I intend to use this blog as a platform for my daily thoughts on a variety of topics. I welcome comments, objections, and questions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Cause of the Economic Crisis: Altruism

What caused this massive economic crisis that we are all suffering from? That’s the question on everyone’s minds. The common answer is that this was caused by greedy businessmen, Wall Street executives, or the most common explanation: that this is the ultimate failure of the capitalist system. The solution, therefore, is to abandon capitalism once and for all, impose stricter regulations on business, pump trillions into the economy, and have the government assume a large portion of control over essential industries such as banking. This will, supposedly, restore economic prosperity and bring the country back to normal. I argue, however, that the precise opposite is true. In the long-term, this philosophy will bankrupt this country (economically, socially, and morally). Most importantly, I am going to argue that it is altruism, not self-interest, and government intervention, not capitalism, which have caused this crisis. This will be a tad long, but please stick with it.

Ayn Rand believed that at the core of American values lies a contradiction that would one day explode: the ethics of altruism vs. the ethics of self-interest. Politically, our country was established as an organization designed specifically to protect self-interest and individual rights. It was your own responsibility to live a good life, and the government's job was to protect you from external force. Ethically, however, many believed in the obligation of altruism: that morality consists in sacrificing your own self-interest for the weak. Anyone who seeks money and success for their own benefit is evil; anyone who works solely for the benefit of others is good.

Gradually, Americans came to believe that if you did not voluntarily choose the moral path of altruism, the government should force it upon you. This belief came into prevalence under the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and came into full fruition under FDR during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans tried to hold both of these principles at the same time: that everyone should be free from coercion, and that altruism should be imposed for the sake of the weak. The internal contradiction, of course, is that in order to impose altruism, someone must always be coerced. It started out small. Only the rich should be coerced through measures such as the progressive income tax. They do not really deserve their wealth anyway, and they can handle it. Obviously they do not have the same rights as everyone else to be free from force.

Over time, the amount of sacrifice required and the number of people made to sacrifice grew substantially. You have to sacrifice for the poor, you have to sacrifice for the elderly, you have to sacrifice for the sick, you have to sacrifice for war, you have to sacrifice for all of Europe, you have to sacrifice to bring democracy to other nations, you have to sacrifice for the entire world, you have to sacrifice for all future generations, you have to sacrifice for everyone and everything, for the sake of sacrificing, because it is the moral thing to do. We now live in a world where the government no longer exists to protect you from force, but to force you to sacrifice for whatever it deems necessary. Rather than living for your own happiness, you must provide for the happiness of others, regardless of cost. That cost is now in the trillions upon trillions of dollars, and it continues to grow. (See: and . And how efficiently is the government spending your stolen money? The Treasury Department currently estimates the total debt to be $10,759,016,081,652.99. This is an unimaginable sum of money, stolen from individuals to pay for the altruism imposed upon them against their will.

This debt is not something that just goes away. Every year the government “borrows” more money from the American taxpayer and the debt increases. The dollar continues to lose value. There is no concern over how such “borrowing” affects the individual. There is no discussion of what technological innovations never happened because of the massive amount of money successful businesses have to pay to fund these programs. There is no discussion of how many bright young stars simply shrugged their shoulders and gave up before they even began. Why strive for success and profit when it will only be punished and vilified?

This same philosophy of altruism in government spending programs caused the current banking crisis. The majority of people seem to believe that laissez-faire capitalism is the primary cause of the current crisis. However, the opposite is true. In a capitalist system, all banks are owned as private businesses, which have the same possibility of success or failure as any other business has. If the bank practices sound fiscal policy by investing well, they will generate wealth for both the people they invest in, and the individuals who put their savings in the bank. Everyone had to be careful who they gave their money too, for if they made bad choices in their investments, both they and their investors were subject to grave failure. In other words, every bank and every individual had to invest their wealth selfishly.

The consequence of this selfish investing was that some people were economically prosperous with quality banks, while others lost their savings with sub-standard banks. It is the very nature of reality that certain decisions are beneficial, and others are harmful. Part of the crux of the Progressive movement, however, was that no one should be subject to losing their savings because a bank failed to practice sound investment. In other words, the government should protect everyone from reality. And thus, the Federal Reserve was born. From then on, if a bank failed economically, it would be infused with government funds. These government funds, of course, were taken from individuals by the same justification as the rest of government spending: it is better for others as a whole if we impose altruism upon you. With the government-backed guarantee, banks were encouraged to spend everything they could get away with, regardless of the soundness of the investment. The inevitable result was that banks spent much more than they could afford and spent on dubious projects that they otherwise would never have made investments in. They no longer had a reason to fear failure if their investments did not work out. Within 20 years, the banking system as a whole collapsed and we had the Great Depression.

