Category Archives: Best Discussions

reflections

OK, So Obama won, and pretty much exactly according to my own prediction, which was in turn based almost exactly on Nate Silver’s model, which was in turn based pretty much entirely on the state polling. All the arguments about unskewed polls and national polls and whatnot should be laid to rest now, because this election was not a surprise – the accuracy of the polls was basically mundane and thoroughly predictable, given that it always goes this way.

There is an astonishing amount of Republican/conservative angst about this win, which is disappointing. I won’t nutpick examples – some of which were right here at DW – because that doesn’t solve anything. The best route forward for lefties is not schadenfreude but patience. I’m hoping that the example of Gov. Christie will be an inspiration to the Republicans in office and that we will actually see bipartisan solutions instead of obstruction from here on out.

And for those of you truly anxious about Obama’s tenure, let me ask you this: Is it possible you were not served well by your sources? The existence of a Republican fact bubble was dramatically evident on Fox News last night, where Karl Rove refused to accept the returns from Ohio, and furiously scribbled on napkins for an alternate explanation. Megan Kelly earned my respect for the first time by walking the walk, down to the statheads in the basement and asking them to reply to Rove’s accusations, and did not give an inch when Rove tried to dismiss their arguments. Romney HQ then tried to get Fox to rescind its Ohio call, and Fox stood firm. But this episode should be an indicator that the leaders on the right don’t really have a firm grasp of fundamentals. A Baghdad Bob moment by Rove illustrated that these people just could not accept reality. I think each of you who trusts these people – Rove, Morris, basically everyone at the RNC, and every single person who stood for the nomination – need to evaluate them again and wonder just whose self-interest they really are working for. Certainly not yours. Kudos to Fox News for doing the right thing last night, but they are the also the ones who give these characters a platform to mislead you.

In fact, Obama’s tenure, despite what the Roves et al have told you, has not been bad. He has overseen over 20 consecutive months of job growth. Romney’s numbers implying job loss under Obama require Obama to be responsible for job losses that occurred after his inauguration but before he was able to pass any economic legislation. On the economy: GDP is up. The stock market is up. Unemployment is lower than when he took office, which means that he has erased the losses and made some gains.

Rove would have you believe that Obama is destroying the country, but he saved Detroit’s auto industry, he has managed to get China to play ball on currency, he has with Obamacare actually reduced the deficit (though not the debt, yet. and on that – more later).

Rove is not serving you. He is serving himself.

You ask liberals like me to “open our eyes” all the time, but today the election should give you an opportunity to do the same. Maybe you will retain your opinion about Obama, thats fine. But give him a second chance. He’s your President, too.

UPDATE: Watch Rove try to spin facts to his fantasy.

Feminism and the Disposable Male

The #1 video on YouTube on the subject of feminism for the last year has been “Feminism and the Disposable Male” by Girl Writes What. If you don’t believe it, just go to YouTube and type in the word “feminism” and if it’s not some brand new sponsored video, this will be the top video. And unlike most videos that “go viral,” it has seen not an explosion of views but a steadily increasing number of views. It has ignited a firestorm of hatred against its author. People have put up pictures of her face battered and bloodied to show their hatred for her. She’s called a right-wing extremist, a “back to the kitchen” traditionalist, a misogynist, a woman-hater, a traitor to her vagina–she’s even been called the “Tokyo Rose of feminism.” Much of this is rather amusing since she’s a bisexual atheist who writes erotica professionally, and often doesn’t even vote–not because she thinks women shouldn’t vote, but because, like Penn Jilett, she thinks it’s often a waste of time. Amusingly, she’s also often been called a “feminist extremist” (often laced with many more vulgar epithets).

The fact of the matter is that I personally agree with everything she says in this video. I mean it–every word of it, I agree with. I’ve thought these things for many years. And I’m used to being shouted down and told to shut up for saying these things. But it appears to be even worse when a woman says them. Perhaps that’s because those opposed to what she says particularly hate it when a woman says them? Or is it because they fear that if a woman says them, they can’t dismiss her as a “whiny loser” like they do to men who say these things? I leave it to you to decide.

That said, a number of readers of my blog have complained that they can’t stand listening to Karen (Girl Writes What) talk for 15 minutes. I do not understand this complaint at all, I’ve always found her speaking style compelling, but there’s no accounting for tastes. Although she’s approaching 400,000 views on this one video alone, and has over 13,000 subscribers and growing, some people tell me they want to read her essays rather than listening to them. So in accomodation, I asked Karen for a transcript, and when she said she’d lost it, I went ahead and transcribed it for her in exchange for permission to reprint it. And so here I present, proudly, my friend Karen’s “Feminism and the Disposable Male.” I hope you like it as much as I do, or at least find it thought-provokng. –Dean Esmay

Not too long ago I had it out with a feminist who had come into a male-safe space from a feminist blog just to scoff at the idea of male disposability. She basically said that the entire concept was a myth, that men’s lived experiences were completely wrong, and that they were just a bunch of whiners who were complaining over nothing.

That got me thinking about the concept of male disposability and how that interacts with the feminist movement. Male disposability has been around since the dawn of time, and it’s based on one very very straightforward dynamic: when it comes to the well-being of others, women come first, men come last. This is just the way it has always been. Seats in lifeboats, being rescued from burning buildings, who gets to eat: really, society places men dead last every time, and, society expects men to place themselves dead last every time.

