CAT | Philosophy
I’d like to draw your attention to this message from my friend Robert Bidinotto, which he posted on his facebook page. It deserves wider distribution than his mailing list, and his web site is hors de combat after the hosting company fraked up.
Underneath I’m going to indulge myself in some sour grapes. Or at least that’s what some may say.
Lest you think Robert is indulging himself in some of those, I’ll point out here that wa-a-a-ay back, Robert was the writer who broke the “Willie Horton” story in Reader’s Digest during the Bush/Dukakis campaign.
And by the way, Robert NEVER referred to the oft-incarcerated psycho as anything but “William Horton.”
In Defense of the “Right-Wing Populists”
by Robert James Bidinotto
Jonah Goldberg—the undeniably intellectual author of Liberal Fascism—criticizes those intellectual weenies, both left and right, who attack talk-show host Glenn Beck and other right-wing populists, including Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Partiers. (See his article here: http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/10/column-in-defense-of-glenn-beck-.html )
I’m with Goldberg on this.
I’ve spent most of my professional life within the right-wing think-tank world. Sadly, in my experience, the majority of the wonks and theorists who populate this mini-universe live in the rarified air of theoretical abstractions severed from real-world experience—that is to say, totally inside their own skulls. Many have migrated straight from grad schools into think tanks, without the invaluable rite of passage provided by a job out in the competitive marketplace. As a result, they have become cocooned in a self-selected world of other intellectuals, and many are uncomfortable around those who don’t share their bookish preoccupations. This causes an interesting cultural tension for right-wing intellectuals. As a point of ideological faith, they profess to like “Americans,” at least in the abstract—but they despise most of the concrete examples of Americans whom they encounter in the streets and shops.
Read conservatives such as David Frum, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan, or even some prominent denizens of libertarian think tanks. Such right-wing intellectuals are about as disconnected from Main Street America as are left intellectuals. Their alienation from their nation’s citizens finds expression in constant, condescending contempt toward people like Sarah Palin and “Joe the Plumber,” toward rank-and-file Tea Party activists, and toward the talk-show champions of Main Street America, like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin. Such people, they sniff, are so intellectually impoverished, so unrefined, so lacking in Ivy League nuance and subtlety.
I sense that such conservative intellectuals would love to spend hours at a Georgetown dinner party trading bon mots with a smooth and refined progressive like Barack Obama, or exchanging light-hearted barbs with a quick-witted left-wing comic like Jon Stewart. But they wouldn’t be caught dead with a beer in their hands at a barbecue hosted by Sarah, Joe, or Glenn.
Many have noted that America seems to be undergoing a political realignment. But I think that’s merely one part of a much broader cultural realignment. It’s a realignment of American society based on fundamentally clashing values. And this value-conflict reveals itself in a host of other profound differences—in lifestyle preferences, personal priorities, and social-class affinities.
Of course, the most public manifestation of this great divide can be seen in the political arena. There, we’re witnessing an all-out attempt by arrogant, technocratic know-it-alls to take over our lives, our social institutions, and entire industries, and to run them strictly according to their pet theoretical systems. Educated at the best universities, comfortably surrounded by other anointed members of the Establishment elite, they believe they know how to manage the lives and affairs of ordinary Americans far, far better than those little people can do for themselves. Meanwhile, Main Street America is righteously rebelling against this self-appointed aristocracy, and popular figures like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin are giving eloquent voice to their cries of protest.
In this pivotal battle for individual freedom, those intellectuals on the right who align themselves with the power-hungry elites, rather than with the beleaguered citizenry, are akin to the Tories who betrayed their fellow colonists and supported the coercive Crown during the American Revolution.
As for me, I’ll gladly leave the parasitical aristocrats to their glittering cocktail parties, preferring to stand outside in the streets with the protesting crowds bearing signs, torches, and pitchforks. It’s an easy choice, because not only do I know which side is right, but also which side will ultimately win.
The author is online at www.RobertTheWriter.com, www.facebook.com/bidinotto, and www.ecoNOT.com.
I’ve refrained from bitching about this too much, because it’d sound like sour grapes, but…
A few years back I returned from 13 years living and working in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, with frequent visits to the Baltic States and points east) with a good working knowledge of Polish and street competence in a few other Slavic languages. I was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for my work with Serbian dissidents. I ran money to Belarusian dissidents, founded the Liberty English Camps (now operating in a half-dozen countries around the world,) been in a few truly hairy situations, and have been kicked with honest-to-God jack boots and beaten with real rubber truncheons. (They’re not all rubber, they have a steel rod inside.)
I thought, thought I, with my education, accomplishments, and experience, I should be working with think tanks and foundations dedicated to spreading liberty throughout the world.
So I applied in a number of places over 3-4 years. The responses usually went through three stages: 1) initial enthusiasm, followed by 2) rapidly cooling ardor, and 3) excuses for not hiring me.
“Oh Steve, we thought with your experience you’d be bored in this position.” (Real example.)
Now, I don’t actually know, but it occurred to me that since most of these positions would have had me working for people who in your description, “have migrated straight from grad schools into think tanks, without the invaluable rite of passage provided by a job out in the competitive marketplace,” they might have a problem hiring someone who’s been some places and done some stuff.
Or as my (Polish) wife asked, “Who are these children who keep calling you?”
I did get a paid internship through the conservative National Journalism Foundation, which placed me at Human Events for three months. I had a ball and made some good friends – but you’re right. Inside-the-Beltway people often have more in common with their inside-the-Beltway opposite numbers on the Left than they do with their alleged constituency outside the Beltway.
Victor Davis Hanson called the right-wing think tanks, “gilded ghettos.”
Amen. Every time I hear that yet another libertarian or conservative think tank has moved “up” to offices inside the Beltway I think, “Another casualty in the war for liberty.”
Or maybe that should be “defection.”
Robert’s comment: “Maybe Victor Davis Hanson is so sane because he’s a farmer, as well as an academic, and not afraid to get dirt under his fingernails.”
