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What it Means to be an Atheist

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     In the starkest terms, it means there is no god, no spirit, no supernatural. There is no heaven, no hell, no wiping away of tears. You will not meet your dead parents, grandparents, Uncle Lou, or goldfish ever again.

 It won’t all be ok in the end.

 (Of course, you don’t have to feel guilty about drinking, eating pork, not praying or premarital sex. So there is that.)

      It would be simple to mock religion for claiming all those things to be true, for believing in a final justice where the slave is freed and the owner bound, where the weak are exalted and the mighty cast down, for claiming that somewhere there’s a friggin’ plan, and when the clouded glass is broken it will all make sense.  But I can’t- if believing in something supernatural makes you happy- go be happy, because that’s the best we can hope for.

        But if all that Atheism had to offer was guilt-free sex and teenage nihilism, it wouldn’t much attract anyone who wasn’t a horny teenager. So, what it really means is freedom.

     If things turn out well, if I find a loving partner and a happy life, it’s because I did it. Not because some immaterial being reached out and blessed my life. Not because I followed some ineffable plan that brings us all to our own best ends.

     I did it. With all my flaws and beauty I have created a life that is both flawed and beautiful, and for all my sins and failures, it is mine.

     Nothing irritates me more than someone who runs fifty yards for a touchdown and gives God the credit. It denies human agency, human awesomeness, and turns us into nothing more than toys of a capricious and unpredictable God, who dispenses gifts and grace with the petty whim of a drunk.

      Most religions have the same origin story- one time, in the far away and long ago, man was like the angels. We were in Eden, or one with the universe/Nirvana.  Whatever it was, we fucked up.  We sinned, we erred, we made some one fundamental mistake and were cast into an imperfect world to toil to our deaths.

     But atheism tells a different story:  In the beginning, we were animals.  We gnawed raw meat and spoke in grunts.   We are, says atheism, at root, not a whit different from any other animals. We have DNA and gallbladder and pheremones- we’re only about 10 percent different from a hedgehog.

 

     And we went to the moon.

 

       We’re as bound by the same immutable laws of darwinism as the smallest virus.  We’re still essentially driven by the urge to fight and fuck and feed and flee.   Our brains run off the same chemicals as a chimps, and we’re often just as much a slave to our passions. We kill in anger, we make war for land.

And we went to the moon. 

      The theory of evolution is the cold fact of the universe- uncaring and unknowing.  But atheism, like any religion, is a story.   It takes those blind laws of chance and breeding and speaks the truth- that is all we are. Apes with a few extra wrinkles in our brains and a cool thumb. 

And we went to the moon.  

     The Sistine chapel and Moby Dick.  The moon landing and the smallpox vaccine. Gandhi, for fucks sake. That was US.

     The narrative of religion says that we are fallen from grace, unworthy sinners making our own hell, and we can only be saved through some external force- call it Yahweh, Christ, Brahman, or Nirvana.  The only way to some salvation is through external agency. 

The story of religion is how far we’ve fallen. The story of atheism is how far we’ve climbed. 

     Of course, there is another side to this. When you are cruel, small, and unworthy- that’s you too. No devil tempted you except yourself. And when the world is cruel and strips you to the bone, there is no lesson being taught, no test being proctored. The world was cruel to you because the world is often cruel. We are often cruel, can the world we made be any different?

     So this is what you get, this is who you are. Some start from the depths and ascend the heavens, some start at the heights and plunge straight to hell.   The world is a tough place, a bareknuckle barroom brawl of an existence.

            And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

            Atheism means many things. It is freedom, and responsibility, and sometimes stark depression at this mad world with no meaning, kindness or grace. But what matters isn’t meaning- what matters is doing. And what atheism does is give me the courage to walk tall, stomp upon the terra and proclaim at the top of my lungs ‘I am that I am,’ sui generis and self-made, god help us all. 

Written by newscum

April 18, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

This Mighty Scourge of War

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“If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!”

Kipling- The Song of the Dead


At this point, I think everyone, on every side, can accept that everyone else has heard the basic arguments. The basic points of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and the dearth of gun deaths in the UK are so commonplace as to be cliche.

And I think we can also accept that no one is coming for granddad’s 30-06, or that Glock in your purse. Any realistic proposal put forth at this point has centered on the restriction of certain types of semi-automatic weapons.  Specifically, restriction of the AR-15 and its various knockoffs and virtually identical variants.

There have been a number of defenses of the perceived right to own assault weapons.  But this one is both the most interesting and the most important

“We need these weapons to protect ourselves from a potential government takeover.  Should the government turn evil, the American people can rise up and overthrow it, restoring democracy.”

An interesting claim. The idea of launching another civil war raises three fundamental questions, each endlessly complex.

First: Could such a rising occur?
Second:  What would that mean, in terms of combat?
Third: could such a rising be successful?

Before I begin, let me say- I am not anti-gun. At heart, I am pro-gun, for a number of reasons. First, I like guns. I like hunting. I like shooting. Second, I believe that the right to own a weapon should not, inherently, be denied. The right to defend yourself, your family, and even your property, with lethal force if necessary, is a right as fundamental as that of free speech. A right that does not stem from a government, but is native to any thinking being. I don’t want to talk about the morality of guns, but instead of the logistics of a second Civil War.

That such actions could become necessary is not beyond belief.  Governments, even democracies can become abusive and dictatorial. And never forget that the last vote of the Athenian democracy was removing that democracy. So let us hypothesize an American government in which the abuses have become so great that there is widespread consensus that revolution is the only course of action left. Imagine whatever abuses you want.

So we have our revolutionary impetus.  Now what?

Well, to start off with, the numbers are on our side. There are an estimated 270 million guns in private hands.  The combined military/police arms are about 4 million.* This works out to about 90 guns per 100 people. However, those weapons are unequally distributed- only 47% of the American people own guns.**  Roughly then, half the American people don’t own guns, and those that do own two apiece.

Very well then.  We have our weapons, and we have our cause. Proceeding then, to our first question:  Is a universal or semi-universal rising of the American people possible?

Well, first we can turn to our own history.  We have  had a civil war in this nation before. (An unsuccessful one, it should be  noted. )   This up rising was  able to assemble  an army that is the stuff of  legend.  Could such an army be raised again?

Possibly, although I doubt it. The  South had  a  number of significant advantages in that area.

First- a pre-existing societal homogeneity. At the start of the Civil War, the American South was both physically and socially united . Not only primarily white (aside from the slaves) but with a deeply cultural connection. The confederates were primarily white protestants from two large groups. Either poor Scots-Irish who would act as foot soldiers, or an incestuously close old-English aristocracy that would form the officer class. The soldiers of the Confederacy  came from a common culture that made creating an army a much simpler task.  To put it simply, this is an advantage that does not exist anymore.

Second- skill level.  The  largely sustenance  based  agricultural level of the poor southerners who would eventually suck up  most of the Yankee  grapeshot meant that they could be assumed to be handy with a gun, capable of walking a long way, and living in some seriously shitty conditions without complaining.

Third- time.  This is perhaps the greatest advantage the Confederacy had.  For a number of reasons, including most of the decent officers fighting for the South, the Union was extremely slow to turn the Civil War into the serious conflict it would become.  At the beginning of the war, moving on Richmond would have been more than possible, it would have been relatively simple. The Union hesitant  actions allowed the Confederacy to arm itself and train an army.

But a buildup to a modern Civil War would not be so simple.   First, we no longer have the cultural homogeneity of the Confederacy.  Instead of splintering more or less neatly into two halves, resistance to the government would, over most of the country.  More than likely, given current trends, it would be Blue vs. Red- Liberal vs. Conservative. While it is certainly possible to imagine other conflicts developing that would fracture the country in different ways, the simple fact is our political positions line up with our conflicts quite neatly.

For example: consider this map of the 1860 election. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1860

Notice how neatly the results split along the Union/Confederacy lines, and notice how the only serious outlier is Missouri- a state that would be torn apart, with units fighting for both north and south, plus an internal brush war closer to the tribal struggles of the Congo than the typical battles of the Civil War.

Now consider this electoral map of West Virginia:

In 2012, the state went overwhelming for Romney, and yet the map is half blue.  Take a look at the other maps available on that site- with the exception of Oklahoma and Nebraska, every state is a speckled mess of blue and red. In 1860, travel was virtual impossible, so society was far more insular, and in general, people voted the same as their neighbors.

 In the election of 1860, its worth noting that the only states where election results were even close was in places like California that had attracted a wide variety of immigrants from all over the country. Most other states swung widely either one way or the other. Simply put, that sort of homogeneity does not exist anywhere anymore.  A sectarian war would not be two largely homogeneous entities duking it out, but a bloody melange- upstate New York vs. Downstate, or Western Mississippi vs. Eastern Mississippi.

And that is only one issue. No matter what the issue, it is difficult to imagine a coalition of urban blacks and country rednecks. A civil war would be a nationwide event, with  widely disparate groups fighting their neighbors. For the rebels, communication, let alone common action, would be a serious stumbling block.

Then the question of preexisting skill arises. Here, it is safe to say that there is something to be said for the rebels here. Most gun owners have at least taken their weapons for a spin, and in the urban conflicts that would result, hardiness would be less of a factor.

The real issue is one of time to prepare.  Simply put, while most who argue against the possibility of a successful revolution stress the US governments advantages in materiel, at the start, the most telling advantage would be their intelligence. Consider the information gathering capabilities of the current government. A hypothetical American tyranny would expand those programs exponentially.

Further, the government forces would have the advantage of working with a pre-existing system, government forces would be able to recognize each other and work in concert. For a rebel leader in North Carolina, the most difficult part of the job would be deciding if the rebel leader from New York was a government plant or not.  Not to mention the government’s increased ability to wiretap, pay off or manipulate traitors to the rebel cause, and so on.

But let us suppose that these hurdles were overcome. Could a rebellion successfully fight the US military? The two positions on this argument are clearly defined- pro-gun activists imagine a revolutionary war scenario- small, brave units in a sort of clean, stand up fight.  Anti-gun activists imagine the US Air Force raining bombs down on rebels with AR-15’s cowering in cellars.

The truth, I think, bears no resemblance to either scenario. And yes, a rebel force with small arms could put up a more or less successful resistance to the US military- for a certain definition of successful.

