Friday, September 28, 2012

The problem with Andrew Sullivan (and American public culture), Exhibit A

Re: Catholicism and the Romney/Ryan ticket, Sullivan writes:

A small word of thanks to Cardinal Dolan, Robert George and K-Lo for helping shift the Catholic vote massively toward Obama with their summer campaign for religious liberty. And special thanks to Paul Ryan. No actual Catholic could ever find anything but puerile cruelty in the works of Ayn Rand, or rally to the idea that home-care for the elderly should be sacrificed to reduce tax rates for the super-rich. Paul Ryan believes that the basic principles of Rand can be compatible with Catholicism. American Catholics are just not that dumb or confused about their faith.

Hoo boy. Where does one even begin?

It's like he takes pride in being ignorant.

He's not alone.

The outright distortion of Ayn Rand's ideas in our popular culture has become a persistent, pathological pattern.  Are people really this bad at understanding even an accessible philosopher?  Do differences in philosophical viewpoint (namely in regard to her advocacy of capitalism and her concept of egoism) license the non-stop barrage of outrageous and intellectually incompetent smears that have been leveled against Rand and her ideas?  I don't know if I've ever seen anyone else so thoroughly and recklessly smeared as Rand, or ideas so thoroughly smeared as Objectivist ones, and in a manner so insensitive to context in either case.  Even Rand's horrible polemics against Kant hit closer to home than these ridiculous commentaries do.  This is some fucked up shit, there's just no mincing words here.  It is a sadder commentary on the state of our culture, than anything.  A culture of people who thought like Rand did would be way too Aristotelian to come anywhere close to being this fucked-up.

We have a leading public-affairs blogger in Andrew Sullivan, who can't so much as be bothered to get a clue about an intellectual who has become a prominent figure in the American public discourse.  I can't imagine this kind and degree of widespread piss-poor treatment of her ideas happening, were she around to defend herself and speak for herself as she was in the 1960s.  There simply would be no way that these people could get away with it.  In the present day, what accountability will Sullivan face for his blatantly idiotic comment?

How do we expect to have an intelligent discussion of public affairs and move the dialogue forward if standards have fallen this low?

In addition to this here blog, there's intellectually responsible, high-quality Rand-interpretive literature out there, for those who have such considerable shortcomings in reading comprehension skills as not to understand Rand's ideas first-hand.  (I mean, these bloggers, commentators, op-ed writers, et al, don't seem to even minimally grasp what Rand said much less meant, it's that fucking bad.)  Such literature includes:

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, eds., The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (University of Illinois Press, 1984)

Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1991)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State Press, 1995)

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies - various articles by such authors as Roger Bissell, Stephen Hicks, Lester Hunt, Roderick Long, Douglas Rasmussen, and others (1999-present)

* Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (Lexington Books, 2006)

Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (Lexington Books, 2009)

Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, eds., Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand's Normative Theory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)

Leonard Peikoff, Understanding Objectivism (1983 lecture course edited by Michael Berliner) (New American Library, 2012)

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry (Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, 2012)

Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., Ayn Rand: A Companion to Her Works and Thought (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming)

* - One essay in this collection the smear-artists may be especially interested in evading is Andrew Bernstein's "Understanding the 'Rape' Scene in The Fountainhead."

Any respectable, comprehensive, scholarly work on Ayn Rand's ideas in the future will have to engage this secondary literature.  The recent books by Jennifer BurnsAnne Heller, and Gary Weiss hardly (if at all) touch upon this literature in any meaningful way.

