Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Good Objectivist - Part One

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It is time for some proper introspection and self-examination in the Objectivist community. We are at a crossroads in human history. Liberty is under daily attack. We are truly living in the pages of "Atlas Shrugged".

Yet in our world there is no John Galt. There is no valley we can escape to. We do not have a separate society in which we can find shelter.

We do have a separate society-- a thriving Objectivist movement with untold members.  But shelter? Can anyone find shelter in the society we've created?

Not the way we're operating it.

A disturbing pattern has emerged over the years.

We hear constant reports of individual Objectivists jockeying for positions of respect within the movement not by productive effort (i.e. not by contributing to the body of literature or spreading ideas effectively), but by serving as gatekeepers or protectors of ideological purity.

This is an unusual concept for Objectivists to embrace. In practice, it does not mean honesty (i.e. fealty to truth), or integrity (i.e. fealty to one's own values) but loyalty (i.e. fealty to a person, a group or a creed). It is expressed in terms of loyalty to Ayn Rand, loyalty to her designated heirs, or loyalty to a particular Objectivist ideological position. This assumes of course that Rand and her heirs have earned a particular person's loyalty (I believe they have earned it from me as I judge the work of the Ayn Rand Institute to be excellent) or that the ideological position has earned one's conviction -- that it has convinced you.

What, then, does it mean to harangue a young Objectivist into declaring fealty to a particular organization, or to declare you will break with him if he does not hold a particular ideological position that has not yet convinced him, though it may have convinced you?

Are you not asking for him to accept your authority in intellectual matters? But if he does so, he has abandoned a fundamental tenet of Objectivism -- his intellectual independence -- his integrity. If he does not do so, you propose to deprive him of your association and, if you choose to blacklist the person, of the association of others -- of the very people who might actually change his mind. You offer him a choice between ~either~ accepting on faith a position or fealty he does not understand ~or~ losing any opportunity to understand!

Understand me: You may be right, but it is your job to convince the other person, not his job to accept blindly.

Let us put ourselves, for a moment, in the shoes of a bright, eager young person who has just read Atlas Shrugged. He is stunned by the vision that Rand offers. His mind is swimming with questions. He burns to know. He is a potential ally, a potential friend, a potential fellow fighter in the cultural battle to be waged between between ethical egoism and the self-sacrifice morality of altruism. He could become the vote that defends your liberty, or the industrialist that improves your life, or the friend you've always hoped to find: a person who shares your values, and our fight.

He finishes the novel, and wants to know more. He wants to understand what he has read. He reaches out to his friends and family. He tries to explain about the ethics, but they come back with arguments about duty and self-sacrifice that he is not prepared to answer. They tell him he's getting involved with some "cult". They ridicule him and punch holes in his reasoning. It's easy. He has had mere weeks or months to master a new argument. Everyone else in the culture comes armed with bromides and slogans with which to slap him down: "Don't be selfish!""That's true for you but it's not true for me!""You want the poor to starve!""You hate government!""That sounds good in theory but it doesn't work in practice!"

He needs allies. He needs people of whom he can ask hard questions. He needs a space in which to argue, to learn, to make mistakes. He needs shelter and encouragement. He is not an automatic Objectivist. He is not an automatic Philosopher. He is not an automatic Intellectual. If he's never been trained in logic, or paid attention to the field of philosophy, he will not come armed with words like "epistemology" or with concepts like "is-ought" or with an understanding of what constitutes a logical fallacy. He may not even understand the core ideas. He may be surfing on an emotional reaction to the grandeur of the books. Maybe no one has even taught him to think in principles before. Like Helen Keller finally understanding "wa-wa", our hypothetical young person (or OLD person) may be discovering a whole field of discovery that he had never even imagined looking into. Most people ARE contemptuous of moral issues-- they treat morality, in Rand's words as:
"a phantom scarecrow made of duty, of boredom, of punishment, of pain, a cross-breed between the first schoolteacher of your past and the tax collector of your present, a scarecrow standing in a barren field, waving a stick to chase away your pleasures."
And they are right to feel this way if they've never heard a rational alternative to the creeds around them. They should be contemptuous of morality and ideas, given the rotten maxims of our traditional codes.

This is the context, this is the culture that ALL of our new allies and friends will be coming from. They will be staggering to Objectivism with wounds inflicted by all the nonsense of church and community, every contradiction and species of claptrap from communism to Christianity and down the line. They will come to us staggering across an intellectual minefield, weaving to avoid every conceptual booby trap laid to attack their independent spirit -- they will stagger to us -- holding out only to collapse heroically in the arms of a Fellowship of Reason -- their destination reached, at last.

And are they welcomed, supported, given the admiration and congratulations they have earned? Are they accepted happily as a student and a friend?

No. They are attacked and pushed away by the very people they have searched the Earth to find.

