Bad Ideas, Bad Feelings

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nearly fifty years ago, Ayn Rand made the following connection between the philosophical ideas one holds (often, implicitly) and the emotions one feels:

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man's body is an automatic indicator of his body's welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death -- so the emotional mechanism of man's consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man's values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him -- lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.


[S]ince the work of man's mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought -- or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone's authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man's premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly. [minor format edits]
And Sunday, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe asked of Barack Obama:
[T]he presidency is no walk in the park. Americans know that, just as they know you've had a lot on your plate: a gasping economy, Afghanistan, the oil spill, North Korea -- not to mention an approval rating that keeps dropping. But Americans also know that every president faces tremendous trials. Look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Not only did he have the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler, and Pearl Harbor to deal with, he was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Yet he was legendary for his ebullient good humor. All the troubles in the world couldn’t deprive FDR of what his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin called his "remarkable capacity to transmit this cheerful strength to others."

Will anyone ever say that about you? [format edits, emphasis mine]
Before concluding with his very different impression of President Obama, Jacoby further quotes President Kennedy on the emotional rewards -- yes, rewards -- of his job. "It is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the presidency provides some happiness."
By contrast, you come across too often as irritable and self-pitying. It's not attractive, and it's not winning you the admiration of the American people. Lighten up, Mr. President. You've got the job of a lifetime. Enjoy it.
Jacoby has stumbled on something more profound, probably, than he realizes, and this could well nail Obama's coffin shut among voters with a healthy sense of life.

But what, exactly, is it? It is perhaps most instructive to consider the fact that the other two Presidents mentioned above, like Obama, favored more state control of the economy than there had been before and were professed altruists. However, Obama is the most consistent collectivist of the three, and alone among them distinctly lacks fire in the belly when it comes to protecting American interests worldwide.

While FDR fought the Depression (albeit ineffectively) and waged a two-front war, he worked to inspire the American people. There was doubtless the sense that things were terrible, but that such a state of affairs was unacceptable and, more important, abnormal: We could -- and would -- do something about it.

Obama, on the other hand, tells us that America's days as the preeminent world power are over and that the economy won't improve any time soon. The first would be complete bunk if his policies regarding the economy were not so horrendous; and there's no possible way for him to attempt to raise morale regarding the second: If the state "has to" bail us out, the implicit judgment is that we're all essentially helpless in the face of this crisis.

It is this last observation that is key to understanding our irritable, self-pitying President. He is, by far, the most consistent altruist and collectivist we have ever had as President. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this consistency includes -- not just as an abstract notion or inconsistently in any way, but on an emotional and "soul-felt" level -- the malevolent universe premise that Rand identified as the basis for altruism.

Were Jeff Jacoby an Objectivist, I wonder whether he would have identified Barack Obama as the first "American" President to lack any vestige of an American sense of life. (Scroll down to -- or search -- "A nation’s sense of life".)

-- CAV


Steve D said...

“Lighten up, Mr. President”

If only it were that simple! When you feel the universe is against you it’s pretty hard to lighten up.


Your point about Obama’s sense of life is a good one. One thing I’ve noticed about leftists and altruists in general is the incredible paucity of their vision along with their malevolent sense of life. No one could ever accuse them of inspiring anyone. Obama’s irritable and self-pitying demeanor and general poor humor is evidence of this. It seems in many ways that Obama is a man before his time such is the contrast between him and other presidents. Perhaps Clinton represents an intermediate but even with him the major manifestation of bad philosophy was personal corruption not a malevolent sense of life.

Also, this is perhaps a teachable moment? The connection between Obama’s philosophical beliefs (and policies) and his sense of life is much clearer than those of previous presidents. If Americans ever figure this out the collectivists are going to have a very bad day (or century).

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks. I'm still working out some of the implications of this as well as how it might be useful.

There are two strands here: (1) the malevolence (In a way, it's hilarious to think of how annoying it must be in Obama's shoes, with everyone expecting him to step up.), and (2) the zombification of the "troops" you're supposed to inspire. (How on earth can you rally anyone around the idea of getting handouts?)

As you did, I considered past mediocre Presidents and realized that corruption seemed to be the greatest prior manifestation of bad philosophy.

That said, what Jacoby has noticed meshes with what others have hinted at before, but it was the contrast he made with the previous Presidents that clinched it for me.

Without Rand's analysis of emotions, though, I think he "rubs people the wrong way," but on further thought, most will simply conclude that he has an odd personality.


Anonymous said...