(Nearly a dozen works just right there - that's a lot of literature for so many Rand-commentators to be ignoring!  Is it mere coincidence?  Is it sufficient for them to read only the two big novels while skimming the speeches?  Is this how scholarship or journalism is done these days?  Is Rand only of interest because of her influence, not because of what the best interpretative commentaries have to say, and regardless of how well her professed admirers understand and apply her ideas?  Does the fact of her large influence still excuse the shoddiness of their own descriptions of her ideas?  Is Marx's influence on the Soviets the basis on which we should talk about Marx's ideas, while having next to zero grasp of what Marx actually said or meant?  Let's also not forget to ask: How would an Aristotelianized culture approach Rand's ideas?  Better yet, what would our hypothetical present-day Aristotle say about Rand's ideas?  No one seems to want to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.  Why?  Have they just not been imaginative enough to even raise or ponder such a question?  Has it never occurred to them to ask themselves, "What would the great philosophers say on issue X?"  If so, why?  We've got a decadent culture that would make Franklin and Jefferson puke; wouldn't they be interested in the reasons and causes?  I mean, everyone who's given it a moment's thought knows that Jefferson and Franklin would puke if they saw what's become of the Republic.  Would Jefferson and Franklin and Aristotle dare to ignore the secondary Rand literature, or to go out of their way to misinterpret the primary literature?  Would they ever take pride in being ignorant?  What, am I the crazy one here?)


There is also the matter of smears of Ayn Rand the person, some of which are so disgusting, so reprehensible, so vicious, so intellectually and morally negligent, that they shouldn't even have to be addressed, but there are a couple smears that keep circulating around the internets which have the potential to mislead some well-meaning people.  (The original propagators of these smears are not committing honest errors in the midst of a spirit of objectivity, accuracy, fairness, context, or anything like these noble things.  They are malicious and shameful characters.)  These smears are:

1. "Ayn Rand, despite espousing a limited government philosophy, accepted Social Security and Medicare benefits in her old age."  This is alleged proof of hypocrisy on her part.  However, there is a publicly-available statement by Miss Rand on the subject of accepting government monies or benefits.  (Her argument is problematic for other reasons - namely as to whether one has a right to accept government benefits depending on the contents of the recipients' beliefs - but not on the grounds she gave for its being morally permissible to accept government benefits.)

Evidence that this smear arises from malicious intent: (A) The smear-propagators didn't do any thorough fact-checking to determine whether Rand was in fact acting against her principles.  They could have at the least contacted the Ayn Rand Institute for comment, as a responsible fact-gatherer would.  (B) The revelation that Rand accepted these benefits was contained in a book, 100 Voices: The Oral History of Ayn Rand.  (This book was released in part to counter some of the negative things said about Rand published in the Burns and Heller books; there are legitimate concerns about the editorial decisions for 100 Voices to "suppress" more negative testimonials given that the testimonials included are almost overwhelmingly positive.  The book is, however, a needed counter-balance to the negative commentaries.  The ARI could hardly anticipate how the content of 100 Voices would be used by unscrupulous assholes to add further to the anti-Rand commentary out there.)  The use of this revelation was highly selective, taken out of the context of the entire book.  The honorable thing to do at the very least would have been to mention the essential content of the rest of the book along with this factoid.  One thing these dishonorable sonsofbitches decided to ignore was testimonial from Allan Gotthelf, a leading Aristotle scholar and student of Rand, who said that attending Rand's epistemology "workshops" was "the equivalent of having Aristotle in the room."  (I suppose one can excuse the sonsofbitches given their ignorance of Gotthelf and his work so as not to realize what an eyebrow-raiser his comment was.  That then makes them ignorant sonsofbitches in addition to being dishonorable ones for the reasons stated above.)