Humans have always had a dynamic of “women and children first” and that has not changed at all. The 93% workplace death gap has to be evidence of this, if only because there’s nobody with any kind of importance or power who’s interested in changing it at all. In fact I remember reading an article in a British Columbia paper not long ago that described the increasing proportion of female injuries on the job as a huge problem, and the insane thing was the change reflected a decrease in male injuries rather than an increase in female ones. Men’s injuries on the job had gone down because the economic downturn had put so many men out of work in the resource sector that there just weren’t as many trees or pieces of heavy equipment falling on men as there had been before. And yet, this was framed as a huge problem for women that required immediate action to solve. It’s like if men aren’t dying at work that 20 times the rate that women are, we must be doing something wrong as a society.

Back when we were still living in caves that attitude was necessary for human survival. Nature is a really harsh mistress, especially when you think of all the animals that never get to die of old age. Things were a lot different for humans through most of our history on this planet than they are now. Life was dangerous, human settlements were small, isolated from each other, and one big disaster that took out a lot of women pretty much meant the end of the entire shebang for that group of people. So really, the level of importance that a human settlement placed on the well-being of women and children reflected almost always how successful that settlement was. And that can be expanded to encompass entire societies.

I keep hearing from the feminist camp that femaleness has always been undervalued by society and that maleness is preferred. But I’ve always contended that it’s the exact opposite: the feminine is intrinsically and individually valuable, simply because females are the limited factor in reproduction. When it comes to producing babies, every woman counts, whereas biologically one very happy man could probably do the work of hundreds in that regard. So the level of instinctive importance we humans place on the safety and provisioning of women and their children is one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to be so successful that we’ve come to dominate this planet.

While I will concede that this drive to keep women safe from all harm has often resulted in extreme limits being placed on women’s mobility, their agency, their power of decision to direct their own lives, all through history and many cultures, and in many cultures even today, I think it’s telling that those cultures tend to be the most backward. When you consider the restrictions placed on women in places like Afghanistan, and then you consider that if we “bombed them into the stone age” it might be progress, I think you could conclude that the most successful societies had a good balance between allowing women freedom and the ability to choose and direct their own paths in life, and the need to protect them and provide for them.

However, feminists will insist that these kinds of restrictions being placed on women in those kinds of societies are the ultimate form of objectification. You lock up your possessions to make sure they will never be lost or stolen or harmed. Honestly, if I were a guy on a battlefield I might appreciate being objectified in that way. I think if I was going to be an object, I’d rather be a sexual one or somebody’s prized possession than an object that can simply be thrown in the trash or smashed into pieces in the service of somebody else’s purpose.

Feminists also have a very simplistic idea that our willingness to absolve women of their crimes, slap them on the wrist, spare them punishment, comes from a deep disrespect society has for women’s person-hood—not seeing them as full human beings capable of looking after themselves, that we see them as children who don’t know any better. And while there are parallels there in our desire to protect both women and children from not only their own poor decisions but the full consequences of their shitty behavior, it’s really not as simple as they try to make it out to be.

Seriously, even today—even today in 2011!–we fully expect that if it comes down to a man and a woman in a burning building and you can only save one, the expectation is that you choose the woman every single time. So honestly, whose humanity are we placing above whose here? We’re not talking about going to work, we’re not talking about getting an education, we’re not talking about freedom to decide what you want to be in life. We’re not talking about getting to take Tae Kwon Do. We’re talking seats in lifeboats here. The person in the lifeboat is going to survive, no matter how capable or incapable they are of managing their own life, and the person going down with the ship is going to die, no mater how independent, self-sufficient and awesome he is. That’s the equation: one life, more valuable than another, and the woman wins every time.

So honestly, is there any argument, anywhere, that women’s humanity has always been held in higher regard by society than men’s? To be important to society, a woman merely has to be; a man has to do in order for his life to have any meaning to anyone other than himself. I think it was ManWomanMyth who said our society reduces men from human beings to human doings. I really think that’s an apt analogy. We measure a man’s worthiness to wear the title of “man” and therefore the title of “human,” through how useful he is, either to society or to women, and one of the most useful things a man can do even now in the eyes of society is to put women and children before himself.

While I think there is plenty of argument that this attitude is at least partly innate—the way most survival traits are, even collective ones—if it starts in the chromosomes we really do everything we can as a society to reinforce this dynamic. Studies have shown that even though baby boys tend to cry and fuss more than baby girls, parents are quicker to attend to or console a baby girl than they are a baby boy. Even just the level of acceptance of infant male circumcision in our culture, when female genital mutilation was banned pretty much the first afternoon we all heard it existed, really says a lot about the differing expectations we have for males and females. Speaking as a mother, the last thing I would ever have wanted was to hear my child cry, especially when they’re at an age when they’re completely helpless, completely at the mercy of outside forces, and utterly dependent on the adults in their lives for every last thing, and yet even knowing how painful that cut is, we expect baby boys only days old to just suck that up.

Just think about what these very first interactions and experiences, these differences in how we nurture our babies depending on what gender they are, what this teaches them: What do we teach baby girls when we attend to their crying so quickly? We teach them to ask for help because their needs are important. We teach them to let us know when they’re afraid or in pain because it’s important for us to know when they’re sick or in danger or hurt, so we can do something about it. We teach them that when they’re sad or lonely to summon comfort and comfort will be there. We teach them that they’re important. Their needs and well-being, both emotional and physical, are important just because.

