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

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Best Night of My Life

Since I have the urge to share this with absolutely everyone I know, I figured it would be easiest to write a blog post about my experiences yesterday in New York City.

The day started off on a great note when I watched the last hour of Independence Day while working out on my elliptical machine. Not only is that movie incredibly heroic, but the victorious experience of watching that movie is enhanced by the adrenaline of exercise.

After this I continued my reading of Atlas Shrugged. Coincidentally, I had reached a section in which the heroic characters are featured prominently at their best. Given the nice weather, I decided it would be perfect to leave for my New York Philharmonic concert early and spend the afternoon in Bryant Park, under several skyscrapers, reading Atlas Shrugged. I also thought it quite fitting to read it on a train! (Yes, I am that much of a dork).

So, after hours of walking through the city and reading Atlas Shrugged in the park, I made my triumphant return to Avery Fisher hall and prepared myself for what I knew would be an amazing experience: John Williams conducting the New York Philharmonic. Additionally, I had an amazing seat: front and center, where the acoustics are absolutely perfect. But to boot, I would in a few minutes be only 50 feet away from John Williams!

The crowd erupted in applause as he came out on stage. I have never witnessed a crowd so thrilled to see another human being in my life. The first song, "Sound the Bells!" was commissioned for a wedding in Japan in the early 90's. True to form, it was a heroic march and the crowd went wild after its conclusion. The Philharmonic sounded incredible. I do not know if it was the acoustics, the increased presence of the brass typical of Williams' music, or both; but it was phenomenal. It was so powerful that I saw the second violinist fighting back tears, already, after just the first piece!

The next several pieces were all commissioned for the film projects of Hook, Jane Eyre, and the Harry Potter films. Needless to say, they were quite enjoyable! Every moment of it I was captivated and awestruck.

To close out the first half of the performance, they performed a Williams arrangement of music from Fiddler on a Roof. I was skeptical of it going in, but I figured it would at least be pleasant. I was quite wrong. What followed was an eruption of glorious music that rivaled anything I had heard that night. Prominently, the principal violinist was featured with a prolonged solo that brought the house down upon its climax. The end of that piece brought the first of many standing ovations for the evening.

The second half of the concert featured five arranged pieces based on very famous movies of the 40's and 50's, particularly those with elaborate dance numbers featuring actors like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Again, I figured this portion of the concert would be mildly pleasant. What I was really looking forward to was the last two pieces which returned to Williams' own music. Boy, was I in for a surprise. And, so were the rest of us, as a matter of fact.

The first piece to open the second half was a Williams arrangement titled "Hooray for Hollywood!" It was an incredible medley of widely known themes associated with Hollywood, and it was a fantastic surprise.

The next five pieces all came from movies directed by legendary filmmaker, Stanley Donen. For example, he was the director of Singin' in the Rain. Before Williams was to conduct the first piece, he got on the microphone and gave us a little background of what we would be seeing. A film projector was lowered, and we were to be privileged to see how an orchestra records a soundtrack to a movie! I could even see the video screen that Williams used to perfectly time the music! I felt like I was witnessing the re-creation of incredible music history!

But the biggest surprise came when Williams invited a special guest to come out to help him set the stage for the scenes we were about to witness. It was Stanley Donen himself! The crowd, which consisted of mostly people in the generation living at the prime of Donen's career, went absolutely bonkers. We were privileged to hear the detailed background of how Donen set up these incredibly elaborate dance scenes, and then watch them be performed on screen with a live orchestra! I cannot describe how cool that was.

The first scene he described consisted of Fred Astaire "dancing around the room." Literally, in the film shot, you see Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling as he is singing about his love interest. It's an amazing sight! Donen explained that in order to get the shot, they spent months setting up an elaborate system. They constructed a huge turning wheel, then constructed a square set inside of it. Everything on the set was bolted down, including the camera, to preserve the illusion. The only thing left was months of rehearsal so that they could make Astaire dance perfectly within that set. Can you imagine how hard that must of been? Apparently that alone took months. But when we saw the final product, it was astounding. There was no way to tell that the ENTIRE set was spinning for Astaire to dance on the walls and ceiling. Add a great live soundtrack to that, and it was quite the spectacle.

The presentation of the other four dance numbers proceeded in the same manner, and all four were a delight to watch. The second involved an elaborate "dance fight" between seven brothers and a group of townspeople. They were competing for the love interest of seven girls in the town, so the progressively try to out-do each other with crazy dancing stunts. There is one scene in particular in which they leap onto a thin beam of wood and progressively attempt crazier stunts upon it. That scene alone was one of the coolest things I have ever seen!