Again- we have examples of the sort of war it would be. We just finished fighting two of them.  It would be a guerrilla war on a massive urban scale. The US has become increasingly built up in the past fifty years- urban sprawl would make everything from  Portland to Miami one giant Stalingrad- a confused, bloody slugfest of ambush and IED. The most important rebel weapon would not be the AR-15, however. It would be  diesel and fertilizer. The tactics of the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents would be the most effective, working as well in downtown Omaha as downtown Baghdad. Blow up your enemies on remote. You can’t go toe to toe with them, so instead, you use fear and paranoia- small, nasty raids followed by fading back into the civilian population.

The War Nerd is one of the most astute commentators on warfare I have ever read, and one point he makes repeatedly is that the three wars fought on American soil- the Revolution, 1812, and the Civil War, were anomalous in the extreme for how incredibly clean they were. Fundamentally, in all three cases, the armies fought under codes of honor that are unimaginable to us today. Further, in all three cases, the combatants saw themselves as fundamentally the same as the enemy. Even further  the technological limitations of the time meant that a small ragtag militia could successfully go up against the opposing professional military. A smoothbore musket is pretty much the same no matter who holds it.

A modern guerrilla war would be nowhere near so clean. It would probably begin that way- a lot of talk of “errant brothers” and how we’re all the same underneath.  But it would quickly dissolve. First of all, the government forces would be carefully separated- Californians fighting in Virginia, Texans in Boston.  And soon, the nature of guerrilla warfare would overcome bonds of national fellowship.

See, wars start off with high ideals. But as any soldier will tell you- you don’t end up fighting for that. You fight for your buddy next to you. And a few IEDs would lead to a lot of hate, which would be taken out on the local population. Maybe you’re a little rougher searching houses, maybe you shoot at targets you’re a little less sure of. And then you make a mistake, and blow up a wedding. Now the locals hate you even more.  And so it goes.

Which leads naturally to the third question- can such a war be won?

And the answer is- what do you mean, win?

As noted above, in terms of civilian casualties, the Civil War was remarkably clean, and even so, Reconstruction was bleak, miserable and difficult. The repercussions of those choices still resonate in our society today.  Compare that to the brutal realities of modern guerrilla war, and the task of rebuilding is orders of magnitude greater. Propaganda can now propagate at the speed of light. Modern infrastructure is not only more complex, but infinitely more delicate than that of the 19th century- simply rebuilding would be a monumental task.  And remember those election maps- everywhere during the war would become incredibly balkanized- Belfast across the nation.

More importantly, guerrilla civil wars would quickly degenerate into the bloody algebra of the feud.  You kill my cousin, so I kill you, and now your cousins want to kill me, and then my cousins and so on and so forth. West Belfast or East Kentucky, the story is the same. Eventually, it is no longer about politics, but a cycle of vengeance.  Violence would continue for years after the official conflict ended.  Eventually, families and communities would become extremely insular. You’d marry someone like you, have kids that you taught to hold your hatred.  This cycle can continue for centuries- they still fight this way in Ulster. I’ve been to Northern Ireland, and even now, twenty years after a stable peace, neighborhoods are still suspicious, and old enmity is just under the surface. They still fly the Red Hand in some neighborhoods, and the tricolor in others.

A civil war today, in America might be possible, might even be fought successfully on a large scale.  But it would destroy us at a fundamental level.  Brother against brother, in the most horrifying literal sense. No longer state by state, but county by county we would tear each other apart. Not on great battlefields  or the set piece fights of a bygone age, but street to street- snipers on the roof, carbombs by the side of the road. Informers brutally killed to send a message. Soldiers taking vengeance on civilians taking vengeance on soldiers until all that we were was washed away in blood, leaving behind the blind imbecility of war.

So could you do, with that AR-15 in the corner and a few of your buddies? Perhaps. But in the end, whatever you’d thought was worth it, whatever causa belli you decided upon would be gone beyond recall. And all that would be left of America is former neighbors tossing midnight molotovs over the walls, seeking to destroy people they’d never even seen. Everything we were, forgotten in violence.

*http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/unitedstates
**http://www.gallup.com/poll/150353/self-reported-gun-ownership-highest-1993.aspx

Written by newscum

February 12, 2013 at 7:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Atlas Shrugged IX: Growing Up Galt

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So. The childhood of Dagny Taggart. 

“[S]he always ran when Eddie yelled, “It’s Frisco d’Anconia!” and they both flew

down the hill to the car approaching on the road below.”

This sentence tells us two very important things. First, that Dagny and the shadowy Francisco d’Anconia are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she flies off with him to his secret richy-rich fortress.

Second, it tells us that she and Eddie Willers are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she abandons him in the newly post-apocalyptic world.

This should tell you everything you need to know about Dagny.  This is a novel that spends enough pages on the concept of integrity to have those pages turned into their own separate novel, but has characters who act with the integrity of a particularly rapacious robber baron.  The intensity of this fuck-you-jack-I-got-mine mentality transcends even the internal logic of the novel. 

According to Rand’s beliefs, the poor, disabled, old, less than perfectly brilliant (more on that in a bit) are, at best, grist for the mill. At worst they’re actively evil through the mere fact of their existence, and most of the time they have the same moral weight as a marshmallow- they can stick around for them as likes that, but you aren’t taking any on the lifeboat.

But Eddie is not just another poor person who never pulled hard enough on their bootstraps.  Eddie is incredibly useful. When Dagny has to go off and have rational sex with Hank, or Francisco, or John, Eddie is the one left in charge. Eddie works hard, Eddie doesn’t complain.  The only thing Eddie is not, is a total fucking bastard. Excuse me- the only thing Eddie isn’t is aware that his business abilities make him fundamentally superior to, oh, say, steelworkers.

Which, incidentally, and not to get to far ahead, is another problem with this book.  It’s elitist. Well, that is to perhaps cloud the issue. Undoubtedly Rand would brag about her elitism. Rather, this book is aristocratic in the nastiest sense- noblesse without the oblige. Throughout the novel, ordinary workaday schmucks will appear.  Not the entitled commies, or the lazy bums, but characters we are clearly supposed to like- hardworking, loyal, intelligent. Caring more for work than reward.

And these guys….get fucked.  Left to rot in what Rand makes very clear is a hellish, medieval world. Oh, true, in Galt’s gulch we will see what may be best described as token poor people. For the most part, though, the defining characteristic of those who go Galt is their wealth and (presumed) intelligence. Rand pays lip service to the idea that she values hard work and integrity and so on, but in reality, what Rand values is success. In Rand’s world, the unprincipled greed of Jack Abramoff is worth more than 40 years of work by a Detroit assembly line worker, because Jack made money and the worker didn’t.  When the dollar is elevated above all (and by the end of the novel, it is elevated to the status of religion) how those dollars are acquired ceases to matter.

And thus, a young Francisco d’Anconia (hereafter referred to as FdA because unlike Rand, I’m sick of typing that ridiculous name in full) says the following:

“We are the only aristocracy left in the world—the aristocracy of money”

Lil’ FdA is one of the most punchable creations since Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and for much the same reason- unbearable sanctimony and always being right.  FdA is the perfect person.

“The running to meet him had become part of a contest among the three of them. There was a birch tree on the hillside, halfway between the road and the house; Dagny and Eddie tried to get past the tree, before Francisco … they never reached the birch tree …Francisco always won, as he always won everything.”

Then:

“The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.”

 He pronounced his name as if he wished his listeners to be struck in the face and knighted by the sound of it.”

And:

“He spoke five languages, and he spoke English without a trace of accent, a precise, cultured English deliberately mixed with slang.”

And he can do so many pushups, and he knows karate and one time he went up to a rampaging bear and pulled a thorn out of its paw and the bear was his friend and they stayed up as late as they want and drank milkshakes all the time and then they made Francisco the king of the world because he had great abs. Or something.

Perfect protagonists (known in some parts of the internet as “Mary Sues”) are boring. Perfection is dull-it removes any hint of excitement from the plot. Drama is, functionally, seeing someone face an obstacle.  English 101- Person Vs. Person, Person Vs. Themselves, Person Vs. Nature, Person Vs. Society. Arguably, those four categories cover pretty much everything ever written.  Perfect people triumphing isn’t a surprise. Of course FdA becomes rich and awesome- he’s perfect, so naturally he’s perfect at becoming rich and awesome. 

And drama doesn’t need to be huge- sure, War and Peace is pretty freakin’ epic, but so is To Build a Fire. There are two fundamental conditions that must be met in a good drama, however- the characters must have something to overcome, and the character must change. Grow, shrink, rise, fall- a good story is about someone changing in some fundamental way.

And that is a critical failure on Rand’s part- This Francisco we see here- young, cocky, arrogant, strong, handsome rich accomplished tall blond able to eat all the cookies he wants without getting fat, is the exact same person we see at the end of the novel. Twelve-year old Francisco is functionally indistinguishable from forty year old Francisco.  As are twelve-year old Dagny, and even twelve-year old Jim. There is no moment, or storyline, wherein Jim becomes the weak and miserable man we see in the present, there is no moment when a young, carefree, Francisco d’Anconia decides he will be rich and more awesome than Batman. They simply always were this way.  FdA has blond hair and blue eyes and will be a great freethinking industrial potentate, and Jim has brown hair and brown eyes and will be weak and cowardly. As inevitable as DNA.

Anyway, another trend appears pretty soon- child labor.  FdA decides, like pretty much every good guy in a Rand story, that he is gonna start working right away.  He does this working for the Taggart railway as a call boy.  Which- fair enough. Actually sounds like a good job for a 14-year old boy.  My first job was shoveling snow in Maine, so I’m not all that impressed- running errands on a sunny railroad in the middle of the day sounds hella nicer than waking up at 5 AM to shovel a foot of snow before school.

Incidentally, my favorite bit of retarded St. Francisco-can-do-anything shows up here:

“They tried to follow him once, through the cold, pre-morning darkness, but they gave it up; no one could track him when he did not want to be tracked.”

Francisco d’Anconia.  Business magnate. Olympian sprinter.  Last of the Mohicans.

But this, of course, isn’t good enough. He also shipped out the summer before as a cabin boy on a cargo steamer.  Apparently his father looked for him for three months, but the only thing he asked Francisco (who was apparently too busy cabin-boying to write a freakin’ letter) was if FdA had done a good job.

Nice.  Loving, responsible parent there.

Anyway, Dagny asked him why he took this call-boy job, and he says:

“”To learn what it’s like, Slug,” he answered, “and to tell you that I’ve had a job with Taggart

Transcontinental before you did.”

Is…is it wrong to want to strangle a fictional child?

 

Anyway, FdA is awesome. His can play baseball. He drives speedboats. He…

Ok. Seriously?

“[Dagny’s] father picked them up…then asked,

“Francisco, how many years of algebra have you had?”

“Two years.”