And what are we teaching baby boys when we leave them to cry? We teach them that there’s not much point in seeking help because it will be grudgingly given if at all We teach them that they should become self-contained in their ability to deal with emotions like fear, helplessness, loneliness, sadness, pain, distress: we teach them stoicism. We teach them to suck it up. We teach them that their fear and their pain are things that are best ignored. We teach them that their emotional and physical well-being are just not as important as other things.

Given all that, is it any wonder it’s like pulling teeth to get a man to go to the doctor when he’s sick?

What we’re teaching that baby boy is all the things a man needs to know and feel and believe about himself if he’s going to stand in front of a cabin with a rifle while his wife and kids hide inside. We’re preparing him for the day he has to fix a bayonet to a rifle and charge a hill under enemy fire, and we’re preparing him to make a decision to resign himself to an icy fate while women and children escape in the lifeboats. We are teaching him to internalize his own disposability.

And baby girls? By attending to her crying so quickly, by letting her know that she’s inherently important to us, we’re preparing her for the day she has to think of her own safety first, even if it means the man she loves is left standing alone with a rifle in front of a cabin. We’re preparing her to take that seat in the lifeboat. We’re training her to not allow guilt or empathy or acknowledgment of a man’s humanity, or any sense that he might deserve it more, to convince her give her seat to him. Because for millenia, the human species absolutely depended on her feeling 100% entitled to that seat.

And that brings me to feminism. You know, the patriarchy smashers? Those righteous avengers of equality? Dogged dismantlers of every single gender role? What exactly is feminism doing to dismantle this traditional role of the disposable male?

Feminism’s greatest victories have only reinforced in everyone that society still owes women provision, protection, help and support just because they’re women. In its collective dismissal and abandonment of male victims of domestic violence, it only reinforces in men that it’s pointless to ask for help, because men’s needs are of no relevance, and their fear and pain don’t mean anything to anyone. Feminism teaches us to put women’s need at the forefront of every single issue, political or social. Whether that issue is domestic violence law, sexual assault law, institutional sexism, social safety net, education funding, homeless shelters, government funding for shovel-ready jobs—jobs that didn’t stay shovel-ready once women got wind of them.

Everywhere you look—everywhere you look!–there are feminists pushing their way to the front of the line demanding women’s “fair share” of all of the goodies, the good stuff, the loot, the booty, the cookies. Even if women don’t need it. Even if women don’t deserve it. And even if somebody else needs it and deserves it more.

And they get it, because we give it to them.

Feminism has done nothing but exploit this dynamic of the expectation on men to put everybody else before themselves. Especially women. Women’s safety and support, women’s well-being, and women’s emotional needs, always come first. This is the most stunning piece of society-wide manipulative psychology I think I have ever come across. Feminism has been down with old-school chivalry right from the start. They might seem like strange bedfellows, but they’re not. Because both concepts are built on a firm foundation of female self-interest.

We made our way as humans through a really harsh history and we became the dominant force on this planet. One of the reasons we were so successful is because we have consistently put women’s basic needs first. Their need for safety, support, and provision. It was in humanity’s best interest for women to be essentially self-interested, and for men to be essentially self-sacrificing. But we don’t need that dynamic anymore. Our species is in no danger of extinction. We’re 7 billion people clogging up the works here!

What’s the worst that could happen if we all just collectively decided that men were no more disposable than women, and women were no more valuable than men? In fact the greatest danger I see to us right now is that in our desperation to bend over and give women everything they want and everything they say they need, we’ve unbalanced society to the point where we’re in danger of seriously toppling over.

And really? The only difference I see between the traditional role and the new one for men with respect to disposability is that maleness, manhood: it used to be celebrated, it used to be admired, and it used to be rewarded, because it was really necessary, and because the personal cost of it to individual men was so incredibly high.

But now? Now, we still expect men to put women first, and we still expect society to put women first, and we still expect men to not complain about coming in dead last every damn time. But men don’t even get our admiration anymore. All they get in return is to hear about what assholes they are. Is there any wonder why they’re starting to get pissed off?

–Karen (AKA Girl Writes What)

Karen’s YouTube channel can be found here and her blog can be found here. I am enormously proud to call her my friend, and while at first the hatred and irrationality directed at her sickened me, I now view that as to be expected: people who question society’s most basic assumptions are often hated, ostracized, and demonized. But I think those of us who care about our sons should care about these things–DE

Prediction

There’s nothing meaningful in Romney’s tax returns. He’ll let people get worked up into a lather until he calculates they’re losing interest, then release them so they can pore over them like crazy and then find… nothing much. Like waving a cape at a bull, making the bull waste its energy on a distraction.

If I’m right, Romney waits to release a little longer, maybe even all the way up to the Republican National Convention. Because, after all, most voters are paying no serious attention anyway.

How easily those of us who watch politics closely tend to forget: we are oddballs. About 90% of the voting public does not watch politics like we do.

Hey, anyone remember when the Republican strategy was to pin high gas prices on Obama? If you do, it’s a good sign you watch politics a lot more than most people, since no one else noticed and now that gas prices are gone, the issue’s gone too.