Next, we got to see a dance number by Gene Kelly done entirely on rollerskates! He is in love (seems to be a pretty common theme in Donen's movies, hehe) and is dancing through the streets of New York City proclaiming his joy. Being an awful skater myself, it was astounding to see someone have such incredible control in skates. I could literally hear people seething in anticipation of pain as though Gene Kelly were about to have a disastrous fall. That is how impressive the dancing was.

The fourth dance number some of you may be familiar with, since Family Guy did a little parody of it. If you have seen Stewie in a dance number with a live action man in the middle of an episode, you saw Gene Kelly in one of Donen's films. That scene, in fact, was the first film scene between a cartoon character and live action human. It was so much fun. And finally, there was the scene from Singin' in the Rain, which I am sure just about everyone is familiar with.

In their own right, each of these dance numbers, and Donen's explanation of what went into creating them, were very exciting. But with the live music on top of them, particularly to see Williams time the music masterfully to the film scene, was just plain incredible. Upon the conclusion of the last dance number, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave Donen and Williams a huge standing ovation. At that moment I was witnessing the culmination of a lifetime's ambition in filmmaking. I cannot fully describe how inspiring that was.

For the "final" two pieces of the evening, the program returned to original Williams music. We were treated to Sayuri's theme from Memoirs of a Geisha, featuring a heart-wrenching solo by the principle cellist of the New York Philharmonic. It is interesting to note that this piece did not really seem to fit with anything else in the program. Everything else, especially the five pieces from Donen's films, were filled with such overwhelming optimism and heroism. The crowd responded so positively to this affirmation of optimism throughout the concert, but gave only mild applause to the one work that featured suffering. Very interesting indeed...

And then, the piece that absolutely everyone was dying to hear: "A Tribute to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." To our utter delight, the audience was treated to a film montage of the films featured in the music as they were being played. Williams lifts his arms, we see a shark fin appear on screen, and the opening notes of the brilliant Jaws theme. The crowd went absolutely nuts. The music builds and builds, hitting its climax, it's about to musically resolve, and then trumpet fanfare! Star Wars! Again, the place went absolutely insane with delight. The themes from the Indiana Jones Trilogy followed next, with "The Flying Theme" from E.T. rounding off the medley. For those of you familiar with the ending of The Flying Theme, you can imagine how unbelievably amazing the whole thing was. I have never witnessed a more heroic and triumphant spectacle in all my life. A quote from Atlas Shrugged is very appropriate to express what it was like:
The music of [his] Fifth Concerto streamed from his keyboard, past the glass of the window, and spread through the air, over the lights of the valley. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.
The entire crowd jumped to their feet and literally howled with delight. There's no possible way to describe how powerful the energy was in that concert hall. I have never experienced anything like it. The woman next to me, as a matter of fact, was bawling her eyes out, shaking even. My hands have never hurt so much and never have been as red after clapping as hard as I did. And I too was shaking and short of breath.

After several minutes of applause, Williams got on the microphone, thanking us, and asking us to sit. We were then treated to an encore featuring the principal flautist (who also did an amazing job with a solo in the music from Jane Eyre). The piece was his theme from the movie Sugarland Express. It was enjoyable, but not how I expected the concert to end. Indeed, I had thought to myself, I was disappointed that nothing from his Olympic music had been performed.

As I was thinking this, alas, he announces that they will now perform one of his Olypmic themes with a film montage of the best highlights from the 1988 Summer Olympics in the background! We watched countless athletes achieve victorious moments after years of brutal training and preparation, all to the sounds of one of Williams' most heroic themes! My smile and utter joy could not be contained at this sight. Again, at the conclusion of the piece, the crowd erupted in joy, launching to their feet the moment it was possible. That was the third massive standing ovation by that point.

So after several minutes of this, Williams comes out on stage, makes a funny face at the audience, and quietly reaches over to a podium and picks up another score! Triple encore! He gets on the microphone and tells us that they are now going to play his commissioned music for the NBC Nightly News theme. He jokes that what he conceived of as a 6-minute symphonic work, was being used by NBC for 15 seconds. They told him that if they ever had a slow news day, they would play the entire thing at the end of the broadcast. He said that he's been waiting a long time for that day, but it has not come yet! Surprisingly, the expanded version of the theme was incredibly good, and true to form, quite heroic. At its conclusion the crowd gave what must have been the fourth standing ovation of the evening. After several minutes, Williams finally left the stage for good and the orchestra packed up. By this time, the concert had lasted almost 3 hours!