On reflection it occurs to me that the inside-the-Beltway crowd is actually out of touch with the real Washington as well.
Three months in D.C. I stayed in a nice little flat behind the Supreme Court, a five-minute walk away from the office. From Capitol Hill, out to Dupont Circle and Embassy Row in one direction, to Foggy Bottom in another is it’s own little world, kept reasonably safe by at least three separate police forces (D.C., Metro, and Capitol Hill P.D.) and innumerable private security agencies.
A 20-minute walk in another direction, or a 3-5 stop ride on the metro, and you were in a different world entirely. (Which then changes back around Silver Springs.) Even within the metro system you are in a different city if you get on the green line.
D.C. is an island of calm surrounded by a sea of barbarism the insiders have zero contact with, and though they’re aware of it, they prefer not to think of it. (I was told, “If you live on Capitol Hill, you have to, have to, send your kids to private school.” No elaboration needed.)
And weirdly, on weekends inner D.C. has the quiet deadness of a small town on Sunday.
P.S. For those who know D.C. – apologies if the geography is vague. I never got a sense of spatial location there, which kind of makes the point…
Note: This appeared as the weekend editorial in the Valley City Times-Record.
I suppose everybody agrees we’re in an economic crisis now. Unfortunately that’s about all everybody agrees on.
The president has his economic advisors working on the problem. The loyal opposition has their own opinions about what caused it and what to do about it.
George Bernard Shaw said, “If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”
So if the experts disagree, what hope can we poor mortals have to understand the problem and evaluate any proposed solutions?
Years ago a distinguished economist, once advisor to presidents, at the end of his life revealed a closely guarded secret – economics is not all that complicated. In fact he said, all the economics you need to be an advisor to presidents is taught in the the Intro course for college freshmen.
The basic principles of economics are simple, quite easy to understand, and don’t even involve math. When you get to the application, the details of production and consumption and measurement thereof, is where the math and razzle-dazzle comes in.
The 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle called economics “the dismal science.” Most people think it’s because economics is complicated and boring. I suspect it’s because economics tells you what you can’t have.
The first principle of economics is: there’s not enough of what we want for everybody. (The first principle of politics is to assure the electorate you can fix this.)
The second principle of economics is: to get something you want, you must give up something you want less, if only your time. (Political careers rely on telling the electorate the choices won’t be painful.)
That’s what’s dismal about it, you can’t have something for nothing. Unfortunately, the desire for something for nothing is part of human nature.
I once had an argument with an Englishwoman about the superiority of the British National Health Service. I pointed out the service is lousy by American standards. She countered that it’s free, unlike our inhumane American system.
I said, “No it’s not.”
She huffily informed me that she was after all English, and knew very well what British health service costs.
“I understand that,” I replied, “but it’s still not free. Because nothing is. If you didn’t pay for it, it means somebody else did – and not by choice.”
There’s a reason paying for some things is not left up to individual choice. Economists call it the “common good,” or “free rider” problem. Things like infrastructure, police and national defense benefit everybody, whether they paid for them or not.*
But whether General Motors stays in business concerns me very little, as long as I can still buy a Ford or a Toyota. I feel for the Detroit autoworkers, honestly I do. But that money the government is giving them to make cars I don’t want to buy is money I don’t have to pay for my retirement, my kids education, or a car I’d rather buy.
How democratic governments get away with taking from many people, to give to a few people, is explained by a principle economists call, “concentrated benefits/distributed costs.” This simply means the amount any one special interest is able to extract from us, in direct subsidies or price supports, is not enough to complain about. Until we’re nickel-and-dimed to death.
But for the special interests, those nickels and dimes add up to a lot.
Shaw explained it even simpler, “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul, can always count on the support of Paul.”**
* Libertarian purists and anarchists sail under the slogan “taxation is theft” and say all taxation is coercive and thus immoral.
No libertarian/anarchist theory has yet successfully demonstrated how a complex society can be maintained without tax levees.
On the other hand, nobody has satisfactorily explained how taking money by threat of force is different from theft either. Once you admit the right of taxation, how do you justify saying what amount is “too much”? How is 10% just and 50% unjust?
** Since Shaw was a Fabian Socialist and an admirer of both Hitler and Stalin, it is not clear to me whether he was speaking approvingly of this as a tactic or not.
If you go here:
there is an admirably succinct article by Peter Robinson on why the Republicans are, to put it bluntly (which he doesn’t, but he’s a gentleman and perhaps I’m not), traitors to the cause of liberty.
Robinson recounts a dinner conversation he had with Milton Friedman, at which he complimented Friedman for basically winning the case for free-market economics in academia, in a time academia had gone overwhelmingly left.
Friedman demurred, “The challenge for my generation,” he said, “was to provide an intellectual defense of liberty. The challenge for your generation is to keep it.”
Robinson cites recent Republican sins against free markets and constitutional liberty: the prescription drug benefit, the farm bill, and McCain-Feingold.
And now, a lame-duck Republican president is about to extend the Wall Street bailout to Detroit automakers. In doing so, he’s cut the legs out from under any Republican argument in favor of letting the market sort itself out.
The son-of-a-bitch could not wait and let it be the fault of the Democratic president-elect.
And to add insult to injury, he’s doing it after broadcasting what some have described as the most passionate and articulate speech in his career, in favor of free market capitalism.
Free men can face our enemies unflinchingly, but God save us from friends like these!
After I published my article, ‘The Perfect Storm of the Left’ I was asked by several friends and comrades who I blame for this.
Here’s my answer. I blame you; conservatives, libertarians and Objectivists.
Leftists can’t help what they are. Leftism is an idiocy, a pathology. Leftists are over-educated for their intellect, which makes the world a terrifying place for them.
Twentieth-century rationalism showed them a universe unimaginably big, and terrifyingly indifferent to them. Unable to find a god anywhere in it, wounded to the core by the revelation of their own insignificance, lacking the internal resources to find significance in their own lives, they became easy meat for anyone who promised them a personal god in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent state.