Alan Greenspan was once in agreement with Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy, and even wrote a few famous articles on the subject in her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Because of this, most people recognized Greenspan as an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. When he came to chair the Federal Reserve therefore, everyone equated his policies with that of laissez-faire. The confusion is understandable, as under his watch, he lifted a large portion of the regulations controlling the amount of capital infused into the banking system by the federal government. These regulations were lifted on the premise that pumping as much capital as possible into the economy is the most beneficial to the country as a whole. This is NOT laissez-faire capitalism, but rather government-backed cronyism. Banks are not subject to the consequences of competition and the possibility of failure, but are “free” to act as impulsively and irrationally as they want. This system in no way resembles a free market. The result was the same as what happened before the Great Depression. Banks started spending wildly, investing in enterprises and properties that a regular business would not have touched with a 10 foot pole. The inevitable result of all this reckless spending was a major crash.

So what is the proposed solution? Not to restrict the amount of money guaranteed to banks by the government, but to drastically increase it! These banks that have done such a horrible job of investing are now being given even more money, once again with no consequences when they invest poorly. This is the very definition of lunacy.

But it’s not just failed banks that the government thinks should exist under this system. Other companies that have failed to invest wisely are given billions of dollars in free money, with little to no conditions on how that money is to be used or how the company will drastically change its business model to prevent the same crash down the line. In fact, GM and Chrysler are already seeking another $39 billion in addition to the $17.4 billion they have wasted. What gives them the right to this money and what will they do differently in a few months to out-compete better companies?

The moral principle that we are now operating on is, the more you fail, the more money you should receive from the federal government; the more you succeed, the more money the federal government should take from you. This is the very essence of altruism. Is this not the most perverse inversion of justice that one can imagine? If you look at where money in the stimulus is going, all of it is to programs and businesses that the current government deems to be essential. But no one is asking, what right do they have to decide who is "saved" and who is destroyed? What is essential, who is it essential for, and for what?

Let's look at our future, after this stimulus package goes through. Let's even assume that it does result in an increase of GDP and a decrease in unemployment in the short-term. Massive government spending of this kind is nothing besides a massive redistribution of wealth. Yes, unemployment goes down, but the jobs created are simply stolen from other areas and people. The money that a successful business would have used to expand their operations and hire new people is simply moved to a failing business and failing people. Yes, GDP goes up, but which individuals benefit and which fail? Those businesses and individuals that have enough political pull to get money succeed at the expense of the most successful of businesses that had "a little extra money."

More importantly, what kinds of people are going to arise from this crisis, and what kinds of people are going to give up? If you've worked hard and honestly your entire life, only to see failure rewarded and your success punished by even more taxes and government regulation, wouldn't you be tempted to give up? If you saw failures getting rich off the government dole, while successful businesses struggle to make a profit, what incentive would you have for going into business? Which kind of businessman will be more successful in this climate: The honest worker or the man who knows how best to yield political pull?

The few of you who have made it this far are probably asking, what would I do differently? The most important thing we can do is realize that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot have both a thriving capitalist country and a quasi-socialist welfare state that takes care of everyone. This crisis is living proof that contradictions cannot exist. Either we live as a socialist state, where everyone is coerced to act in the interest of society, or we live as a free country, where everyone makes their own choices and lives for their own happiness. If you want to spend your time and money for the cause of others, that is your choice. In plenty of cases, I would say that’s a worthwhile and self-interested choice. But it should be just that, your choice.

The solution to this crisis should begin with the dismantling of the massive regime that imposes altruism upon you every day. It’s not only immoral, but the country simply cannot sustain it economically. The most important thing we can do is completely overhaul the banking system. For all of the reasons I described, the Federal Reserve System is doomed to failure. Even if the government drastically increases the conditions by which it infuses money into the economy, banks will still continue to make bad investments. As long as banks are not subject to the conditions of reality like every other business, this problem will continue. For those of you thinking that the government should therefore take total control over the banking system, I urge you to look at historical examples of state-run economies such as Soviet Russia. The current state of banks in the world is so drastically bad that they will probably require the government to temporarily assume all debts, but what’s a few more trillion? What we need is an eventual return to a private banking system, subject to the same market forces as all other businesses. For the interest of time, I will refer you here to Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, particularly the essay, “Gold and Economic Freedom”, written, ironically enough, by Alan Greenspan.

Along with a private banking system, I believe that all government spending should be drastically slashed, and we should move on a course back towards a free market. What I am about to say next, however, will likely surprise all of you based on everything I have just written. To help pay for the government assumption of bank debt, and to get us closer to a financial budget that makes any kind of logical sense, I believe it necessary to temporarily raise certain taxes. During World War II, everyone in the country was mobilized in the war effort. We were all asked to contribute what we could to help build machinery and raise revenue for the war. I could argue about our involvement in Europe and the immorality of the draft, but the analogy I am drawing here is essentially the same. It is time to ask everyone for a similar mobilization, but NOT for the sake of expanding government power and responsibility further, but rather for liberating ourselves from the terrible mistake we’ve made in allowing the government this much control.