I walked out of that concert hall in a total daze, into the most inspiring city on Earth. I must have looked a little insane, walking through the streets at a very fast pace, with a huge smile on my face. The experience left me feeling like I was in another world, one in which pessimism and suffering had absolutely no place. That is why that night was most certainly the best in my entire life. Nothing else that I have ever experienced compares in form and intensity!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Only a Matter of Time

For those of you optimistically thinking that the need to confront Iran would disappear, the following news makes it seem less likely.

Anyone remember the mysterious incursion by Israeli jets into Syrian air space a few days ago? Initial reports (including from Israeli officials themselves) indicated that it was a mistaken fly-over. Now that the information is coming in, it apparently was a deep incursion into Syrian territory.
After days of silence from the Israeli government, American officials confirmed Tuesday that Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes inside Syria last week, the first such attack since 2003....

Officials in Washington said that the most likely targets of the raid were weapons caches that Israel’s government believes Iran has been sending the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah through Syria. Iran and Syria are Hezbollah’s primary benefactors, and American intelligence officials say a steady flow of munitions from Iran runs through Syria and into Lebanon.
Worse yet is what Israeli reconnaissance flights have shown.
One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.
In other news, the US military is moving to build a base on the Iraqi-Iranian border, with the help of the UK. This comes as the long-anticipated report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was released on Monday.
The move came as General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, made some of the strongest accusations yet by US officials about Iranian activity. General Petraeus spoke on Monday of a "proxy war" in Iraq, while Mr Crocker accused the Iranian government of "providing lethal capabilities to the enemies of the Iraqi state".

In an interview after his appearance before a congressional panel on Monday, General Petraeus strongly implied that it would soon be necessary to obtain authorisation to take action against Iran within its own borders, rather than just inside Iraq. "There is a pretty hard look ongoing at that particular situation" he said.

It's about damn time that someone in our government recognized the fact that Iran is openly at war with our country, and a response is not only justified but necessary.

Most importantly, it looks like the strategy of increasing economic sanctions on Iran is politically dead. This perception came after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government would not support any further sanctions through the UN imposed on Iran.
The announcement was made at a meeting in Berlin that brought German officials together with Iran desk officers from the five member states of the Security Council. It stunned the room, according to one of several Bush administration and foreign government sources who spoke to FOX News, and left most Bush administration principals concluding that sanctions are dead.

The Germans voiced concern about the damaging effects any further sanctions on Iran would have on the German economy — and also, according to diplomats from other countries, gave the distinct impression that they would privately welcome, while publicly protesting, an American bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Germany's withdrawal from the allied diplomatic offensive is the latest consensus across relevant U.S. agencies and offices, including the State Department, the National Security Council and the offices of the president and vice president. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the most ardent proponent of a diplomatic resolution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, has had his chance on the Iranian account and come up empty.
I'd say that the exact strategy upon which to confront Iran to rid them of their nuclear program and end their support of Islamic terrorism is debatable. But it seems fairly certain to me that they will be confronted militarily, and that such an action is necessary and just. It's only a matter of time before the shit hits the fan.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Why Should We Be Honest: Revisited Again

In responding to an objection to my post (which is cross-listed on facebook) I ended up writing a lot more than I intended, even getting into the subject of white lies. Facebook has a character limit on its comments, so I figured it would be easiest to write it all out here. This is the objection that prompted this, from my friend Steve:

Interesting, but your example only works if a continual web of lies must exist. What if upon getting the job with your falsified resume, you are free from producing or maintaining any additional lies - that is, people accept that you are qualified and don't question it further, and your wife/friends/etc accept your lie to them that you "had a good interview" or "just was the man the company was looking for" and question you no further? Then you would gain from your lie as you would have your job and no web of lies to maintain, and as Jason previously said, even if you had to occasionally throw in a lie, there would be no threat of destroying your web of lies if you are a good enough liar.

I wrote that kind of quickly, but that's my objection. I would be interested to hear your view on white lies.
Here is my response.

It is true that a very good liar could maintain this system for quite some time, without getting caught. But the really important point is to look at what this does to HIS OWN relationship with reality. Rand is working from the metaphysical premise that reality is an absolute. That is, it harshly imposes a variety of conditions on him regardless of his intentions. Rand is essentially making the point that it is much easier to operate honestly, in accordance with the facts of reality, than to attempt to subvert it.