Suckering people into watching things that don’t matter at the moment is a very good trick. And one thing about Romney (whom I will not be voting for) that his opponents should have learned by now: once he has a strategy he does not waver from it. Despite whatever missteps he and his campaign have had (and every campaign has those), discipline has characterized almost everything their operation does from day 1. If they’re doing something, there’s a reason, and it’s not likely to be a dumb one. Wrong? Maybe, arguably. But dumb? Pretty rare, actually.

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 6

My entry on this chapter is going to be shorter than others But I really liked this chapter. And also hated it. Ultimately, I had what I think was an epiphany that made me at least a little more sympathetic to Rand and some of her acolytes.

Anyway, the basics: Hank Rearden reluctantly attends his wedding anniversary party, where he meets a bunch of people he can’t stand who his wife has invited. There are some horrible people there espousing some horrible philosophy and treating Hank contemptuously while rarely even addressing him directly. One particularly noxious philosophizer is named “Balph Eubank” (yes, “Balph” with a B, I’m not kidding).

Francisco shows up because Hank’s wife invited him, and Hank determines to avoid him because from reputation alone he hates the guy. But Francisco approaches him and, speaking nebulously, makes it clear that he only came to the party to meet Hank and gives Hank some vague and non-specific observations that appear to be aimed at making Hank think differently about his assumptions in life. It’s pretty obvious that he’s “priming” Hank for something (read: to embrace John Galt’s philosophy) without saying so. There’s also some discussion of a pirate who’s making problems out at sea for various countries, who we’ll learn more about later. Dagny’s also at the party, and conversations between her and Hank and Francisco are strained. At one point Dagny hears Hank’s wife complaining about the bracelet made of Rearden Metal, so Dagny embarrasses her by offering to swap a diamond bracelet off her own wrist in exchange for the “hideous” Rearden Metal bracelet. This annoys everybody but the swap is made. Later, after the party, Hank enters his wife’s bedroom (they sleep in separate rooms) and contemplates having sex with her but doesn’t, because he feels degraded by sex with this woman, and by sex in general, and he still isn’t sure why he married her or she married him.

There’s actually quite a lot of general philosophizing in all this, and to be frank it’s often infuriating to read. When Rand’s protagonists espouse her philosophy, I agree with some of it and disagree with some of it; when her party guests/antagonists speak, they say ludicrous things you’d only really expect out of a Communist (and maybe not even one of those). I agree with a few of the things her antagonists say but disagree with most of it–but who wouldn’t? Mostly it’s a bunch of annoying people saying a bunch of weird things. So far, my view of Rand remains that the core problem is not her prose, or her style, it’s the base preconceptions of her philosophy.

I’m out of patience for pulling out specific quotes from the book (at least for now), but let’s just leave it said that almost every sentence is laden with heavy philosophizing and lecturing. It’s hard not to credit Rand with a fierce intellect; to be able to make practically every word drip with her philosophy and its antithesis is no small feat. It’s also hard not to say “both the theses and the antitheses are often wrong.” And in my view, faulty premises often lead to bad storytelling. As the old saying goes, “I agreed to suspend my disbelief, but not to have it hung by the neck until dead.”

All of that said, I had a bizarre reaction to this chapter: it irritated me, but something finally clicked and made me think I understand why some people, especially when they’re young, really like this book. If you are of a personality type that concentrates on GETTING THINGS DONE rather than social niceties, you probably strongly relate to the characters of Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart. In fact, as a more idea-oriented, action-oriented guy than a “people person” myself, it’s hard at times not to sympathize with both Hank and Dagny. And I think that if you grow up more concerned with things than people (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many a successful scientist, engineer, computer programmer, mathematician, etc. is of that personality type, and they’re often really great people inside), the whole motif of “I’m sick of everybody laying their DUMB EXPECTATIONS on me for CLOTHES and PARTIES and BEING FRIENDLY and GOSSIPING when I have INTERESTING THINGS TO DO OR EXPLORE” is probably very, very appealing. Especially if you’re a precocious, intelligent youngster who likes exploring ideas rather than the petty political intrigues and gossip and concern for appearances that fill up so many people’s daily lives. Or you’re an older person who’s felt that way your whole life and just grown to think yourself defective because of it. And no, by the way, you are NOT defective if you’re like that.

In fact, I’ll say it of myself: I hate constantly worrying about appearances, dress codes, socializing just to socialize, being somewhere just because I am supposed to be seen there, and so on. It makes me crazy. I’d often rather gnaw my own arm off than sit around gossiping and “being seen” and making polite empty chit-chat to impress people. I hate it. I’d rather read a book, do an experiment, watch the stars, solve a riddle, think about a problem, or even have a good argument with someone I like or even someone I barely know.

The problem is that Ayn Rand generalizes so much that it becomes almost a mockery of that: action-oriented, idea-oriented people are often frustrated by other people’s social expectations, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or with noting what’s often noble and heroic about such people. But her philosophy takes that to an almost psychotic level. Or at least it seems almost psychotic, this far into the book.

For a humorous take on the chapter that I don’t much disagree with, you might enjoy the Coffee is for Closers summary. And otherwise, as usual, feel free to leave comments here.

On to Chapter 7. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, not sure yet.

