Archive for November, 2012
As this blog bore deeper into the plot of Atlas Shrugged and the election drew closer, the commentary and analysis half of the site became more and more about American politics and less about the implications of Rand’s philosophy for individuals. Now that the election and the book are over and the blog is winding down, the time has come to revisit that angle.
The first thing to say is that I genuinely feel I’ve learned a lot by reading this book, particularly the first time in 2008. As somebody who came of age during the late-era Clinton and especially George W. Bush presidencies, I felt pretty comfortable in my liberalism and reflexively suspicious of big business. So despite the fact that Ayn Rand is a political fundamentalist and in all likelihood a high-functioning sociopath, her views did force me to reconsider the moral merits of libertarianism and private enterprise, to review my existing assumptions with a more critical eye.
On top of Atlas’ contribution to the evolution of my values, Ayn’s emphatic declarations of her own rigor and the book’s meticulous didacticism in general helped me step my intellectual game up. I’m no credentialed scholar or anything, but following my first pass in 2008 I felt especially unprepared to counter her arguments and hunted down essays and papers on Kant and Aristotle to better understand the issues at hand and why Ayn considered herself a genius and mainstream academia considers her a self-evident crackpot.
With that foundation I felt much more capable of dissecting her absurdity this time around, but I still used the book as a launching pad for my own education by reading about a dozen titles on history, current affairs, and political philosophy. This fed back into my interpretation of the book, as I fleshed out the ways the Objectiverse has to be tweaked to truly fit reality — by positing climate change as vital context for the book’s global crisis; by fleshing out Rand’s caricature of the political system to incorporate modern lobbying and campaign finance; by highlighting Rand’s opposition to excessive consumerism, and her embrace of local food, clean energy, and sustainable communities; and most of all, by downplaying Rand’s dogmatic faith in plutocratic capitalism and the wealthy’s sense of entitlement.
This alternate perspective on the story became harder and harder to apply as the book went further down the rabbit hole of Objectivism. The relevance of my interpretation probably peaked during the chapters set in Galt’s Gulch. but went downhill by the middle of Part Three such that by the time we reached Galt’s Speech I was basically aping Ayn’s style to better write my own polemical screed arguing against her’s (which is to say, Galt’s).
So let me at least credit Rand for inspiring me to conduct my own life differently, not primarily on the level of political belief but on the level of personal bearing.
There’s no real way of avoiding the fact that people who describe themselves as Objectivists, or who actively promote Rand as valuable on her own terms, are pretty uniformly insufferable assholes. If you accept her views as written, that attitude is kind of baked into the cake. After all, Objectivism as written is no more or less than a wholesale excuse and unqualified justification for being an asshole.
But divorced from her insane condemnation of empathy, and taking into account the way she confuses being a rhetorical steamroller with being actually logically rigorous, there’s something admirable in her work. If I had to pinpoint it I’d describe it as her portrait of masculinity.
Yes, Ayn’s reverence for and attraction to that sort of old-school, traditional masculinity is what I consider to be the primary value of the book. Even Dagny, as a proto-feminist archetype, is admired in large part for embodying traditionally masculine virtues. Her femininity is always mentioned in the form of a single symbol or token in the midst of her otherwise masculine bearing, be it the curve of her legs, the rMetal bracelet, the cut of her dress… the silent, burning desire to be sexually dominated by every alpha male in the novel. You know, stuff like that.
It might seem like this is an awfully narrow line of credit I’m extending, but I don’t mean to belittle it. The stoicism of Rand’s heroes (even Francisco, who is certainly extroverted but strictly disciplined about sharing his true self with others), and Ayn’s insistence on self-reliance, on the charisma of competence… these are virtues that I feel I should aspire to more than I did back when I first read the book as an impressionable young progressive. It was through this realization of how I could improve myself that I came to be more appreciative of conservative and Republican ideals, particularly the whole “personal responsibility” element, and this in turn played no small part in my increased respect for and understanding of business. I feel this development from the personal to the political is far more organic than what Ayn actually argues for, which really strikes me as a Frankenstein’s monster of contradicting beliefs.
So thanks, Ayn Rand, for offering up so much food for thought. Maybe someday I’ll even read The Fountainhead, next time I’m in the mood for some literary sado-masochism. For now though, I’ll at least admit this: You aren’t just a poison on America’s body politic or a philosophical cancer. I found some real nourishment when I sampled your buffet. Some of the side dishes actually taste good. I might even recommend your establishment to friends with a refined palate. Maybe. Probably not. Let’s put it this way — I recommend the lighter fare. But whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
I gave Democrats a piece of advice yesterday — “Do not insist upon that which can go without saying” — and today I’m going to follow it. My only thoughts about last night’s results will be forward-looking.
For example, and in line with my earlier advice: even though today’s reality check speaks for itself, Democrats should not expect it to speak for the future. When negotiations over deficit reduction begin soon, cloaked in the ominous meme of “the fiscal cliff,” the Democrats can’t just say, “We won the election! You give up now!” They must hold Republican narratives up against the cold hard reality of numbers and history again; in fact they should simply act like the election hasn’t ended.