Try to place yourself in the scenario of the habitual liar. You have obtained a few material things - a job, income, etc. Would you really feel like you had achieved something? Did you create a value? Or are you simply a looter, a parasite? What will this elaborate fantasy do to your self-esteem? You can't actually create values, so you must pretend to be something you are not in order to swindle everyone? What does this do to your relationship with your loved ones? Do you really deserve the praise of your wife when she congratulates you on your promotion? And so on and so on.

The point is that we are not talking about the most efficient way to collect THINGS. We are talking about the best way to live as a human being, in accordance with the requirements of our nature. That is, we're not talking about how to preserve a basic sustenance in the short-term, but rather how to live a flourishing life in the long-term. That is really the key here. The primary reason why it seems difficult to abandon the idea of the effective manipulator is that most people (myself included) are thinking in terms of the range of the moment.

It's true that this liar may achieve a bit more short-term material comfort, but do you see how badly he has sabotaged himself in the long-term? He must keep up this charade his entire life, or else face the collapse of his pretense. Do you think this gets easier over time?

Ok. Imagine a man moving from swindle to swindle. Let's say that he even is able to increase the scale of his con as he progressively becomes a better liar. Can you imagine what he will actually feel at the end of his life? Do you sincerely think he will feel true pride at the sight of a great accomplishment? Or do you think that the years of pretending to himself and everyone around him will catch up with his sense of self-worth?

I really want for you to think about this not just in a hypothetical sense, but applied to your own life specifically. Can you imagine ever lying on such a scale and being truly successful? And don't just self-deprecate. Don't think to yourself, oh I couldn't possibly do it, but if someone has the genius to, more power to him. I highly doubt you think that. And is it out of some sense of duty to the truth that you feel that way, or a duty to others? Where does such a duty come from if there is no such thing as the divine?

No, I think that you would reject such a scheme through your own common sense conclusion that it would either fall apart or cause you incredible mental turmoil in the long-term.

No matter how hard we may want reality to be other than its not, the fact of the matter is that the truth exists independently of our wishes. Any attempt to subvert this fundamental fact is futile.

Now I'd like to move onto the subject of white lies. The idea that they should never be used is an extension of the principle that reality exists independently of our minds. A woman asking how she looks in a dress is either fat or fit, regardless of our statements. That being said however, it is obviously prudent to avoid needlessly insulting our friends and loved ones. So there are a couple of ideas to keep in mind regarding white lies.

First of all, it's not necessary to go around delivering unsolicited information to everyone you know. I can easily be friends with a person who I think has something they can improve in their life, because such things are irrelevant to the nature of our friendship, depending on its degree. We all have things we can improve in our life, and there's no need to constantly criticize others about their short comings. (Unless we are talking about a major character flaw, such as being an avowed Kantian :-P) But seriously, withholding your full opinion of another person, because it is not asked for, is not being dishonest.

But I suspect that you, and most other people, would agree with me up to this point. The really tough situations occur when another person asks you your opinion, and you know that your honest answer will hurt their feelings. The best example I can think of is when a loved one gives you a gift that you don't really like. I'm sure that all of us, at some point, have faked a sincere interest in a gift we have received. How can I tell a person, who had every good intention, that their thoughtful gift is of little interest to me? That doesn't seem right. So, not wanting to hurt their feelings, we lie.

Tara Smith argues in Ayn Rand's Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (what started this whole discussion), that it is possible to tell the truth and not offend the other person's feelings. For example, a simple "thank you" or "I really appreciate your thoughtfulness" is more than enough to satisfy the situation. However, the person might ask you specifically what you think of the gift. Unless the person asks you specifically what your absolutely full opinion of the gift is, it's not necessary to divulge everything you are thinking. I would not consider that a white lie but rather an appropriate response based on the context. If all else fails, and the person wants to know absolutely everything you are thinking about that gift (which seems highly unlikely), I would sensitively let the person know that it's not exactly what I need/want, but I still really appreciate the thought.

I'm sure that there are a lot of other pertinent examples, but this is getting rather long, so I'll stick with just one more. What should you do when another person asks how they look either in a particular article of clothing or in general? Obviously, sensitivity is a must here. Having had serious issues with weight and physical appearance myself, I know how crushing a negative assessment of one's self can be.