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 3
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 4
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 5

Liberal White Guilt: The Essence of Tyranny

“The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity”. -Jacob Burckhardt

One of the reasons the above Liberal White Guilt ad campaign, and other efforts like it, is so excruciatingly bad is that it denies the reality of the biggest group of poor people with bad educations, limited opportunity, and dependency on government benefits in the United States: poor whites, otherwise known as “white trash.” It also denies the complexity of the race issue, which anyone who’s been a white minority in a predominantly non-white neighborhood can tell you is never as simple as this. Recommended viewing on that: 8 Mile and American History X.

This thinking denies the reality that a person of color with an Ivy League education has infinitely more opportunity than “trailer trash” with a thick southern drawl who went through a lousy school system ever will–and that said person of color is probably less likely to have run-ins with the law for that matter, especially if she already lives in an upper middle class neighborhood where trailer trash don’t exist. In many parts of the country, just having the wrong accent–an accent that marks you as a “hick” or a “redneck”–will get you treated far worse than having the darkest skin in creation will. It denies the complex reality that these beautiful, wonderful little girls (who by the way have done absolutely nothing wrong) will have a much easier time in life than this little boy or this little boy ever will.

Which also, by the way, puts the lie to the claim that boys are auto-privileged over girls, another rather obscene bit of condescending Liberal bigotry.

All of this is part of why privileged white liberal John Scalzi’s recently much-tweeted-and-linked article on how being straight and white and male is the easiest difficulty setting in life is racist, sexist, demeaning, and ultimately hypocritical and elitist. Like almost all condescending elitist thought, it begins with what Jacob Burckhardt called the essence of tyranny: the denial of complexity. (Or, as my friend Peter recently put it, “the easiest difficulty setting in life is being John Scalzi.” That applies to pretty much everyone, male or female, of any race, who comes from privileged backgrounds like Scalzi who talk like this.)

Is there racism among poor people? Why yes there is. But they aren’t all racist and, more important, how meaningful is their racism when they have no power and no real voice anyway? Who joins groups like the skinheads? Poor people with nothing else in life, for the most part. Poor people who, being both poor and white, are generally the most despised, scapegoated group in America. Once again I recommend watching those movies I mention above to get a realistic flavor of what the world of White Trash really looks like–it’s a world I’ve spent much time in and can assure you is very realistically portrayed. Whereas practically everywhere else in our popular culture such people are regularly lampooned, degraded, and/or blamed for most of society’s ills.

It’s one of many reasons why condescending Liberal White Guilt is such an evil thing.

And that’s not even to ask who joins crazy racist organizations like the Nation of Islam: poor disenfranchised blacks who have no more opportunity in life than the poor white trash whose lives most closely resemble theirs. (Fair disclosure: Malcolm X is one of my personal heroes, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the books that Methuselah’s Daughter is modeled after.)

the forgotten unprivilegedOver at The Root, Zaheer Ali has the courage to say what privileged white Liberals generally won’t: Our insistence on equating “poor” with “black” has undermined the success of anti-poverty programs. Ali’s needless potshots at certain politicians aside, his point should be taken by everyone. The mentality he identifies has done much damage. And this mentality doesn’t just hurt our discourse on poverty, it pollutes almost all our national discourse on race, on sex, on ethnicity, on Affirmative Action, and on other social policies. And this polluting mentality should be challenged wherever we see it.

Self-righteous liberals who talk like the people in this Liberal White Guilt ad campaign should be ashamed of themselves. Sadly, almost no one will be smart enough to tell them why. Conservatives will angrily fulminate and say stupid things, and liberals will say stupid self-righteous things in response, and almost everyone will fart around without identifying the real problems. Which is how most of our discourse on race and sex in this country goes.

(Thanks to Kiril Kundurazieff for the link.)

*Update*: I’m leaving this stuck at the top for a day or two at least. There will be further updates below as time permits, including possibly more Atlas Shruggery. (We want… a shruggery! Ni!)

*Update 2*: I’m being pilloried over here as saying “that white men are the oppressed, that women’s liberation and anti-racist groups are causing this oppression of the white man” and other assorted personal attacks. Guess I touched a nerve, eh?

*Update 3*: Bumped up again.

Blogging Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 3

Ayn Rand’s naive ignorance of history, and of how a real business functions–it’s painfully obvious she never ran one–was already subtly visible in the first two chapters. But nowhere have I found it better illustrated than here in Chapter 3 of Atlas Shrugged. We’ll get to that later.

We can see by the opening of Chapter 3 why, in the 1930s and 1940s, Ayn Rand looked attractive as a potential screenwriter. Rand’s time in Hollywood is documented in multiple places, but in short: it didn’t work out because the studio people found her difficult and she didn’t like them much either. Nevertheless, while her descriptions of people and things are often overwrought and wordy, you can sense that technical people in Hollywood would find her alluring: she likes to set up scenes that practically beg for a camera, and for costumers and set designers to start scribbling notes. As with the first two chapters, in Chapter 3 (entitled “The Top and the Bottom”) Rand starts us out not with the people so much as their setting, with a vivid description that evokes the mood that she intends to convey:

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and was built on the roof of a skyscraper.

Four men sat at a table. Raised sixty floors above the city, they did not speak loudly as one speaks from a height in the freedom of air and space; they kept their voices low, as befitted a cellar.

I can almost imagine a young Orson Welles wanting to make an Atlas Shrugged picture from that passage alone.