In the last analysis, leftism is pitiable. After the intellectual baggage has been stripped away by the catastrophic collapse of the Marxist planned economies, and the creaking, clanking, slow-death of the Social Democratic welfare states, what you have left is the heart-rending cry of, “I am alone, I am afraid, help me!”
Next, I rip the right a new one.
I’ve recently come across two good, thought-provoking presentations.
One is from the Heritage Foundation archive of their noon lecture series.
Evan Sayet, a comedian, writer and former liberal talks about Regurgitating the Apple: How Modern Liberals “Think”. http://www.heritage.org/Press/Events/ev030507a.cfm
Sayet begins with a story about a friend who continually says, “I hate my wife.”
He reacts by thinking, “Oh of course he doesn’t really hate his wife” until one day they’re having lunch together and he sees his friend’s wife getting mugged in the parking lot.
“Hey let’s do something!”
“Nah, I hate her.”
And then he realizes, “He really hates his wife!”
Likewise, after the post-9/11 reactions from the Left he realized, “My God, they really do hate America!”
This is his notion about why.
Now over here http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=437008356106616816
you can find Dr. David Brin’s Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0
There is a lot where I disagree with Dr. Brin, but damn he makes you think! And, last I looked disagree is what free men do.
Brin looks at the Enlightenment project – and how unique it is in the history of the human race.
He points out that everyone in every previous civilization has run into the problem of the impossibility of perfect knowlege. You can’t perfectly know the chair you’re sitting on (for example.)
But here’s where Western civilization differs from all previous approaches: eveyone else reacted to this realization by – giving up.
Only in the Enlightenment project did men start to say, “OK, we can’t ever have perfect knowlege, but we can keep poking away at it, learning more about it, and most importantly we can say a lot about what it’s NOT.”
Great stuff. Now get a cup of coffee because they are both about a half-hour.
Nota: I’ve written a fair amount about my own notions as to why so many intellectuals in this country seem to loathe it.
Random thoughts on Christmas:
*Opening presents with the kids, at an hour we’d rather be still in bed, after playing Santa Claus till late. Is there any feeling, any mood, quite like this? I’ve been the kid of course, and I’ve seen other families do it. But when it’s your kids it’s… the same but different.
*I remember a long period when I pretty actively didn’t like Christmas. I used to say it was the commercialization, and that’s no doubt partly true, but in retrospect I think it was that I didn’t have a family of my own that it felt good with.
I really started to enjoy Christmas again when I went to Poland and lived with a Polish family: mother, daughter and granddaughter. (Only the daughter spoke any English at all, so I started to pick up Polish right off.)
The first years after the fall of communism, there were consumer goods available but money was still awfully tight so people would give each other a Christmas-wrapped can of beer or shaving foam.
It was so touching and so unaffected that it made Christmas a happy time for me again.
*Years ago I got the impression that quite a few people in this country really don’t like Chirstmas. Once in an Anthropology class when we were discussing holidays, I barked “Quick! Everyone who doesn’t like Christmas raise your hand.”
Fully half the hands in class went up.
I think it’s the pressure of “Who do I buy a gift for and who do I send cards to and oh my God what if they do and I don’t?”
My advice – relax. Enjoy.
*We’ve had the annual attack of the Christmas grinches of course. You know, the nativity-scenes-are-unconstitutional crowd. Seems not to have been so prominent this year though, perhaps it has finally gotten through to them that they are really pissing people off.
Of course, that was their intent all along, to be noticed. But people who try to get noticed by irritating other people eventually have that experience when it dawns on them that they’ve really pissed everybody off at them…
*Something called the Philadelphia Freethinkers Society has promoted a “tree of knowledge”, a Christmas tree decorated with books.
It’s awfully silly, but a lot nicer than raining on everyone else’s parade – and I always loved books for Christmas.
*I’ve said before, what strikes me about militant atheists such as Hitchens et. al. is not that they don’t believe in God, it’s that they do believe, but they’re mad at Him.
Central to this attitude is the complaint that God made Man, and condemned him to suffering. Some people take this personally.
I have some cool speculations about the universe and Man’s place in it, which I’ll share with you later, if you promise not to take them too seriously.
But since it’s Christmas I will share this.
“God made Man in his own image, male and female created he him.”
The only way this makes sense to me, the idea that we are in the image of God, is that we are self-aware beings. We can look at the universe and wonder. We can say “I exist!” No animal does this. Only we – like God.
Of course, the next realization is, “Someday I won’t exist.” That’s the part we don’t share with God.
That is the basic suffering that we can’t avoid. We may not be born with congenital defects. We may escape violent death, maiming, war, pestilence etc – though that has only been likely in this corner of the world in this century. But we cannot escape this. All that we love will be taken from us eventually.
How could a compassionate creator do this to us? This is the charge hurled at God since we began to think in terms of a creator.
The obvious answer is – we are God’s children, but like a good parent, he wants us to grow up. No one can reach maturity without experiencing reality with the freedom to make mistakes – and suffer the consequences.
Still, how could a just God condemn us to a suffering that he can have no personal experience of? Is this justice?
The answer in the Christian myth is, the incarnation. God put a piece of Himself in his creation to experience everything that happens in it – the joy, the pain, the exaltation, the horror.
So that when we shout our pain to God, He can say, “I know how you feel, but this too will pass.”
Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year.
*And please note that I am using “myth” in the ancient sense, not the modern usage of “not true.”
Recently someone evidently mistook me for an Objectivist. A natural mistake, I do publish in Objectivist forums on occasion, respect the classcal tradition of Aristotle and the Greeks and hold that, yes Virginia, there is a reality out there that exists independently of the pictures of it inside our heads.
In my youth, I did indeed read Rand and was captivated by her vivid prose – and the permission she gave high school geeks like me to be different.