Let's look at both situations separately. In the case of answering an opinion about an article of clothing, this does not seem difficult at all. In such a situation, I would say something like, " I do not think that is particularly flattering for you. I think you looked much better in X. But, that's just me." It's important to note that taste in regards to physical appearance and clothing varies, so I do not think it is problematic to let someone else know your opinion if asked. Furthermore, what benefit do you confer upon a person by lying to them about your opinion in this case? If your opinion of the garment ends up being widely shared, you have done this person a disservice by lying to them. The only concern should be avoiding the needless offense of their feelings. But, if you're sensitive as I described above, that shouldn't be a problem.

The latter situation, giving your opinion on a person's physical appearance in general, is obviously much more problematic. If we're dealing with something that can be changed, for example being overweight, I think it is important to tell the truth in a sensitive manner but stress the fact that the issue in question is a matter open to change. "Sure, you may be a little overweight right now but I know that you can improve that if you want to. I'd be happy to help in any way that I can, if you'd like." Unfortunately, there are too many people that would be shocked to hear something like this said to them. They would rather have their friends assist them in maintaining an illusion for their own pretense. Frankly, I do not want to be friends with people who consciously seek to delude themselves like that, and I will not like simply for their sake.

If however, we're dealing with a physical issue that cannot be changed, I would take the approach of deflecting the issue. For example, if someone asked me if I thought they were too short, I would say something like, "Well, you are a bit short, but who cares? I'm a bit A, B, or C myself. These things were never under our control. Besides, you're X, Y, and Z! (these being positive attributes, obviously)."

The fact of the matter is, I think that a healthy relationship between two people requires honesty. If I thought that my friends were shielding me from the truth about something, I would think that one, they have little respect for my ability to handle reality; and two, I would think that they have little respect for me. From that point on, I could not be sure whether they were being truthful with me or attempting a pleasant charade.

And ultimately, it all boils down to my perspective on our relationship between reality and ourselves. Since the truth is absolute, we must face it, even if at times it hurts our feelings. It makes sense to approach certain issues in a sensitive manner, but that does not change the fact that the truth must be faced.

If anyone can think of other problematic examples I'd be happy to field them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Why Should We Be Honest: Revisited

Well I had a couple of well-placed objections to my first post about the nature of honesty from Jason and Martin. Jason's objection gets to the heart of the issue, so I will post that here. (Martin, I'd be happy to discuss the reasons why honesty matters metaphysically to an atheist further, though I think I will inevitably brush upon that in my response here anyway).

From Jason:
Rand's selfish justification of honesty suffers from a critical shorortcoming: It is a rationalization. To affirm that a prudent person will not want to be deceived about reality is easy; segueing to the need not to deceive others simply begs the question: How does misleading others constitute a flight from reality—indeed, how is it intrinsically different from any other kind of strategic behavior? This segue is a virtual change of subject in mid-argument. In her 1971 essay "Lying in Politics" Hannah Arendt provocatively but perceptively points out that a liar, to be effective, has to have a clearer and more-textured view of reality than those misled. Steve himself notes Smith's example of the "very effective liar" who is not caught in the lie, and thus does not face the consequences (merely the implications); this really is the last word on the subject as far as "faking reality" is concerned. In a complex or consequential lie one must improvise brilliantly; one could however invoke the metaphor of sailing the open seas in stormy weather: You take your chances—but what does that necessarily have to do with delusion?

I have to conclude that Rand's reduction of all dishonesty to mere delusion is simply an effort to rationalize the customary profession of honesty in "enlightened self-interest" language. Like most attempts to induce moral staples from "enlightened self-interest," this can only be accomplished by begging the question with a better sob story.
Your objection is fair based on the amount of material I divulged in my post.

Let's bring this to the concrete level with an example. Based on your objection, I will deal here with the concept of the successful habitual liar, as opposed to the generally truthful person who permits himself occasional deceptions or white lies. (The subject of white lies requires another train of thought, which I'd be happy to share should it come up. As a note of interest, I was only recently fully acclimated to the idea of not allowing oneself to tell white lies).

(I am borrowing this general example from Leonard Peikoff. He discusses this example in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand). Suppose I were to apply to a job with a resume and educational history that is entirely falsified so that I can be certain to acquire the position. Suppose that I am expected to act upon my skill qualifications that I embellished in my resume. Suppose that your boss is good friends with the Dean of Admissions at the school you pretended to go to, and he does not remember ever seeing your name. Suppose that your wife inquires about how you managed to get a job of this kind. This one lie will, in short order, spiral into a system of lies that become harder and harder to maintain.

Obviously, the response to this line of reasoning is that the individual in question should simply do a better job of lying (as you noted). Clearly he was clumsy, and understandably caught in his poorly conceived lies.