Although her prose often lacks elegance, Rand is clearly trying to convey something with every word here–which is true of practically everything in her fiction. Good writers often strive to do this and fail; to give credit where due, Rand doesn’t fail. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would build a skyscraper with a ritzy rooftop bar that you nevertheless have to walk down stairs to get to, and that is so dank and cloistered, but the impression is what’s important: like rats in a cellar, these people at the top of a crumbling and decaying world are meeting to collude in sinister business. Why it’s sinister is not clearly spelled out: we are meant to gather from the conversation alone that these people are philosophically evil.

The four men in question are: James Taggart, the President of Taggart Transcontinental we met in Chapter 1; Orren Boyle, VIP of a railroad track firm that has been chronically slow in delivering badly needed rail lines that Dagny Taggart had complained about in Chapter 1; Wesley Mouch, whom we can probably assume is a bad guy since his name sounds like “Mooch” and he is a Washington Man (boo hiss); and Philip Larkin, Hank Rearden’s sycophantic hanger-on that we met in Chapter 2.

As usual with Rand, expressing the philosophy takes precedent over the story. Thus the sinister nature of the meeting can only be understood if you understand why what these men is doing is evil: three corporate bigwigs are meeting with a Washington Man (by which Rand almost certainly means a lobbyist–boo hiss!), all busily explaining to each other why the multiple ongoing failures in the rail and mining industries are not their fault, how people must unite for the common good and put the interests of their fellow man above themselves, and how those who threaten the order (like Hank Rearden) should be viewed as dangerous. They also obsess over Mexico, where Taggart Transcontinental is currently running a dysfunctional and highly unprofitable train schedule for the purposes of helping the Mexican people develop their economy. They also discuss the doings of a mining kingpin we have yet to meet, one Francisco D’Anconia, who is supposed to be building a very big copper mine down there in Mexico which in theory will require a lot of train service to deliver the ore northwards, although no such copper is currently being shipped. But they are all mutually assuring of each other that they’re doing the right thing, trying to create progress in Mexico in the name of the common good. Rumors that the Mexican government will nationalize the industry are airily dismissed, and everyone is assured that D’Anconia is surely busy down there producing ore because people down there sure look busy and D’Anconia is a great guy. The common good must unite these businessmen, anyway, so why fuss over details? Especially when we’ve got troublesome, arrogant people like Hank Rearden to deal with. Only dilettante Philip Larkin has any reservations at all, and only hesitantly.

“Social reforms are slow,” Taggart says in sinister fashion. They’re probably going to do something to try to mess up hated Hank Rearden, but it isn’t clear what yet. But the symbolism is clear as Rand describes their exit from the bar into the streets below, telling us that the building they emerge from is “sharp and straight like a raised sword.” Pointed at Rearden and all those who threaten the collective order, one presumes.

We next cut to Taggart’s sister Dagny, whom we have already been told is the only person who really makes things work at Taggart Transcontinental. The next few pages are mostly biographical, telling us more about Dagny. One can see from Rand’s description why the character of Dagny Taggart is both liked and despised by people who call themselves feminists (a totally nebulous term anyway). While Dagny works feverishly to find ways to keep the otherwise incompetently-managed Taggart Transcontinental afloat, and thinks of how Hank Rearden’s company may help save hers, she muses on her life up to this point. Since she was a girl she had a strong interest in math and engineering and changing the world by bending it to her will. She had decided since she was a very young girl that she would eventually run Taggart Transcontinental, and it did not even occur to her until she was older that women don’t so such things–and then she promptly disregarded the notion and did it anyway. Caring nothing about titles or what anyone thought of her, as a Taggart she simply started taking over company operations wherever she saw something needed doing, contemptuously dismissing and treading over incompetence all around her as she made things work better. Although there had been some rumblings that they would never make her a corporate officer, when she threatened to quit because she couldn’t stand the incompetence anymore they made her Vice President.

She also muses a bit on her brother. He was made President of the railroad because of the tradition of handing the office of President to the oldest son in the Taggart clan, but also apparently for his public relations skills. Dagny views public relations as unpleasant stuff akin to working in a sewer and not something she’d ever imagine wanting to do anyway. In sitting in corporate board meetings, she always found them mostly incomprehensible since the people at those meetings almost always talked about things that didn’t matter, people and social responsibilities rather than the business of making the trains run on time and at a profit.

James Taggart comes into Dagny’s office to argue with her: he demands to know why the important train line into Mexico is using old, obsolete trains and on a very limited schedule. Dagny matter-of-factly says that she’s explained all this already to him in memos that he never reads: there is nowhere near enough passenger or freight volume to make running that line affordable, and even running a short schedule on cheap equipment is still causing the company to lose money. As in chapter 1, James becomes angry when he’s told things he doesn’t want to hear, and rants some more about how people are more important than profits and tries to deny that anyone can be blamed for anything theoretically going wrong with the organization. James talks about how Francisco D’Anconia’s mines will soon be shipping enough copper to make the Mexican line profitable, but Dagny asserts that Francisco long ago became a worthless bum; James is angered by this and darkly alludes to some sort of sexual past between Dagny and D’Anconia, to suggest that she’s jealous. Dagny just ignores the allusion. She doesn’t believe any copper will be coming from Francisco’s mines, and she also believes that the Mexican government will soon nationalize and seize their train line anyway; this possibility has been discussed a few times in previous chapters, always vociferously denied by James Taggart and others. From this we can conclude that the Mexican government–which is described in this chapter as a Communist-type state–will indeed probably be seizing Taggart Transcontinental holdings in Mexico any minute now.

