Monday, May 7, 2007

The Witchfinder General

Today's adventure takes us through a very long thread, one that spans five pages. To keep our discussion within managable limits, we must cherrypick only the very bestest comments.

The thread in question, "Poll: Did Rand Make Any Mistakes?", certainly sounds promising. But what really makes it interesting is not the tedious debate about whether or not Rand was right in saying that the game of chess does not require conceptual thinking (!), or the even more tedious debate about whether or not Rand was right in regarding Charlie's Angels as a great TV show (!!), but the dustup between the Randian diehards and a dissenting voice of (dare we say it?) reason.

The dissenter makes his presence known with this statement:
I used to be an Objectivist, but time - and other Objectivists - cured that.
His name is Jay Andrew Allen, and he identifies himself as "Writer. Father. Witch."


Oh, you just know the Randinistas ain't gonna stand for that. It doesn't take long before one of them, a certain JD, enters the arena to do battle with the apostate.
This commentator illustrates the very worst characteristics of some people found on the fringes of Objectivism. A close reading of these comments can help to spot them early in their antilife cycle. They are originally attracted as outcasts and then later condemn the philosophy out of their irrational vindictiveness at being rejected again. They are like a previous cigarette smoker that crusades against smoking pleasures or a communist like [Whittaker] Chambers who is hired to attack socialism as an intimate insider. Obviously their inherent character defects make any comments they make so much garbage but it's still important to see them.

Wow. "Inherent character defects ... irrational vindictiveness ... antilife ... outcasts ... garbage." Tell us what you really think, JD!

Jay Andrew Allen, hereafter Jay, responds with remarkable poise.

Look, I had no dishonest intentions. At the time, Objectivism was appealing. I wanted to swallow it all. Really, I did. My thought just took too divergent a path.Objectivism is a powerful draw for an alienated, unconfident teenager lost in a world where few people are willing to take a stand on anything. Then again, so is Socialism.... Both movements have a great many similarities in the tenor of their world views and the behavior of their adherents. I've been eavesdropping on the WSM discussion list for a few weeks now, and sometimes it's like deja vu all over again.

No one's to blame for what I was and did, and nothing and no one could have changed it; it had to run its course. All I'll say on that score is that, or years, I was surrounded by people who bragged about how rational, productive, dynamic and *happy* they were. Over time, however, everybody's deeply-troubled selves (including mine) eventually bubbled up to the fore, and I learned what Shakespeare meant by a tale full of Sound and fury.Most Objectivists I knew were more like Richard Cory than Howard Roark.

Who, one might ask, is Richard Cory? He is the subject of a poem of the same name by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich,—yes, richer than a king,—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yep. Sounds like a Randist, all right. Except for the part about being rich, successful, graceful, admired, and a gentleman.

Jay goes on to say:
A closed system, like dogmatic Objectivism, has an even richer aura (a deep-blue aura - like an angel, or a bug zapper), combining as it does a "complete" set of ideas for living one's life with the veneration of a Christ-like figure whose every moral transgression is whitewashed or ignored. Dogmatic Objectivism is religion for the religiously disillusioned.
Ouch. That's gonna leave a mark. If there's one thing Randolators cannot abide, it's being called religious disciples.

Here we pause for a somewhat irrelevant comment by one Tupac Chopra, who expresses the deep love of humanity for which Ayndroids everywhere are known:
The Enlightenment idea that we are all "creatures of God" and possess the same capacity for rational thought is a joke. The hordes of men who have gone, are going, and will continue to go to their graves having lived as nothing more than herd animals attests to this fact.IT'S NOT GETTING BETTER FOLKS.
Herd animals, all of us - except the Randibrillators.

Dave O'Hearn agrees:
I'm pretty much consigned to that. Talking to people on the Internet, I almost forget that there are so many damned people in the real world that believe in God, not to mention their ridiculous positions in other areas. I rarely attempt a good discussion with anyone in real life, as they probably aren't as smart or interesting as people here, but when I do, I am very disappointed.
You can bet they're disappointed in you, too, Danny boy. With very good reason. Not that you care what all those "damned people in the real world" think, since they "aren't as smart or interesting" as the dateless losers on Usenet.

Now back to Jay the witch and his enemies, who are clearly eager to burn him at the stake.