“Who taught you to do this?”

“Oh, that’s just something I figured out.”

…[W]hat her father held on the crumpled sheets of paper was the crude version of a differential equation.”

 

….Let’s just move on, ok?

This may seem like it’s not about Dagny, but it is. And Jim.

Imagine you grew up with, apparently, the Messiah. Someone with the Godlike power to do anything he puts his mind to. Now, my mother, and probably yours, told me that all the time. “You can do anything you put your mind to.”  Except that for Francisco, there is no effort involved. He <i>watches</i> and then does it. Perfectly. Whatever it is- riding a horse or stripping an engine.

 Francisco isn’t smart. Francisco isn’t even a genius.  Francisco is what idiots think people with eidetic memories are like. I’m not sure there is a word for what Francisco is, because there is no one like him- at least, not in every possible field of human endeavor. There are people like Mozart who have a literal genius for music- they can transcribe a work they only heard once, for example.  But Mozart couldn’t look at an engine running and reconstruct it from scratch.  Mozart probably couldn’t just pick up a bat and ball and hit a home run (something else Francisco does).

(What’s more, even in music, Mozart wasn’t perfect without effort. His earliest works are beyond belief for a ten year old, but compared to the work of an ordinary mature composer, they’re only decent. Even Mozart needed to put in some work before he mastered music. )

But imagine living with this literal freak of nature, this being hardwired for mechanical perfection. Imagine seeing all your hard work, your practice, your struggles and triumphs swept away in moments by someone who just watches you for a moment, then does it better than you.

No wonder Jim Taggart ends up the way he is. His entire childhood, no matter how hard he works or how hard he tries, he can never win. The simplest victories- running faster, hitting a ball harder, being a faster reader, better at math, or history, or building a treehouse- are snatched from him again and again. Imagine that.  Imagine living with that.  You’d develop an inferiority complex like Superman’s younger brother, Tim Kent (Tim’s a farmer on a little spread outside Smallville. Grows peas.)

You might grow up feeling overwhelmed by the world. You might even be so fucked up you develop a philosophy that equality should be enforced by law.  Either that, or end up worshiping them as your superior to be aped and followed blindly into whatever dumbass cult they end up starting.

Next time:  We finish up Dagny’s childhood, and return to the plot.

Written by newscum

October 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm

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Atlas Shrugged VIII: Trainspotting

with 5 comments

“Trouble is, Paul,” he said, thinking aloud, “that the men one has to pick for that job are such a crummy lot,”

            Larkin looked away. “That’s life,” he said.

            “Damned if I see why. Can you tell me that? What’s wrong with the world?”

            Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”

            Rearden sat up straight. “No,” he said sharply. “No. There’s no reason to feel that way.”

….

            He paced the room, his energy returning. He looked at his family.

            They were bewildered, unhappy children-he thought-all of them, even his mother, and he was foolish to resent their ineptitude; it came from their helplessness, not from malice. It was he who had to make himself learn to understand them, since he had so much to give, since they could never share his sense of joyous, boundless power.”

Oh Hank.   Oh you sweet, sweet man. 

Let us, for a moment, accept the story’s conceit.  The other Rearden’s are helpless children. Ok.  Certainly we all know someone like that, or at least know of someone like that. High society seems to have a lot of these people. Not cruel. Not even stuck up. Just so far out of touch they think K-Mart is a rap star.

Gwyneth Paltrow.  That’s who I think of.  Sweet, but not in the same world as the rest of us. And ok, I can work with that.

These people are unhappy and Hank wants to help them. Wants to reach out and share his largess because he’s a nice guy. I can buy that.  Heck, I can even buy that they’re ungrateful jerks, because who doesn’t know a few of those?

But later, Hank gives his brother ten grand (in 1920s-ish money!) just because why the hell not, he wants the kid to be happy.

“Philip stared at him blankly; it was neither shock nor pleasure; it was just the empty stare of eyes that looked glassy.

            “Oh,” said Philip, then added, “We’ll appreciate it very much.”

            There was no emotion in his voice, not even the simple one of greed.”

This is where Rand begins to lose us. I would imagine you could hard Warren Buffet 10K in 2012 dollars and he’d have more of a reaction than that.  Human beings are human beings, and except for the rare sociopath, we all feel pretty much the same thing. Love and hate and sorrow and anger and happiness and when someone hands you 10 large, you feel happy. You don’t just stare at them like you’re halfway through a stroke.

But I do have an alternate explanation. 

Philip is high as BALLS.  Seriously- Philip shot some horse about half an hour ago, and now he’s not talking to Hank, he’s talking to what he thinks is a hallucination offering him enough cash to buy an Afghanistan’s worth of smack.

The rest of the scene makes more sense, actually, if you assume that Philip has a heroin addiction he and everyone else is hiding from Hank.

“”By the way, Henry,” Philip added, “do you mind if I ask you to have Miss Ives give me the money in cash?”

Rearden turned back to him, puzzled.

“You see, Friends of Global Progress are a very progressive group and they have always maintained that you represent the blackest element of social retrogression ha the country, so it would embarrass us, you know, to have your name on our list of contributors, because somebody might accuse us of being in the pay of Hank Rearden.”

….

He heard Larkin’s voice crying after him, “Damn it, Hank, you shouldn’t have given it to him!”’

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a junkie. They always come up with complex and vaguely plausible reasons WHY you can’t just buy them a sandwich but need to give them money.  Poor Larkin there has been spending MONTHS shepherding Philip through NA, going to all these meetings, and now Hank gives him ten thousand in cash just when Phil has a relapse.  Of all the shitty luck.

 C’mon- younger, passed over brother without much personality who suddenly has access to all the cash in Christendom, but only as gifts from his brother?  It’d drive you to drugs too.

 

Bah.  We skip ahead.  Essentially more of the same in the next few pages. Jim Taggart has a meeting with Excuse-Making CEOs.  They all agree to support “progressive social policies,”  which here apparently means “communism” because those are totally the same thing.

There is more of Rand’s obsessive conflation of appearance with reality and her obsession with straight lines- everyone here is hunched, round, and soft. I’d say it crosses the line from awkward motif to obsession, but it did that about 50 pages ago.  Now it’s just sort of sad.  This woman has such a fascination with right angles I’m starting to think her first boyfriend was a t-square.

There are a few things that irk me though.

“”If everybody could pull for a common purpose, then nobody would have to be hurt!” [Larkin] cried suddenly, in a tone of incongruous despair.”

Rand was born in the wrong world. She would’ve made a fantastic minister of propaganda. See- most propaganda doesn’t work because its too obvious. The propagandists don’t have the patience required- real propaganda, the type that sticks, is subtle. Slowly, you associate the people you hate with weakness and negativity.

So Rand sticks meaningless, but vaguely liberal sounding bullshit into the mouths of her most irritating characters, and surrounds them with words like “dank” and “dismal” and “despair” and “flaccid” and…..

And you can’t really fight it- it’s like punching cotton wool. You cannot point at one section and go “As XYZ economic data shows, you’re talking out your ass there, Ayn.”  Ironically enough, for a writer so obsessed with creation and building, she only tears down.  This book is an excellent study on the slippery slope, come to think of it. She never says “libertarianism is good.” All she says is “everything else but libertarianism is bad.”  At the end of this book, these characters won’t really have done much of anything- even the most intense passages full of trainz-n-brainz ‘action’ boil down too “and then Dagny did some business stuff that any reasonably competent human could bang out without too much trouble.” 

See, everyone in this book is a strawman.  Even the people we’re supposed to like are strawmen. And Ayn’s entire argument comes down to: “Wow!  Those strawmen sure did fall apart! Clearly these other strawmen over here are vastly superior beings! You should worship them.”

Cargo cults have better backstories than that

The problem is, when you do it over the course of several hundred pages- well, you end up committed to the conceit after a while. Once you’ve spent a week or so hacking through this, you pretty much have to either go along for the ride or accept that you’ve spent your time reading the world’s most verbose and obscure strokebook.

Propaganda. Good propaganda, but like all propaganda, ultimately hollow. 

Her characters struggle and pontificate, but don’t really grow or change. Their voices are set at the beginning. They may learn, like Hank does, but that learning doesn’t change them. They are as they were at the start. They move through their world and though the story tells us they make a difference, that they grow and change- we never get to see it. Because if they did change, it would be an admission that there could be a flaw in this world, that these characters were not chiseling commandants in stone.

The surest way to tell if something is bullshit is to see how it handles its own flaws and mistakes. The real world can be inconsistent, strange, and inexplicable- a good philosophy admits that.  But BS will got far out of its way to paper any pinhole of dissent or doubt, because BS cannot afford the exposure. To make Atlas Shrugged a reflection of reality in the way that Anna Karenina is, would take this story from the pompous and banal into the realm of the moronic- when one imagines a Dagny Taggart in our world, she ceases to be noble and just becomes laughable.  Rand made one of the classic blunders-  the world informs you, you do not inform the world.  

And that is, perhaps, why Rand’s staunchest devotees are usually between 15-20.  Old enough to think, but not old enough to have seen enough of reality to form a true mental picture. In those years the world seems very starkly divided- understanding complexity is often a function of aging.

 

Blah.

 

*flip flip flip.*

Ah. And now we come to something good.  The childhood of Dagny Taggart.

This requires pondering. More to follow, but here’s something to wet your whistle.

 

“Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day. She stated it to herself when she stood alone between the rails, looking at the two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance and met in a single point. What she felt was an arrogant pleasure at the way the track cut through the woods: it did not belong in the midst of ancient trees, among green branches that hung down to meet green brush and the lonely spears of wild flowers-but there it was. The two steel lines were brilliant in the sun, and the black ties were like the rungs of a ladder which she had to climb.”

Oh, T-square. You’re so naughty!

Written by newscum

September 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm

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Atlas Shrugged VII: Ecce Homo

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So last time (oh, so long ago) we looked at Hank Rearden. Today though, I’d like to talk about Philip and Lillian Rearden. The most interesting things about these passages, is that they are the first real glimpse we get of the Randian liberals in their native environment. I remind you again of Ayn Rand’s own opinion of her writing: She believed not that she was creating fiction, or propaganda, or even a parable. She believed she was reflecting real life in her work.

Again, the resemblance to conservative, evangelical Christianity is clear.  The fictional works of Tim LaHaye, the pamphlets of Jack Chick, the inane ramblings and obsessive sophistry of Harold Camping all have a common root. These deluded men truly believe, or seem to truly believe, that the fantastic scenarios they concoct are an accurate reflection of real life.