James angrily demands that she find a way to get the Mexican train lines running at higher volume and with better equipment, but Dagny coolly refuses, saying this is impossible. The company is nearly bankrupt and can’t afford it, and she won’t do it. He angrily threatens to make her answer to the Board for her refusal, and, unruffled, she calmly says she’ll answer to the board. She then goes back to her work and proceeds to ignore James. He leaves, then eventually leaves herself. On her way out, she muses at the structures of the corporate headquarters, especially on the statue of her great ancestor who founded the company, Nathaniel Taggart. Contemplating Taggart is the closest thing Dagny has ever come to prayer, not because he is her ancestor but because of who he was as a man.

And here we read the biggest thing, so far, to betray Ayn Rand’s near-complete ignorance of history and how big corporate capitalism has always worked in America:

Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the first steel rails….He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government. He obtained money from the men who owned it, going door to door–from the mahogany doors of bankers to the clapboard doors of lonely farmhouses. He never talked about the public good. He merely told people they would make big profits on his railroad, he told them why he expected the profits and he gave them his reasons…Through all the generations that followed, Taggart Transcontinental was one of the few railroads that never went bankrupt and the only one whose controlling stock remained in the hands of the founder’s descendants….In his lifetime, the name “Nat Taggart” was not famous, but notorious: it was repeated, not in homage, but in resentful curiosity; and if anyone admired him, it was as one admires a successful bandit. Yet no penny of his wealth had been obtained by force and fraud; he was guilty of nothing, except that he earned his own fortune and never forgot that it was his.

And there it is again: people hate the rich, and they hate them because they’re successful and people envy success. Whatever element of truth there is to this view (some but not much, in my experience), Rand drives it home over and over again with the sledghammer subtlety of an Oliver Stone movie.

But hey, you know that you’re going to get that with Rand going in: of course rich people are automatically hated because they’re successful. No one ever hated a rich guy for any reason but that. Fine. Roll with it, that’s how Rand and her acolytes see the world. As dips#!+ dumb as that is, you know you’re going to get that going in with Ayn Rand.

No, what’s really annoying is the ludicrous notion that anyone anywhere ever built a transcontinental railroad without substantial government assistance. Which is akin to saying Nathaniel Taggart worked like John Henry with nothing but his hammer in his hand, rails on his back and pitons on his belt, laying all the rails with his own hands every day late into the night to cross North America. Sure it took him a few years but by gum he had a strong back and strong hands, you should have seen the way he laid 5,000 miles of rail with nothing but a toolbelt and gumption. That’s a real man I tell ya!

Yes, it really is just that dumb. You have to be thunderingly ignorant of history to believe it’s not dumb. Any study of the railroad industry as it developed in the US makes it very clear that you needed more than rails and ties and hammers and Chinese laborers: you need this teensy, tiny, inconvenient little thing called RIGHT OF WAY, my dear Randites. You have to put those rail lines through land that has people living on it. Or farming it. Or raising cattle on it. And over or through rivers other people are using. Or who otherwise find your trains a nuisance. Which means you’ve got to purchase that land, either by buying it from people willing to sell it to you, or by going to big, bad, evil government to get a deed that says “No one currently owns that land so I can have it now.”

And what actually happened, dear Objectivists, is that all the great railroad barons (yes, all of them) did was go to Governors, Presidents, Legislators, Judges, and Indian Tribal leaders to get right of way for their rails. And when various people objected and said “no, we won’t sell at any price,” if a workable route around was not practical (and it frequently wasn’t) or was just too expensive (which it frequently was), they made extensive use of something called Eminent Domain to trample over cattlemen, farmers, homeowners, Indian tribes, and so on to get their rails run whether the people in the way liked it or not. In fact, this is one of the many reasons why the railroad “robber barons” were often hated: not because people were like jealous schoolgirls who can’t stand the prettier girl with the fancier dresses. It’s because the railroad barons forced them to allow train rails to be run where some people didn’t want them. They took that property, often by force, with government assistance every step of the way.

What justification did all those railroad builders use to force their rails through whether the people using that land wanted them to or not? Yes, that’s right: the sinister, evil thing that the dastardly businessmen out to destroy Hank Rearden at the beginning of this chapter are talking about: the public good, progress, economic development for all. Most people agreed that this was a good idea, and most government officials agreed, so using Eminent Domain laws and other various court and legislative action, the railroad barons (like the fictional Nathaniel Taggart) got their way over the objections of the minority who didn’t want their land torn up to run rails through, nor their peaceful quiet and clean air mucked up with screeching whistles and clouds of steam and choking smoke dirtying the air and spooking their animals.

In reality (as opposed to Randian fantasy) the railroad barons were both hated and loved, admired and criticized, for a lot of reasons. But if you aren’t even going to bother learning about the history of Eminent Domain use by the railroads, why would you bother learning about any of those other things either? Why look at the use of the U.S. Cavalry in forcing the issue and protecting the rails, railroad workers, and trains? Why look at how it took government to create the very concept of the publicly traded corporation that Nathaniel Taggart had to use, for that matter? Or how the banks he got loans from were a government-regulated industry from the beginning of this country? No, no, it’s all about envy and jealousy of the collective against the individual–you can stop thinking right there. This is Rand’s universe, and no one ever hated a rich guy for any reason other than envy.

