Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oh Yes, They Called Him The Streak

Guest poster Neil Parille from Objectiblog tells the tale of Ayn Rand's odd reaction to a famous prank at the 1974 Academy Awards.

Objectivists often accuse non-Objectivists, anti-Objectivists and apostates from ARI Objectivism as suffering from “rationalism.” This term appears to mean something like applying principles to situations without taking into account the facts of experience. A recent example is Leonard Peikoff’s 2006 statement that anyone who considers voting Republican or abstaining from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world.” Incidentally, the term does not appear in this sense in either The Ayn Rand Lexicon or the index to Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Ellen Stuttle has drawn attention to the following from Leonard Peikoff’s 1987 talk “My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason:
About a dozen years ago, Ayn Rand and I were watching the Academy Awards on television; it was the evening when a streaker flashed by during the ceremonies. Most people probably dismissed the incident with some remark like: "He's just a kid" or "It's a high-spirited prank" or "He wants to get on TV." But not Ayn Rand. Why, her mind, wanted to know, does this "kid" act in this particular fashion? What is the difference between his "prank" and that of college students on a lark who swallow goldfish or stuff themselves into telephone booths? How does his desire to appear on TV differ from that of a typical game-show contestant? In other words, Ayn Rand swept aside from the outset the superficial aspects of the incident and the standard irrelevant comments in order to reach the essence, which has to pertain to this specific action in this distinctive setting.

"Here," she said to me in effect, "is a nationally acclaimed occasion replete with celebrities, jeweled ballgowns, coveted prizes, and breathless cameras, an occasion offered to the country as the height of excitement, elegance, glamor--and what this creature wants to do is drop his pants in the middle of it all and thrust his bare buttocks into everybody's face. What then is his motive? Not high spirits or TV coverage, but destruction--the satisfaction of sneering at and undercutting that which the rest of the country looks up to and admires." In essence, she concluded, the incident was an example of nihilism, which is the desire not to have or enjoy values, but to nullify and eradicate them.

[. . .]

Having grasped the streaker's nihilism, therefore, she was eager to point out to me some very different examples of the same attitude. Modern literature, she observed, is distinguished by its creators' passion not to offer something new and positive, but to wipe out: to eliminate plots, heroes, motivation, even grammar and syntax; in other words, their brazen desire to destroy their own field along with the great writers of the past by stripping away from literature every one of its cardinal attributes. Just as Progressive education is the desire for education stripped of lessons, reading, facts, teaching, and learning. Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality. That streaker, in short, was the very opposite of an isolated phenomenon. He was a microcosm of the principle ruling modern culture, a fleeting representative of that corrupt motivation which Ayn Rand has described so eloquently as "hatred of the good for being the good." And what accounts for such widespread hatred? she asked at the end. Her answer brings us back to the philosophy we referred to earlier, the one that attacks reason and reality wholesale and thus makes all values impossible: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
The event in question was the 1974 Academy Awards. By that time, streaking had become the national prank. Ray Stevens’ song “The Streak” had been written but not published. Based on the little evidence available to Rand that night, the most likely explanation was that the streaker was just another “kid” pulling a prank, and the Academy Awards program chosen because it would give him maximum “exposure.”

In fact, the streaker was one Robert Opel, a thirty-three year old variously described as a photographer and an advertising executive. Opel wanted to make a statement about public nudity and sexual freedom (he was for it) as well as jump-start his career. His motive, then, does not appear to have been nihilism or tearing down the Academy Awards.

Rand’s discussion of the streaker incident highlights a couple of problems common with her analysis of historical and cultural events. First, she tends to draw conclusions in the absence of evidence. Second, she tends to ascribe philosophical motivations to individuals without considering more mundane explanations. In short, it was Rand who was guilty of rationalism in this case.

In the above excerpt, Peikoff continues that hearing Rand that night inspired him to write the chapter on Weimar culture in The Ominous Parallels. This misguided work, in which Peikoff all but blames Kant for Auschwitz, illustrates the streaker problem in reverse: the facts available to the historian are so vast that determining the one philosophic principle explaining it all (if there is just one) is close to impossible. It is more likely that a number of philosophical trends converged in 1933 which, when combined with the German public’s frustration over the economy and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, resulted in the Nazi takeover. As Greg Nyquist argues in his book, if Hitler’s adversaries had adopted a better strategy, it is possible that the Nazis might not have seized power.

- Neil Parille

11 comments:

john k said...

"Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality."

This kind of physics is new to me. What is he referring to?

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi John

Dunno, but the answer to whatever it is is apparently something like this:

http://www.objectivescience.com/

Michael Prescott said...

I'm old enough to recall this incident at the Oscars, which I watched live. After the streaker crossed the stage, David Niven, who was at the microphone at the time, thanked the "gentleman" for coming on the show and "exposing his shortcomings." The timing of this quip was so perfect that I always assumed Niven had advance knowledge of the stunt, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the show's producers.

I could be wrong, of course. But this assumption makes more sense than Rand's convoluted reasoning. Although Peikoff cited her remarks as evidence of her sophistication, they're really evidence of her naivete - she seems to have assumed that the producers were shocked, shocked by a publicity stunt that would boost the profile of their program. And this from somebody who had actually worked in Hollywood!