The other thing their works have in common is a strange, almost sociopathic view of human nature. In both Atlas Shrugged and ‘Left Behind,’ characters behave- inhumanly. Many times, the “heroes” of both Rand and LaHaye’s onanistic fantasies casually walk through horror with hardly a backward glance. Rayford Steele, the protagonist of “Left Behind,” walks through burning airports, plagues, and hellfire, thinking only of the inconvenience to himself. In the same vein, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, and even sweet Hank Rearden, will walk past wrecks, disasters, human suffering, with hardly a word or thought.

This common vein is simple- the dollar-sign Christ of Tim LaHaye preaches self-service above all else, as does Rand’s sociopathic Objectivism. This neatly explains why the far right has been able to preserve itself as a solid voting block. On the surface, LaHaye and Rand are fundamentally at odds with each other- on preaching submission to Christ, one the triumph of the new atheist man. (And ‘man’ is the right word- Rand has little room for women in her world.)

And yet these philosophies have at their root, a love of money that transcends all things- Christ or humanity or empathy- all fall before the dollar.

Also before we read this, here’s a piece of advice. If you have to insult your character so we know they’re the bad guys, you aren’t a very good writer.  Which is not to say that insulting your characters never works, but we should be able to tell that they’re schmucks based on what THEY do and say, not what YOU do and say. 

“Paul Larkin was looking at him with the devoted eyes of an inhibited dog.

“Hello, Paul,” said Rearden. “When did you get in?”

            “Oh, I just hopped down on the five thirty-five from New York.” Larkin was smiling in gratitude for the attention.

            “Trouble?”

            “Who hasn’t got trouble these days?”

 Larkin’s smile became resigned, to indicate that the remark was merely philosophical.

“But no, no special trouble this time. I just thought I’d drop in to see you.””

 

Charming.  You know, this could actually be good- if the point of this scene was to show how Rearden, as a total douchebag, saw the people around him. As an honest reflection of supposedly normal reality, it stinks.

 

“”Henry, you work too hard,” said Philip.”It’s not good for you.”

            Rearden laughed. “I like it.”

            “That’s what you tell yourself. It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”

            “Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice.””

 

Oh those silly psychology obsessed liberals with their silly ideas about brains! Everyone knows that Hank Rearden just punches his pain in the face with his big manly fists. Or whatever it is men are supposed to do with their problems.

And of course, Lilian: 

“Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”

Ultimately, the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is empathy; the ability to FEEL for their characters. Even the bad ones. I have no objections to a Liberal as a villain, liberals do bad things all the time. I have objections to strawmen, to false and lying creations who are so devoid of sympathy as to be unbelievable.

The example that always springs to mind is nonfiction, actually. Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, is a long, intimate portrayal of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich’s ruling elite. When I first read it many years ago, I was struck by how drawn I was to Hitler. He was portrayed as charming, funny, caring and intelligent. I felt the same sort of draw to him that one might feel reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography. And that feeling frightened me at first. I knew intellectually that Hitler must have been charming, magnetic, and so on, but actually experiencing it was deeply disturbing. I liked this sorta nuts but ultimately sweet man who cared about his employees and loved his dogs.

However, what Speer is doing is good writing- very good writing. To take the ur-villain, the official Worst Person Ever, and make him likeable, requires a great deal of skill. And it is here that Rand’s most fatal flaw is revealed.

She has no Empathy. None at all.

Empathy is a good thing, despite Glenn Beck’s claims. Empathy is what allows us to care for our friends when they suffer. It is what makes the human experience not one of ‘I’ but “we.” More practically, it is impossible to be a writer of any skill without empathy. It may be possible to be a good painter with no empathy- one need not feel for the light to be a Rembrandt. It may be possible to make good music, beautiful sculptures, or strong bridges without caring about people. But writing, the art and craft of writing, is getting inside of someone else’s head. Presenting the inner self of another being with such feeling as to seem real. Fundamentally, as far as Rand is concerned, Philip and Lillian know they’re the bad guys.  Which misses a rule of humanity so basic it is often missed- everyone thinks they’re the good guy. The worst people to ever live had a mile long list of justifications, and we are no different- we walk through life spreading small graces and petty cruelties almost unconsciously. Who among us doesn’t know at least one right bastard of a human being- and who among us hasn’t been one, at least once? Even when we acknowledge our wrongdoing, it is rarely through our own observations, and never in the heat of the moment. 

Yet Rand’s villains are- cartoonish. The most direct example is not from this book, but from “The Fountainhead.” Ellsworth Toohey often brags about his badness in a false psudeo-villiany. He talks about how he enjoys tearing down better men then he, how much he enjoys destruction for the sake of destruction. He is aware of his badness as if he were his own psychiatrist.

In contrast, look at another villain- Tony Soprano. He spends six years in therapy, and at the end, still justifies his evil, his transgressions as necessary. As excusable. As not so far different from what other people do. Or “Breaking Bad” where chemistry teacher Walt justifies his murderous avarice as being all for his family. Or Scarface, where Tony Montana is just trying to make his way in a hard world.

Everyone has a reason, even the bad guys. Rand does not understand that. She is so subsumed in her own truth that she is incapable of seeing that others hold other truths just as dear.  And in her total lack of comprehension, she is incapable of making her characters real. Real people who have real arguments and real reasons for what they do.

Another sign you’re a bad writer is when you are forced to create strawmen to serve your plot.  When moving your story forward requires characters to act not only in an unrealistic but an inhuman way, it is time to reconsider your plot. No person has ever talked like this, no person has ever acted like this.  The Roman playwright Terence wrote “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” We can recognize in ourselves the love of a Gandhi or the hate of a Hitler- we may not have felt so strongly but we have so felt.  . But what Rand creates is nothing human and it is, therefore, something alien to ourselves, and has no power over us. 

Rand’s failure of empathy means that she is not moved. And in not being moved, she cannot be moving. No tricks of language, no elegance of composition, can substitute for that. 

Written by newscum

September 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

An Atheist’s Proposal

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I saw this video, earlier, and it reminded me of something I’d thought for a long time:

For those of you at work, the link is to Steve Martin singing “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Which is true. I’ve often lamented that while I love to sing hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Lord of the Dance,” and, my personal favorite, “One in the Spirit,” there are no equivalent atheist songs. Or rituals. Or (and this is important) holidays.

Yes, I know, I can hear you now. “But aren’t we atheists because we don’t believe in holy-ness, or really, much of anything?” And I say, yes, you’re very clever. Have a cookie.

But I think we should. I think we take a few days and declare them, more or less unanimously, our holidays.

As any atheist can tell you, we’re the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the “beliefs” world- we don’t get no respect. There is something about professing a belief in no god, as opposed to a belief in some other god- that brings out the theologian in even the most casual religious believers. I’ve noticed also that among those people who actively proselytize, there is a great deal more comfort in approaching an atheist than in approaching a professed Muslim or Hindu.

This all, I think, ties into the question of legitimacy. This can be clearly seen in George H. W. Bush’s comment that atheists are not really citizens. Even in this Islamophobic day and age, it is impossible to imagine a similar comment being made about Muslims. And any such unprovoked attack on most other religious minorities would be met with incredulity, scorn, and probably an immediate apology. Think of a President saying “no Sikh is a real American citizen,” and imagine the response. (Admittedly, the anger would probably come after a bit of frantic, nationwide googling, but still.)

Part of this is because when you’re an atheist, being a formal, declared whatever doesn’t really matter. I mean, that’s really the freakin’ point, innit? We don’t believe in woo, we don’t pray to woo, we don’t have a big party on some day when we thing the woo did something cool. We just go about our freaking lives, do our thing, and try to have a good time, right? But, on the other hand, I think I’ve come up with five good reasons why we should.

First, the emotional appeal. Whatever else they may be, religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, are an important part of who we are as people and as a species. And religion and science have at least something in common, and were born of the same fundamental and amazing human characteristic- we want to know. The point at which we became human, if not genetically, than at least in function, was when some guy on the savannah looked up at the stars, and around at the world in all its strange and inexplicable beauty and said “So….what’s going on here, huh?” Most atheists are, at the core, skeptics and investigators, people who are determined to ferret out the truth wherever she hides. This is an impulse that is beautiful and should be celebrated.

Second- we are legitimate people. We have a belief in common, and there are a lot of us. Being a Christian is as simple as believing that Jesus Christ was/is lord and savior of all human beings. Being a Muslim is as simple as saying “there is one god and Muhammad is his prophet” And being an atheist is as simple as saying “there is no god at all.” We have as much right to a unique and celebrated identity as any other granfalloon.

Third- respect. Beliefs, to gain traction and acceptance, need to have at least some legitimacy, and some demonstrable, recognizable symbols, songs, images- in short, some freakin’ marketing. We want to be recognized as legitimate people with legitimate beliefs that should be given the same legitimate recognition as any other belief, and too that end, the trapping and suits of organization are very useful. Actually, that is probably the most important qualifier- an “organized” religion gains legitimacy simply through that modifier. It is how we know that the Methodists are different in degree, if not in kind, from David Koresh.

Four- what, you wouldn’t love to be able to tell your boss “Sorry, can’t come into work tomorrow. It’s no-god-mas and I’ve got to wrap presents for the kids?”

Fifth, and most importantly- holidays build community, and people need holidays. We need an excuse to celebrate, and a few days a year when we remember what, and who is important to us. When we share who we are and what we feel with the world at large. Holidays remind us of important things as well- charity and giving lie at the heart of Christmas, atonement at the heart of Yom Kippur. And, as a former Christian, there is something lovely about seeing other people sharing your faith, celebrating and rejoicing the same thing, for the same reasons. Our differences are set aside as we remember who we are.

So then- what holidays should we have, and why should we have them this way? Well, to probably put too fine a point on things, holidays celebrate all sorts of shit. But generally speaking, holidays of all type fall into two big catagories= celebration and sorrow. July Fourth, Easter and Channukah are celebration, while Memorial Day, Good Friday, and Yom Kippur are sorrow. So we need at least two holidays- the day where we all get together and party, and the day of remembering our own and the world’s flaws.

For the first, a celebratory day of feasting, I have several ideas. The first is simple- May 21st, the day Harold Camping and his friends were not raptured. It is simple, and already has high name recognition. However, after thinking of it, I don’t like it. It feels less like “this is a day to celebrate who I am and what I believe with the people I care about” and more like “Haha! Stupid Jesus People!” And even more- it is both defining ourselves in juxtaposition to a religious belief, and it is doing exactly what Christians started out doing- piggybacking their beliefs on days that already had something going on, to make the transition easier.

