Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 11

Heresy. Heresy is a concept generally related to religion. It refers to views that flout doctrinal orthodoxy. Such ideas are often considered dangerous, evil, and thoroughly wicked. They must be denounced and perhaps even put down by force. In Objectivism, the notion of heresy finds a secular equivalent in the view that most of the ideas opposed by Randian orthodoxy are evil. Since ideas determine the course of history, ideas leading to bad or evil outcomes are considered especially “horrendous.”

This view is used, among other things, to justify Rand’s anger. “Ayn Rand not infrequently became angry at me over some philosophical statement I made that seemed to ally me with one of the intellectual movements she was fighting,” confessed Leonard Peikoff in his short memoir “My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand.” ”Since her [Rand’s] mind immediately integrated a remark to the fundamentals it presupposes, she would project at once, almost automatically, the full, horrendous meaning of what I had uttered, and then she would be shocked at me.”

This “justification” of Rand’s anger is important, because Rand’s anger is a weapon Rand used to keep her disciples in line. That it was taken to absurd lengths can be heard in question and answer periods in which Rand participated. Anyone who ventured to submit any question in the least challenging would go out of his way to insist he did not advocate any of the philosophical implications of the challenge. Even then, Rand would sometimes go ballistic and attack the questioner. Ludwig von Mises and his wife were shocked at Rand’s conduct toward questioners when they attended a lecture in the early sixties.

That this notion of denouncing people, not merely for their views, but especially for the implications of their views, is highly mischievous can easily be established by simply examining some of the implications of the Objectivist philosophy of history. If the terrible evil of history finds its roots, not in the psychology of evil men, but in ideas, then why should evil ideas be tolerated? Why shouldn’t they be put down by force?

In his essay “Philosophy and Psychology in History,” Peikoff wrote:
Millions, billions of men may be oblivious to the mind, they may be ignorant of philosophy, they may be contemptuous of abstractions. But, knowingly or not, they are shaped ultimately by the abstractions of a small handful. It is far to weak, therefore, to say the pen is mightier than the sword. The pen, and only a very few pens, create all the swords and the swordsmen, and set the cause of their battles and the final outcome.

Now if the pen is so very mighty, shouldn’t it be regulated? If somebody is hatching “horrendous” philosophical premises and letting them loose against an unsuspecting world, shouldn’t that person be stopped? While Objectivism strongly opposes state supported censorship, the implications of their philosophy of history could easily be used to support such censorship. And indeed, that has always been the main argument for censoring thought. Since some thoughts are heretical and heresy is “dangerous,” the authorities have to put it down by force.

The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto took a different view of the matter. He believed that men were motivated by psychological states, not by ideas. Ideas merely rationalized those psychological states. From this point of view, Pareto concluded that all censorship was futile, because it attacked rationalizations, rather than what was being rationalized. If one rationalization were suppressed by the state, that was of little consequence, because there were many more that could be brought forward to rationalize the very same human sentiments and interests defended in the suppressed rationalization.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 10

History, Objectivism, and Sarah Palin. In the last week we have seen the meteoric rise of Alaska governor Sarah Palin within the GOP and among conservatives. If she can survive the next two months with her reputation intact, she could eventually become the most powerful figure in the Republican Party. She would, in that case, either be McCain’s heir apparent (assuming McCain wins in November) or the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2012. How are Objectivists going to view this woman? On the one hand, she is precisely the strong, tough, savvy, good-looking type of female celebrated in Rand’s novels. On the other hand, she may be the most religious candidate on a Presidential ticket this side of William Jennings Bryan. Her emergence is bound to stir up some conflicted feelings within the Objectivist fold—as can be gathered by a cursory glance at the Objectivst blogosphere.
Back in February, we find one neo-Objectivist noting: “Aside from [Palin’s] obvious vice of religion, [she] has all the makings of a splendid vice president. Don't you think?” After McCain selected her late in August, several commentators made it clear they regarded Palin’s selection as an “excellent choice.” Other Objectivist posters are more conflicted. A poster calling himself “Myrhaf” begins by praising Palin’s convention speech and attacking Obama’s inept and dishonest criticism of McCain’s running mate. He almost sounds enthusiastic, until he remembers Palin’s religiosity, which brings him back to earth. He has seen Palin’s controversial speech given before an Assembly of God congregation, and is disturbed by Palin’s “insane mystical ideas.” I came away with a different impression from Palin’s performance in front of her hometown church. Rather than disturbed, I was reassured: because if you look beyond some of Palin’s sentimentalized Pentecostal rhetoric, you will find a surprisingly strong statement in support of the separation of church and state. She in effect told the congregation that, because she was governor, she could not take part in their work to win hearts and minds for Christ. That was the congregation’s job. Her job was to run the state. This suggests that Palin’s religiosity should not be regarded as a threat or a danger. Examining Palin’s record as public official only serves to affirm this judgment. Very little of what she has done publicly has any real connection to her religious convictions. What, after all, does opening Alaska to more energy development have to do with Pentecostal theology? Or lowering taxes? Or suing the Federal government over the decision to make the polar bear an endangered species? Human beings are not determined by their religious beliefs. A person can be religious and still be rational in other domains of experience.

Myrhaf concludes with the following observation: “Palin said in her speech that she would challenge the status quo, but she can't do it. She will fail because she has no intellectual ammunition.” Now this statement relates directly to the subject I’ve been discussing in recent weeks: the Objectivist philosophy of history. “Intellectual ammunition” is important to the Objectivist because he believe that “ideas” determines what happens. Yet it should be clear from Palin’s career that this isn’t altogether true; that what is important is not what people say or pretend to believe, but what they actually do. Although Palin is hardly perfect and, like any politician, has committed mistakes and blunders throughout her political career, she still, despite her obvious flaws, has done a decent job as governor of Alaska. In just a week’s time, she has excited the Republican base more than any candidate since Ronald Reagan. What does “intellectual ammunition” have to do with any of the things she has accomplished? It’s not intellectual ammunition that gets a politician elected or allows them to get things done in government. Politics is about coalition building and out-maneuvering your opponent. So-called “intellectual ammunition” has little to do with it. A politician does not gather support by winning debates or changing people’s mind. In 2000, polls suggested that Bush “won” his debates with Al Gore. Yet Bush clearly did not make a better case for his position in those debates. Not at all: he won because he came off as more "personable." So much for intellectual ammunition!

The Objectivist philosophy of history causes Rand’s followers to misread political and social reality. They end up placing to much stress on what politicians say and not enough on what they do. Even worse, because they have no appreciation or understanding for the institutional constraints that politicians must act under, they are incapable of realistically assessing individual politicians or grasping who should be supported and who should be opposed.