Saturday, February 25, 2012

We, The Living

Hey, here's something to make the majority of readers break out in hives and gnash their teeth:

I like Ayn Rand.

Okay, now here's something to make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave while breaking out in hives and gnashing her teeth:

I don't think you have to accept all of her ideas to find value in some of them.

I read Anthem in 7th grade, which would have made me, say, 12. By the end of 8th grade, I'd plowed through the twin giants The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and by high school I was making my way through the non-fiction like it was my job.  No, seriously, it was like a part-time job.  It was a laborious slog through a forest of "epistemological" this and "metaphysical" that, and required some crash-coursing in works by  Kant and Nietschze, plus economic theory, soviet history, etc.  Looking back I can say with some certainty that I wasn't fully equipped to absorb Thus Spake Zarathustra at 14 but man, did I try.  It was weird times.

But anyway, like many a teenager before me, I got my knickers all in a twist about Ayn Rand. I won a couple of scholarship essay contests through the Ayn Rand Institute, then promptly used the money to pay for housing while I attended a tuition-free school whose founder promoted the very un-Objectivist notion that "education should be as free as air and water."  Oh irony, you devil.

In my experience, a lot of people loved Ayn Rand in their youth, and why not?  She's just the thing for your teenagedly rebellious nerd. The conviction, the autonomy, the suave condescension, and oh man, the selfishness.  You know, all the things you explore as a teenager, but tidy and controlled and attractively intellectual for kids who don't get off on piercings and Mad Dog 20/20.

Usually it ends one of two ways:  You get metaphorically punched in the face by real life, realize that the world is a nuanced and amazing and sometimes grossly unfair place, swing way to the left politically, and only admit to your Rand obsession as a sort of embarrassing folly of youth, or you're blessed with smooth sailing in life, vote for people who want to create a flat tax and keep a picture of yourself shaking hands with Alan Greenspan over your desk like some kind of Libertarian-leaning Bat Signal. (For the record, I enrolled as a Libertarian when I first registered to vote at 18.  I did not, however, vote for Harry Brown that year).

For my part, I still make a point of reading Atlas Shrugged every year, and it functions for me now in a lot of the same ways it did then as delicious, delicious brain porn.  In the world of Dagny and Hank, and yes, John Galt, there is nothing sexier than being smart, talented, proficient.  Well, actually, several passages suggest that a little light S&M might be sexier to them, but that's neither here nor there.

In all seriousness, here are a couple of lessons that stuck with me, albeit somewhat altered or expanded, from those days:

1. There is a value in selfishness.   It's a particularly Rand-ish idea, but I think she had a fairly myopic view of what that means, or at the very least described it in such a cartoonishly flattened way that a lot of people did it wrong. We need to think critically about what that means.  I'm talking real selfishness, the kind where you take the time to understand who you are, what you value, and what you need,  both in the immediate sense and the bigger picture.  We think of selfishness as inherently anti-other-people, but that's a pretty terrible piece of logic unless you're capable of compartmentalizing so severely that you barely have a concept of cause and effect.  Here's an example:  During the first snowstorm of the season, the city didn't call a parking ban because it was supposed to be a minor storm.  It ended up being pretty significant.  I depend on street parking, and live in an area where it's very limited.  When snow doesn't get cleared, there's less parking.  So while it's inconvenient to find a place to park off-street and conventional selfishness means not inconveniencing myself, in the big picture, doing right by everyone and moving my car benefits me the most.  Here's a broader example: I'm not a sociopath, so I dislike seeing or making other people suffer.  I have a selfish interest in living in a just world where people are well treated.  Women who vote Republican, people on Medicare who vote for politicians who promise cuts to entitlement programs, people who claim they love their children who deny climate change: these are people who could stand to be a little more selfish.

Which would require...

2. Valuing thinking.  No joke, the false dichotomy of being a critical thinker/educated/smart or being a "regular person" needs to be killed with fire.  In the past year, the number of letters to the editor in which someone has bragged that they don't have some stupid education has exploded, and it's a real crazy-maker.  You don't have to be a super-genius to be a thinker, but remember this gem from the NYT Magazine quoting Karl Rove?:

[Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN REGULAR PEOPLE ABDICATE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO THINK.  Evil geniuses decide they can literally hijack reality.  I think that's grossly optimistic, but it's been proven a bazillion times that they can hijack the popular perception of reality which is dangerously close.  And if you think for even a second that someone who thinks like this is remotely interested in what happens to your life, you're not a "regular joe" you're a numbskull.

I'm going to create a feedback loop here and suggest that you read this, a blog entry by a friend and delightful thinker.  It links back to here, but I promise it's not quid pro quo -- I just don't feel like doubling up the good work he's already done.