So, the first and most logical choice is a notable birthday- Darwin is the easy choice, but a little too easy. So is Gandhi. While both were amazing men who deserve celebration, it would be nice to take this opportunity to recognize some other notable atheists who did great things.

Along those lines, here are my suggestions-

21st of March- Zackie Achmat’s birthday. An incredible South African activist who has and tirelessly for LGBT rights and many, many other causes. And he’s still alive- we don’t believe in an afterlife, so we need to recognize great people while they’re still around.
25th July- Rosalind Franklin’s Birthday. The woman who got screwed out of the credit for discovering DNA.
December 26th -Baba Amte’s birthday. An Indian activist who worked tirelessly to help lepers.
11 March- Douglas Adam’s birthday. If I have to explain this one, you’re reading the wrong damn thing.
21 June- Sartre’s birthday. Notable, at least for me, because he did more than anyone to help me clarify how one is good outside of a religious framework.
December 16th. Santayana’s birthday. Another wonderful, and hugely influential, atheist philosopher.
18 May- Bertrand Russell’s birthday.
My personal vote will probably go to 28th July- Karl Popper’s birthday. The man almost single-handedly invented the modern scientific method.

And we also need holidays to remember. Frankly, I think the best idea behind a holiday is Yom Kippur- a day of atonement, of reconciliation and compensation. A day where you make things right. A day where you are reminded that you, like everyone else in the world, has messed up, needs to acknowledge your mistakes and make them right.
To that end I suggest September 23d, the day the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into Mars because one group was using metric and one was using imperial. It reminds us that for all our care and work, we can fuck up as badly as anyone. Perhaps we can have ritualized readings of scientific papers about the “ether” through which light travels, or the works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

So that’s my proposal. Not a “But Thou Must,” but something fun and unifying- our very own little cultural marker. A day or two when we can fly OUR flag, put up OUR decorations, and know that all across the world, there are people who don’t believe in the same thing doing the same thing on the same day for the same reasons. We spend much of our time alone, as atheists. We are cut out of many aspects of modern life, and often find ourselves unexpectedly ostracized. The moment where everyone else begins to pray before dinner, the sudden reference to religion in a place far outside where it belongs-all these things serve to separate us out from the well of humanity- a distinct point where our differences are singled out in a way that they are not for people of faith.

And of course, there is always Atheist Pride Week. Which I think is great idea, but also disparate from what I’m suggesting. A pride week suggests an activism, a raising of awareness, as well as celebration. A sort of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” What I want is something like the Atheist Christmas, a day about simply being a peaceful atheist. A day to remember where we came from, and what we don’t believe. A day to simply be at peace with ourselves and the ones we loved. A day to share in peace. Also, a week is usually too long to get off work. (Hey, we atheists are first and foremost a PRACTICAL people.)

So, I’d like to hear from you guys- dates you think it should be on. Other holidays we need. And the trimmings! There’s no point to Christmas without a tree, so what should we use? (I favor small, noninvasive shrubberies myself.) What songs should we sing around the symbols? What should become our traditional Atheist Day foods? What should we call these holidays that sounds cooler that Atheist Day?

And finally, please understand- I’m not saying this because I think we need a structure, or because we all agree. We’re a big group encompassing every possible political belief and tone of skin. But once in a while, it’s nice to set the ’me’ aside and celebrate a greater ‘us.’ Once in a while, its nice to have a holiday.

Written by newscum

August 16, 2011 at 12:41 am

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Atlas Shrugged VI: The Ballad of Hank Rearden

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Pgs 22-29

“The metal came rising to the top of the ladle and went running over with arrogant prodigality. Then the blinding white trickles turned to glowing brown, and in one more instant they were black icicles of metal, starting to crumble off. The slag was crusting in thick, brown ridges that looked like the crust of the earth. As the crust grew thicker, a few craters broke open, with the white liquid still boiling within.”

I’ll give it to Rand. That’s a damn pretty piece of writing. Say what you will about the woman (And I plan on saying a LOT) she can find the rough beauty in the industrial world.
Which it its way is half the problem. The best lies, they say, are those that have a core of truth at the center. And Rand finds some truth. There is nobility in doing honest work. There is something grand about tons of steel spun through midair by brave strong men who build and create.
The Seven Deadly Sins are so deadly precisely because they start out as virtues. Gluttony starts out as an honest love of the pleasures the world has to offer, and only later becomes twisted into sin. Pride starts out as nothing more than healthy self-esteem, taken too far. And in a similar way, Rand seizes on good things and twists them.
Let me shock all the libertarians reading this. I like the free market. Hell, I love the free market. When regulated and controlled, capitalism is a good thing, a great thing. The power that allows steel mills to rise, cities to sprawl across the globe, is the power of progress. And the love of building things is a true and honest love.
But that is only where Rand begins. In her hands, the love of creation becomes a weapon. In Rand’s world, creating and building are not pleasures, but desperate blows against a cruel and oppressive world. And her creations are twisted by this obsession. Hank Rearden cannot simply love to create. Love of his business must be his only love. He has to cut out everything else. All other beauty, all other loves, are not only subservient to his mills, they are obliterated.
And it has made him terribly, terribly sad:
“Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal. He was Hank Rearden.”
A man who never smiles, a man who never shows any expression, is rarely a happy man. And there is something pathetic in that passage, a man who has been denied love turning to one thing he can do well. One thing that makes him happy.
And I’ll make another confession. I like Hank Rearden. In this whole damn novel, he’s the only person who ever acts like a human being. A human being with a sequoia firmly implanted in his nether regions, true, but a human being nonetheless. Galt is a messianic figurehead, there to be dramatic and say pithy things about Aristotle. Dagny is….unpleasant. Eddie is there to show what happens to you when you’re not quite good enough (hint: the people you’ve served all your life throw you to the wolves.) But Rearden is a real person, a real character, and even though he’s not the best, he’s such a welcome relief in this novel I can’t help but love him.
There is a bit more lovely writing- descriptions of a young struggling Rearden making his first steel mill out of nothing, and, again, there is that deceptive Horatio Alger charm. This is a story we are familiar with. Poor Boy Makes Good on nothing but wit and brains. Most delightful, most familiar. And because it is familiar, we instinctively fill in the little details. We know Hank. We’ve met him a dozen times before, and where Rand’s grasp of the formula fails, we fill in the blanks for her. And we are predisposed to like these people. And so we like Rearden. Even filled out with the stale details of stereotype, he is at least three-dimensional.
And there is another thing about Rearden. He cares. He doesn’t care in the weak and wibbling sort of way that Eddie does, or have the blank uncaring of Dagny. This is a man who honestly loves people.

“He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been-for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.”

Read that thoroughly un-Randian passage. Here is Hank Rearden, steel magnate, thinking, in a vague and inconsequential fashion, that he’d like to make other people happy. And that’s why we love him. Even though we know we’ll see this common decency beaten out of them, for a moment, this is a happy man, filled with the great joy of success, and wishing nothing but good to everyone.
Of course, all good things must come to an end.

“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife…”

Awww! How sweet! Ten years of work, and the first thing he thinks to make with this metal he’s poured so much sweat into is something for his wife. Well, she must be a hell of a woman, right? To be so on his thoughts that in the moment of his greatest triumph, his thoughts turn to her.

“Then she turned her head, looked at Rearden in the shadows across the long room, and her arms spread gracefully, like two swan necks by her sides.
“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuyeres to polish?”

Charming. Rand doesn’t have a Madonna/whore complex. She has a Madonna/bitch complex. Every woman she writes is either a Dagny or…whatever this is supposed to be. No one talks like that. No one acts like that. Does it get worse? Does the Pope shit in the woods?

“Lillian Rearden was generally regarded as a beautiful woman. She had a tall, graceful body, the kind that looked well in high-waisted gowns of the Empire style, which she made it a practice to wear. .. But when she turned full-face, people experienced a small shock of disappointment. Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”

Oh! She’s supposed to be the cold, high-society chick and of course, Rearden will find love with the innocent but hard working Other Woman.

And here’s the problem. There are three interesting things going on here: Rearden meets his brother, Lillian plans a party, and Rearden gives her the bracelet. Today, for brevities sake, I’ll just finish off the bit about the necklace. Next time, though, I want to discuss Philip and Lillian in greater detail. For now, however, lets wrap this painful little scene up.

“”I brought you a present, Lillian.”
He did not know that he stood straight and that the gesture of his arm was that of a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love, when he dropped a small chain of metal into her lap.
Lillian Rearden picked it up, hooked on the tips of two straight fingers, and raised it to the light. The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal.”
“You mean,” she said, “it’s fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?”
He looked at her blankly.
She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. “Henry, it’s perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and-what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?-soup kettles?”
“God, Henry, but you’re conceited!” said Philip.
Lillian laughed. “He’s a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn’t the gift, it’s the intention, I know.”

Damn. I mean…damn. That’s a crushing blow. Ok, I’ll grant, as far as great gifts go, bracelet of metal doesn’t do much, and maybe he could’ve jazzed it up a little, but, sweet Jesus, that’s cold.
And that’s why Hank Rearden is the only real human being in this novel. The others were born to privilege and wealth. Francisco, Dagny…Galt was not born rich, but is instead a super-genius of some fashion.
Hank is just Hank. He’s the poor boy who made it good. He’s the guy who works and sweats and slaves because he honestly believes this is a good world. The cynicism of Galt and Francisco is disgusting to see. Rand tries to disguise it, but it is nothing more than the lowest form of aristocratic contempt for the proles. There are the chosen few, and then there are the hordes of slaves. Hank doesn’t have that though. He wants to make people happy, he wants to take care of his family. He wants in other words, other things. A life beyond mills and metal.
But that isn’t permitted. That isn’t the party line. And so, for the next nine hundred pages, this book is the Tragedy of Hank Rearden. Of a decent, hardworking man corrupted, beaten, mistreated and spurned until he lashes out at the world in a cynical orgy of destruction.
In Dagny, in Galt, this is disgusting. In Rearden, it is tragic. It is like the collapse of one of his buildings- something old and grand and noble slowly torn down and reshaped until the kind man who makes bracelets for his wife is lost.