Thank you for reading, and I hope that my perspective has been of interest. Please feel free to leave comments for discussion. As a further note of interest, I highly recommend that you read both Atlas Shrugged and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I Had a Dream

So, last night I had one of the strangest dreams I've had in my life.

I was back at college with weird, unknown roommates whom I took to be younger than me because we were talking about what to choose as a major and what to do in their lives. I soon realized that I was late for class so I ran out of the room and went for an elevator in the dorm. Once in the elevator I was met by a strange man who recruited me to travel back in time and help people. The time machine was an elevator (the one I was in, in fact). I swiped a newly acquired key card and it launched upwards at tremendous speeds, in another dimension. When I arrived at the past, I was at a party. All I knew was that I was looking for one particular blond boy to whom some traumatic event at this party would cause him to become an evil person in the future. I eventually brought him away from the party to a room in the house in order to counsel him and change the future. But, in that he saw his father cheating with another woman. The boy ran out of the room screaming and I was instantly teleported back to the future. Thus I caused the very thing that I was sent to prevent.

Jump ahead and I'm back in the "elevator" in my dorm room and my parents are there to visit me at school. I really want to tell them what my real work is (apparently the dream has skipped ahead to the point where I've traveled in time frequently now), but I'm not allowed to tell anyone. But, for whatever reason, I decide to show them anyway. I'm about to swipe the keycard and take them on the trip of their lives when a man gets into the elevator. He notices my keycard and says, "Hey, you're in the project too? Where are you headed? Fairfax? (I took Fairfax to mean Fairfax county, VA, so thus, CIA Headquarters). I had never been to the HQ itself since apparently I was still just a time travel trainee. But since I thought I had just been caught attempting to bring unauthorized personnel back in time, I just blankly stared and nodded. Meanwhile I see him take out a more advanced keycard, swipe it, and off we go. Looking out the window I see DC, but it looks like there has been some major catastrophe recently. There is a lot of flooding and several monuments are destroyed or dilapidated. I can make out the Jefferson Memorial in the process of being rebuilt, so clearly there is a recovery effort.

Besides being in shock over what I'm seeing, something about the elevator doesn't feel right. It's moving way too fast and shaking way too much. DC is completely out of view, and I'm really starting to worry. All of a sudden the elevator is out of control and I see that we are headed straight for a huge mountain covered with snow. As the elevator is about to slam into the mountain, it turns into a huge sled. My parents have no idea what is going on, but the guy in the elevator turns to them and says, "Don't worry, I think your son is good at this kind of thing..." and all of a sudden I'm in control of the sled and guiding it down the mountain.

And then...cue synthesizer music from The Legend of Zelda (Yes, seriously!). I see "Legend of Zelda" painted huge on the side of the mountain with a painted Triforce and everything. Under the sign there is an entrance so I ease the sled into it. I'm completely alone now, and all I notice is a single door with no markings. I open it....cue Super Mario music! The entire room looks like a live-action Mario game for the original Nintendo! Immediately before me as I open the door is a little walking mushroom. Naturally I stomped on it. There were blocks everyhwere, power-ups, and so on. I step into the room, and I woke up. Now how that's for anti-climactic?!

So, if you are totally perplexed by this dream, you're probably not alone. But, I think I can actually explain most, if not all, of where these things came from. That night before sleeping, I watched a pretty good movie called Deja Vu with Denzel Washington. It has a sci-fi plot device which utilizes wormholes, time travel, and causality paradoxes. Also, it is the government that uses these wormholes (hence the CIA in my dream). Plus, the film takes place in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, hence the flooded DC. After seeing the film, I mentally compared it to other similar things I have seen, particularly a TV show (now cancelled, damn you NBC!) called Journeyman. The premise was based on a man who traveled back in time to save people. And in fact, the beginning of the dream is almost an exact replica of one of the show's episodes! So, that explains that. The elevator can be explained by my repeated watching of a British sci-fi TV show called Doctor Who which has an alien who brings a human on adventures through time and space. In the series it's technically a phone booth, but it moves through time and space exactly the same way the elevator did in my dream. As for the Nintendo adventure at the end...well, I have no idea! I'm just a huge dork, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed reading about one of the most vivid and strange dreams I've ever had.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Recommendation: The Romantic Manifesto

I started a re-read of another book today, and I'd like to strongly recommend it to all of you: The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand. The book is a collection of her essays demonstrating her definition of art and its crucial role in human life. In my opinion it is the best written and most insightful publication of her non-fiction work (and also my personal favorite). Her exposition of the Objectivist aesthetics is a subject rarely found in her novels themselves, and the insights of this book provide substantial clarity to her metaphysics and epistemology not found in some other sources.

In the book, she claims that both philosophy and art are fundamental necessities of human life. I could not possibly attempt to define and justify Rand's philosophy of art in a blog post. I had considered writing an honors thesis on the subject, so that should give you an indication of its complexity and scope. But, I can heartedly recommend her book, and share some of my favorite quotes (which will probably happen in several posts as I read it).

