The John Birch Society, 2.0

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Or: Ayn Rand Explained Trump and QAnon in the 70's, Too

Shortly before I mostly dropped off the web for a few weeks, Snedcat left a comment linking to a fascinating piece by Reed Berkowitz titled, "A Game Designer's Analysis of QAnon." I must confess that I was largely ignorant of QAnon and various related conspiracy theories: I was vaguely aware that lots of Trump's strongest supporters were conspiracy nuts and not terribly surprised that he apparently sometimes pandered to them.

I don't have a lot of commentary of my own to offer on the subject right now, but I did remember the piece yesterday and became curious as to what Ayn Rand might have had to say about the kind of people who indulge in conspiracy theories and why.

I am never disappointed when I do this, but I was slightly surprised to see, in her commentary on the Watergate conspiracy ("Brothers, You Asked for It!", published within The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, nos. 14 and 15 in April 1973) a very good explanation both of why so many people who are alarmed by the state of the country are drawn to conspiracy theories and why someone might pander to such people (as Trump has) or even cultivate them (as someone is apparently doing via several internet fora).

For anyone not already familiar with the philosophical meaning of pragmatism, here's a link to Ayn Rand's commentary on the philosophy of Pragmatism, and another to her talk (with transcription) "Philosophy: Who Needs It." These will be helpful to make sense of the following passage (tldr in P.S.):

If you dig enough, you'll find ... something. (Image by Sigmund, via Unsplash, license.)
[T]he big dilemma for all the pragmatists of the Right, is: what are they to fight and by what means, if principles are inoperative? Politics is a field in which one deals with ideas and it requires the ability to argue, to discuss, to persuade. What does one do in politics if one has discarded the whole realm of ideas? One fights men.

The concrete-bound pragmatist mentality cannot fight for an abstract goal. It cannot fight for anything in the realm of ideas, only against something. To fight for, means to struggle to bring something into existence, which requires the power of abstraction; to fight against, means to oppose something which is there already. But even to fight against an existing idea requires the promulgation of ideas. What can one find as a substitute, which is there already and which -- one has been taught -- is unaffected by ideas? Men.

For many years past, the ideological policy and argumentation of most of the political Right has been one solid ad hominem. Republican candidates me-too'd the Democrats, adding only the claim that they, the Republicans, would do the job better, because they were better, kindlier, more experienced, or more folksy men (thus losing election after election). The crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy was not fighting communism, but communists; it consisted merely in a campaign of party-card hunting. General Motors did not fight Ralph Nader on the issues, but hired investigators to spy on him, hoping to find material for a personal exposé (and failed). The John Birch Society ascribes all the disasters of the modern world to a conspiracy of evil men. [bold added, citation above]
There have always been conspiracy nuts and politicians happy to use them. Rand helps us understand why there are so many, and what kind of politician would find them useful. Her piece deserves a full reading for this reason alone.

Berkowitz's piece is interesting because it shows how someone is using technology to gather and corral such people, as well as to flatter them -- by giving them community -- and the illusion of something else that is difficult to come by without rational principles, namely a sense of intellectual efficacy:
There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you "figure it out yourself" you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to "connect the dots yourself" you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at...
There is much more, and I think that piece is worth reading as well -- particularly by principled people who are alarmed at the state of the nation today.

Off the cuff, I am not so sure this is much different in kind than what the John Birch Society did for its members in its heyday. But what bothers me is that it is more centralized and scales better, and the number of potential recruits is much higher, proportionally and in absolute numbers than it was in the past, for the cultural reasons Rand discussed in 1973.

-- CAV

P.S. Ayn Rand is not claiming that there are millions of professed (or even self-aware) Pragmatists out there. She does argue that that philosophy and others have, through our cultural institutions, had a very strong effect on our culture and way of thinking; Pragmatism for several decades now. To wit, from the talk:
You might claim -- as most people do -- that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? "Don't be so sure -- nobody can be certain of anything." You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." You got that from Plato. Or: "That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world." You got that from Augustine. Or: "It may be true for you, but it's not true for me." You got it from William James. Or: "I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does." You got it from Hegel. Or: "I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's evil, because it's selfish." You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: "Act first, think afterward"? They got it from John Dewey.
The influence of philosophy is not confined to slogans or explicit beliefs, either, as Rand argues in that talk and her student, Leonard Peikoff, discusses in detail in The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, the bit about so many rightists following men and not ideas is definitely a point of Rand's that the right has so often proved again and again in the decades since I first read it. It is certainly true of the pro-Trump Rand fans I have run across on-line (they do not merit the name "Objectivist," though given their fondness for the term "Obleftivist" and their major character flaws, equally witty third-grade/rate naming sport comes immediately to mind), and the article whose link I sent you describes the madness that is their method perfectly.

For example, one such fellow (let us call him "Captain Cully") spent much energy and spittle-flecks arguing that all the people who stated publicly and in their own name, and I believe under oath in some cases, that Trump did such and such were peddling hearsay in the strict legal sense. Captain Cully then turned right around and posted Q-Anon forum snippets, saying that they were quite convincing evidence that there is indeed a conspiracy so immense, showing that Captain Cully neither knows nor cares what the word "hearsay" in fact means; the anti-intellectual ballast among those posting in Captain Cully's comment sections latched onto it while anyone with intellectual independence simply faded away in disgust.