More to the point, she gave the OK to bright young guys and girls to live for themselves, when everyone else seemed to have plans for us that we were not consulted about.
But… identifying myself with her “movement” and adopting the label? No thanks.
Couple of reasons: first, the notion that you have to accept the philosophy as a whole – or not at all.
As in, Rand never made a mistake in her life? Never had an opinion that was open to disagreement? Never had tastes or preferences that were just tastes and preferences – rather than deep insights into the eternal nature of reality that all “rational” men must obviously hold?
And then there was that pronouncement in the official Objectivist rag about “Never call yourself an Objectivist (without official sanction of course). Call yourself a “student of Objectivism.”"
The reaction of anyone with an ounce of spunk to that one might be phrased, “Take a hike bitch!”*
But, there wasn’t a reaction of that sort among her followers. Because by that time it was becoming evident that this was less of a movement and more of a cult. With the breakup of the Rand circle over the Brandon affair, it was obvious.
So, does that invalidate the genuine insights Rand developed? Not necessarily. Alfred Korzybski was a bit of a nutty cultist with his notions of “General Semantics” saving the world – but GS went mainstream in universities and became the respectable study of Semantics.
Objectivism seems to have likewise been taken seriously by some actual philosophers who are developing it into a respectible school of thought in academic philosophy.
In the end, the best thing Rand did for her philosophy was to die and get out of its way.
So… vis a vis that bit about accepting the philosophy as a whole or not at all, this seemed as good an excuse as any to dust off this letter I wrote to an Objectivist who asked me to define what I did and didn’t agree with about Objectivism:
Your question about what I disagree with about Ayn Rand’s philosophy and views deserves a far longer treatment than this brief letter, and to be fair I’d want to go into more detail about what I like about her as well. Your question really set me thinking and perhaps I’ll deal with it in greater detail when I have more time to think about it. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
The best and fairest critique of Rand’s philosophy and fiction I’ve ever read was by astrophysicist and writer David Brin in the September 2000 issue of Liberty. I’ll quote one of the most important passages:
“…Objectivism, which begins by proposing that reality exists independent of its perception. This contrasts refreshingly against the subjective-relativism offered by today’s fashionable neo-leftist philosophers, who claim (in total ignorance of science) that “truth” can always be textually redefined by any observer – a truly pitiable, easily disproved, and essentially impotent way of looking at the world.
“So far, so good. Unfortunately, any fledgling alliance between Rand’s doctrine and actual science breaks down soon after that. For she further holds that objective reality is readily accessible by solitary individuals using words and logic alone. This proposition – rejected by nearly all modern scientists – is essentially a restatement of the Platonic worldview, a fundamental axiom of which is that the universe is made up of ideal essences or “values” (the term Rand preferred) that can be discovered, dispassionately examined, and objectively analyzed by those few bold minds who are able to finally free themselves from hoary assumptions of the past. Once freed, any truly rational individual must, by simply applying verbal reasoning, independently reach the same set of fundamental conclusions about life, justice and the universe. (Naturally, any mind that fails to do so must, by definition, not yet be free.)”
Well, already this is starting to get too deep for me, I’m not a philosopher. I have studied formal Logic and liked it very much (that and classical Rhetoric – if only there was a way to make a living at it!) but it’s not my field of expertise.
The way I see it from my limited knowledge, is that Rand seems to hold that it is possible to construct a single model that basically accounts for everything (as in the passage above). To me this seems to involve the old contradiction of the “class of all classes that includes itself”.
What a philosophical model is, is exactly that a model, i.e. an abstraction of reality containing the most important features necessary for the pragmatic task at hand. And like a kid’s model airplane it doesn’t contain every detail – one that did would be an airplane. A complete model of reality would have to be contained in a mind bigger than the universe, the mind of God in fact.
It would seem from this that in life we need to use not one, but a number of different models, each appropriate to the task we face at any given moment.
Interestingly, I met Barbara Branden in Athens years ago and liked her very much. However when making the above point, she didn’t see it. I don’t mean she disagreed, it’s that she didn’t see what I was talking about at all. I pointed to the Acropolis and said that we cannot know everything about it, past the geological structure of the hill and down to the quantum level. She maintained (actually, she interrupted) that someday we could. No, not according to modern physics.
An example I like to use (because I’m an Anthropologist): we know from gravesites that Neanderthal man had some kind of religious sentiment. They often buried their dead in a fetal position covered with red ocher. The symbolism seems obvious; the Earth is or mother and we return to Her when we die.
Obviously, in a scientific-literalist model this is patently false. Doris Browne is my mother and when I die I’m going to rot. We are not however dealing here with truth-functional statements but metaphors, perhaps even pre-scientific intuitions of something that is real and valid for human beings.
Is it a model that is likely to produce a scientific method and an industrial civilization? Probably not. Will it comfort individuals faced with the certain knowledge of their own extinction (and in the case of the Neanderthals, the extinction of their species!)? Likely so.
Furthermore, vis a vis Rand’s insistence that you took her philosophy whole or not at all; within a single model there is room for a lot of disagreement about specific points. This is true for every scientific model that I know of and I don’t see why a philosophical model should be any different. Nathaniel Branden pointed out once that her contention implies that she had never made an error in her thinking.
For a couple of specific examples on where I disagree with her; in The Virtue of Selfishness (I don’t have a copy to hand and can’t give a page reference, and I’m quoting from memory) she tossed off a remark about “…rational, (i.e. logical) thinking…”.
If I understand correctly, I have to disagree. Equating reason with logic is like saying “carpentry” is “hammer”. A hammer is a tool of carpentry (and other skills as well) as logic is a tool of reason. But logic is not the whole of reason nor is the strict application of formal logic always rational.
In Athens I was invited to give an example of this by a couple of our South American friends. I pointed out that to impugn the honesty of one’s opponent in an argument, rather than dealing solely with the argument, is an example of one of the oldest known of the informal fallacies of logic, the argumentum ad hominem (a favorite tactic of the Left, by the way). However, if you are making an important decision based on the urging of another individual, you’d be well advised to consider whether this person is known to be a liar or not!
Another is about a saying that Objectivists like to repeat (though I can’t recall if it is actually attributable to Rand) is, “Compassion for the guilty is treason to the innocent.” (Actually, this is a restatement of one attributed to Edmund Burke, “Kindness to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent,” a far more defensible proposition.)
This is both contemptible and cowardly. I see nothing impossible about dealing stern justice to the guilty while at the same time having an appreciation for the appalling circumstances of their lives that twisted their humanity into something scarcely recognizable as such. (Consider the horrible childhood of that moral monster Saddam Hussein.)
One can acknowledge that pity tears at you with claws even as you have to pull the trigger, it’s just horribly painful. (Furthermore, it can slow your reflexes in a critical moment.)
My favorite philosopher, Eric Hoffer remarked that all virtues can be corrupted to evil ends, except compassion.
Another issue is that of what we call duty. Objectivists I know reject this idea entirely. For me it’s perhaps a matter of definition more than actual disagreement though. Robert Heinlein said, “Never confuse duty with something you owe somebody else. Duty is something you owe yourself alone.”
What I define duty as is, the price you have to pay in order to think of yourself as the kind of person you wish to think of yourself (based on values you have freely chosen – at least ideally.)
I.e. if you want to think of yourself as a courageous person, you must act on your view of the right at times when it is “inconvenient, unpopular or dangerous to do so”**. In extremis, perhaps even at the cost of your life, if life is not worth living knowing you failed in your duty.
Oh gosh, I could go on but perhaps your eyes are glazing over right now.
I’ve attached an article I wrote inspired by another conversation I had with Barbara about non-rational (NOT irrational) values***, and I thought you’d like a picture I took in Budapest while I was in transit on a rescue mission to Belgrade. It’s the Imre Nagy monument near the parliament building. I came across it unexpectedly and given the circumstances I was moved to tears. I wanted to stand next to him on the bridge and ask him if I was worthy to call him comrade.
Anyone want to guess how the Objectivist replied?
Those of you who know some might guess. It was, “Read Atlas Shrugged.”
Stay tuned for Part 2: I Read Atlas Shrugged.
* From an old Objectivist porn comic. The heroes reject women who profess their love because of the opinions of others with that phrase. Couldn’t resist.
** Walter Lippmann’s definition of honor, “A man has Honor when he adheres to a code of conduct when it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so.”
“Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”
If you haven’t seen 300, by all means do so. But think of it as a play rather than a movie. A kabuki or noh play. It is, as expected, getting extreme reviews. As with Gladiator, people love it or hate it, and they tend to line up on opposite sides depending on their politics.
The Spartan defenders of the pass of Thermopylae have been hailed as free men defending their homes and their civilization at the birth of the West – but they’ve also been admired by the Nazis and the Communists. Everyone sees the Spartans they want to see evidently. And this may be the most interesting thing about them, the questions they raise about what kind of civilization we want and how it is to be preserved.
300 is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which was in turn inspired by the 1962 movie, ‘The 300 Spartans’. More recently, Steven Pressfield published ‘Gates of Fire’ my personal nominee for best novel of the decade. And in anticipation of the movie’s release, the History Channel made ‘The Last Stand of the 300′ which used CGI to dramatize the historical background provided by historical scholars.
300 is a highly stylized piece, filmed entirely against a blue screen background. Historical accuracy is sacrificed for dramatic effect in a number of ways. The swords are a slashing broad sabre rather than the short double-edged xiphos of the Spartans. (The Spartans were known for having an un-typically short sword compared to other Greeks forces. In the Sayings of the Spartan Women*, when a Spartan soldier complained about this, his mother replied, “Make it longer by one step forward.”)
Rather than fighting in heavy bronze cuirasses or laminated leather and linen, the Spartans fight in helmet, shield and a leather jockstrap – a concession to modern mores. The classical Greeks often took the same artistic license and showed hoplites fighting in heroic nudity on their pottery and wall frescos.
Though the actors were physically very well prepared, the fighting is mostly a series of single combats with fantastic feats thrown in, great leaps with sword and shield, throwing a heavy pike as if it were a javelin etc, in the style of modern Kung Fu movies rather than the close-order press of hoplite warfare. This concession to drama is acknowledged in the movie when Leonidas explains to Ephialtes how each soldier must hold his shield high to protect the man on his right “neck to thigh” and is in turn protected by the shield of his comrade on his left.
This was the essence of hoplite battle. Herodotus reports that the exiled Spartan king Demaratus adivsed Xerxes, “One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm — to conquer or die. O king, if I seem to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward to remain silent. I only spoke now because you commanded me to. I do hope that everything turns out according to your wishes.”**
The director is aware of the artistic license he is taking. Movie makers have known that real battle cannot be shown from a single vantage-point in a way that makes sense to the witness, since the days Pancho Villa allowed a Hollywood crew to film one of his.*** There may be a subtle visual clue in the metal surface of the shields and helmets. Rather than burnished bronze, a close look shows a pitted pewter surface like the kind on home decorations you buy in Hobby Lobby. Could be a Hollywood cheesy – but I suspect a deliberate effect. The movie also has fantastic elements, rhinos and elephants, grossly mutated warriors and disfigured concubines.
The director is obviously striving for a kind of magical realism, like a movie made from a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might look. And I think this is entirely appropriate, the story of what the Spartans and their allies did at the pass of Thermopylae outlasted their civilization – and will certainly outlast ours. Men will be finding new ways to tell the old story as long as stories are told.
To be continued.
* Available in Plutarch on Sparta, Penguin Classics http://www.amazon.com/Plutarch-Sparta-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140444637/ref=sr_1_1/103-6832108-6507023?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1175347357&sr=8-1
** Herodotos vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)
*** Villa did however, graciously wait until the light was just right for them to film the post-battle executions.
In a few days 300 will open, and my wife and I are trying to work out the logistics of how we’re going to arrange for her to see it while I take care of the seven-month-old. Our apartment in Warsaw is directly above the entrance to a movie theater, so when we were there she could feed our firstborn, put him to bed, and run down to see a movie with a pager in her pocket just in case. Here it’s not so easy, but she doesn’t want to wait for it to come out on DVD.
300, is of course the new movie about the battle at the “Hot Gates” – Thermopylae. It is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, which was itself said to be inspired by the old B movie, The Three Hundred Spartans.
Classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson says it’s pretty good, which augers well in my book. He loved Gladiator, as we did, and loathed Alexander – ’nuff said.
I’ll be reviewing the movie, and the original 300 Spartans, and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – a threefer. The Spartans at Thermopylae and their legacy raise a lot of interesting, and disturbing questions about the origin of the West and the nature of free societies, which should make for some interesting discussion.
If I asked what comes to mind when I said “Thermopylae”, you’d likely quote the epitaph of the Spartans by Simonides, a contemporary poet.
Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
There are several ways to render this in English. Translating poetry is often a trade-off between strict accuracy and capturing the effect of the original, but the best in my opinion goes:
Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws we lie.
I cannot read or recite that without my eyes watering.
This epigram was engraved on a stone and placed on the hill where the Spartans and the allies that stood with them made their last stand. The original has been lost, but a new stone was placed there in modern times. Near it is another, engraved with the words of King Leonidas to the envoy of the Great King when he demanded that they surrender their arms:
Μολών λαβέ (Molon labe) “Come and take them!”
Simonides epigram has inspired some pretty good knock-offs. The Battle of Kohima in WWII, credited with saving India from a Japanese invasion, has this memorial:
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
This is attributed to one John Etty-Leal and said to be “inspired” by a WWI epigram by John Maxwell Edmonds. (Inspired my ass. It’s a direct rip off, different only in minor details in the second line “For your to-morrows these gave their to-day.”)
The master of epitaph writing in modern English was undoubtedly Rudyard Kipling. I highly recommend Epitaphs of the War, which is a whole series of them on different themes. Some examples:
Two Canadian Memorials
We giving all, gained all
Neither lament us nor praise.
But only in all things recall
It is fear, not death that slays.
From little towns in a far land we came
To save out honor, and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep
And trust that world we won for you to keep.
We were together since the war began.
He was my servant – and the better man.
Hindu Sepoy, Died in France
This man in his own country prayed, we know not to what Powers
We pray them to reward him for his bravery in ours.
And this one, dear to the hearts of all libertarians. A Politician:
I could not dig, I dared not rob
Wherefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Any man would be happy to be remembered for a great epitaph. Trouble is, you can’t be around to enjoy them – unless you write your own ahead of time.
Jonathan Swift wrote his own epitaph, in Latin no less. His epitaph goes:
Hic depositum est corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
William Butler Yeats translated it and cast it into English verse, thusly:
SWIFT has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
It rhymes, but I prefer the prose translation:
He is gone, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveller, imitate him if you can. He served Liberty.
Thomas Jefferson boasted of his proudest achievements in his epitaph:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia
Notice, not one word about having been president twice!
Westminster Abbey is no doubt a great place to look for fine epitaphs among the kings and notables buried there. But in the abbey is also the British Unknown Soldier:
They buried him among the kings Because he Had done good toward God and Toward His house
Lawrence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, for the dead of WWI, from which is often taken this part to be read at remembrance services:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Shelley reminds us of the futility of vanity, (a lesson he might have taken more to heart). An enscription found on a statue of Rameses II contained a line that was translated something like: “If you would know who I am and where I am buried, surpass me in some of my deeds.”
Shelley rendered it:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Until I came back from Eastern Europe I hadn’t often had to put up with a certain kind of person that infests the universities and intellectual circles of America and Western Europe. I refer to the kind of “progressive” intellectual I call the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, or AYERhead for short.
You know the kind I mean, the ignorant, arrogant know-it-all little twerps who revel in their superior insight at having discerned the true patterns of history, the ulterior designs and the true motives of the rapacious ruling class.
Since I have worn the label myself I should explain that by radical I mean someone who finds the state of affairs so horrible that it cannot be reformed, thoughtfully and gradually, but must be swept away and replaced RIGHT NOW. Someone who believes that this hideous state of affairs can be traced to a few root causes (radix (Latin) = root, the root word of radical – and radish for that matter) such as Capitalism, Imperialism, Sexism, Racism, etc.
Do I need to point out the obvious? That at this time, to be a member of Western Civilization of at least moderate means, identifies you as one of the luckiest members of the human race in its entire history? The challenge as I see it, is to protect those gains, extend them in the direction of more liberty and wealth, extend them to those who don’t enjoy them to the fullest and to keep from losing the ground we’ve gained so far.
I should also add that when I use radical in an approving rather than pejorative sense, as applied to myself for example, I mean someone who goes to the root of the problem to see the remedy more clearly. As a radical libertarian of many years standing, the knowledge that I was on the intellectual cutting edge and a member of a select group who had sole custody of the intellectual tools for understanding, explaining and fixing the current lamentable social order has always given me the greatest pleasure.
Well, age and distance gives you a sense of perspective sometimes and a fresh viewpoint can start you thinking about things that would have been too painful to consider before. In my case, it was sufficient distance from my own preferred brand of propaganda and years of living abroad.
What I have noticed is that there are a number of identifiable traits of the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, which I present below. These take the form of certain fixed assumptions held by “radicals” of all kinds.
But first understand one thing, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that arrogant young twerp and the memory of it is PAINFUL. So, in no particular order…
1) The enemy of a Bad Guy is a Good Guy.
It would seem that a moment’s thought would dispose of this one. I venture to suggest that everyone, without exception, must have noticed that assholes have more enemies than nice guys. But apparently the desire to find the White Hats out there somewhere is so strong that if, for example, Somoza is a bastard then the Sandinistas must be heroic freedom fighters. Try casting your mind back as far as you can remember and think of what groups of heavily armed thugs have at one time or another been lionized by somebody as “heroic freedom fighters” just because they weren’t wearing the uniform of a state.
2) Oppression, discrimination and tyranny make you noble.
Bertrand Russell wrote about this one in an essay entitled The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. Again, direct observation would seem to show that long-term oppression generally makes you a scumbag.
3) Xenophilia: it’s better somewhere else.
Remember when the Earthly Paradise of the Left was China? I still get a warm glow when I think about how they must have felt to see Richard Godawful Nixon and the Party luminaries of Beijing toasting each other with martinis.
Corollary: it’s worse here than elsewhere.
Are you kidding? And if you’re serious, why aren’t you there?
4) It is a betrayal of the Truth to fail to state it in any but the most offensive way possible.
“Would you rather have a nice thick, juicy steak – or a segment of muscle tissue from the immature corpse of a castrated bull?”
A Young Radical of the anti-Viet-Nam war era (who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to myself) believed, and still believes that conscription is slavery. However at the time I believe that what I said was that little old grandmothers who work at the Selective Service office were on the same moral level as 19th century slave traders and would eventually hang from the lamp posts of their respective towns. It’s not that what I believe is so different nowadays, it’s just that I’ve discovered that while threats and insults may work to change behavior (usually for the worse) they are rarely effective at changing belief.
5) Custom, tradition and manners are just rules and regulations in disguise.
The countries of the post-communist world are discovering, painfully, that it is difficult to write a constitution for a free country without a long tradition of local institutions to base it on, and once written, the application of it is a long process of establishing a legal tradition. The saving grace of countries such as Poland is precisely that there is a continuous intact cultural tradition, going back to a time when there were free classes, among the aristocrats and the Jews, if not a totally free country. Those countries whose aristocratic/intellectual classes were destroyed are those that are having the most trouble establishing free societies.
There is a story that a British admiral was brought before a board of inquiry because he had endangered the fleet, their last line of defense, by bringing it too close to shore while covering the evacuation at Dunkirk. His defense was, “We could have built a new fleet in five years. It would have taken two hundred years to build a new tradition.”
I remember what a young lady in Bulgaria said in my class, “Sometimes I think we will have to create an aristocracy before we can have a democracy.” That remark has haunted me ever since.
6) Anything less than moral perfection is evil.
As previously mentioned, too often criticism of our own nation, culture and civilization is based on comparison with hypothetical perfection, not the world as it is.
Corollary: dealing with the above constitutes “compromising with evil”.
I’m not really sure what these people mean by “compromising with evil”. Does it mean that one is forced to acknowledge the existence of less than perfectly moral individuals and institutions that are too powerful to be overcome and must be negotiated with? Does it mean cooperating in organizations with people one does not fully agree with? What’s that again? The last time I looked, disagree is what free men do. There is a fine moral line to be walked between doing what must be done to survive in a morally imperfect world and surrendering one’s sense of morality. But that’s what lines are for, to mark boundaries one must not cross. As Lazarus Long said, “Cooperating with the inevitable does not mean stooling for the guards.”
When I hear the phrase “compromising with evil” tossed about carelessly, I hear either an excuse for perpetual inaction or “Nobody’s opinion but mine matters.”
7) Meliorism: all problems have solutions, all situations can be improved.
I once pointed out to a class of Asian women that the above principle probably does more to define the American national character than anything else. We really believe this deep in our bones, to the extent that we seldom realize that other people don’t think this way. I asked my class what the most obvious thing about this was in their opinion. They all looked blankly at me and answered, “That it’s not true.”
As a people, Americans have accomplished great things by refusing to believe that something was impossible. And indeed many people confuse “impossible” with “very difficult”. But we’ve also made some spectacular blunders, the wars on Vietnam and Poverty for example, by assuming that our power, wealth and goodwill could solve problems that are not amenable to the application of mere power, wealth and goodwill. Or by assuming the mutual reliance on reason and goodwill can solve all conflict between peoples.
Sorry, some problems have no solutions and must be lived with until they go away, or perhaps forever. Recognizing this is also called “compromising with evil”.
8) A heterodox theory of history or society is automatically better than an orthodox one.
Well damn it, sometimes it is – but how often? Many of my own opinions run directly contrary to more widely accepted ones. However, confess. Don’t you get a warm feeling inside when you think about how the peasants have always believed the propaganda about some widely accepted belief, when only you and a select few know the real truth?
9) Nihilism: the existing state of affairs is so corrupt that it must be destroyed so that a just one can be built de novo.
This is where Young Radicalism turns pathological. What Timothy McVeigh failed to realize was that while yes, Americans are almost universally exasperated by their government’s bureaucracy, we often rather like the bureaucrats that we actually come face to face with.
In Eastern Europe, after the first flush of enthusiasm for democracy, former communists have often been returned to power in honest elections. This is sometimes explained as nostalgia for the stability of the communist times. Absolute nonsense, except perhaps in Russia where little makes sense. What people have found is that whatever the system is, you must have experienced people to run the machinery of the state (as Edmund Burke pointed out about the French Revolution). In Poland where I lived, there haven’t been any really committed Marxist-Leninists for a long time. You can only sustain that disassociation from reality in American Universities, not in a country which has directly experienced the failure of those principles.
No complex social order can be built de novo overnight.
10) Disagreement comes from villainous and self-interested motives. Or in the case of the noble oppressed classes: disagreement comes from “false-consciousness” or “brainwashing”. The possibility that a reasonably intelligent person who is morally not much worse than oneself has looked at the same universe and reached different conclusions about it is evidently too uncomfortable to consider.
Even in the sixties and seventies when I myself partook of some of these attributes to some degree, I found them irritating. The scary thing about America today is that the AEYRheads seem to be the Establishment these days. Young radical intellectuals seem to be just as arogantly stupid as their predecessors were, and their predecessors don’t seem to have grown up.
The day I landed in Poland in 1991, I was met at the airport and taken by car through Warsaw to the small town that would be my home for the next two years. On the way out of the city we passed a park with an obelisk and a small plaza facing the street. My Polish colleague told me, “That is one of the few monuments to the Red Army that we haven’t torn down.”
Over the next few years, I had many occasions to pass by the monument and had always wondered why it was still standing. Then one day my business took me to that part of town and I had occasion to walk through the park on my way to meet my clients. There I found the reason it is still standing, and indeed, is still being maintained at city expense.
It is a cemetery. It was impossible to see from the street because the gravestones are small irregular polygons, no more than a foot high, each with only a star on the top and a number. They are screened from view by the park’s trees. Each number represents a Russian soldier, whose names are evidently recorded somewhere because lately there have appeared small metal signs stuck in the graves with names on them, brought by relatives in Russia who are now free to travel to Poland to visit their dead.
Flanking the obelisk are two statues of heroic Russian soldiers standing guard over fallen comrades and towards the street are the predictable bas reliefs I have seen all over Eastern Europe, of soldiers of the Red Army being welcomed by the grateful population. The inscription on the obelisk reads, “Pamieci Zolnerzy Armii Radzieckiej Poleglych O Wyzwolenie Polski Spod Okupacji Niemieckeij w Latach 1944-1945”. (Memorial to the Soldiers of the Soviet Army Who Died in the Liberation of Poland from the German Occupation in the Years 1944-1945.)
That is why it is still standing, in spite of the cruel irony of the Soviet Union claiming to be the liberators of Poland, after having first conspired with the Nazis to invade and then to occupy the country for the next two generations. Poles will not tear down the monument because it is, after all and in spite of everything, the gravesite of brave men.
This brought to mind a conversation I had in Athens with two Objectivist friends, in which I defended the idea of non-rational values. Not irrational but non-rational. Values which we hold dearly but cannot explain rationaly. There may very well be rational reasons for these, in fact I strongly believe that they can be explained by evolutionary biology, but for most of the lifetime of the human race we have been totally unaware of evolution and even today most human being have scant inkling of its importance in shaping human nature. Decent people believe these things because we believe them, although we cannot articulate why. In fact, the presence or absence of these values goes a long way towards defining decency.
The example I used was the contrast with the behavior of the Poles in how the Soviets treated the tomb of the flyers of the Kosciusko Squadron in Lvov.
In 1920 Poland, newly re-formed after more than a hundred and thirty years of partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, went to war with the Soviet Union after being convinced that the new USSR intended to absorb the newly independent lands formerly occupied by the Russian Empire.
The Red Army invaded Poland with the intention of sweeping through Western Europe. Lenin confidently expected to be in Berlin by winter – not an unrealistic expectation given the state of Germany in 1921. Instead, Soviet forces were met by Polish cavalry, both sides fighting with mounted troops armed with rifles, sabers and lances, transported by trains which carried heavy cannon and machine guns. It was, in fact, the last cavalry war. (Since then horse soldiers have been used many times, but as mounted infantry.)
The Red wave broke on the shores of the Visla River and was repelled in a decisive battle outside of Warsaw by the citizens of the city and the Uhlans of Marshal Pilsudski.
Into this odd mix of modern and classical weaponry, they managed to put together an air force. Seven America pilots, all veterans of the First World War but none of them Polish, volunteered to fly for Poland and some planes were found for them. They named themselves the Kosciusko Squadron, after Taddeus Kosciusko, the Polish military engineer who fought for America in our Revolution, designing the fortifications of West Point and founding the Army Engineers.
Later, Washington and Jefferson managed to return the favor by pleading with the Empress Catherine the Great for Kosciusko’s life, after he was captured by Russian forces in an attempt to free Poland from the partitioning powers. He is entombed in Krakow, in the crypts under Wawel Castle with Polish kings and poets. He lies under Polish and American flags and the inscription “Za Wolnosc – Wasza I Nasza” (For Freedom – Yours and Ours).
The planes they found for the American flyers were evidently an amazing collection of rattletraps no totally sane man would trust his life to. But fly them they did – although there were instances when the plane and pilot returned from a mission mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. Of the seven flyers, three died in the war. The Polish nation built them a tomb in the then-Polish city of Lvov.
After the Second World War, parts of Eastern Poland were incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, including the city of Lvov. The inhabitants were uprooted and moved to the strip of Eastern Germany that was seized and added to West Poland. The Soviets took posthumous revenge on the Kosciusko Squadron by burying their tomb under a garbage dump.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, they cleared away the garbage and re-consecrated the tomb. In spite of all the problems of Ukraine, I’ll always have a soft spot for them because of that.
This was the point of my relating that story; even though I don’t believe you can defend this conviction on purely rational grounds and in spite of the fact that I don’t personally care what happens to my body after death, something inside screams that it is wrong to desecrate the graves of brave men.
Something like this was my reaction on first visiting a Polish military base and seeing that their cemetery had gone to seed during the communist years and was only then being cleaned up and cared for. I was struck by the feeling that an army which does not honor its dead, is an army that will not fight.
Sometimes it seems that the dishonor of a foe so swinish as to desecrate the bodies of their enemies is a perverse sort of honor. One thinks of the treatment of the body of Leonidas of Sparta by the Persians or the defenders of the Alamo by Generalissimo Santa Ana.
Hardly anybody now remembers the heroes of the Kosciusko Squadron. I have been trying to find enough information to write at length about them without success. You now know almost as much as I do. I do not even know their names, except for their leader, Merrian C Cooper who survived the war and became a Hollywood producer. Though he never made what would have been the greatest movie of his career, the story of his adventures in Poland, you have almost certainly seen his magnum opus. So, remember him on behalf of his comrades the next time you see King Kong on the Late Show.