Quick Roundup 222

Monday, July 30, 2007

My Blogging Month: Touch and Go

My day job, which I blog about vaguely when I do at all, has just gotten a lot more interesting. Good long-term news for the blogger, potentially bad short-term news for the blog.

Basically, I find myself having to refocus my efforts at work in addition to some re-tooling I'd already planned. And, at the insistence of my "other boss" (i.e., Mrs. Van Horn), I will be traveling out of town three times over the next month. And then I have a couple of interesting non-blogging writing assignments I need to get underway....

It should be realistic for me to post at least once a day on weekdays over the next month, except on some days that I am out of town. I may even maintain close to my normal schedule once I have made some adjustments.

But if not, you know why.

Noumenal Self is Back

There has been quite a bit of blogging activity over at Noumenal Self lately, including a couple of pieces on some recent war commentary by Robert Tracinski. I found the following line from the first of these choice:

I haven't paid much attention to Robert Tracinski lately. I guess I never finished the critique of his "What Went Wrong?" series, but then again, Tracinski never finished the series himself.
This reminds me that back in January, Joe Kellard and I had a very interesting conversation in the comments on Tracinski's commentary in general, in which I made what I think is, in retrospect, a very good point:
There is a certain amount of merit to Tracinski's position, which I would distill into the following question: "What are the chances of an Objectivist being elected President of the United States today?"

Obviously, the answer is, "Not a snowball's chance in hell." The next obvious question the becomes, "What do we Objectivists do to affect the political debate?"

Tracinski's answer is "Take what you can get." This seems an acceptable answer, except that what he seems to mean is "Gauge what concrete measures you can 'get away with' advocating and base your arguments on that."

This is, in fact, not enough, for it leaves too many bad premises unchallenged and, in the case of Tracinski's war arguments, makes it appear that what Bush is doing instead of fighting ruthlessly is acceptable. (Actually, I may be overly generous here. Tracinski and company seem to actually believe this.) This is a grave mistake, for it allows the "welfare-state 'warriors'" to retain credibility for longer than they deserve and forestalls the debate about whether we as individuals and as a nation have the absolute right to defend ourselves -- a debate that will be the inevitable alternative to our ultimate defeat.

Conversely, I suspect that Tracinski would regard advocacy like that of John Lewis as futile. What concrete guidance does it offer us now, after all? This is more or less the kind of question I used to ask all the time when I encountered Lewis and others, such as Craig Biddle. This is, indeed, why I sided with Tracinski until very recently.

But Lewis et al. are doing what intellectuals do. In Lewis's case, a recent example of this is: compare the present war to a past one we fought and show how we once knew how to fight (and win) a war. Point out how and why we are failing now. At least get the rationale and the blueprint for the right approach "out there" so when the public is prepared for a real debate, the right approach might finally get some consideration.

I would even add that those in charge of military strategy -- if Lewis's argument got even wider currency today and they accepted it -- would understand that we would have to endure a period of strategic adjustment before we could really fight the war. But they would understand that we couldn't magically and instantaneously begin aping the our old, World War II selves.

And yet it it is Tracinski who faulted the other Objectivists generally and Leonard Peikoff in particular for being pessimists! Pardon me, but whose whole approach seems premised on the notion that Americans can't grasp arguments beyond the concrete level here, anyway? [some minor edits]
Those who think that putting forth strong philosophical arguments isn't "doing something" grossly underestimate the power of philosophical ideas to shape the course of history.

Craig Biddle is Back

Well, that formulation is halfway accurate only if you count being editor of the best Objectivist periodical out there as some sort of sabbatical!

All I really mean here is that he signed on to the OList recently to say that he plans on blogging more regularly now that a particularly busy period for him is over.

He kicks off with a very interesting post about an article in Slate that comments on the misuse of the term "loophole":
Jack Shafer of Slate has written a superb article on the notion of "loophole" ... [where he] point[s] out that the word "loophole" is used to make perfectly legal and morally legitimate practices seem illegal or bad.


To what facts of reality does the word "loophole" refer as used by the media in this context? It denotes various means by which people are still free to act on their own judgment; it specifies aspects of life in which individual rights are not yet being thoroughly violated by the government. In other words, it names a wonderful yet rapidly diminishing thing called freedom -- which users of the term "loophole" seek to smear as corrupt. [bold added]
On the one hand, once you read this, the point seems obvious. On the other, you find yourself wondering why nobody else had come up with this until now. To cut through the fog like Shafer has and make it seem obvious is something I really admire -- on top of my being grateful he noticed this in the first place!

Good Blogger Schools Mediocre Philosopher

I enjoyed reading Ergo's commentary on a philosopher's smearing of Ayn Rand's crucial work in the field of ethics:
[M]ediocre philosopher [Steve Gimbel] commits a fallacy that Rand termed as the "fallacy of the frozen abstraction." The fallacy is in substituting a particular concrete or concept in the place of a wider class to which it belongs.

Gimbel says that an Objectivist who embraces rational self-interest does so as a justification for "not being an empathetic individual." Further, Gimbel asserts that an Objectivist believes that it would be "immoral" of him to help anyone and therefore decides to be "a jerk who never helps anyone."