Similarly, Captain Cully loves to make fun of people, especially self-proclaimed Objectivists, like a high school freshman who really really wants to get with the cutest of the mean girls in his school, so he acts just like her and her clique, only with somewhat less masculinity than they bring to it...Then the abuse piles on in the comment threads, great sport for those incapable of anything healthy, but ask Captain Cully to give a direct quote or state their own position (such as on abortion), and blank-out: You can hear the crickets' legs scrabbling in the woodworks--at least I think those are crickets.

Another revealing example is the time Captain Cully posted a Vox article supposedly by a trans person I remember once upon a time reading (though rarely to the end) at the Onion AV Club back when it was occasionally worth it, "Dear White Women: White Babies are White Supremacy." Now, the sad thing is that from what I remember of the person, the chances were non-negligible though not high that it was authentic, so I searched assiduously to find it. Not only did I not find the article, I found no mirrors or reposts of it. The comments were just what you'd expect, big talk in a beer hall, but when someone (no, not me) posted a comment saying that he hadn't found it after a Google search, silence.

Then in a later reply to one of the other comments, Captain Cully bemoaned the hour or so he spent that morning on the article. Even a kindergartener takes a minute or less to download an article, but for a high school freshman mean-girl-wanna-be, I guess a simple Photoshop like that would take an hour or more. In a rational community, the music and dancing would stop right then and the questions would start, but not in Captain Cully's camp. So either they're all utterly bereft of basic critical skills, or else they want it to be true, really really want it to be true, and the emotion from the play-acting persists once the actual event has passed--or even worse, they don't care whether it is true so long as it is useful (useful for what? sticking it to that other clique of mean girls).

Small children, even in the deepest throes of make-believe, fully recognize what is real and what is their own fiction; it takes a particular frame of mind, and not a healthy one, for a notional adult to continue eliding the distinction even when it has been brought up for discussion. And cultivating an environment that encourages that frame of mind is Q-Anon's stock in trade and Captain Cully's default mode.

Gus Van Horn said...


I was hesitant to post this until I saw, "let's call him." I have neither the time nor the desire nor the energy to deal with idiots like this -- including drawing them here, even if I don't end up posting their comments.

Someone I knew long ago referred to such people as "intellectual ballast." That's a near-apt description: They are a waste of time in the battle to persuade others and of very limited value in sharpening one's own understanding. They are, past a nearby point, best avoided. Perhaps a better name would be "intellectual tar babies." They're ballast, you can't help them, and the best you can do is save your efforts for folks who are open to reason and think for themselves.

Or even opponents who are at least trying to learn the truth or pursue value.


Anonymous said...

Hi Snedcat,

I'm not sure who Cap'n Cully may be in his own person, but there is at least one Leftist Academic who has said something very similar in that regard.

Here are two links.


Now this might merely be a Leftist who has completely departed reality for the nether regions but it might also be one who has followed the premises of the Left to their logical conclusion.

And given that we have lots of examples of minority children being physically and emotionally abused by others in their subgroup for the racial crime of 'acting white' - that is, attempting to supersede the circumstances of their upbringing by succeeding academically, learning to speak grammatically, and staying away from criminal behavior - and that such minority cultures acting in opposition to individual achievement have been validated repeatedly by Leftist academics, I'm going to go with the second explanation.

When a worldview is as fundamentally irrational as the collectivist Left's is, the possibility of truly absurdist policies becomes much greater than we might like to think. Rush Limbaugh has noted that his parodies of a decade ago have in fact become the policies of the Left; that they have become so absurd that parody of their positions has become very nearly impossible. (Although the Babylon Bee has some really good content much like the Onion in its prime.)

The problem now is that the Left has achieved significant control of the political apparatus and the possibility of them attempting to use naked force to impose their 'vision' of reality on the rest of us in order to assuage their emotive dissonance (as I can't really accuse them of cognition, per se) has radically increased. Their antics under the convenient crisis of the pandemic has drawn a line under their willingness to significantly harm other people to achieve their political goals. Overt violence has been committed outside of official channels, but still sanctioned by that officialdom. Can official violence really be that impossible to them? I wouldn't bet the ranch.

c andrew

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "I was hesitant to post this..." I was surprised you did, actually, and didn't mind if it never saw the light of day.

C. Andrew writes, "I'm not sure who Cap'n Cully may be in his own person, but there is at least one Leftist Academic who has said something very similar in that regard."

I agree. However, there is a fundamental difference between posting someone else's absurdity and fabricating a hit piece under someone's name on the grounds that it might as well be true for all he knows or cares. It's the difference between truth and lies, between integrity and faking reality, and between reason and irrationalism.

Anonymous said...

Hi Snedcat,

Reading is Fundamental!

Somehow I got the idea that Cap'n Cully had posted a Vox article and that you were unable to find mirror postings of it. I see now that he fabricated an alleged Vox article which, as you rightly point out, is a horse of a different colour.

c andrew