This comes from the introduction:
"It is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential and what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men--over the brief span of less than a century--before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) and the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.

I made it my task to learn what made Romanticism, the greatest achievement in art history, possible and what destroyed it. I learned--as in other, similar cases involving philosophy--that Romanticism was defeated by its own spokesmen, that even in its own time it had never been properly recognized or identified. It is Romanticism's identity that I want to transmit to the future...

Will we see an esthetic Renaissance in our time? I do not know. What I do know is this: anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today." (Emphasis mine).

In the second chapter, Rand explains the concept of a "sense of life" and its relation to philosophy and art. I love this passage.
"Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy--an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality--many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. One of such allegories, which men find particularly terrifying, is the myth of a supernatural recorder from whom nothing can be hidden, who lists all of a man's deeds--the good and the evil, the noble and the vile--and who confronts a man with that record on judgment day.

That myth is true, not existentially, but psychologically. The merciless recorder is the integrating mechanism of a man's subconscious; the record is his sense of life."
That is a brilliant insight.

The Romantic Manifesto is about 180 pages and is a relatively quick read (quick in comparison to her novels, for those of you familiar with their complexity and length!). I recommend it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Virtue of Independence

As some of you may recall, several weeks ago I wrote a few posts about the virtue of honesty that arose from my reading of Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith. Having finally completed my re-reading of Atlas Shrugged today, I was able to finish Chapter 5 of Smith's book on the virtue of independence. Given that the virtues of Objectivism are so often misstated and/or misunderstood, I thought I'd highlight a few good points that Smith made in this chapter. This is by no means a full exposition on the virtue, just a clarification on a few interesting misconceptions.

There's definitely some common confusion as to who exactly an independent person is. Some people will definitely think of the non-conformist who rejects what others like simply because it is popular. Others will think of the anti-social hermit who automatically shuns any contact with other people. And others may think of a person who takes up controversial issues, because they are controversial to most people. All of these people seem to be individualists because they stand apart from others.

According to Rand, however, all of these people should be considered fraudulent individualists. Rather, they are actually examples of what she called second-handers. A second-hander is a person whose primary orientation to reality is through other people. Whether it be his beliefs or his actions, everything about a second-hander is determined by the opinion of others.

There are two primary variants of second-hander: one who blindly accepts the thoughts and will of others, because it is not his own; or, one who blindly rejects the thoughts and will of others. The former variant is typified by the image of the conformist whose opinions, beliefs, and actions are tailored based on what is popular, or what all his friends do, or even what his close friend or romantic partner does. That is, a thing is true if some arbitrarily defined group says it is. The latter variant, on the other hand, is the commonly accepted image of the non-conformist, or "individualist." That is, a thing is false because some arbitrarily defined group says it is true. This so-called individualist however is only the opposite side of the same coin. It is not on the basis of any facts of reality that the non-conformist forms his opinion but rather as a reaction against the opinions of others.

The independent person, in contrast, is independent not by how he stands in relation to others, but rather by the nature of his orientation with reality. When judging if the sun is rising on a particular morning the independent person does not find out what others think and follow it blindly, but rather, uses his own judgment of the facts to form a conclusion. Subsequently, when forming opinions on less obvious matters such as musical interests, who to hang out with, what to study in college, and perhaps most important of all--philosophical beliefs, the individualist will judge reality to aid in a decision.

This brings up another interesting point of clarification about individualism. Contrary to popular belief, the individualist need not automatically scorn or ignore the opinion of others because it is not his own. In fact, in several cases, taking the opinion of others into account is crucially important in making the right decision. For example, it is often necessary to defer to the testimony of experts in every-day life. Examples include auto mechanics, meteorologists, professors, scientists, and so on. Additionally, there are plenty of cases in which an individual can benefit from the advice of friends and loved ones. What is crucially important to independence is ensuring that the final decision is entirely one's own. That is, the testimony of experts or loved ones must exist as evidence to be taken into account, not the final arbiter for decision-making.

In a similar vein, individualism does not require the abandonment of friendships, romantic relationships, or any other contractual relationship. That is, being an individualist does not entail moving to a deserted island to become a hermit. Indeed, an individual can receive enormous benefits through mutual trade to mutual advantage in all areas of life. It does mean, however, that having other people in your life is not an inherent value. Rather, the individualist must judge the conditions that make human interaction valuable. My life is not enhanced simply by having "friends," regardless of their character and the nature of their relationship to me. And, I do not inherently benefit from having "business partners."For example, in regards to friendship, I receive enjoyment from their character, or we share mutual interests that I enjoy pursuing, and so on. In business, I benefit from voluntary agreements to trade money, goods, and/or services to mutual benefit. In sum, as long as the individual uses his own judgment of reality when interacting with others, there is no betrayal of individualism.