Regarding Jay's comments on why Objectivism lost its appeal for him, someone named Dean writes,
This is all as pathetic a "psychological confession" as we could hope to (not) ever see on h.p.o.When someone like him shows up on your doorstep whining for acceptance as he does, you don't make excuses and you don't tolerate his appearance there. As with a bum showing up to whine for money, while implying his contempt for your virtues that gained you your wealth, you don't necessarily even tell him what you think of him. You _do_ quickly shut the door.
Well, now we know how Randists treat all those "bums" who go around "whining for money" and "implying their contempt for your virtues." Who says the milk of human kindness doesn't flow through Randian veins?

Jay is asked to provide evidence that Objectivists have a malevolent outlook on life. Instead of simply quoting the above passages, he writes,
What evidence is there for my statement? There's Rand herself, who's obviously stuffed full of hate. Objectivists continue to ignore the mountain of evidence that's accumulated about how bitter and lonely she was, dismissing her detractors as having an axe to grind. (Never mind that the people who were close to her, such as Peikoff, have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of her rationality. That never enters an Objectivist's mind, for some reason.) Aside from personal anecdotes, however, you can see it in her published writings and speeches. Outside a select circle, she hated the world.And then, of course, there's Peikoff and his cohorts, who all behave like children. Their behavior is fully documented - you just refuse to recognize it.... No one can seriously dispute this, of course. Rand's hatred of most of humanity is apparent in all of her work, notably Atlas Shrugged, which ends with the death of most of the American populace (all those damned people who believe in God). It's a happy ending, triumphant even, because the heroes have won.
In response to another silly tirade, Jay says sensibly:
I'm sorry, Tym, but I'm not naive enough to believe that the philosophical discourse of 2500 years suddenly stops because a chain-smoking Russian with a nasty attitude spilled some ink.
The antagonistic tone of the witchfinders is so obvious that Ken Gardner is moved to point it out:
Many Objectivists have never learned how to disagree in a rational and civil manner, much less accept the fact that in Real Life, disagreement on philosophical issues is inevitable. They often react to the fact of disagreement with anger, hostility, and a zeal to condemn. They take for granted many philosophical premises that are either unknown or disputed by the vast majority of people. They often engage in a practice that even Ayn Rand condemned, although she herself often practiced it herself: psychologizing. Many of them, including here on HPO, are not immune from making illogical arguments and committing common logical fallacies. They are more concerned with being consistent with something Rand or Peikoff wrote than with being consistent with the facts of reality. They are quick to pass judgment -- almost always moral condemnation -- without taking the time or trouble to understand correctly what their opponent is actually saying. They often condemn without first attempting to explain rationally why they disagree and without first giving the other guy a chance to respond and/or correct any mistake. And their tone is almost universally bitter, hostile, and angry. The result of all this is that it takes a very special type of person even to endure these people for more than a few days or weeks -- which is not exactly the way to promote Objectivism in our culture.
All of which - every word - is indubitably true. Another sensible person, Jim Klein, seconds the emotion:

How come every single other rational being on the planet can see these things, but you guys--supposedly the most "reality-focused" - somehow never come to see them? Has it even occurred to you that maybe you have ERRED?? That maybe you've been FOOLED by something?? That perhaps you've fallen into the same faith-trap that you accuse everyone else of?

Well, no...that hasn't occurred to you, has it? That's because you _have_ been caught in precisely that trap. When things don't occur to you, when there are things that others see and you don't, when you find yourself incessantly rationalizing and evading...that's when you may _know_ that you've fallen into such a trap. But that only matters if you _want_ to know stuff, and the simple fact is that you - and the rest of the Brotherhood - don't. You want to _believe_; you want to _defend_; you want to be loyal....

Don't you know that we all likely got good grades in school, that we all test out as extremely bright, that we're each and every one seeking the truth? Do you really think you're of a different class--more "reality focused"--because of a bunch of BOOKS that you read? Get real ...

You guys _say_ that man is the rational animal but when the rational animal points out how full of shit you are, suddenly he's not rational any more. You guys take hypocrisy to levels never seen before on Earth. ...

You need to deal with the _fact_ that no matter how much you like Betsy or Tym orDean, they spew nothing but complete imbecility. They are the Masters of Assertion, so completely blind to the facts--about nearly everything--that there's nothing left for them to do but DECLARE rationality, objectivity and happiness....

Stop being an adherent and be a _thinker_. And don't even consider coming back at me like you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. _Everyone_ knows what the hell I'm talking about and nearly everyone--except your starry-eyed comrades--knows that I'm right.