Neil Parille said...

Michael,

From what little I could find out about it on the web, it does not appear that the Academy Awards were complicit in this stunt. Although, it is interesting that right after the stunt the guy was given clothes and after the show the Academy kept him around for interviews with the press.

What is interesting is the way Rand, as reported by Peikoff, described Hollywood. I was too young then, but I don't imagine Hollywood was held by such high esteem by the public. And why would Rand still have such a high opinion of the movie industry by 74?

____________

"Here," she said to me in effect, "is a nationally acclaimed occasion replete with celebrities, jeweled ballgowns, coveted prizes, and breathless cameras, an occasion offered to the country as the height of excitement, elegance, glamor--and what this creature wants to do is drop his pants in the middle of it all and thrust his bare buttocks into everybody's face. What then is his motive? Not high spirits or TV coverage, but destruction--the satisfaction of sneering at and undercutting that which the rest of the country looks up to and admires."

_____________

PhysicistDave said...

John K asked what Lenny Peikoff meant by:

"Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality."

John, the Ayn Rand Institute has turned into an anti-scientific cult, attacking my own scientific specialty, physics. (I have a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford, 1983.)

Their front-man in this is their staffer, David Harriman, although Peikoff is also heavily involved. For example, ARI has made available on the Web a video in which Harriman makes bizarre attacks on the theory of relativity (ARI requests a free registration before viewing) at http://realcluster.forethought.net:8080/ramgen/ari/registeredonly/physics_harriman_20031014.rm .

I find particularly bizarre Harriman’s flippant remark that a woman’s hips can be curved but that space, contra Einstein, cannot be! This nicely illustrates the level of Harriman’s scientific understanding.

Peikoff’s statement about physics is, of course, a lie. Harriman, I suspect, is self-deluded.

Incidentally, I have recently had an exchange with Diana Hsieh in her blog about this very issue ( http://www.dianahsieh.com/cgi-bin/blog/view.pl?entry=4134065179291759383 ). Diana’s comments are very revealing about the current intellectual state of the Objectivist “movement.”

Unlike relativity, there are some real philosophical problems with quantum mechanics; however, these are not simply due to bad philosophical premises. A lot of us physicists (starting with Einstein) who are unhappy with the current structure of QM have worked long and hard to “fix” quantum mechanics. No one has yet succeeded.

Real intellectual and scientific work is hard.

Which may explain why ARI has chosen to turn in a blatantly and openly anti-scientific, anti-intellectual direction – it simply takes less work. It’s the path of least resistance.

Of course, the end result is the intellectual self-immolation of Objectivism.

All the best,

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

P.S. You may want to read the comments on Diana's blog soon -- looks like I will shortly be banned, and she may delete the whole embarrassing (to ARI) thread.

Dave

gregnyquist said...

physicistdave: "the Ayn Rand Institute has turned into an anti-scientific cult, attacking my own scientific specialty, physics."

I'm not in the least surprised about this, since they've been doing that in the social sciences and the humanities since their inception. Just look what Salsman is doing in economics. Ironically, they have become quasi-Kantian in the sense that instead of constructing reality via Kant's categories they construct it via Rand's. In any case, they cannot be accepted as realists: realists don't impose their principles on reality in the manner of the agenda-driven ARI crowd.

"Incidentally, I have recently had an exchange with Diana Hsieh in her blog."

Thanks for the link. I will have to do a post on this at some future date, since it goes straight to main reason for my opposition to Objectivism.

There's also a ridiculous video that has excerpts from Harriman's lectures here. I don't know enough about QM to comment on what Harriman says (or about the authors he quotes), but some of the philosophical comments from "croperb" are naive and foolish. His belief that physical reals on the QM level (or any other, for that matter) must follow the laws of logic demonstrates the incompatibility of Aristoleanism with modern science.

john k said...

"Unlike relativity, there are some real philosophical problems with quantum mechanics; however, these are not simply due to bad philosophical premises. A lot of us physicists (starting with Einstein) who are unhappy with the current structure of QM have worked long and hard to “fix” quantum mechanics. No one has yet succeeded."

Yes, I gather that there are problems with QM but - beyond the fact that its implications are downright weird - I'm too ignorant to understand what the problems are.

PhysicistDave said...

john k wrote:

>Yes, I gather that there are problems with QM but - beyond the fact that its implications are downright weird - I'm too ignorant to understand what the problems are.

Ah, John, it's not just you! The real problem is that the brightest physicists in the world are too ignorant to understand what the problems with QM are!

Reality seems to be really complicated.

Dave

Cavewight said...

It is not necessarily the case that a number of philosophical trends converged in 1933 Germany. There were strong elements of belief that were not philosophical, they were mystically oriented beliefs in the occult based in Germanic myths and ancient symbols. Such myths were highly attractive to Germany citizens because they formed essential parts of their cultural zeitgeist.

Anonymous said...

Thirty years of daily amphetamine and nicotine use and this what happens.