Mar 152009
 

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

Mar 142009
 

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, nor do I know whether it’s any sort of legitimate news article. But let’s assume for the moment that it is:

A North Carolina judge has ordered three children to attend public schools this fall because the homeschooling their mother has provided over the last four years needs to be “challenged.” The children, however, have tested above their grade levels – by as much as two years. The decision is raising eyebrows among homeschooling families, and one friend of the mother has launched a website to publicize the issue. The ruling was made by Judge Ned Mangum of Wake County, who was handling a divorce proceeding for Thomas and Venessa Mills.

Mangum said he made the determination on his guiding principle, “What’s in the best interest of the minor children,” and conceded it was putting his judgment in place of the mother’s.

On her website, family friend Robyn Williams said Mangum stated his decision was not ideologically or religiously motivated but that ordering the children into public schools would “challenge the ideas you’ve taught them.”

According to Williams’ website, the judge also ordered a mental health evaluation for the mother – but not the father – as part of the divorce proceedings, in what Williams described as an attack on the “mother’s conservative Christian beliefs.”

Here’s how I read this tale: mother takes children out of state education because state school is crap. Mother and father get divorced. Father wants children put back into state education. Judge handling divorce proceedings orders children to be put back into state education because ideas learned from mother (amongst them possibly conservative Christianity) need to be ‘challenged’.

This bothers me on multiple levels. On the one hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. On the other hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. The only difference between homeschooling and state schooling appears to be which dogma the poor creatures are forced to consume.

Not to mention that I thought North Carolina, a place very dear to my heart, was above this sort of stuff. Its judges, among whom I number one of my own family members, are not generally given to illiberal, heavy-handed pronouncements about how parents can and cannot educate their offspring. And this decision is a bit rich coming from this particular judge, whose daughter I used to teach – in a religious private school.

As the Devil would say, fucking hellski…

On cops with convictions

 indolence  Comments Off on On cops with convictions
Mar 112009
 

The Donatists were an early heterodox Christian sect whose primary heretical view referred itself to the nature of the sacraments:

The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over sacred religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“people who had handed over”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority under Constantine I, and the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests and bishops were invalid.

The second question was the validity of sacraments confected by priests and bishops who had been apostates under the persecution. The Donatists held that all such sacraments were invalid: by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This is known as: ex opere operantis — Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthiness and holiness of the minister confecting it.

The prevailing orthodoxy, then as now, was that the validity of the sacraments was ex opere operato – that is to say, the sinfulness, guilt, or otherwise questionable behaviour of the officiant had no relation to the effectiveness of the sacrament. Instead, the grace conferred proceeded entirely from the intention of the officiant and penitent, as well as, of course, from God, whose instrument the officiant was.

Ex opere operato – if it’s good enough for the Christians, it’s probably good enough for the cops.

Feb 162009
 

A new version of the Hail Mary, over at Lambeth Palace. I liked it so much, I’ve put it into Latin:

Ave, Gordon, gratia carens,
Dominus non tecum.
Vituperatus tu in hominibus
et vituperatus fructus laborum tuorum, recessio.
Nefas Gordon, pater incompetentiae,
interveni usque non adeo pro nobis civibus
nunc et in hora mortis perduellionis.
Amen.

Feb 092009
 

I am fortunate enough to live with a flatmate who not only enjoys cooking, but does it well; and one of the innumerable pleasures of living with him is the fact that he is wont to make sausage sandwiches on occasion, most notably Saturday afternoons when I am ever so slightly hung over. He made sausage sandwiches recently using some rather lovely pieces of pork obtained at a butcher’s.

‘What do you want on your sandwich?’ he asked upon the completion of the grilling, extracting bread and butter from the cupboard.

‘Ah,’ said I; ‘I shall doctor my own.’ Two slices of bread I placed to one side of the plate; a small helping of brown sauce I placed to the other; the sausages I situated in the centre, next to my fork and knife.

‘What the hell is that? That’s not a sandwich. That’s heresy!’ exclaimed flatmate, staring at my plate in horror. ‘You’re supposed to put the sauce and the sausages between the slices of bread, not off to one side like that. You’re a sandwich Cathar, you are, with your bread and filling duality!’

And so it was decided that we are perfectly suited to be flatmates, not simply because our sillinesses match, but because we both know what Cathars were. How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such flatmates in’t!