The final paragraph of Smith's chapter on independence is a helpful way to close this post:

"Nothing in Rand's conception of virtuous independence, then, entails shunning other people. Given the tremendous value that human beings can offer one another, that would clearly be a foolish course for anyone committed to his own well-being. What independence does require, however, is that a person's thoughts and actions always be truly his own. Because human life depends on rational action and because rationality is inherently a do-it-yourself enterprise, independence is vital to human survival."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Intellectual vs. Popular Culture

This topic has come up a few times in conversations lately, and I have been itching to write about this since I saw John Williams conduct the New York Philharmonic two weeks ago. The topic is the apparent divide between intellectual culture and pop culture. Think of the divide in film, for example, between extremely popular summer blockbusters and the "independent" films of movie festivals. I think the entire topic requires a substantial writing effort, but I'd just like to get some thoughts out here as a start. In this post I plan to argue in partial defense of the best elements of popular culture.

Ayn Rand provided a great deal of structure to this divide in several of her non-fiction works, but most particularly in The Romantic Manifesto. In her terms,
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man and of existence. In forming a view of man's nature, a fundamental question one must answer is whether man possesses the faculty of volition--because one's conclusions and evaluations in regard to all the characteristics, requirements, and actions of man depend on the answer.

Their opposite answers to this question constitute the respective basic premises of two broad categories of art: Romanticism, which recognizes the existence of man's volition--and Naturalism, which denies it.

In the field of literature, the logical consequences of these basic premises (whether held consciously or subconsciously) determine the form of the key elements of a literary work. (The Romantic Manifesto: pg .99)
In other words,
of all the possible things to focus on in the entire realm of the universe, the artist chooses to recreate a concrete sum based on its metaphysical importance. That is, the basic philosophy of an artist has a very strong impact on the focus and nature of his work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Rand, she firmly believed that modern philosophy had gone completely astray. Reason was no longer accepted as the proper means of knowledge, free will was believed to be an illusion, altruism and collectivism reigned supreme, capitalism was dying as a political ideology, and suffering was believed to be the natural state of human existence.

She also believed that philosophy was ultimately the primary mover of human events and thus had a profound impact on a society at large. But the way in which this impact would influence a society was split based on how philosophy is received by different elements of the population. Intellectuals were likely to be influenced quickly and directly, as they were reading new philosophy as it came out. The "average" person on the other hand, who did not concern himself with reading philosophy texts, would be gradually influenced over a long period of time, indirectly, as this new philosophy trickled down through art, political speeches, religious leaders, and so on. This phenomenon can be seen in terms of the divide between those in the "ivory tower" and those in the masses, so to speak.

So, if art is highly influenced by philosophy, it would stand to reason that the more intellectually connected artists would be influenced by more modern philosophy; whereas pop culture would retain more "traditional" values. Here is a brief summation of these values, as they existed in the popular culture:
Whatever their conscious convictions, the artists of that [the nineteenth] century's great new school--the Romanticists--picked their sense of life out of the cultural atmosphere: it was an atmosphere of men intoxicated by the discovery of freedom, with all the ancient strongholds of tyranny--of church, state, monarchy, feudalism--crumbling around them, with unlimited roads opening in all directions and no barriers set to their newly unleashed energy.
In other words, the artistic culture of Romanticists was based on popular beliefs in things like the supremacy of reason, the virtue of freedom, and the optimistic heroism of the human will to be able to achieve anything. The intellectual elite of the time, however, were arguing the exact opposite, and this was reflected in art the most connected with contemporary philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged
is one of the best examples of this divide. It was blasted by critics, particularly for its technical flaws (in the writing style) and for its "awful" philosophy; but, it remains as one of the most popular books in American history. (It recently experienced a jump to #32 on the bestseller list in fact, after a front-page article in the business section of the New York times). That is a fantastic number for a 50 year old book. (Even #388, where it was before the jump, is good considering that fact).

Rand was writing about the artistic trends of the mid 20th century, but I think that this philosophical divide between intellectual and pop culture still exists today. I'll provide some examples to demonstrate what I'm talking about.

In film, compare Memento to Independence Day. In the former, all of the subsidiary characters are clearly immoral, trying to manipulate and deceive the main character for various reasons. The main character himself, gravely affected by anterograde amnesia, is barely able to function and is almost entirely a slave to his environment. The efficacy of free will is clearly questioned and the universe is presented as a malevolent force preventing one from achieving values. Along with these philosophical values, though, is a truly brilliant technical form. The acting, plot, the unique progression of events, and the cinematography are all brilliant.

Independence Day
, however, presents a world in which human beings are confronted with a terrible disaster, but use their reason to devise a solution. The film triumphs in the power of the human mind and will to conquer even one of the most horrible events imaginable - full-scale alien invasion. It's extremely heroic, optimistic, and joyful. It is also technically awful in several ways. The acting and a few of the characters are sometimes ridiculous and cliche, the film is an obvious "re-imagining" of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and so on.