2. Ayn Rand "worshipped a child-murderer, using him as a model for her heroes."  I submit that this smear is malicious on the face of it.  First off, Rand's commentary on Hickman was contained in her journals, published as Journals of Ayn Rand in 1997.  These juicy journal entries were just sitting there for a decade for any intellectual thug to come along and seize upon, and yet no one bothered to notice them.  Well, actually, no.  Serious Rand scholars knew about them.  After all, Sciabarra noticed and made mention of it; this is even footnoted for easy access right there on the Hickman wikipedia page.  Strangely enough, Sciabarra didn't draw the conclusion that Rand modeled her heroes on Hickman.  I wonder why?  Oh, that's right.  It's because Sciabarra is literally obsessed (as is any cognitively healthy thinker or scholar) with the whole notion of context, motherfuckers.  As in, what is the context (historical, literary, whatever factors come to bear on it) of Rand's intellectual development?  Were Rand's later thoughts and writings a reaction to or repudiation of her earlier thoughts?  Hell, did Rand even do anything like "worship" the child-murderer?  I have to admit, the Journals are something I didn't really get into; I think the Letters are much better and more interesting (actually, downright engaging - a rare truly-must-read, literary river of gold, etc.) as a look into Rand's development as a thinker (and her awesomeness as a human being).  All truth be told, I found the Journals boring enough that once I put it down I could hardly pick it up.  But I had to go back and look because this whole Hickman thing didn't really draw me in the first time around ca. '97.  And now I know why: because Hickman's role in her intellectual development was so inconsequential.  And her comments on Hickman couldn't even remotely - not honestly - be considered "worship."  Her journal entries in this regard were ramblings that mainly focused on something she found awry about the society's reaction not simply to his murderous ways but to his defiant ways, namely, that he didn't care what society thought, and that's what made people so much more angry at him.  The "don't care what others think" does show up in the character of Howard Roark but in the best way possible, not in the socio/psychopathic sense that the idiots keep smearing Rand with.

Anyway, these journal entries go unnoticed for over a decade because the lazy idiots never bothered to read any Sciabarra.  But the subject comes up in the Burns book, and all of a sudden they're a big deal. But what's this now?  They focus their attention on the Burns book, but it's a selective and out-of-context focus.  There are other Rand books that have come out in temporal proximity to Burns's.  There's Prof. Smith's 2006 book, there's 100 Voices, there's Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism just recently published, there's all those books listed above.  Are we seriously expected to believe that the smear-mongers just accidentally failed to notice this other literature?

These people would make Socrates and Aristotle just fucking puke their guts out.

Which necessarily calls forth the following question, in the context of this blog entry's original focus: What would Aristotle think of Andrew Sullivan and The Dish?  Would he be all that impressed?  Is "Bias and Balanced" an Aristotelian sort of masthead, whatever the humorous intent?  Would Aristotle appreciate Sullivan's excruciatingly concrete-bound way of filling up his blog with short-range-focused trivia pertaining to the political news cycle, or would he consider that to be a massive waste of time given the long-range focus of philosophy?  At some point a philosopher sees enough concretes to be able to identify the principle involved, and move further up the cognitive ladder integrating those principles, as (abstract) units themselves, with other principles.  It's called unit-economy, motherfuckers, and it's supposed to characterize, as a norm, the specifically human mode of mental functioning.  (How else do you think Rand achieved a river-of-gold writing style as evidenced by these Lexicon entries?  By filling up pages with a large number of intellectually redundant units?  You do realize how the "Perfectivism" book presently in the works aims to condense a lot of useful information into a short amount of space, right?  Why settle for anything less than a page-turner, amiright?)  There was a time when I would learn things from reading The Dish, but that time has passed; I've integrated and essentialized the gist of it and moved on to making broader integrations and essentializations.

Note again that The Dish is a "leading" public-affairs blog - in a broken, proto-dystopian culture in which mainstream debates on "the issues" can be only so intelligent.  But the issue - The Issue - is the broken culture itself.  It is a culture that could really shape up with a generous injection of Aristotelianism in particular and habituated (automatized), unit-economizing, essentialized critical thinking in general.   Ayn Rand wrote that the highest responsibility of philosophers is to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge (ITOE).  Now that sounds right up Aristotle's alley, dunnit?  By contrast, all that Sullivan can seem to muster, at least in regard to Ayn Rand, is puerility.

P.S. Toward the end of my previous blog entry I asked the following: "Ever hear one mention - one fucking mention - of Tara Smith's, or Peikoff's, or Sciabarra's work in the lamestream media?  On the usual "liberal" news sites like the Huffington Post?  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish?"  We now have our answer: No, of course he wouldn't mention these works; he's proudly ignorant of them.  But he will throw in some gratuitious, arbitrary and vicious remarks about an Ayn Rand that doesn't remotely resemble the Ayn Rand discussed in these works, much less the Ayn Rand as understood by probably a great many of his readers.  I guess he just doesn't give a shit.  What else might he be spouting off ignorantly about?  Hmmm?