However, I'd like to submit to you that this pattern must be extended to any other example of dishonesty. Regardless of the degree of my initial lie, and regardless of how effectively I have covered up the truth, I will always be faced with the threat of being discovered. Every person I interact with is a threat to me, in that they may shatter my web of lies. Inevitably, I must become suspicious of everyone around me and constantly work to maintain the lies. Indeed, such a pattern would ultimately shatter any valuable relationships with other people.

But more importantly, what have I done to my self-esteem in this process of deceit? By obtaining the job through deception, have I actually achieved something? Have I earned a value as the result of my own, actual worth? Or, am I trying to fake it? From that point on I have set reality against my interests: it is now my enemy. I must continually ignore the truth of reality in favor of my fantasy in the attempt to preserve the faked sense of self-worth from my "accomplishment."

Ultimately, the most important principle is that reality is absolute. It exists regardless of our intentions, desires, and best wishes. Any attempt to pretend that reality is what it is not is utterly futile for this reason. Even if we are dealing with very practiced liars, the fact of the matter remains that it is impossible for the self-deception to succeed. And what I mean by that is, even if they have everyone around them fooled at the moment, they have not actually accomplished what they are pretending in fact. Sure, the most practiced liars will have accumulated a variety of material possessions, even companions. But it is all a fantasy. And, at what cost have they "achieved" this status?

I have a feeling that at this point, you are not yet satisfied with this answer. There is one crucial piece of the puzzle missing. Where do values come from? At root, we are debating whether a person can invent values through self-deception or not. Rand identified three suggested sources of value in the history of philosophy. First there's the concept of intrinsic value, that is, the value of a thing is literally in the thing itself, and this is impressed upon us by our passive experience of it. Another possibility is the concept of subjective value. Values do not exist in things, but rather are the creation of individual minds imprinted upon things of our artificial choosing. (I would think by now that you are starting to see the connection to the problem of universals).

The final option is the concept of objective value. An object is valuable in relation to another object's nature for a particular end. Food is of value in relation to the requirements of human existence towards the end of continued living. Were we not living beings, food would be of absolutely no consequence. I cannot delude myself into thinking that a rock is an objective value towards the end of receiving sustenance in order to continue living, because that is not the nature of reality. The point is, objective values cannot be faked. Self-deception is the attempt to turn a subjective value into objective, and on the basis of Rand's metaphysics, must inevitably fail.

Going back to the original example, sure, I've obtained some material possessions, but what have I really gained? Based on all of the problems associated with maintaining the lie with others alone, I've lost in the long-term. But more importantly, what have I really achieved for myself? I haven't improved my ability to create, I haven't developed my skills relevant to this job, I haven't actually done anything, except attempt to improve my ability to deceive myself. There is ultimately no long-term benefit from turning reality into my enemy, since it is absolute. I cannot succeed in artificially creating an objective value through self-deception. Thus, it makes all the prudential sense in the world to be entirely honest with myself, and with those around me.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Because We Said So

In absurd news, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Edwards has proposed a universal health care system that involves mandatory doctor visits. (John Edwards is not to be confused with John Edward, biggest douche in the universe; though Edwards should be a nominee for the title himself).
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said on Sunday that his universal health care proposal would require that Americans go to the doctor for preventive care....

Edwards said his mandatory health care plan would cover preventive, chronic and long-term health care. The plan would include mental health care as well as dental and vision coverage for all Americans.

"The whole idea is a continuum of care, basically from birth to death," he said.

I'm not sure how exactly to describe the sick feeling in my stomach that this gives me. Words like "appalling," "nauseating," and "repulsive" just don't seem to cut it.

Let's forget all about how horribly inefficient such a system would be for the moment. (Does anyone honestly think that the government has the capability to run such a machine?)

More importantly, let's look at who the government looters will steal from in order to fund this monstrosity.
Edwards said his plan would cost up to $120 billion a year, a cost he proposes covering by ending President Bush's tax cuts to people who make more than $200,000 per year.
By what right can the government loot this money from our best, most productive citizens? By what right? I have very little doubt that mandatory doctor visits would save lives. There are plenty of people in our country that are too afraid to confront a medical problem which later becomes fatal. Also, there are people in unfortunate circumstances who cannot afford healthcare. But those reasons do not justify the chaining and looting of our most productive citizens by gunpoint.

You can damn well guarantee that I will not be voting for John Edwards in 2008. You should not either. Is anyone as outraged about this as I am?