Another good contrast can be found in television between the new Battlestar Galactica and South Park. In the former, all of the characters are miserable, they exist in a malevolent universe, the entire human race is victim to constant and unexpected attacks by an enemy bent on their complete destruction, and so on. But again, it is technically amazing. The acting is top-rate, every episode is visually stunning, and the plot is quite compelling.

South Park by contrast, is unbelievably crude, offensive, and poorly written. But the philosophical messages of the majority of episodes, especially those involving political satire, are brilliant.

Take Star Trek: The Next Generation as another example. Obviously, it's not literary genius. But what is the basic philosophy behind it? Human beings are masters at using the reasoning mind to solve any problem. In the future, we will use those minds to not only transform Earth but colonize new planets and transform the Solar System and well beyond. The optimism about human nature contained in this simple television show is nearly unparalleled in any other art that I am aware of. That is also exactly how I feel about John Williams. While technically lacking the broad strokes of a master like Brahms or Beethoven, the heroism and philosophy of Williams' music is triumphant, dare I say, perhaps more so than either of them.

Another good representation of this phenomenon comes through with so-called "feel good" movies. By definition, the movies are not intellectually engaging, but they are triumphant and heroic, or positive about human nature in some other fashion. They are usually blasted by critics but widely praised by the general public.

There are so many examples of this divide, in every medium of art, that I feel like an entire book could be written on the subject. But I should also point out, that when I am praising popular culture for its philosophical value (albeit expressed in crude form), I am referring only to the
best of that culture. Sadly, there are an increasing number of examples of popular culture that have no redeeming value, technically or philosophically. (Rap music, most reality TV, and television news come to mind, for example).

Another interesting issue evolves from this distinction between aesthetically good/philosophically bad art and vice versa. In judging art, should technical merits be more important or less important than the ideological component? My answer is that the best examples of art combine the two perfectly. (The first example that comes to mind is
V for Vendetta). I do greatly appreciate both qualities, however, when one or the other is lacking in a work of art. Battlestar Galactica is in fact one of my favorite television shows, because of the technical brilliance and despite the often terrible philosophy. The same goes for Independence Day despite its obvious crudeness. Ultimately though, I respond the most positively to art that shares my basic sense of life and philosophy. While I enjoy something like Battlestar Galactica quite a bit, it does not compare to the sense of uplifted reverence that I get from the experience of art that shares my basic philosophy. But as long as I recognize my enjoyment of both types of art for different reasons, I avoid the problem of competing standards.

There are so many other respects in which this divide between intellectual and popular is incredibly interesting. A few that come to mind are the importance of the physical vs. the mental, the enjoyment of sports vs. more "civilized" pursuits, and contemporary philosophy vs. common sense.

I hope these thoughts have been illuminating. By no means do I consider this a complete defense of popular culture. It is rather a look at how there are elements of popular culture
superior to those of "intellectual" culture. Even in that it is not really complete. At any rate, I hope those of you actually reading this have enjoyed these thoughts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mahmoud I'm-a-nutjob in NYC Revisited

Mark, Brian, and Larisa, thank you for commenting on my post. There were several good issues brought up that I'd like to respond to. For those of you reading this that want to see these comments, please go here.

I'll respond in order, so I'll start with Mark. First of all, there are important differences between diplomatic communication and the invitation of the kind given to Mahmoud I'm-a-nutjob. Diplomacy, properly used, can be a valid tool to undermine the legitimacy and/or power of a dictatorship. It made sense to talk with Russia and China given that such an option was less damaging than full-out war. In the case of Iran, I would not be opposed to talking directly with Iran, but only if such talks were of a certain kind. That is, we should never approach talks with Iran on the unstated (or stated) premise that our governments are two legitimate equals. That being said, I currently do not see any way of achieving something with Iran diplomatically without having to seriously compromise one of our own principles. What could we give them to make them stop their nuclear program, end their support of Hezbollah, and end their support of terrorists within Iraq? The answer is that we'd have ease up on one of these issues, or worse, and I find that to be utterly unacceptable. Are you aware of how easily agreeing to diplomacy is used as a con-game by totalitarian regimes looking to buy time? Take a look at how the U.S. has handled diplomacy with North Korea for the past 15 years for a great example.

As for arresting I'm-a-nutjob, that is the action that every principle of justice and morality I believe in demands. I do not believe in the inherent legitimacy of a head of state simply because he is a head of state. A legitimate government (and representatives of that government) exists only when they properly respect the rights of the individual. To pretend that I'm-a-nutjob is a legitimate leader is a total mockery. That being said, we both know such an action would not achieve much, since I'm-a-nutjob has very little real power anyway. Though, it would be a highly symbolic gesture.

As for sinking to the level of the Iranian hostage-takers, I have to give them some credit for actually having some balls. They had a moral premise that the United States is an evil power and they acted on it. They didn't pretend that we're all friends and everyone is correct and legitimate. Do you remember Jason's distinction between power and (moral) authority? In the world stage, we have substantial power, but the Islamic fundamentalists clearly have the upper hand in authority. Do you know why? We are so afraid to act on the moral premise that we are right. We have the absolute right to take I'm-a-nutjob at his word when he repeatedly calls for the collapse of the American government and for the eradication of the state of Israel. We have the absolute right to respond militarily when a government involves itself directly in the murder of our soldiers.