They are attacked for their intellectual independence -- for the very quality of mind that safevouched them through the battlefield of postmodern and religious society. They are attacked for their lack of understanding, which was the motivating force behind their desire to find Objectivists. They are attacked for their associations and affiliations when most have merely clutched the first chance at fellowship that was offered them. They are attacked on message boards, banned, denounced; they are ridiculed; they are made to feel the horror of the inexplicable. They are expected to have loyalties to values they've not even discovered yet, as if values were intrinsic and not chosen.

They come to us for the sanction of reason, and are turned away irrationally and cruelly.

I find this to be a moral outrage.

This is how a new Objectivist should be greeted into our company:

“[Dr.] Akston smiled.  `What does this look like to you, Miss Taggart?’  He pointed around the room.

            “`This?’  [Dagny] smiled suddenly, looking at the faces of the men against the golden sunburst of rays filling the great windows. `This looks like . . . like that dream you imagine in childhood, when you think that some day, in heaven, you will see those great departed whom you had not seen on earth, and you choose, from all the past centuries, the great men you would like to meet.

          “`Well, that’s one clue to the nature of our secret,’ said Akston.  `Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves – or whether it should be ours here and how and on this earth.’

            “`I know,’ she whispered.

            “`And if you met those great men in heaven,’ asked Ken Danagger, `what would you say to them?’

            “`Just . . . just “hello,” I guess.’

            “`That’s not all,’ said Danagger.  `There’s something you’d want to hear from them. . . . Miss Taggart, you’d want them to look at you and to say, `Well done.’  She dropped her head and nodded silently, head down, not to let him see the sudden spurt of tears to her eyes.  `All right, then:  Well done, Dagny – well done – too well – and now it’s time for you to rest from that burden which none of us should ever have had to carry.”
 -Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged"

That is what newcomers are hoping to find, but that is not what some Objectivists are striving to be. Instead, many of you are striving to be individual gatekeepers, each pushing the uninitiated from the gates of heaven. You are not acting as the welcoming fellowship of some new Atlantis, but rather acting as gossipy, petty, mean little St. Peters guarding our pearly gates with vindictive haughtiness. 

And if heaven is denied them, where else is left to go?

Some valid philosophical issues are in play, and also some important values which DO need to be protected. I fight daily on behalf of Rand's legacy, I correct misrepresentations whenever I find them, I support the organizations such as ARI that have earned my trust, and I stay true to the ideas I have accepted as true. But in my dealings with others, particularly new or "mixed" Objectivists, I believe that context-dropping leads to serious errors of judgement. Therefore, I try to judge others not merely by their words but also by their actions over a period of time with an eye towards establishing their respect for individual rights (which is a precondition of civilized interaction) AND towards defining the mental processes in which they habitually engage. I watch new people not for deviations from established dogma, but for any failing to exert proper mental effort. I watch for evasion, obfuscation and deceit. I try to convince them to value that which I value, but never to coerce them to accept my assertions on faith. That is what they are trying to escape from. I will not inflict it on them.

What we should look for is not loyalty (which is a value to be earned) but honesty, justice and integrity (which are virtues to practiced). We should encourage these virtues, as well as the virtue of pride in every new mind we encounter. We should embrace the optimistic eagerness that looks to find potential value in every man, and the joy in discovering a fellow traveler or fighter in the war against unreason.

We need to be flame-spotters in the world. We need to find the sparks of intelligence, fan them and protect their blaze.

And nothing gutters a barely kindled spark like a blast of hot air.

--Richard Gleaves
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  1. As a young college student who went through pretty much exactly what you said in discovering Objectivism, the intellectual turmoil, the constant questioning, the all-consuming desire to understand this new way of thinking, if I didn't encounter two Objectivists who were very much the real-life versions of Akston's friends, I might not have continued learning about Objectivism as I have. You could not be more right in this article Richard.

  2. Thanks Fauxin, I hope you will re-post! There's still much more to say!!

  3. Excellent, Richard. I've had it in mind to write similarly about this issue. This kind of message is much needed in the Objectivist community, but it is often perceived as not black-and-white enough, not "pure" enough — and there's some disincentive to making such points, or to thinking too explicitly about the issue enough to form such conclusions. What you are arguing for is attention to and respect for the *developmental* element of cognitive processes and an understanding that psychology plays a part and forms an important context for how we judge others, what we expect from them, and how we treat them. I look forward to the next installments.

  4. Here's the premise I'm checking:
    "We do have a separate society - a thriving Objectivist movement with untold members."
    It's the same old society, which you are "in" - perhaps you are not "of", but that's a different matter. If you separate, you are marginalized.

  5. Thank you Richrd!!reposting!!

  6. Why on earth do you expect objectivists to be the .."welcoming fellowship of some new Atlantis"...??? Why is it my duty as an objectivist to "welcome you" and "show you the way"? --This is for your mind to figure out.
    Recall Galt's oath? Why are you demanding action from others to do the work your mind should be doing?