The ubiquitous Betsy Speicher, who crops up on a variety of Rand-related boards in order to genuflect before the Goddess of Reason, tells Jay that he's wrong about Objectivism attracting unhappy people. She's very happy, she says, and always has been. Very happy. Very, very happy. Very, very, very happy. Not that she protests too much or anything.

Jay politely replies,

Betsy, I'm not one to judge how happy you are. I have seen and heard of many Objectivists - including Rand herself - who claimed to be happy, but who are obviously miserable. Kudos if you're not one of them.

From everything I've seen, all that Objectivism does for an alienated, isolated and troubled teen is to make her MORE alienated, isolated and troubled. Dogmatic Objectivist's swiftness to moral condemnation does not create an environment in which a budding adult can work out developmental issues from childhood - just the opposite, it encourages their *repression*.

You do not give your run-of-the-mill teen an ideology which cuts them off intellectually from their culture, and demands that they make moral judgment in great haste and in absence of all the facts (as was done during both the Kelley and the Reisman/Packer splits) - and expect that good things will happen.

Pretty darn civil for a witch. He casts no spells, inveighs no curses. We hear nary a bubble from his cauldron. But Jay's preternatural politeness becomes frayed as the attacks continue.

Okay, I'm sick and tired of this.The tacit assumption in this entire thread is: Of COURSE Jay didn't APPLY Objectivism. He just "latched onto" it, like a leech or a suckling infant. If he had APPLIED it, nothing but good things would have resulted - he'd be a Prince Among Men by now, a Man for All Seasons, instead of the "irrational" schlep he is now. It's insulting, it's condescending bordering on religiously fanatic, and it's plain FALSE. And I'm amazed it's being put forward by people who KNEW me, and SAW how hard I struggled to integrate these principles into my life....I met several good, decent people in the Objectivist movement. Unfortunately, they don't run the show - the alienated, unconfident, hateful, vitriolic people do....Good Goddess. Quit acting like "philosophy" == "the philosophy of Ayn Rand". There are more stars in Heaven and Earth, Horatio. You are an intellectual MINORITY - why don't you recognize that and act accordingly? Many rational people's philosophies are quite unlike yours. This does not *a priori* make every non-Objectivist interested in philosophy an intellectual compatriot of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot....

Once again, you treat Objectivism like religion, and claim that anyone who's "seen the light" can't POSSIBLY disagree with Ayn Rand. This is why the rest of the rational world finds you so pitiable.

Pressed to explain what he could possibly disagree with in Rand's faultless vision, Jay gives a long, almost comprehensive answer. It's too long to quote in full, but here are excerpts:

I don't think Objectivism is the be-all and end-all of philosophical discourse. I don't think Plato, Hume, Kant et. al. were evil whim-worshipers whose philosophies brought us the Nazi party and the Khmer Rouge - they were honest intellectuals who took their observations about reality and drew reasonable conclusions from them. I'm a fan of Hegelian-style dialectic: I believe Hume's intense skepticism has a rational purpose, even if you don't hide under your blanket shivering in fear because you think the sun might not rise.

Epistemologically, I disagree that ratiocination is the only valid mental activity for man. As Buddhists and Hindus have known for centuries, there's often great value in telling your mind to shut the hell up. Try meditating....

I agree that man is a rational, volitional animal, but I can't buy that he is ONLY a rational animal; there is something transcendent in his nature.

There is much more, but the point is that he gives his critics exactly what they have asked for - a clear, precise, detailed critique of Randist orthodoxy. Do any of his adversaries return the favor by engaging him in a serious way? Nope.

But we do get this smug love note from JD to Betsy:
Congratulations on your tolerant approach to this commentator [i.e., Jay]. You obviously know him better than the rest of us and find some possibility of good character traits in his future if he is given time to grow up. It appears that from your knowledge you think that he may overcome the new age mystical/magical witch socialism he babbles on about in this thread. I would guess that you are probably too love of life optimistic as was Ayn Rand in some of her close relations but congratulations on the tolerant attempt anyway.
Yeah, it's awful tolerant of the enlightened elite to "find some possibility of good character traits" in someone who disagrees with 'em. Just give the poor bastard "time to grow up" - never mind that Jay has already said he is a husband and father with a prosperous business. Not to mention, a witch.

Actually, come to think of it, this grudging attempt at tolerance is a step forward. Had JD, Tupac, and Dave been in charge of the proceedings at Salem, poor Jay would be the guest of honor at the town barbecue.

And somewhere in the woods, in a gingerbread house, a wicked humpbacked crone named Ayn Rand would be cackling malignantly over a hot stove.