Hey, this is fiction anyway, right? Maybe in the Randian universe, he could have just bartered gold with local farmers to get it done and run it without benefit of incorporation or banks or lawyers or lobbyists or any of that. I guess we’ll let all that slide. In this fantasy universe, men can build railroads without government assistance. It’s just fantasy right?

Yeah, OK, it’s just fantasy. Just as long as we acknowledge that it’s a fantasy no more realistic than Jedi Knight hereos fighting Dalek villains, I can roll with it. Just don’t make me pretend it’s anywhere near as much fun as Daleks fighting Jedi Knights (and by the way, wouldn’t that be sweet?!?). And just so long as we recognize that any philosophical lessons we are to learn from this are no deeper than the philosophical ramblings of Doctor Who or George Lucas.

For all the silly shallow fantasy nature of this chapter, though, the character of Dagny Taggart sticks out: it’s hard not to like her. It’s appealing to see a female character, especially in fiction from this era, who is neither a mewling sycophant, nor a sex goddess, nor a sex kitten, nor a victim, but merely self-possessed and competent. Contrary to what you might believe, women like her have always existed, all throughout history—just not often enough in fiction, especially during Ayn Rand’s era.

Anyway, the chapter closes with Eddie Willers, the self-described serf to the Taggart clan that we met in the opening pages of Chapter 1. He’s a bit despondent about the decaying state of the company, and wanders into the underground cafeteria of Taggart Transcontinental. He meets an unnamed grease-stained worker, but rather than getting the fellow’s name he just treats him like a fellow employee, rambling about how lousy things are getting, what the company’s upcoming plans are, how Dagny’s fighting the good fight but things don’t look so great, and other grousing. We never find out who the unnamed worker that he’s spilling all this insider information to is, but it’s hard not to suspect we’ll be seeing this faceless worker again in the coming chapters.

Chapter 4 awaits…

Previous entries:

Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 1
Blogging Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 2

House of straw

During the really bad years after the fall of Saddam, the criticism of the Bush Administration’s actions focused on the sectarian bloodbath unleashed by the end of Hussein’s strict authoritarian dictatorship.  The argument was that while Saddam and his family had their peccadilloes — mass murder, pillage, rape, foreign aggression and thought control — at least people weren’t cutting each others’ throats and blowing each other up under Saddam.  That is, at least those who weren’t the ruling party weren’t.  The body count at least appeared to be lower that way.

So now its 2012, and, via the New York Timeshere’s Syria, its dictatorship imploding with no direct help from us:

The paradox, of [Iraqi] Shiites supporting a Baathist dictator next door, has laid bare a tenet of the old power structure that for so long helped preserve the Middle East’s strongmen. Minorities often remained loyal and pliant and in exchange were given room to carve out communities, even if they were more broadly discriminated against.

As dictators have fallen in neighboring countries, religious and ethnic identities and alliances have only hardened, while notions of citizenship remain slow to take hold. The fighting in Syria has exacerbated that, as Shiites worry that a takeover of Syria by its Sunni majority would herald not only a new sectarian war but actually the apocalypse.

People here say that is not hyperbole, but a perception based in faith. Some Shiites here see the burgeoning civil war in Syria as the ominous start to the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time. According to Shiite lore, Sufyani — a devil-like, apocryphal figure in Islam — gathers an army in Syria and after conquering that land turns his wrath on Iraq’s Shiites.

“Among these stories we get from the Prophet and his family is that Sufyani will come out and will start to kill the believers in Syria, and then come to Iraq, where there will be many killings and massacres,” Mr. Nujafi said.

All of which makes me think — and of course, I am not the first — that when the Arab nationalists threw off the yoke of both the imperialists and the old Arab dynasties after World War II, they made the mistake of retaining something from the foreign devils that seemed like not only a good idea, but the only idea, at the time:  Nations.  Nation-states, to be specific.  More from the Times story:

In Hilla, another Shiite town north of here, Mohammed Tawfiq al-Rubaie, the representative for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most widely followed Shiite religious leader in Iraq, said, “We wish for the survival of Bashar al-Assad, but the prophecies of the Shiite books expect him to be killed.”

Mr. Rubaie explained what Shiites believe would happen if the Assad government were toppled by Sunnis: “We expect that the blood would run heavy in Iraq if they held power in Syria, because they think that Shiites are infidels and our lives, our money and our women are permissible for them to take, and that killing us is one of the requirements to enter paradise.”

So you read stuff like that and you think, wow, maybe a little authoritarianism here wouldn’t be so bad after all?

And you can’t say that, not only because “you can’t say that,” but because just as “anti-western protesters” almost all dress like westerners — because that’s the world today — you can’t go back to a pre-nation-state order today.  And yes, nation-states have to be firm against sectional conflict; but that doesn’t mean they have to be tyrannical.  And gosh, if by tyrannical you mean Abe Lincoln (who some folks did and do think was a tyrant, as he was called by his assassin after all), I guess we can live with that.  Abe Lincoln, yes.  Josef Stalin or Pol Pot, no.  Baathist dictatorships are a lot more like the former pair than the latter.  There’s no reason to tolerate any of that on this planet, in this age (unless, I guess, you’re selling them weapons).

And remember one more thing:  Tyrannical regimes inevitably threaten their neighbors.  There is no such thing as “internal matters” with cats like this.

No one said it would be easy.