In stark contrast to the “close your eyes and ears and shout LALALA” strategy of the 2008-2012 Republican Party, a little forced introspection will be good for both conservatism and America’s civic health as a whole. So the GOP still needs to be pressed up against that brick wall of facts until they sink in. Conservative youth, women, social libertarians, and gay and non-white Republicans have to wrest control away from bitter old white men within the party, the same way that youth, women, social liberals, gay, and non-white voters did for the nation. And sustained Democratic pressure can help them do this.
Consider the role major second-term legislation can play. Former Bush staffer Michael Gerson described Republican attitudes towards illegal immigration as ‘political suicide’ on NPR this morning, in light of the election results, so President Obama and the Democratic Senate should put a popular, centrist immigration bill to Congress and dare the Republicans to obstruct it. Just keep forcing those reality checks. Who will face reality and accept it like a Randian hero? Who will recoil like Jim Taggart and go politically mad or commit political suicide?
This strategy hits three birds with one stone for Dems — it’s good politics for them, it’s good policy for the country, and it’s good therapy for the GOP.
For I really do root hard for those hard-nosed clear-eyed conservatives out there who see reason and can bring the Republican Party back towards it, back towards genuine value and merit. Your Ross Douthats, your Reihan Salams, your David Frums. There are several young conservative women I’ve seen making the pundit rounds who will lead in this effort too, I have no doubt. S.E. Cupp has a growing brand; Megan McCain has something of a profile. A blonde whose name I can’t recall was on last night’s CNN panel and a recent “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and she’s a conservative gay rights activist. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have roles to play. The future of the Republican Party is strong, and much stronger now for having been thoroughly defeated in its current form.
Yes, last night was a victory for the Democrats and the left. But I don’t feel any desire to rub that in anyone’s face. I see stunned conservatives and confused, deflated independents, and I want to cheer them up! I want them to know they don’t have to be so worried and sad! This wasn’t just a win for Barack Obama and his most liberal supporters, this was a win for the moderates in the center, and the intelligent right too. This was a win for America, and for reality.
So if you woke up today feeling upset, I don’t think that condemns you as stupid or immoral or any of that other Randian rhetoric I’ve been throwing around. After all, empathy is one of those *minor* topics on which she’s hilariously, grotesquely wrong. Rather I offer you hope and the opportunity for change. As Dagny and Galt laughed about together near the end of the book, “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” You still don’t.
“It’s okay, we’re in real America now,” my transcendental Francisco would tell you. “The people are nice here. Newcomers are welcome. And if you’re stuck in the depths of a great depression, well… as one of this world’s great leaders once put it, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Democrats and Republicans alike have butterflies in their cynical cynical tummies today as America gets its vote on, and I want to take this opportunity before the verdict comes in to offer a little advice to both parties regardless of who wins, delivered as always half-facetiously and in the style of one Ayn “Alyssa Rosenbaum” Rand.
My suggestions must be obvious by now. They go a little something like this: REPENT! OPEN YOUR EYES! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!
I kid, I kid.
To Republican voters, those who have eminently respectable beliefs about the value of small government and fiscal responsibility and the spiritual merits of family and wholesome culture, I applaud your value system. There is but one value you must incorporate if you want to own the complete set, one that I’m sure many of you already hold. It is the courage and fortitude to face facts with clear eyes and a full heart. This value is necessary for all of your other values to manifest as virtues instead of vices.
Which is to say that if you’re the kind of voter who admits you don’t know enough about this country’s affairs but will vote for the Republican candidate just because you feel “we need a change?” If you don’t know the details of the candidates’ plans but you “like” the way the Republican candidate “sounds?” You are putting yourself in grave moral danger. You have forfeited your right to knowledge, and now all of your genuinely positive values are free to be manipulated into vices by looters of the mind and spirit. Yes, this message is bipartisan in principle, but in practice, in reality, you — yes, you — are of the party being most looted and mooched. Do not let your most fundamental right as a citizen of a democracy be corrupted by your own apathy, your own exhausted embrace of anti-mind and anti-reason! Remember the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!
And to Republican officials I say, “Cast off the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!” For it contains both great truths and terrible falsehoods, and you have been taken in by a confused philosopher who preached righteously of her sacred allegiance to reality, yet failed miserably at putting her money where her mouth was.
It was money, in fact, which confused her worst. The lynchpin of her moral scheme, the tenet that allowed her to disregard the tragic humanitarian consequences of her political beliefs, was the idea that your net worth equaled your moral worth. This is as evil a mysticism as any that she did proudly herself decry.
It is not the idea of a positive relationship between money and morality that is evil, just as it is not the idea of a spiritual currency called karma that is evil. Indeed, both ideas have merit — relative merit. It is the over-simplified, closed-off version of these ideas which is evil. The absolute version, the version that allows you to stop thinking, to disregard the consequences of your thoughts, because you believe absolutely — that is what’s evil.
