena in his new DIM Hypothesis work (forthcoming).

Peikoff summarized the results, social and political:

In the orgy which was the cultural atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, the Germans could not work to resolve their differences. Disintegrated by factionalism, traumatized by crisis, and pumped full of the defiant rejection of reason, in every form and from all sides, the Germans felt not calm, but hysteria; not confidence in regard to others, but the inability to communicate with them; not hope, but despair; not the desire for solutions to their problems, but the need for scapegoats; and, as a result, not goodwill, but fury, blind fury at their enemies, real or imagined.

Nihilism in Germany worked to exacerbate economic and political resentments by undermining the only weapon that could have dealt with them. The intellectuals wanted to destroy values; the public shaped by this trend ended up wanting to destroy men.

The social corollary of “Weimar culture” was a country animated, and torn apart, by hatred, seething in groups trained to be impervious to reason.

The political corollary was the same country put back together by Hitler.

If this sounds interesting, you can listen in on the podcast — just download the session’s MP3 directly, or listen to it with the little player on the right, or subscribe to the podcast series over on the Seminar’s TalkShoe page. And if you have something to ask or add, please do pick up the book and join the discussion! We meet at 8:00pm Mountain on Mondays, for about an hour.
Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha