Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 22, 2017

Where I stand

Filed under: Op-eds,Philosophy — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:50 am

It is no secret that we live in a contentious time right now. Not that this is unusual, we’ve been here before.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. I firmly believe that disagree is what free men do, and that the truth or at least a close approximation of it is best found in the riotous tumult of debate contending in the free marketplace of ideas.

But we do appear to be having a problem. For one, people are not arguing with each other, but often past each other.

How many times have you experienced lately the teeth-grinding frustration of having somebody argue with something you did not say?

Worse, though arguments are often misunderstood by people who assume they know what you believe, often on the strength of a single remark, these days there is a lot of deliberate misrepresentation of people’s positions by media figures.

And to be fair, if your world view is complex it’s hard to explain to people whose views rest on different foundations. Especially if their view rests on assumptions they haven’t thought deeply about.

I do not mean to be insulting or dismissive by that remark. Most people don’t make a habit of thinking deeply about the basic assumptions their lives rest on, as long as they are reasonably sure they’re working for them.

Those of us who aspire to be pundits however, are obliged to make clear where we are coming from and to explain ourselves when we are asking people to consider an issue from our point of view.

So, I consider myself to be an American patriot, a Western Civilization loyalist, and espouse a position that has variously been described as Libertarian-Conservative, Classical Liberal, or Philosophical Anarchist.

That probably doesn’t leave you any better informed than before, so here below I list a number of things I believe to be true that inform my opinions on pretty much everything else.


• Civilization is a Good Thing. The difference between civilized and savage is real and is not racism.

• Civilization can go bad, and when it does causes far more harm than any savage band ever could.

• Obviously, civilization could stand some improvement.

• The civilization most likely to improve and evolve into something better is the one we call Western Civilization.

• The reason for this is Western Civilization has evolved cultural and political institutions that support a greater degree of individual liberty than any other civilization. The result has been an explosion of wealth and prosperity unequaled in human history.

• This has created its own problems.

• The Western countries which have achieved this to the greatest extent are the English-speaking countries.

• The Western country that has been most successful at this to date (on a large scale at least) is the United States.

• The survival and success of liberty depends for the foreseeable future on the survival of Western Civilization.

• The survival of Western Civilization for the foreseeable future depends on the survival of the United States as a free country.

• Western Civilization in general and the United States in particular have external enemies who desire their destruction.

• Western Civilization in general and the United States in particular have internal enemies who desire their destruction and are willing to cooperate with their external enemies to bring this about.

• The internal enemies of the U.S. and the West come not from the ranks of the poor and dispossessed, but from the most affluent, educated and privileged parts of their societies. The people you’d expect would have the most at stake in preserving their civilization.

• The defenders of Western Civilization and the tradition of individual liberty are divided among themselves. This is a good thing in terms of intellectual diversity, and a bad thing in terms of coordinated action.

• There is a very real possibility of the United States breaking down into tyranny, disunity, disorder, or civil war, i.e. reverting to the norm of history. If this happens, the survival of the West is in serious doubt.

• The problem of free societies is how to be strong, free, rich and united all at once.

• There has not yet been found a permanent solution to the problem. There may not be one.

February 14, 2016

Can we disagree like free men?

Filed under: On Thinking,Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:01 pm

“The spirit of liberty is one which is not too sure it is right.”
– Judge Learned Hand

This is something I posted on a Facebook discussion thread vis-a-vis our political differences in this country:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the other side might be merely wrong?
For example that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the measures you think necessary for the welfare of poor and working class people are in fact actively bad for them?
The right-wing equivalent is the belief that people on the left want to impose a totalitarian dictatorship on the American people.
This is what I’m talking about – there seems to be a deep felt need in a great many people to believe that those who they disagree with are not just wrong – but evil.
I saw this when I was young and hanging out with the anti-war movement in the ’60s. There were young people then who would tell you straight up that a great many people in this country had to be killed to achieve a just society.
All of this looks very familiar to me.”

The reply contained the comment “you can’t see…” concerning what the writer called my “false equivalence.”

Perhaps I see too much. And what I see is beginning to scare me.

Though there is really no politician or party with which I agree 100 percent, yes I think one side is right on more things, or rather has a viewpoint more in accordance with reality than the other.

But I could be wrong, and I’ve changed my mind on some substantial issues in my lifetime.

Moreover I think most people never consider it’s entirely possible that on some pretty contentious issues that both parties could be right.

The example I use sometimes is the social welfare issue.

On the left people argue that private charity is not enough to meet the needs of the chronically poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill and that the failure to maintain social welfare services will produce social instability.

On the right they tend to argue that the welfare state has created learned dependency, destroyed initiative, forced us into unsustainable spending, and weakened social capital.

I have not met anyone willing to concede these might both be true, that the choice might be between bad and less bad alternatives. It goes against the grain of the American world view that there might be problems with no completely satisfactory solution.

That’s why we have people saying, “you can’t see,” which all too easily becomes “you refuse to see” implying malice or self-interested motives.

I think this is why each side sees, not what the other side believes, but a caricature of it. And yes I think it’s more pronounced on one side than the other, but that could be sample bias.

There really are people that believe roughly a third of their fellow-citizen actively want poor people to starve in abject misery, want women to be semi-chattels, want rich oligarchs to make war in distant lands to enrich themselves over the bodies of their children.

Too many people these days do not seem to get that disagree is what free men do.

April 10, 2014

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:39 am

Silent Cal

I saw this poster on Facebook and I got to thinking, why don’t we know more about “Silent Cal”?
By most historical accounts his administration was a good one, a time of peace and prosperity. So how come he’s almost forgotten?
A story from history:
In 11th century Norway there was a king called Harald Hardrada, meaning “Harald Hard-council” or perhaps just “Harald the Ruthless.” Seven feet tall he was. Served in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire. Succeeded to the throne or Norway. Fought 20 years to unite the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark.
He died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge while trying to conquer England. But the effort of the Saxon King Harald Godwinson to march up to defeat Harald Hardrada certainly contributed to his defeat mere weeks later at the Battle of Hastings, 1066.
Harald Hardrada bankrupted his kingdom and the Kingdom of Denmark. He trampled on the rights of the freeholders of Norway, and ruined a rather promising Saxon kingdom of England.
His son Olaf waged no wars, ruled justly, and respected the liberties of the Norwegian freeholders.
Harald had sagas written about him.
His son had no sagas written about him and comes down in history to us as “Olaf the Quiet.”

P.S. To loyal readers, and those who heartily wish me in warmer climes. Sorry for the infrequency of posting lately. What happened was, I got another job, in Wyoming of all places. It increases my income by 40%, offers more challenges plus I’m living in paradise.
It is impossible to sustain a bad mood when you can step outside your front door and take a walk with the Rocky Mountains for your companion.
I’m settling in, getting to know the place and taking possession of my new apartment. Soon enough I’ll be getting my children enrolled in school, etc.
Bear with me please, I’ll be baaaaaack.

October 8, 2009

Gilded ghettos

Filed under: On Thinking,Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:46 am

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.”

Robert wrote:

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: )

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,, and

I replied:



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…

June 12, 2009

Economics: a short guide to the dismal science

Filed under: Op-eds,Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:07 pm

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.

November 15, 2008

Who’s to blame? part 1

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:15 pm

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.

January 15, 2008

A couple of good watches

Filed under: On Thinking,Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:30 pm

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”.

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
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.

December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Filed under: Philosophy,Relationships — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:41 pm

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.”

December 23, 2007

Why I’m Not an Objectivist, part 1

Filed under: Philosophy — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:05 pm

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:

Dear J,

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.”

*** See

March 25, 2007

300 Spartans at the Gates of Fire, part 1

Filed under: Movies,Philosophy,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:27 pm

“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

** Herodotos vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)

*** Villa did however, graciously wait until the light was just right for them to film the post-battle executions.

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