I've found the "can-do optimism" and "positivity and faith [whether societal or religious] in the American spirit" that is so dominant in pragmatists like FDR, Bush, and Reagan to be just as malevolent, stemming from its superficiality. I don't see Obama as any different than them in terms of sense of life.

My attempt at intellectual discussions with blindly optimistic pragmatists (usually Conservatives) has often been much more depressing than similar conversations with cynical "Obama" types in general. The latter are more willing to listen and generally ask serious questions. (The worst on both sides are equally as revolting.)

The "optimistic" pragmatists don't need to translate an emotional view into an intellectual one; they need to discover ideas for the first time in their lives. I can't stand their superficial shouting/emotion and routine-sounding fervor about "things working out if we just met halfway and put our differences aside."

Though Ron Paul's policies are terrible--as he basically wants state and local control of the economy and all political policies and is an appeasing isolationist regarding foreign policy--he's one of the only politicians I have seen to have a benevolent sense of life and serious concern with ideas.

Whenever I see him speak, he treats ideas with the highest respect, such as when he questions Ben Bernanke on awful Federal Reserve policy, speaks about the importance of having a gold standard, or discusses and explains the importance of free market economic policies as developed by Mises and Hayek--and simultaneously has a benevolent, positive demeanor, as well as clearly expresses his view that freedom-favoring ideas are practical and can become popular.

Anonymous said...

Let me correct one thing I said. Both sides are just as bad (the cynics and the blindly optimistic pragmatists), but more of the cynical ones at least do give the ideas a serious hearing and I think are a little closer to adopting a rational philosophy than the "optimistic" pragmatists.

That being said, both sides are in just as bad shape in general in terms of philosophical views and sense of life.

The "Ron Paul" sense of life is not dominant on either side.

Mo said...

well the presidency is no easy thing so lets not be too harsh on the man. what surprises me is why people expect too much of him. Is he the messiah or something. Perhaps those people should stop electing tyrants in the first place and learn to be principled

Gus Van Horn said...


Although the title of this post might seem to indicate a tighter correlation between one's EXPLICITLY held ideas and his sense of life, that is not always the case. In fact, one's IMPLICIT ideas are quite often the governing factor in how benevolent or malevolent his sense of life is.

Thus the issue here is not whether someone is leftist or conservative, or even respectful of philosophical ideas, but what his subconscious mind has integrated to the point that it affects his overall emotional makeup. My essential point is that Obama may be unique in that his bad ideas are so fundamental to his psychological makeup that he ends up being malevolent -- in his emotional outlook on life -- overall.

Regarding Rand Paul, I think his commitment to ideas is superficial. I'd love to ask, for example, on what earthly basis he holds that life begins at conception.


I don't think anyone -- aside from his core, welfare-state constituency -- is asking of any more of President than of any other President.


Anonymous said...

I said Ron Paul, the father, not Rand Paul, the son. I don't know about the son’s sense of life.

Watch a few clips of Ron Paul. Yes, his ideas overall are terrible (though some of his economic ideas more broadly are good); he's a religious libertarian. But it is his emotional summation of life which is benevolent that I am referring to.

[Clip of Ron Paul facing Bernanke in Congressional hearing]

The “blindly optimistic” attitude of “things will work out if we be positive; we always bounced back in the past and will this time; we just need to drop extreme positions” (watch Republican Minority Leader Congressman John Boehner or Fox News media personality Neil Cavuto as just two more examples I can think of off the top of my head) is just as psychologically destructive. When it comes down to it, they just don’t care to go through the mental effort of grasping and propagating ideas or sticking their neck out. Indifference is just as pathetic, hateful of life, and mentally harmful as cynicism.

But both sides generally bounce back between “blind optimism” and cynicism. Half the time Obama is “optimistic” and “pro-American” in his talk and policies about “cheap electric cars and solar energy for all” and “thriving small businesses and efficient business-government cooperative partnerships” and “great health care for all Americans,” and half the time the Reagan types are cynically saying “we don’t want extreme pro-freedom positions, just to go back to the way things were; let’s keep Medicare as it is, it’s working fine” and “as long as we’re willing to compromise we can accomplish anything [except full freedom].”

I view their sense of life as one and the same. If Obama hates America, then so did FDR, Reagan, and Bush. Approaching freedom as if it’s a fun toy that’s nice to have but that one could do without is to not value it at all. Indifference to the intellectual, political requirements of life is hatred of life as such.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Americans in general are hateful though, even Obama or mentally passive rose-colored-glasses "optimists." In personal conversations they do generally profess a desire for freedom, reason, and individualism (and then contradict it in their next sentence), and to live selfish, purposeful lives--it's just an overwhelmingly non-philosophical, conformist culture and any amount of economic controls that stifle their ability to actualize and advocate rational philosophy.