Written by newscum

December 6, 2010 at 8:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Atlas Shrugged V: The Professionals

with 18 comments

Pgs. 17-22
As you’ll recall last time, the main issue our so-called heroes were facing was that the railroad was wearing out. Specifically, the Rio Norte Line, which was getting its ass handed to it financially by some brash young upstart, was in desperate need of repair. And Dagny Taggart decided she was going to use the new magical Rearden metal. And she was arguing with her brother, Jim. So with that in mind, let’s pick up the tangled thread of this narrative.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, Rand shoots herself in the foot from the first page. She makes all of her heroes amazing and dynamic masters of industry, and all of her villains more wishy-washy than John Kerry on a “wash your wishes in the Nile” field trip. To the point where you’re wondering why their positions aren’t flip-flopped. There is no indication that anyone, anywhere wouldn’t let Dagny take over. Every time she makes a suggestion to Jim, he waffles, than accepts it. So why in hell doesn’t she do what corporations everywhere do when there is some crotchety old bugger who’s an utterly useless drain on the system: create a position called “CEO in Charge of Public Relations,” and shove him gracefully out to sea on an iceberg of money. Let Jim run around and play kissy face with the novelists, and Dagny can get some work done.
This idea is so obvious that you can’t help but wonder why she didn’t do it. One possibility is that Dagny is just passive aggressive, and likes letting her brother twist in the wind. Like so:

“The Mexican government is going to nationalize your line any day now.”
“That’s a lie!” His voice was almost a scream. “That’s nothing but vicious rumors! I have it on very good inside authority that-”
“Don’t show that you’re scared, Jim,” she said contemptuously. He did not answer. “It’s no use getting panicky about it now,” she said. “All we can do is try to cushion the blow. It’s going to be a bad blow. Forty million dollars is a loss from which we won’t recover easily. But Taggart transcontinental has withstood many bad shocks in the past. I’ll see to it that it withstands this one.”
“I refuse to consider, I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of the San Sebastian Line being nationalized!”
“All right. Don’t consider it.” “

Think back to every action movie you’ve ever seen with a generally incompetent character. And, sure as God made little green apples, there will be the scene where Our Heroes rush in, type in the correct password to deactivate the nuclear device, and just give the hapless one A Look. They don’t gloat. Because gloating isn’t heroic. They just take over, and do what needs to be done, because someone has to, and Dumbass McUseless over there isn’t gonna do it.
But Dagny passively stands aside. As a matter of fact, of the “good” characters in this novel, she is the only one who isn’t the head tycoon. Everyone else is president, CEO, and usually sole owner of their company. Rearden, Wyatt, Midas Mulligan: they’re all the old-school tycoon type. But Dagny isn’t.
And I do hate to tantalize like this, but yes, I’m sure this is related to Rand’s view on the role of women. And yes, when the time comes, that will be an absolutely fascinating, if somewhat creepy alley to walk down. But the fact is, now is nowhere near the best time to get into that. There are still sex scenes, and scenes with chains, and…well, it gets very creepy in this book. But for now, suffice it to say that Rand seems to believe that this is as far as Dagny would rise.
More properly, she seems to feel that this is as high up as she can place Dagny. It’s not because she doesn’t feel that she could write from the position of someone at the top of the heap: she writes from Rearden’s perspective, after all. And it isn’t that she doesn’t think Dagny is really running the company. It’s just that Ayn Rand had a deeply fucked up view of women, and this is one small but nasty tentacle of that sexist octopus.
But leaving aside the metatext: Dagny seems shockingly unwilling to engage in the sort of commonplace Wall Street power play she should’ve made a year ago. She is apparently willing to continue to let this company that she loves be destroyed rather than simply displacing Jim. The logic, apparently, is that if Rand just makes Jim slimy enough, our sense of outrage will prevent us from noting that she hasn’t kicked his whiny ass out of the captain’s chair.
I suppose if you were to corner Rand, she would say that the reason her villains are so weak and wishy-washy is that they are not the real villains at all: the weakness and wishy-washyness is the true villain of the story. But as our little lamented previous president so aptly showed, you can’t declare war on a word.
And you can’t have heroes who don’t do things. Well, ok, perhaps in the coolest most post-modern novels, you could have a hero who saves the world through inaction. But Rand hates those smelly post-modernists and their silly ideas that maybe, just maybe, we should take off the rose tinted glasses once in a while. For traditional manly men like Hank Rearden, action is life. They live to move, to fight, to be what Wolf Larsen called the biggest piece of the firmament.
And, if there is a novel that stands in sharp contrast to Atlas Shrugged, it is Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. I bring this up for two reasons. One, I need a little break from writing about Atlas Shrugged here, and two, this novel couldn’t be a better response to Objectivism if the back cover photo was Jack London peeing on a copy of “The Fountainhead.”
For those of you that haven’t run across this one, it’s the story of a literary gentleman who is shanghaied onto a seal hunting ship. This ship is run by the monstrous Wolf Larsen, who believes in no God, no good, no philosophy but “The strong survive by eating the weak.” It was published 53 years before Atlas Shrugged, and sets out to disprove Rand’s central thesis. Wolf Larsen is, physically and mentally, very close to the perfect man. He is inhumanly physically strong, teaches himself calculus and invents a revolutionary new star chart. And he is a brute. With no philosophy but his own success, he is cruel and rapacious, killing or not killing, destroying or not destroying on his own whim. He is a renegade, and like the wolf, admirable from a safe distance.
Rand lacks London’s courage, for even while her heroes reject society and its shackles, they do so in a half-hearted manner. She claims that she has created man taken to his limits, shown human beings perfected. That her philosophy taken to the extreme (what Atlas Shrugged claims to portray) creates Man Perfected. London neatly cuts the feet out from under this argument. The central, and extremely unsubtle subtext of his novel is that man left to his own devices, given power and strength, without even the bonds we place on ourselves, becomes a brute destroyer, given over to pleasure and what London calls “piggishness.”
That Rand’s characters do not become Wolf Larsen’s shows that Rand is lying to herself. That her claim that her characters can believe that the highest good is individual profit, is simply a lie. (And before you go, “But yes, that book is fiction, it doesn’t constitute proof!” remember that Rand herself believes that this novel is a proof. A is A, Ms. Rand. You seem fond of that argument.)
So, this point is where Rand first starts to lose what little coherence this novel had in the first place.

“I’m not interested in. helping anybody. I want to make money.”
“That’s an impractical attitude. Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking which-”
“How long do you intend to talk in order to evade the issue, Jim?”
“What issue?”
“The order for Rearden Metal.”…
She remained silent; he was forced to ask, “Did you decide to order it just like that, on the spur of the moment, over a telephone?”
“I decided it six months ago. I was waiting for Hank Rearden to get ready to go into production.”
“Don’t call him Hank Rearden. It’s vulgar.”
“That’s what everybody calls him. Don’t change the subject.”
“Why did you have to telephone him last night?”
“Couldn’t reach him sooner.”
“Why didn’t you wait until you got back to New York and-”
“Because I had seen the Rio Norte Line.”
“Well, I need time to consider it, to place the matter before the Board, to consult the best-“
“There is no time.”
“You haven’t given me a chance to form an opinion.”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion. I am not going to argue with you, with your Board or with your professors. You have a choice to make and you’re going to make it now. Just say yes or no.”

Ok, so, lets get unpacking, shall we campers?
First of all, no liberal in the history of Liberalism has ever dreamed of saying: “Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking.” That’s not liberalism. That’s not even communism. That’s not even Marxism. It’s Stalinism, in the sense that Stalin’s ministry of propaganda might say something like that.

Second, if Dagny decided this six months ago (seven months after the contract was actually due, already an act of fantastic irresponsibility) why didn’t she do something then? All we have heard is how dire the situation is, and yet there is no indication that Dagny could not have done this a full year ago. Which, again, reflects on her. If we are to believe that she is the person Rand claims she is, there is no way around it- she has been acting irresponsibly. Lackadaisically, even.

Third-that little line at the end. Again, Rand is uncertain of the mechanics of her own world. It could be supposed that if all decisions had to go through the board in the first place, that Dagny would’ve been helpless until now. But if all that was required was to bully Jim, then, again, why not a year ago?
The most striking thing about this entire scene is the almost petulant unprofessionalism that we are expected to applaud. The Slacktivist has often commented on this in the Left Behind books. There, supposed ‘journalist’ Buck routinely treats important figures with the same sort of petulance that Dagny shows here. One of the marks of the true professional is that they never lose their cool. Later on in the book, reactions to bad news are described in near erotic detail, and the thing that Rand stresses is the cool professionalism of her characters. That no matter what, you never let ‘em see you sweat.

And to their credit, most of these other characters actually do maintain their professionalism in the most dire situations. Except Dagny. Throughout the book, she will be notable as the least professional of the assorted businessmen. And it starts here, with this petulant and passive-aggressive discussion with her brother that she should have had a year ago.

The next few pages are filled with foreshadowing and a somewhat turgid description of Rearden’s factory. With lines like “They saw towers that looked like contorted skyscrapers, bridges hanging in mid-air, and sudden wounds spurting fire from out of solid walls. They saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal,” it’s hard not to feel that Rand likes machines just a little too much.
The next interesting piece is in her description of the trains passengers.

A passenger, who was a professor of economics, remarked to his companion: “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?” Another, who was a journalist, made a note for future use in his column: ‘Hank Rearden is the kind of man who sticks his name on everything he touches. You may, from this, form your own opinion about the character of Hank Rearden.’

Ayn Rand has the mark of the true hack, in that her characters always talk like they know they’re in an Ayn Rand novel. Her characters declaim, or pontificate, or deliver biting commentary. They never just talk. Not once, in this novel, is there a real human conversation; just twin strawmen in ironic juxtaposition. Every conversation is a battle with a pre-determined end. Human contact is no more than a confrontation from a ‘70’s chop socky flick, a desperate struggle to see whose conversational kung-fu is stronger. No wonder none of the other characters like these assholes. If every time you went up to Francisco D’Anconia to chit-chit about the latest Charlie Chaplin movie you got twenty minutes on the superiority of industrial magnates, you’d start to hold a grudge too.
And finally, a good place to stop for the day, as we introduce the next player in our little drama: Hank Rearden.

Swinging through the darkness of the shed, the red glare kept slashing the face of a man who stood in a distant corner; he stood leaning against a column, watching. The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice-then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair- then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them: this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.

He sounds dreamy.
Until next time, campers.

Written by newscum

October 14, 2010 at 4:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Good, Nice, and Kind

with 14 comments

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

It’s like one of those games they used to play on Sesame Street. You know, the one where they show you two red things and one blue thing, and ask, which of these things is not like the others? Except sometimes they’d screw up, and show a red triangle, a blue triangle, and a red square. And when six-year-old me goes “The square,” Grover (who they had running things before that punk Elmo took over) would say “The Red Triangle, very good!” And I’d get upset, start shouting at the TV, because it was OBVIOUS that those were two triangles. I mean, duh. I’m not saying this to indicate that at such a young age I was already ignoring color over substance, but to point out that even the best of intentions can be misread.