We can debate until we're blue in the face about the correct strategy for confronting Iran (if at all), but at the end of the day, the one principle that I am unwilling to abandon is that the United States, as a mostly free nation, has the right to respond when a dictatorship threatens it directly. (Anticipating an objection to the "threatens it directly" phrase, I will clarify. Obviously we are never going to see a situation where Iran, or similar countries for that matter, attack the United States itself. The asymmetrical nature of military power in that instance requires that Iran take more unconventional measures, specifically, through supporting terrorist attacks against our soldiers that are "hard to trace." That the Iranian government has repeatedly called for our destruction, in itself, justifies a strong response. But it is also obvious that they have been involved in a proxy war with us for quite some time - it could even be dated back to 1979, which deserved a response much stronger than Carter ever attempted).

Finally, Mark, you misunderstood my post entirely if you thought I was saying that Columbia's invitation implied agreement with I'm-a-nutjob's ideas. Rather, the invitation granted his position in the world a legitimacy entirely undeserved. In his speech, did he say anything that we did not already know? Did you expect him to? In what way was the event a "learning experience" that could not be had from reading the myriad of speeches, interviews, and press releases that he has already given? All the invitation represented was an opportunity for a "petty and cruel dictator" to cloak himself in the veneer of academic legitimacy. Most importantly, how do you think this looks in the eyes of the Islamic world? Constantly call for violence against Israel and the US, help implement Islamic theocracy, deny the Holocaust, and you will not be denounced by the West but rather invited to a top American university as a prestigious guest!

Brian, I have to say that I agree with your positive spin on how I'm-a-nutjob was treated by the Columbia University audience. I was pleasantly surprised that he was treated with such candor and mockery. I had fully expected polite disagreement on the mistaken premises that all cultures are equal, there are no objective principles of right and wrong, etc. However, I have an alternative to suggest to you. Would it not be more powerful a statement for our political leaders to speak with the same candor? Or better yet, we could allow our political cartoonists, comedians, and news commentators to blast him for his ideas and the policies of his country. Sadly though, we have all seen the "multi-culturalist" outrage that occurs when someone dares take issue, correctly, with another culture.

The major problem that I have with the way he was invited to speak at Columbia was that he was touted as being able to provide important insight into foreign affairs and political philosophy. Had Columbia invited him on the premise of asking him to defend himself against outrageous beliefs and policies, I would be in total agreement with you. That would in fact be a great opportunity to blast him for everything that makes him vile. But rather, in the public language used for the invitation, he was invited to share his insights. That is a profound mistake, in my view. I'm not sure if Columbia President Bollinger intended to rip I'm-a-nutjob from the start or if he decided to do so to deflect criticism of himself and the university. Either way, I think the outspoken criticism of the event, at least from my perspective, would have changed significantly had the public invitation been different as I stated. This may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but if you think about the implications to I'm-a-nutjob's image in the rest of the world, the difference becomes important.

Larisa! Thank you for your point by point analysis of a few issues. I enjoyed it. You pointed out some good holes in my first point that need to be clarified.

You are right that I did not mention that the right to free speech entails the option to provide a microphone and a platform if a person so desires. Of course I agree with that (it is, after all, the logical extension of the principle I did identify). I didn't mention it simply because I was attempting to refute an idea that seemed implicit in some of the support for Columbia's invitation: that everyone "deserves" to speak their mind to the public.

I am unsure exactly what you meant when you said,
"This statement is one of pure judgment (whether good or bad). And one must consider that “ethical standards” most often are nothing more than individual beliefs at root."
Are you implying that ethical standards consist of subjective whim as opposed to objective principle? I request elaboration. I won't try to support the claim that ethical standards are to be derived from objective facts here. That would make this blog post substantially longer than it already is. I would be happy to discuss the topic elsewhere, however.

You made a very good argument for the use of opposing views in the formation and maintenance of one's own. And correspondingly, you made a good argument as to why the government must protect the unrestricted right of free speech. You are absolutely right that the best course of action is to have your ideas challenged by opposing views, and to use those views to either improve or amend your ideas accordingly. I fail to see however how this event at Columbia University would have improved yourself in this manner. As far as I can tell, everything that was said at the event has been said countless times before. Furthermore, do you really need to hear from this particular variation of dictator in order to test your ideas against those of dictatorship in general? What new ideas does I'm-a-nutjob advocate that have not already be stated (and implemented) by countless others?

I'm sure there are, of course, certain advantages to being exposed to these ideas and their particular variant within I'm-a-nutjob in person, as opposed to through text. However, do these advantages outweigh the harm done by granting a sanction of legitimacy to the speaker? In this case, I think not. And as I have said earlier, if he was invited under a different format, that is, in order to "stand trial" in the court of public affairs so to speak, my outrage against the event would be minimal. But to invite him to a university, the supposed highest center of learning, on the supposition that his ideas are worthy of exposition, is to propose that murder of American soldiers, desire for genocide, and Islamic theocracy are legitimate ideas to be discussed.

Since it is connected, I'll respond to your last note before a few other issues I'd like to bring up. I can't stress enough that I am not outraged by the attempt to challenge ideas. In my own philosophy, rationality is the cardinal virtue of human life, and it requires the unregulated analysis of all knowledge, no matter how different or objectionable it may be. It absolutely requires you to confront issues of whether murder is justified, whether genocide is justified, and if Islamic theocracy is a good thing.

Committing yourself to this inviolate rationality, however, does not require you to provide an open platform for these ideas; especially if you have reached the point in your analysis upon which you are relatively certain that the ideas are invalid. It is important to always be willing to be open to new evidence that will change your mind. But in this case, the format of the forum far outweighed the incredibly minimal chance that some evidence would be presented to justify murder, genocide, or Islamic theocracy.

As for wanting to invite Hitler to a similar forum, I have to assume that you are talking about before he invaded Poland. It would be an absolutely profound mockery of justice if we were to invite him here to speak in the middle of the war and did not detain him immediately.

The last thing I was wondering about was this sentence: "That which invokes anger is more valuable than that which invokes praise, in my humble opinion." Can you elaborate on that? Why appeal specifically to emotions at all? Emotions are simply automatic responses programmed by the values of the individual. What makes one person angry will undoubtedly make another feel praise. This makes the inherent value of anger over praise a dubious claim at best. Seems to me that we should be focused most on appealing to the rational faculty of the individual, and upon agreement through logic and reason. That is, unless there are plenty of people that are too irrational to be appealed to in this manner. I am not emotionally unsympathetic to such a disposition, though I attempt to be more optimistic about our fellow humans than that. :-P

In sum, my primary objection over I'm-a-nutjob's visit has to do with the particular nature of the invitation. Some may see this as nitpicking, but as I have tried to demonstrate, the aura of moral legitimacy granted by the invitation was problematic, if not outrageous.

For those of you still reading, I promise a more cheerful post soon! (Hopefully.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mahmoud I'm-a-nutjob in NYC

As I'm sure most of you know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is speaking in several forums today in NYC. He is scheduled to speak before the UN as they debate another round of economic sanctions against Iran for its developing nuclear (shh...weapons...shh) program. That sort of nonsense is to be expected from the UN, which is well known for ingenious moves such as having Iran and Syria head the UN commission on human rights.

What I find incredibly appalling is that Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to come speak on politics and international relations. He has been invited as a "respected" world leader who can teach much about foreign policy to Columbia students. Outrage has been rampant over this appearance, and I'd like to join the fray. The President of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, has said that he will not cancel the appearance in the name of free speech and academic freedom. In fact, he has said that given the chance, he would invite Adolf Hitler to speak at the university!

Bollinger speaks almost as if he is fulfilling his "duty" to free speech by inviting Ahmadinejad and promising to have invited Hitler. This represents a complete misunderstanding of what free speech really means. There is a profound difference between the right of free speech and the exercise of said right. Recognizing the right of free speech entails that the government not forbid private individuals from speaking their mind when other individuals voluntarily agree to hear what is being said. Notice, this is solely a political idea. The right of free speech does not entail the obligation to provide a platform and microphone to anyone who wants to speak his mind.

In other words, there are ethical standards upon which to exercise the right of free speech properly. When you agree to provide a platform for a man's ideas, you sanction those ideas in a sense. This sanction is not necessarily agreement, but rather, the statement that the person's ideas are at least worthy of debate. Now, imagine if you agreed to give a platform to a man who explicitly advocates your murder. No matter what the outcome of the speech, this implies that there is legitimate debate over whether you should be murdered or not. Who really benefits from this arrangement and who is harmed?

By allowing Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University, they are giving this indirect sanction to ideas like holocaust denial, the genocide of Israel, the destruction of the United States, and the ascendancy of Islam to world power. That is, these ideas are worthy of being debated. Are they?! We are talking about a man who not only openly calls for our destruction, but who also has a hand in the killing of our soldiers in Iraq, and who is a leader in a government that is the #1 worldwide sponsor of terrorism. This evil is to be given an open forum?

This grants him a legitimacy that he most certainly does not deserve. The appalling nature of his ideas are now masked by a veneer of respectfulness and wisdom. His appearance anywhere in New York City is a mockery of morality and justice. Calling for the destruction of Israel and our country, he should absolutely be taken at his word and arrested the second he sets foot on American soil.

I emphatically condemn Columbia University for this travesty and I applaud the New Yorkers out protesting today. Hopefully, Ahmadinejad will be at the receiving end of justice soon enough.