I'm a traitor by real Objectivist standards. It is, after all, an ideology that insists you take it whole or leave it, but I still credit Ayn Rand with sparking a lot of the big picture thinking that informs who I am now and giving me permission to have enough ego to survive my early teens with my self-esteem in tact.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

War of the Worlds

I submit for your consideration that not every disagreement is a war.

But let's indulge a little parable:  One of the most adorable couples in my little burg we'll call Hank and Betsy.  They're autistic and met while working in a hospital cafeteria.  They've been married for roughly 20 years now and on their anniversary Betsy wears a taffeta prom dress for the day.  Every morning at 4 a.m. they go to a popular local diner for breakfast.

Ten years ago, they'd come in every morning and order coffee, then Hank would order a full breakfast.  He'd eat in silence while Betsy lustfully watched every forkful go from the plate to his mouth.  

One day the owner of the diner asked, "How come Betsy doesn't get breakfast? Aren't you hungry, Betsy?"

Hank looked up.  "We can only afford one." 

"So why do you always get to eat but Betsy doesn't?" asked the owner.

"Because I'm the man," answered Hank, and continued munching away.  It was clear that in his mind, this was a perfectly reasonable, logical answer.

"That's not very fair, Hank," said the owner. "Both of you work to get the money but only one of you gets breakfast.  Next time, how about I make two plates and split the food so you both get to eat?"

This was an arrangement that hadn't occurred to Hank before.  In his literal world, informed by the traditional culture he was raised in, the breakfast inequity issue was simply a non-starter.  He wasn't crazy about the proposed arrangement, even though he rarely finished the whole meal.  When quizzed, he liked the idea of being nice to Betsy, but the prospect of changing the established dynamic was unsettling just on the face of it.

The million dollar question, then: Did the diner owner's proposal constitute a war on Hank's worldview?

For those of you on the fence, the answer is no. Come on, now.

Likewise, there is no war on faith in this country despite indignant cries to the contrary.  This bears repeating: There is no war on faith in this country.

People of faith are largely unaware of the extent to which their worldview dominates the discourse. God casually saturates everything: our money, our oaths, our sneezes.  On the national "war on faith" stage (with "faith," by the way being code for "Judeo-Christian faith, preferably less Judeo but at least that Old Testament was a page turner") they like to point this out as though the rest of us haven't noticed, as though not complaining abut the little stuff somehow means that speaking up about the big issues is hypocritical.  We have, and it isn't.

I am generally a laissez faire atheist. I don't believe in god and I find it difficult to understand how and why other people do.  But they do, so okay. My grandparents were exceptionally devout and it brought them a measure of comfort, something I don't begrudge anyone.  Where things start to get problematic for 
me is when religious dogma creeps into public policy. Thing is, it's been creeping (and occasionally crashing around like a bull in a china shop) for years and is currently manifesting in a particularly unsavory way.  Protesting this is very different than executing an unprovoked assault.  In fact, unlike, say, evangelical Christians, the opposition voices aren't arguing that people abandon their beliefs, they're asking them not to use their beliefs as a bludgeoning tool in the service of ulterior motives.

Let's think of it in fun, retro-marketing terms: God-drunk politicians are all, "Hey, stop trying to get your peanut butter in my chocolate!" but everyone who doesn't share their faith is like, "Dude, your chocolate's been all up in my peanut butter for years now and I've tried to be accommodating, but dang!"

Yes, for a lot of people their faith informs their ethics, but when you start applying your ethical guidelines to public policy, you best make sure you have a better reason for espousing them than, "Because a bunch of long-dead or possibly never-living guys wrote a book that told me so."

As I watch the slow-motion trainwreck that is the Republican nominating process, it strikes me that the figureheads crying "War on Faith!" are purportedly acting on faith-based ethics, yet their positions are pretty wildly out of step with the ethics of many of the self-described faithful among the electorate.  The question of whether that portion of the electorate is apostate is for that community to decide, but it's more likely that they   find it reasonable to understand their faith in a contemporary context instead of blindly applying standards dictated thousands of years and half a world away.

So what to do when you're a politician who's such a wackadoo that you're alienating even your usually conservative and agreeable base?  Find a scapegoat and try to convince everybody to circle the wagons.  Doctor up a false choice.  Equate examined and thoughtful moral stances with godlessness.  Make sure they have to choose between their identity as a believer and their dirty, dirty modern ideas.  If possible, try to get people less polarizing than you to promote this idea so it has a patina of credibility and the debate winds up such a muck of hate and accusation that everyone's too tired to suss out who the real enemy is.