Gus Van Horn said...

"... Ron Paul, the father, not Rand Paul, the son..."

Six of one, half a dozen of the other regarding abortion and a superficial appreciation of ideas.

Forget him anyway. I'm discussing Presidents, not random political figures or commentators, neither of whom have to be on the spot during a crisis the way Presidents historically have had to.

Now, let's discuss Obama vis-a-vis the other American Presidents before him, none of whom (I feel pretty safe saying) projected a completely benevolent sense of life.

One's receptiveness to, or appraisal of the importance of, explicit philosophical ideas is irrelevant in most contexts to a discussion of sense of life because sense of life:

"... is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence ..."

And this involves the following:

"Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value-judgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him—most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him. What began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion—an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense of life."

I'm not saying that FDR, Reagan, et al. were wholly benevolent in their sense of life or what they managed to project. I'm saying that Obama barely has or doesn't have a benevolent sense of life -- or project one for that matter.

I am old enough to remember Reagan. Sure, his explicit ideas were putrid, and based on them, he had no reason to be optimistic or be able to fake optimism. Both came from somewhere else: the culture he grew up in.


Steve D said...

“I don't see Obama as any different than them in terms of sense of life.”

Jason: I think you are equating respect for ideas with a sense of life. That the can do optimism is superficial does not make it malevolent in intention, however poor the results. However, I agree that in some ways the Clinton types may make better presidents but I suspect much worse neighbors. (I deliberately used Clinton for this example because Obama is just too far gone)

After thinking about this more it looks like there are actually three separate points to consider 1) sense of life derived from implicit ideas 2) explicitly held ideas and 3) respect for ideas. There doesn’t need to be any correlation between these in the sense that a benevolent sense of life does not necessarily imply either correct explicitly held ideas or even a strong respect for ideas. The opposite I think is also true that a malevolent sense of life does not necessarily imply poor respect for ideas.

I am not sure which type would be most likely to see the light (so to speak). You may be correct, however, in some cases people may not respect ideas simply because they have heard so many bad ones for so many years – it might be hard to focus your mind if suddenly you heard a good idea for the first time.

Also, both sides may be just as bad in their results but a man who advocates slavery because he is screwed up and can’t think properly is necessarily better than one who advocates slavery and knows it. What make Obama particularly bad in my opinion is that he has a far better idea than previous presidents of what the results will be but advocates the policies anyway. To some degree I think he is still engaging in self deception but definitely not to the degree of previous presidents. Another way to put this using Gus’ term is that Obama’s ideas are much more explicit (though not completely so).

Actually, I don’t think Obama and Reagan were one and the same. In addition to the sense of life difference I’ve noticed while both conservatives and leftists have atrocious premises, conservatives often have more logically valid arguments (once you grant the premises). I am not sure that‘s an advantage though, in fact in many cases just the opposite.

“How on earth can you rally anyone around the idea of getting handouts”

Although this is not directly on your topic it’s interesting to consider the contradiction between Obama’s quest for power and his anti military stance. At some point he may need the military to impose his views on other countries or to foment unrest to distract from disastrous domestic policies. Isn’t that pretty much standard fascist procedures?

“Both came from somewhere else: the culture he grew up in.”

I find it fascinating that that a person can hold on to a benevolent sense of life for so long when his explicit ideas are so bad - I wonder how long, both for an individual man and the culture in general.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for taking the time to identify the three points that are coming into play here.

"I find it fascinating that that a person can hold on to a benevolent sense of life for so long when his explicit ideas are so bad - I wonder how long, both for an individual man and the culture in general."

So do I, and it may be what carries the day in the end.


Mo said...

i didn't realize Obama has a benovalent sense of life to begin with so I fail to see the wisdom of steve's last statement.

Gus Van Horn said...


Read his comment again: Steve said no such thing. (cf., "Obama is just too far gone," and "I don’t think Obama and Reagan were one and the same.")


Jim May said...

Obama, on the other hand, tells us that America's days as the preeminent world power are over and that the economy won't improve any time soon.

Sounds like Obama is suffering from some sort of malaise.

Gus Van Horn said...

That m-word suggests food for thought: Is Obama in this respect than Carter (I think he is.) and, if so, by how much and in what ways?