When a mystic of mind says karma just means you get what you deserve, is this not an insult to the man who has been decent all his life, and worked hard for ever, who is stricken with a terrible cancer? And when a mystic of money says your class simply reflects your moral value, is this not an insult to the poor woman who works herself to the bone to feed and educate her family, to improve her children’s lives and her own against all odds and history?
So to Republicans I say don’t repent; reform. Don’t open your eyes; open your mind. And Soylent Green isn’t people, people are people. Do not think of them as anything else, soylent or otherwise.
I say you must embrace the lessons of Ayn Rand! Are you noticing a theme yet?
Democrats, do you feel sad and frustrated, victimized by politics because it just isn’t fair? Do you wish it was just easier to make people see the insane anti-logic of your current political opposition? Do you grow cynical and resent the world because it hasn’t swayed the minds of your fellow men for you, proved your beautiful and humanitarian values are superior for you? DON’T. Do not succumb to the spiritual entropy of Jim Taggart. Remember the immortal words of Sean Connery in The Rock:
Losers whine about ‘fair.’ Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.
Go home and fuck the prom queen, Democrats. Don’t get any sleep, leave the dress in tatters on the floor, and if all goes as planned you’ll wake up in bed next to her tomorrow and realize the next four years of your life after graduation are totally gonna RULE, man.
But my message isn’t about today’s big dance. It’s about your shitty attitude in general. Even if you do get laid tonight, you’ve got some serious challenges coming your way. The media battle over the “fiscal cliff,” the sequel to the debt ceiling negotations in the spring… the midterm elections, eventually. You can’t just win this round, you have to step your game up.
Now look, I get it, you feel caught in a bind. It’s the asbolutism, the surety and assertiveness of your opponents that makes them so superficially appealing to the unengaged and uninformed, even though it’s their asbolutism that makes their defeat morally necessary. They are the D-student jocks who are too dumb not to be confident and get to hook up with all the pretty girls. And you’re the wounded little apple-polisher who thinks that even though those girls are dumb as bricks, they’re so pretty(!), and since you’re a better person than their brick-minded boyfriends, you should get to touch their boobies.
Well grow the fuck up! Because that’s how you get to touch more boobies, and also how you get to be okay with the times when you aren’t touching boobies. You grow the fuck up. Never resent your opponent. Study your opponent. Learn from their strengths and learn how to exploit their weaknesses.
So Democrats, in the case of your political opponents today, what this means is you need to find something to be absolutist about, and you need to expose Republicans’ absolutism as their Achilles’ heel. Steal their power and make it your own. Free yourself from your binding and use it to lasso your quarry. My advice:
Reason is on your side, so don’t be so concerned about seeming reasonable. Seem dominant. Seem confident. Let reason speak for itself, through you. Do not insist upon that which can go without saying. The charisma of indisputable knowledge erodes the glamour of defensive propaganda just as surely as water erodes rock: quietly, softly, but always and forever.
Likewise, because you know that moral libertarianism is superior to moral absolutism, do not be afraid of being absolutist in that stance. If you are accused of being a moral relativist, the only moral relationship you need to explain in that moment is the obvious superiority of yours over the narrow-minded morality of the absolutist who is accusing you. A moral absolutist, as an absolutist, will not be converted by the example of a compromiser, a coddler, or a simple compare and contrast exercise. You must assertively demonstrate how your nimble, flexible moral rationalism defeats their sturdy-yet-limited dogmatism, like a ninja taking down a 300-pound slab of muscle in one deft shift of balance.
Are you worried you will sound like a real dick, Democrats? Do you wince at the idea of being called an asshole if you take this attitude, a condescending prick perhaps? Do not feel constrained in this way either! Because remember, you are not actually an absolutist! You are free to admit your excesses upon further reflection, free to evolve intellectually and emotionally in response to the facts and the feelings of the people around you. One must always be vigilant about going too far, but this adaptability is exactly what makes your method of moral thinking superior. And this is what empowers you to be aggressive about it!
You should not just internalize your principles, you should externalize them. After all, which world do you want to live in, the one where you feel your values are validated because you fucked the prom queen, or the one where she goes home with your moral inferior and you are left lamenting that the world would be a better place if it had effortlessly reflected your values for you? Don’t rationalize failure, Democrats. Realize success.
Sincerely, some random asshole with a blog.
Well, that’s it kids. That’s my awkward, motivational parent-before-the-dance pep talk. Go have fun now. Don’t stay up too late, don’t drink too much, and considering what we talked about, remember that when you do vote for prom queen… cast your ballot for the candidate with birth control.
See you in the morning, scamps!
Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”
But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:
*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.
*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?
*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.
*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.
*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.
So, without further ado…
For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.
The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.
These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.
In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line. To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.
So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.
Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.
See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.
Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.
Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.
So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.
When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.
However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).
On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.
Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.
2. SOCIAL ISSUES
This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!
Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.
And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.
But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.
Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.
But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.
And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.
3. POLITICAL STYLE
This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.
I think it’s simplest to put it this way:
The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.
You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.
And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.
I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.
And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.
In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.
A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.
That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.