  7. Great read ! Its just like what has been through my mind but never really cared to put it into words. Awesome stuff!

  8. Hi Richard. Great post, I would like to read your response for Anon's post @ March 10, 2010 1:40 AM.

  9. Thank you for writing this Richard, I am a huge fan of your video series, and your writings here have touched on an issue I have felt but never been able to recognize when dealing with other Oists - sometimes. Well done!

  10. <>

    Anonymous-- did I say it was your DUTY to help? Duty would mean that you are being kind and benevolent to new objectivists for THEIR sake, getting nothing in return. Is that how you interpret my article? In the scene from "Atlas Shrugged" are the strikers welcoming and congratulating Dagny for HER sake, or do they get selfish pleasure and benefit from her addition to their ranks?

    It's fine with me if you don't find any value in more people becoming Objectivist, or studying Objectivism. I think you're massively, boneheadedly mistaken, but that is your right. But you should be honest, and identify yourself to any new person you encounter-- telling them-- "I only deal with full-fledged Objectivists, and I see no value in teaching". Then move on, and never consider yourself to be working to improve the world, merely know that you have decided to only denounce errors from your mountaintop, be passive, withdraw, and accept the culture as it is.

    Good luck with that.

  11. Excellent post Richard. I look forward to parts 2 and 3.

  12. XCowboy2, you have that exactly right. And because most of us aren't "massively, boneheadedly mistaken," we will of our own values welcome these others, even if they make mistakes of their own as they make the HUGE effort to learn our philosophy. Even as they develop honest disagreements in the effort. For not all -- or even most -- disagreements reflect fundamental antagonism to rational values. Still, we'll want to see progress, of course, and evidence of real effort.

    Most excellent observations, thank you. I can hardy wait for the rest!

    My apologies for not getting my Yahoo ID to work here. I'm Robert at sharptrader@sbcglobal.net

  13. @Anonymous

    Every society needs teachers, every philosophy needs students. I think the logical misstep that Richard is pointing out is that if we intend to create the world of Rand's values in reality then we must be prepared to smooth the way for those who may be challenged with missteps or lose their way without guidance. It doesn't mean that every Objectivist must be a teacher. It means that for Objectivism to be properly understood and implemented, a culture of teachers must be created. I think it is for precisely this reason that Yaron Brook has advocated that many more people need to be blogging about Objectivist issues, speaking about them and trying to make explicit the chains of reasoning that so many of us have come to accept as a matter of course. The only reason anyone needs to be taught anything is because they don't already know. And we should want them to know--for our own sakes.

  14. Wonderfully written, Richard and I agree entirely with what you said.

    Also, I feel Dr. Brook has done a better job leading ARI and teaching others about Objectivism than Dr. Peikoff ever did.

    I think much of what you're speaking against sprouts from Peikoff's leadership. Much of what I've read that he has written seems to turn into character assassination because his opponent or subject had the sheer audacity to disagree with him.

    When I first read Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged, I went out looking for more and came across Peikoff's essays and such. I walked away disgusted, unable to reconcile his interpretations of the philosophy with my own.

    Dr. Brook, however, has done a wonderful job showing through reason and examples - not bullying - just how much the world needs this philosophy.

  15. It's been almost 9 years since I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and I've been studying the Objectivist non-fiction material ever since and I'm still learning something new on a regular basis. It's great that there is so much to read via the Ayn Rand Bookstore (plus i listen to most everything on CD or on my iphone) from OPAR to everything ARI is accomplishing. I also highly recommend OCON - the summer conferences, this year in Las Vegas, as a learning experience doused with the motivation of being surrounded by knowledgeable Objectivists. I've been the past 3 years and can't say enough about the great experience.

    And Thanks to you Xcowboy2 for the 'John Galt speaking' videos on youtube.

  16. I'd be willing to take on a role of Galt but I'm not yet convinced that there are enough men willing to shuck it all to go on strike. They still need a tad more convincing that in a looters world, all that they own isn't really theirs anyway. It's subject to the looter's whim.
    (I think I even know how to build the Gulch)

  17. Great post Richard! This is the best explanation of the problem I've seen so far.

  18. This is a terrific post, Richard. I came across it because someone posted a link to it over at the American Liberation Front on Facebook. Admittedly, this is an issue with me which I always strive to work on. I tend to let my frustrations get the best of me when trying to help others gain the knowledge I have--and I don't always put my best face forward. I will share this as well.

  19. Very well written. Hits quite hard personally as I am in the wilderness and suffering from both physical and mental difficulties. Given my own circumstance in context, the strength that I do have is epic. Sadly as yet, it's not quite good enough. Despite the antagonists, mystics etc..It has not altered my convictions one jot, on the contrary it has solidified them, and the tools that Objectivism provides has enabled me to identify why this or that is happening as a real coping strategy for living no matter what the difficulty. Again, thank you Richard for your words. - Clive ( in Israel)