I like words. I hold the English language and its use in almost totemic awe, and I believe with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And yesterday, I tried to use the right words.

I don’t like directly addressing the comments. It is too easy for otherwise good blogs to become echo chambers for arguments between the commentator and the metacommentators. Slacktivist, who is very much my blogging idol, doesn’t often do this, and I don’t want to do it that much either. But in this case, I think its appropriate.

A lot of the comments (even from those who otherwise agree with me) seem to think that I am calling for us to be the nice guys. That I am issuing a call for civility and calm public discourse. This is profoundly not the case. And the confusion, I think, comes from my use of these two words, good and kind. And from the perception of those two words together to mean nice.

Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings. He was very polite, and loved kissing babies. He was a nice guy. He was also so profoundly evil that he has become a metaevil-a gold standard for measuring the evil of lesser madmen.

And in contrast, I’d like to turn your attention to two items. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You’ve seen them before, seen them analyzed, but look at them again. Lincoln calls for “malice towards none, charity for all,” without for a moment backing down on the fundamental rightness of his actions. In the same speech in which he calls for mercy to those had perpetuated a war for the continuation of slavery, he says: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” That is not a nice thing to say. That is not a conciliatory, compromising, “Oh, lets all just get along” thing to say. That is the hard truth. But at the same time, then man of all men who could have called for his enemies to be driven before him, and done it to thunderous applause, chooses to ask for, “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” This is a man being good. Being very, very good, as it so happens. And he is being kind.

Or let us turn our attention to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To those who would ask him to sit down and shut up for the sake of peace and quiet, he writes “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” That is being kind. Even generous.
But King is not being nice. King is calling for a transformation, a complete overthrow of the current system. King is saying that he will continue to cause a goddamned ruckus, and he won’t feel bad about it. King is saying to those clergymen “You are wrong. You are fundamentally and damagingly wrong.” Or look at this line: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Where I come from, that’s called calling someone out. It is not, by people who are focused on “nice,” considered a very nice thing to do. But it is a good thing to do, and in this case, it is done kindly. Because I think that being good and being kind walk hand in hand. Being kind does not mean never shouting. As King so neatly demonstrates, it does not mean never saying that the other person is horribly, terribly, and destructively wrong. It does not mean being mild mannered and gentle. King never was. King could let go with a blast of words that shook the foundations of the world. But he was always kind.
What it does mean is that you don’t judge them as people. What it does mean is that you don’t call them evil. You may call their actions and their beliefs evil, you may call the effects of those actions evil. (as I did. Multiple times.) But you do not call them, the person, evil. Because good men and women do not stand in judgment of others, save for transgressions so severe that the evil in their souls becomes apparent to all. When the charge of evil becomes not a judgment call, but an observation. And good people, the really good people, they know that there is a fundamental core of goodness in the human heart. They know that not as you know that 2 + 2=4, but the way you know the really important things, the way that you know your mother loves you. They know this because to not know this, to believe instead that people, even some people, are fundamentally bad, that they have crossed the line from good into evil not just in some of their actions but in their souls, is to admit that they have become monsters. And monsters cannot be argued with. Monsters must be fought, tooth and nail, lest they destroy us all.
So what I’m calling for isn’t for you to roll over and go, “Oh, ok Glenn Beck, you just go bebopping along your merry way.” I’m not calling for you to engage in some sort of extreme hippy-dippy bullshit, where everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m telling you to get out there and fight. I’m telling you to go out there and lay some mushroom clouds like Martin did, and like Mandela did, and like all the other big guns did. And I’m telling you that you should do it the way they did. Be good to those you fight. Be kind to those you fight. Fight. But fight with malice towards none, with charity for all. Because we do not wrestle with malign powers and principalities, but with otherwise good people who are, I know, not willfully and truly evil, but horribly, and painfully mistaken.
And I think sometimes, that we do the same thing Glenn Beck does, and we do it with the same reason. Presuming for a moment, that Glenn Beck does not actually believe what he says. Why then would he say it? Why call Obama a Nazi and a communist? Because otherwise Glenn Beck would look like a complete tool. To you and I, who know full well that Obama is nothing of the sort, he sounds like a total tool. But to those who have been deluded, and lied to, he sounds like a hero. If you believed Obama was a Nazi, Glenn Beck would not be a pompous asshole. He’d be goddamned Winston Churchill.
And let us look to our own backyards. I have heard many, many people comparing the Tea Party to the Nazis. To fascists. To the KKK, to the Nuremburg Rallies, to every sort of hyperbolic evil we can think of.
And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. And I think we are doing this for the same reason that Glenn Beck does. Because if we were to admit to ourselves that these people are not evil Nazi fascists who want to stick us in concentration camps, but simply a large block of people who, by shouting in an echo chamber, have come to some pretty weird ideas, we’d look a bit hyperbolic ourselves. We are using the same language, the same tactics, the same ideological warfare that Glenn Beck uses. And against who? Against one half the Republican party, a group that seems to be causing little more than a tempest in a teapot, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.
They. Are. People. People with some goddamned weird ideas, sure. But people. Not evil people, not saints. People. People who are doing bad things not because they’re cackling maniacs but because they’re scared, or they’re confused, or they’ve been listening to their own echos until it sounds like reason, or some combination thereof. But they are not evil. They are doing evil things, and that is wrong, but THEY. ARE. NOT. EVIL. And its not just me saying this. It’s Martin and Lincoln and Gandhi and everyone else you’ve ever admired. This is what the good guys had to say about their enemies, enemies whose malice was far beyond a Glenn Beck. So we can continue to shout and rage, and get the cheap adrenal rush of screaming and shouting. Or we can be the good guys. Not the nice guys, but the good guys. We can be kind, and good, and extend that open hand without backing down an inch from the rightness of our cause. Without easing up a hair on the firmness of our rhetoric. Without rolling over and giving up. Without giving in to the temptation to become the monsters that we fight. We can do it, because they did it. And because they won. It took time, it took effort, it even took blood, but they won. All of them. And we will to.

Written by newscum

September 1, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Stupid Things Liberals Say

with 20 comments

“When I sleep, I dream about a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up, I think, ‘I can sell that.’”- Josiah Bartlett

I know you were expecting another installment of Stupid Things Libertarians Say, and trust me, I’ll get back to that soon enough. There is an almost endless array of fresh inanities from that end of the political spectrum.

But you cannot be a commentator, you cannot speak glibly of the foolishness of others without being willing to turn your critical gaze on your own backyard. I am a liberal. I am proud to be a liberal. I have always been proud to be a liberal. Liberals believe in good things. Liberals believe that all people should be free and that all people are worth taking care of. Liberals believe, in a way, that no one is beyond redemption. And though I am an atheist, I have always felt that part of being a Liberal is to believe like Christians do, that there is no one beyond salvation, and no one too lost to be worth saving.

One of the fundamental ideas in liberalism is that there are two sides to every story. That everyone, everywhere has a reason and a story behind their actions. And when we discuss any conflict, whether it is Israel and Palestine, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the basic thrust of our discussions is to see both sides. Because without being able to see both sides of any conflict, that any stance as made up of human beings with reasons and beliefs, we become no better than those we fight. Without the ability to understand that our opponents are first and fundamentally human beings, we begin to lose our own humanity. If we cannot see that they are people, understand their tears and their laughter, understand the love and the passion and the fear that drives them, how can we ever expect to so be seen?

We fight those who would with one sweeping gesture, condemn the Islamic religion. We fight those who with a thought would dismiss en masse all blacks, all Hispanics as criminals and interlopers in an America made for the white race. Those who would take the actions of a few criminals in Harlem or South Central, or the actions of a few madmen on September 11th, and say that in the actions of those few can be read the purpose and nature of all. This is the bigotry that we fight.

And part of being a liberal is being able to accept that the world is a big and complicated place. There are seven billion people on this planet. This is a big and complicated world, with big and complicated problems, and part of being a liberal is being able and willing to grapple with that complexity, to accept that there are no easy answers, no glib and sweeping statements that can hold any real truth. We accept that to deal with the problems of the world will mean no simple solutions, no easy fixes, but great and collective societal efforts, and small, constant steps towards a better world. We accept that it will be messy and complicated as the world is messy and complicated.

To be a liberal is to grapple with people. To understand both that there are seven billion unique and infinitely complex individuals with which we share this rock, and to understand that each one of those people is much the same as us, has many of the same desires, fears, and dreams. To understand that in that dazzling and overwhelming mass of humanity there are underlying common threads by which our fellow man becomes understandable. But fundamentally, to understand that each of this incalculable herd is a beautiful and amazing individual, worthy of love and respect.

And it seems most passing strange that, as liberals, we will seek to understand the belief and agency that drives 19 young men to fly planes into skyscrapers, or drives a Northern Irish Paddy to firebomb a house, and yet we cannot turn that same comprehensive and understanding gaze on those in our own country. We cannot seem to see them as simple, amazing people, ultimately worthy of love and respect. In this case, I am speaking specifically of the way that we as liberals view Republicans.

Republicans are our great bogyman. For eight years we lived under George Bush, and witnessed the cataclysmic failure of the modern Republican agenda- from the callousness seen during Katrina to the idiotic and rash invasion of Iraq and the fundamentally ruinous handling of the economy. But what we fail to remember is that these people, these Republican people, make up a great wedge of the population, a group far too large to be ignored or cast aside. The Republican party has 55 million registered voters. The percentage of people who identify as Republican hovers around the 33% mark. 33%. One third of the country. Literally one hundred million people who identify themselves as Republicans.

And yet Liberals have little problem with saying Republicans — not some Republicans, not those Republicans in the public eye, like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but Republicans, full stop — are stupid and evil. And I wonder sometimes why we are so incapable of looking at these people with the same understanding and compassion that we are so quick to offer to terrorists. To criminals. Why can we not extend the same grace toour fellow Americans that we so quickly proffer to the rest of the world? Why can we not understand their story with the same reflexive nature with which we seek the roots of the conflict in Palestine or the rise of Fundamentalist Islam?

I think it’s because we’re too close. We’ve never been bombed by Israeli planes. We’ve never seen the riots when the Orangemen march, or feared a Palestinian mortar round. We have the privilege of distance, and with that distance comes an ability to see perspective and depth that we cannot apply to our lesser but home grown issues. These are the people we must argue against, we must fight, we must oppose to create our greater world, the world that has been in our dreams for two hundred years and more. What Johnson called “The Great Society.” And they are fighting for their own dream, a dream that we cannot understand but that stands in fundamental opposition to ours. It is the nature of conflict to dehumanize the enemy. To say that they are less than us, that we hold the moral and intellectual high ground. That we are better people, and that those we are fight must be stupid and evil, or else why would they oppose us? We, after all, are right. And they are wrong. And if they cannot see the light, they must be blind.