The frozen abstraction here is the concept of altruism; the only kind of act that Gimbel considers "moral" is the altruistic type of action -- empathy and helping behavior. In other words, only an altruist could be empathetic and exhibit helping behavior, and altruism is substituted for morality when in fact altruism is only one type of moral code just as egoism, hedonism, and rational self-interest are all different types of moral codes.
Read the whole thing.

Ralston: A Must-Read on Sicko

Via HBL, I learned that "What Michael Moore Left out of 'Sicko'", a column by Richard Ralston, of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, has appeared in the Orange County Register. He lands the following knockout punch at the end:
Most importantly, when Mr. Moore mentioned that "every industrial country" except the United States has adopted medical socialism, he did not mention why that means that we should. Many of those countries still have monarchies. Should the United States? Many of those countries have established state religions. Should the United States? Many of those countries have long waiting lists and severe rationing of health care.

Should the United States?
That last question is the perfect rejoinder to Moore's variant of the argument from intimidation, in which he implies that socialism is, somehow, more enlightened than capitalism and that "everyone else" agrees with him.

-- CAV


Raman Gupta said...

Re. your point on "What do we Objectivists do to affect the political debate?" I must ask the question: who exactly are we reaching with our philosophical position?

I don't see many of our philosophical ideas anywhere in the mainstream media, nor in any of the established political parties. It seems that for the most part Objectivists are preaching to the choir.

When our message is more widely distributed (such as Lewis attempted) many, and I would guess most, people pretty much equate the Objectivist position with the bile spewed by the KKK. John Lewis sadly lost his job and was widely criticized for his excellent work. Of course this indicates the ignorance of the general population and intellectual establishment, but we clearly need another way to spread our message.

We can either wait until something drastic happens (the Islamists set off a nuclear weapon in an American city?) which prompts people to look for alternatives, or we can attempt to influence the political debate in more concrete terms before that. Even the former will hardly be likely to persuade Americans to be rational as opposed to being driven into the arms of religion and further irrationality.

Libertarians have some political capital (as opposed to Objectivists who have zero). Yes, Libertarians have an element within them that approves of anarchy or other irrational thinking (e.g. the "virtuous circle" you spoke of). Certainly the Libertarian statement of principles [1] does not show the philosophical rigor that we would like, but it also does not advocate many of the beliefs they are routinely accused of, such as anarchy. In fact, much of it seems surprisingly well aligned with the Objectivist philosophy.

Shouldn't Objectivists therefore attempt to influence the philosophical grounding of Libertarians directly, perhaps by engaging them more actively instead of just dismissing them? Wouldn't this be an entry point into affecting the political debate in some concrete way?

The unfortunate reality is that the enemies of freedom are masters at eroding away freedoms one small unnoticeable step at a time. Witness the results of the decades long anti-smoking crusades and the environmental movement. Why shouldn't Objectivists take a page from their playbook and attempt to gain back liberties one step at a time, rather than trying for a wholesale change of attitudes and beliefs irrationally held by a government educated population? The latter is unlikely to ever happen, no matter what the correctness of our ideas is.

[1] http://www.lp.org/issues/platform_all.shtml#sop

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for stopping by. (Regarding your news tip, I am not sure when I'll get to it....)

You ask, "Why shouldn't Objectivists take a page from their playbook and attempt to gain back liberties one step at a time, rather than trying for a wholesale change of attitudes and beliefs irrationally held by a government educated population? The latter is unlikely to ever happen, no matter what the correctness of our ideas is."

This is because of the REASON statists win incrementally: the saturation of our culture with altruism and pragmatism. The altruism means that when people consider what SHOULD be done, they choose "help others", often when doing so is self-sacrificial in some way. The pragmatism means that the harm done by all these incremental proposals goes largely unnoticed because people do not integrate the contradictions and ill effects of such proposals with the broader context of their factual knowledge or their more rational values.

While there is nothing in itself wrong with advocating pro-freedom political measures, it is meaningless to do so in the way that Libertarians like to do (i.e., devoid of relevant context and rigor, even if merely defining terms is your definition of "rigor"). In simplest terms, shouting "freedom is good" does no good if everyone who hears you equates, say, "freedom" with cradle-to-grave welfare or "good" with the alleged will of an alleged God.

In short, we CAN'T take a page from that book (which exactly is what Libertarians are trying to do) because what we want to do REQUIRES, in the long run, for people to have a much firmer grasp of what freedom means than they do today. Indeed, this is precisely why we cannot afford the mistake of making common cause with the Libertarians no matter how much they look like us on the surface. Doing so will undercut everything we are doing to clean up the current cultural mess in the field of politics.

You are right that wholesale cultural change can't happen in a short span of time. That is why there IS a need for incremental action -- but of a fundamentally different KIND than the statists have been doing. We must buy time by opposing the more irrational impulses of left and right while laying the foundation for a more rational future culture now. Progress towards that goal will be slow at first, but I suspect that once it reaches some critical mass, our cultural trends could abruptly change for the better.

The fundamental cultural change we need may or may not occur within our lifetime if we choose the course of action I describe. But will certainly NEVER occur if we act like Libertarians. As I once said,

"Contrary to the Libertarians' wishes, renaming what the people already believe as 'liberty' will not magically result in them supporting a proper form of government. Contrary to those of Newdow and his ilk, a few men in black robes will not be able to make them govern themselves properly. Both approaches attempt to substitute a wish for the will of the people. It is this will that must be changed."

This is a tough assignment, but it is worth it.