In the course of my blogging, I’ve drifted off in a different direction from where I started. The earlier posts here are more clearly focused on the “New Scum,” the idea I drew the title of this blog from. The New Scum are the disenfranchised of the world, those without power, without money, without influence. Those outside of the great machine that drives the world, who are crushed under its treads, who are ground in its cogs. It’s you and me. Unless Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have stumbled across this blog (and if you have, please send money) it’s all of us.

And the biggest trick ever played on the New Scum is the idea that there are separate and disparate groupings, that this group must be on one side, and this group on the other. That there is such a thing as black and white, middle class and lower class, blue collar and white collar. When in reality, we are all in the same boat, and it is not the ship of power. We are the greatest force in human history because there are more of us than there has ever been before, and yet we continue to squabble endlessly over differences that are no differences, over perceived issues set in place as shiny and meaningless baubles to distract us from the fact that we’re all getting screwed, and getting screwed by the same people.

And the Republicans are in the boat along with us. These people are not stupid. They are not evil. They are not blind morons staggering around in an orgy of callous destruction. They are our fellow Americans. They are from all walks of life, all levels of society and education, and to casually dismiss them as stupid does both sides a grave injustice. What they are is wrong. Wrong, at least, from our point of view.

To engage in this fatuous mudslinging is not only pointless, it is creating a schism. A deeper and deeper schism in American life between those on the liberal side and those on the conservative side. Every round of name calling, of mutual accusations of stupidity, anti-American sentiment, willful destruction, societal sabotage and whatever other charges we continuously pile up at each other’s doors, pulls us further apart. It dehumanizes us both, because you cannot demonize your fellow man without reducing yourself. Every drop of foaming anger, every moment spent in general and sweeping condemnation, is another small cut into our collective souls. And every inch that we push these people away into a small box labeled “Other,” is a step we take away from our own decency.

These are serious charges. And I do not make them lightly. I will freely admit, I am as guilty as the next person in line of making broad statements about Republicans, of making jokes and comments about their stupidity. But the more I watch what passes for public discourse, the more I am convinced that this endless cycle of retort and counter-retort only strengthens our enemies and destroys ourselves. It destroys the best parts of us, the empathy, the understanding, the ability to comprehend the complexity of the world by forcing our perception of that complexity into the two simple categories of Stupid and Evil. It makes us like the worst of them, like the Glenn Beck’s of the world, to whom all Muslims are potential terrorists, all Liberals traitors in waiting. Glenn Beck cannot or will not acknowledge what every Liberal should know in their bones: that there are a lot of people with a lot of beliefs, and that most of those people are fundamentally the same, with a difference in political varnish so small as to be laughably unimportant in the grand scheme of humanity. There is an old saying that you should never fight with a pig, you both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it. Why then, would we borrow these cheap and dirty tactics?

The most common response I hear when I bring these issues up is a reminder that Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin use them. As one person I know put it, “I’ll stop demonizing Conservatives when they stop jabbing me with pitchforks.” And I sympathize with that feeling. I too have friends who have been hurt by the mistaken beliefs of conservatives. I have friends who would like to marry, who cannot, whose honest love is denied by a hateful and unnecessary bigotry. I am not seeking to exculpate conservatives of the harm that they have done or the pain that they have caused. But their souls are in their own keeping, and I cannot speak to that. All I can speak to is my own people.

And it is tempting to lash out, to return blow for blow and to use their same cheap and vicious weapons against them. But it seems to me that when your justification for using these weapons is nothing more than “Well, they started it!” it is time to reconsider these tactics. What is more, I believe that the liberals are the good guys. That we stand on the right side of the lord, on the right side of the arc of the universe which is long, but which bends towards justice. But being the good guys comes at a price. Being the good guys as a nation means there are some things we cannot do, tactics of our enemies that should be barred to us by our own decency. Things like torture, and terroristic attacks on civilian populations.

And as people, as the good guys, there are tactics that are barred to us as well. It would be good politics to play the cards that Karl Rove used against John McCain in 2000, spreading the rumor that he had an out of wedlock black child. Playing on cheap morality, bigotry and slander worked for Rove. It was good politics. But it was wrong. It was evil, cheap, cruel and vicious. And the good guys don’t do that because we are the good guys, and that means something. That means we stand for something. That means we don’t just use whatever weapons come to hand but fight as cleanly as we can. We avoid the cheap shot, and the easy, callous and alienating because we know that we are not fighting monsters, but people like ourselves. And we know that we are better than they are.

At this point, I’d like to take a bit and discuss heroes. Heroes are odd creatures. Canonization, whether formal or informal, tends to strip away a bit of their humanity, making heroes into unfamiliar, almost inhuman characters. But to me, the true inspiration of a Gandhi, an MLK, an Oscar Romero or a Susan B. Anthony has been that they were only human. That we too, are capable of their courage, their vision, their humanity and compassion.

But heroes are more than figures to be posted on your wall, or convenient eunuchs to serve as subjects for reflective college essays. To hold someone as your hero means that you find in them some calling force, something that pulls you forward into more admirable actions. That they serve as a sort of prop, a support that by their example bears up your own insufficient strength. And I cannot help but believe that those who we revere as heroes would be deeply and irrevocably opposed to this mutually destructive and alienating practice of judgment and condescension. The response that I have heard to this point is that we are not Gandhi, or MLK. To which I respond that we should be thankful that our enemies are not theirs. If Martin Luther King could face the blind and vicious hatred of Bull Connor and Jim Clark and still say In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, then I think it is not too much to ask that we face the infinitely less malicious Glenn Beck with the same charity of spirit. If we cannot rise with our lesser strength to a lesser evil, then perhaps we should no longer call these men our heroes, and instead put them down as historical oddities, freaks of nature twisted by fortune into something greater than our mean strength and courage can aspire. But I do not believe that is the case. I believe that same greatness is within us. That our strength is equal to this smaller task of charity and love to which we have been called.

And finally, I would like to turn my attention to a less pleasant task. To begin, I would like to say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Fred Clark. I dream of being half the writer he is. He is one of the most humane and kind writers I have ever read, and has a generosity of spirit I envy. He is very much the sort of person I would like to someday be. But in this case, I completely disagree with him.

He writes here:

52 percent of Republicans believe that President Barack Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”
More than half of all Republicans say they believe this. The same poll found that 59 percent of Republicans believe “Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over other groups.”…The stupidity required here is just too vast, too disabling, for it to be a plausible or a possible explanation.

And that only leaves one choice: More than half of Republicans are evil. They’re lying. And lying out of malice.

Their telephone rang, they answered it and thought, “Ooh, here’s a chance to bear false witness against my neighbor” and then proceeded to do so in the hopes that it will improve their prospects for seizing political power. Because political power won by deceit and malice is so very democratic.

I’m not the one who handed Republicans this rope. I didn’t force them to tie it into a noose and slip it around their own necks. No one made them do this to themselves and no one encouraged them to do this to themselves.

So you can’t complain about my identifying them as evil here — as awful, mendacious gossips with a contempt for the democratic process. This is information about themselves that they eagerly volunteered on their own. Given the chance to respond to a poll, they proudly seized the opportunity to declare to all the world that they are malicious liars willing to embrace any slander, no matter how ridiculous, if they think it might improve their electoral hopes.

And I disagree. I do not think this people are as malicious, as evil as Mr. Clark claims. I cannot believe that anywhere from thirty to fifty million people are simply evil. Or stupid. And I say that because I know these people. There are people in my family, good, kind, generous and loving people who believe that. People who give to charity. People like my grandmother, who sends hundreds of dollars a month to orphanages in Haiti, and who sends even more to disaster relief whenever there is an earthquake or tsunami. This is not the act of an evil woman. I know many others who are charitable, kind, and loving. Good people. People who give to charity, who stop and give rides to strangers on the street. People who are the first on your doorstep in a family crisis, people who would give you the shirt off their backs without a thought or a whimper. I have seen these people, I have known them all my life in a thousand different forms.

But there is a strange characteristic of many people who are good, and honest, and hardworking. They are easily tricked. Their own honesty is such a bedrock of their lives that it does not enter into their minds that people could willingly carry on with the massive and evil lies of a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck. They trust others, believing that others are as honest as they, as good as they. And so when they are lied to, and on such a massive scale, they believe it because they cannot think so poorly of someone to believe that they are charlatans, liars and frauds. Their own charity of spirit betrays them to the vicious and predatory wolves who feed on their honest duplicity.

And here, I think, Mr. Clark has taken a stance against those whose only crime is their own honesty and trust. Do I think that in those tens of millions, they are all good and honest people? No, I’m sure there are many who fit Mr. Clark’s description of willful and self-delusional liars. But not all of them. Not most of them. Most of them are good, smart, and honest people who have been viciously and willfully lied to. And it is the liars we should attack, not those on whom they prey.

I don’t want this to be seen as an attack, or a condemnation. I am not trying to say that you are bad for calling Republicans stupid or evil. Nor am I trying to set them up as saints. Their actions have done a great deal of harm, and caused a great deal of pain. But attacking them, calling them stupid and evil, is not the path we should walk. It is the easy way, the quick and mindless way, but it is cheap. More importantly, it is driving a permanent and, I fear, dangerous wedge between us and our fellow citizens. We cannot chose those who share our country, but we can choose the methods by which we deal with them. We can — we should — be the examples, showing the tawdry and classless nature of our enemies by our own better nature. We should be seeking reconciliation and common ground across this boundary. No one has ever been convinced by being called a fool. And no one has ever been ennobled by calling someone else a fool.

We have a choice. To extend across this gap a hand of fellowship, or to stand on the brink shouting insults until the banks crumble beneath us and drop us into unknown depths. To raise the level of debate, or let it die. This is the nation that spawned Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Bull Connor and Father Coughlin, David Duke and the KKK. But for each of these vicious and demagogic monsters, there has always been an equal and greater opposing force, meeting their hatred with love, their alienation with inclusivity. Now it is our turn. We have our own battles to fight, and it is our choice whether we will take the high ground of moral consciousness, of grace, reaching out to our fallen and mistaken brethren not with condescension and rage, but with a kind and friendly hand, and move together to build a greater future.

Written by newscum

September 1, 2010 at 7:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized