Thursday, January 25, 2007

Word Choice

The New York Times has a cool applet up that lets you scan Bush's State of the Union Addresses (including a speech in 2001 that technically doesn't count) for word use instances and frequencies. It lays out all the texts side-by-side and highlights in red each instance of your word. Off to the right, it shows bubbles under each year that get bigger the more often he used the search word. (Provided for your convenience and out of no desire whatever to manipulate you or influence your opinion of President Bush is a list of examples).

One interesting find: the word "Osama" didn't get mentioned until this year, and "Laden" has only been included the past two years. Does this indicate a shift in strategy toward, oh, I dunno, maybe at least thinking about capturing the actual perp?

Of course, it's silly to read too much into word frequency in speeches. And by "too much" I mean "much of anything." But alright, it's an interesting diversion. Pointless, but better actually reading the news.


Yesterday I stumbled across this interesting article (published in The Linguistic Review but available on the web at the preceding link) by Rens Bod (winner of the 2004 Best Name in Linguistics Award) called Exemplar-Based Syntax: How to Get Productivity from Examples.

I'm not sure it completely delivers on the title. For those not in the know, there's tension in the Cognitive Sciences (which includes Linguistics) between example-based explanations for cognitive behavior and symbolic explanations. The example-based approaches, called "Exemplar Theories," tend to assume that people store vast amounts of information about their past experiences in long-term memory, and that these form the basis of our cognitive behavior. So, when we say that I have a "concept" of the color green, what I have under an exemplar theory is hundreds of thousands of stored memories of having seen green. If I want to know if something is green, I compare it (subconsciously, of course) to these examples, and if it is sufficiently similar (or, under some versions, more similar to this than to any other coherent collection of examples), I decide that it is, in fact, green. The rival school of thought operates by storing salient characteristics and encoding decision rules for classification. (There are, of course, a great many other approaches, but these are the two opponents in the ring at the moment.) Exemplar-based theories have the advantage that they can account for lots of observed behavior that rule-based theories don't seem to be able to (more accurately - can, but only with lots of acrobatics) - especially frequency effects and subtle changes in production. So, to give a linguistic example, one of my friends has said that I actually sound slightly southern when I come back from spending a week with at home in North Carolina. In general, I only have slight traces of a southern accent, but some people say it's more noticeable when I get back from having spent time around southerners. An exemplar theory can easily explain this through the fact that I would have, over the course of this week, stored plenty of examples of southern speech, and since my knowledge of language is ultimately formed from and instantiated in nothing but examples, it stands to reason that exposure to southern examples would drag my speech in that direction. Symbolic theories can only account for such things by spelling out ridiculous amounts of absurdly fine-grained rules, so are not as elegant on these points.

The damning case against exemplar theories and in favor of symbolic theories has always been what's called "productivity." To continue with the previous example, language is made up of small units that are combined to form complete utterances. This is what allows for the fact that you can both produce and understand sentences that you've never heard before. If I head the sentence "Mbala loves Owatu," even though I have never heard these names before, I understand the sentence because I understand the various parts and how they go together to form a complete utterance.

I myself don't really see the point of the debate in Linguistics. It's clear that some parts of human language show the effects that exemplar theories are good at dealing with and that these are mostly in the realm of "performance" - that is, producing vocal representations of sentences (talking) and translating the sound waves that come into your brain via the eardrum into useful information. The "competence" part of language seems to me pretty unambiguously symbolic. I'm content to leave it at that. This is far from an uncontroversial compromise. Many would claim that the competence/performance divide is itself artificial (and these tend to be the kinds of people who champion exemplar theories). As a group, they seem offended by the very idea that symbolic processing ever happens anywhere, and I'm not really sure why - but I guess they have their reasons.

Anyway - the Holy Grail for such theories in Linguistics is an account of syntactic compositionality and productivity that doesn't need a symbol system. So when Bod subtitles his paper How to Get Productivity from Examples, it tends to catch your attention.

The reason I say that it doesn't completely deliver on the title, though, is because it specifies innate composition and decomposition rules. In other words, it ascribes to the speaker the unlearned ability to decompose utterances into constituent parts and to reassemble them into new utterances. The "compositionality" part, therefore, doesn't fall out of the exemplar theory - it's taken as a prior, which amounts to giving away the farm, at least on the main point. Productivity comes from these innate rules, and not from the store of examples.

But this isn't to say that Bod's theory is useless. In fact, it has some very interesting things to say.

The theory on the whole works like this. It has a uniform theory of (syntactic) representation for utterances. It has a set of decomposition operations (dissecting utterances into words), a set of composition operations (composing words into utterances), and a probability model that computes the likelihood of hearing/producing a given utterance based on the probabilities of its component parts.

In actual practice, what we do is take a corpus of utterances and assign all possible binary trees to them (that is, group words, two at a time, and group groups of words two at a time and so on until every word in the sentence is organized into some representation of a possible structure). The probability of a given utterance (string of words) is the sum of the probabilities of all possible derivations based on this corpus of trees. Derivations are accomplished by joining subtrees together at appropriate places. The probability of a certain interpretation (i.e. a certain parse tree) for a given utterance is the probability of that tree out of the sum of the probabilities for all attested trees for that string in the corpus.

The cleverness of this approach comes in the fact that we can get probabilities for trees for utterances that we've never seen before - by building them out of previously-seen utterances. Thus, Bod's model overcomes one of Chomsky's biggest objections to such approaches - that they would be helpless in the face of novel utterances (and novel utterances are a non-trivial section of the utterances we produce and hear) because the probabilities of such utterances would always be 0.

But there are some obvious objections here too. Mainly - that the model as stated so far would overgenerate - producing any number of ungrammatical utterances. This is so because there are only rudimentary category restrictions on what can combine with what (he does, actually, bring syntactic labels into this a bit, but I have glossed over that part in the interest of brevity).

To fix this problem, Bod proposes to use Lexical-Functional Grammar to constrain the set of possible trees. This, at least, allows him to bring in categorial features that wouldn't be captured by trees - like gender, number, etc.

I think this is a valuable contribution and an interesting approach, and I will definitely do some further reading on it, especially as it applies to machine translation.

I just wanted to say that I do not believe that this has solved the problem of getting productivity and compositionality out of an exemplar model. Clearly, the components of the model that give us compositionality and productivity are innately specified - given.

So what is this good for? Well, quite a lot, actually. Most importantly, it gives us an objective way to capture linguistic realities like the fact that you can't say things like (to use Bod's own example) "How many years do you have?" for "How old are you?" in English. Although "How many years do you have?" would be a fine word-for-word direct translation from many languages, and although it is a legal English sentence and would probably be understood by most native speakers in actual conversation, it just isn't the way we talk. Linguistics has had a very difficult time accounting for usage preferences on this level. We're good at getting it on the individual word and individual sound level, but not so much on accounting for preferences at the sentence level. What is especially ellusive is accounting for preferences for alternate possible wording for novel sentences. Clearly, part of a speaker's knowledge of his language includes this kind of thing, and yet Linguistics is unable to account for it.

Bod's model - Data-Oriented Parsing in general (I gather he is far from the only one working on this) - seems on a first glance to have a lot of potential for solving some of these problems. So I find it very interesting and will want to learn more about it.

Some concerns - admittedly off the cuff and not really thought out.

  1. Adopting LFG ruins the case against UG - now, I don't personally mind. I have no problem with UG. But I can't follow Bod when he says that he's proposing we adopt "universality of representation" as opposed to "universal grammar." I fail to see the distinction. If you adopt a theory of grammar as articulated as Bresnan and Kaplan's, then you are committing yourself to a fair amount of innate knowledge of grammar. Admittedly, it's nowhere near as much as the behemoth that Chomsky and Minimalism/GB have spawned, but there's still a lot of assumptions built in. Let me just reiterate for the record: I don't mind this, and in fact I agree with the standard approach that part of the job of syntacticians is trying to figure out what mechanisms we need to assume and which we can derive. So all I'm saying here is that I don't buy the claim that this frees us from UG (though I understand that he has a book that may clear up some of these points).

  2. Is this an exemplar theory? - I guess it depends on what you mean by exemplar theory. It is in the sense that it's storing a lot of examples, as good exemplar theories should. But it isn't in the sense that it lets innate rules do the heavy lifting.

  3. Conflates grammaticality judgments with acceptability judgments - this is a big one for me. I am perfectly capable of recognizing "How many years do you have?" as gramamtical, even though I don't exactly consider it discourse-acceptable. I think these are two separate concepts, and Bod's theory conflates them.

But none of these are slam dunk cases against. I'm enthusiastic about this on the whole.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Interview with the Vampire

It seems that this is to be Objectivist Weekend.

I get a lot of my general internet reading done during breakfast - the news and what not. Yesterday I stumbled on this four part interview with Nathaniel Branden - conducted by Alec Mouhibian. I had intended not to blog today, but I thought this was an excellent interview. Mr. Mouhibian asks penetrating questions, and I found a lot to agree with in Branden's answers.

They start off with politics. Branden is registered with the Libertarian Party, and I found his opinion here refreshingly non-Objectivist. Rand herself was famously opposed to the Libertarian Party. And as usual with her, she had good reason to be, but not good reason to take her opposition as far as she took it. Here are some choice quotes:

All kinds of people today call themselves "libertarians," especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies, except that they're anarchists instead of collectivists. ... They want to be hippies, but don't want to preach collectivism, because those jobs are already taken.


I'd rather vote for Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, or Jerry Lewis. I don't think they're as funny as Professor Hospers and the Libertarian Party. If, at a time like this, John Hospers takes ten votes away from Nixon (which I doubt he'll do), it would be a moral crime.

When asked if she didn't think Libertarians communicated the ideas of freedom and capitalism effectively

I don't think plagiarists are effective. I've read nothing by a Libertarian (when I read them, in the early years) that wasn't my ideas badly mishandled - i.e., had the teeth pulled out of them - with no credit given. I didn't know whether I should be glad that no credit was given, or disgusted. I felt both.

I am especially in agreement with the first statement. There are a lot of people in the Libertarian Party who are just unemployed hippies - that is, peaceniks who can't get anyone to listen to them at the normal peacenik rallies because they're not "hip" enough, so they come to us instead because there are so few of us they have something approaching a captive audience. There is one such annoying person in the Monroe County Libertarian Party - the reason that the Party participates in the ridiculous weekly anti-war protests on the square. One of the reasons I'm glad I no longer go to meetings...

That said, the party has, since its foundation in 1972, reliably drifted away from such people. It's a painfully slow drift, but gradually the old hippies go back to the Democrats, where they belong. I also think Murray Rothbard dying helped a lot. It sort of took the teeth out of the Lew Rockwell wing of the party.

As for the second point, I definitely understand the spirit behind it, but I completely reject the premises. In 1972 there was absolutely no reason to believe that Nixon would lose the presidential election. McGovern was a complete goofball, yes. Voting for McGovern was a moral crime, and so my father wisely "can't remember" who he voted for (I know he voted for McGovern - but I appreciate the evasion because it saves me a fit of rage) in 1972. But Nixon was going to win and everyone knew it (which is why Watergate is so bizarre). In such an election, I think it's not only acceptable but laudable to vote for a third party - as a protest vote against Nixon, who was, let's not forget, no friend of Capitalism whatever, and every bit as much a champion of the religious right as Reagan (for whom Rand refused to vote on that basis). Knowing that McGovern didn't have a chance, I would absolutely have voted Libertarian (as I almost always do anyway) in 1972 just to make clear to Nixon that having a goofy opponent is no excuse for prolonging the New Deal.

But overall, I find Rand's inability to publicly endorse the Libertarians really frustrating. She's right that their ideas are hers with the teeth taken out - but she's also exactly what they needed for that reason. We - the sane wing - needed her to help us weed out the "hippies" and the anarchists and the Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell crowd. And I think she's also right that the Libertarian Party should (though putting Badnarik up as candidate in 2004 went a long way to rectifying this) express itself more forcefully, crack the whip a bit. One of the reasons no one respects it is precisely because it tries too hard to recruit. In short, I think if she had been willing to climb down from the ivory tower and share the stage a bit, she could have done a lot of good. But of course...

Anyway, it's refreshing to hear Branden say that he's registered with the Libertarian Party. It's also refreshing to hear him say, when asked what he thinks of it, this:

I don't like it at all. It doesn't appear to be going anywhere. I don't know what I'm going to do this year. It's a terrible year. When the choice is Bush or Kerry, we are in very deep trouble.

Right. Branden, unlike Rand, knows that it's a pipe dream to expect a party to be both perfect and effective at the polls. Maybe in the future, but right now there are so few dedicated Capitalists that we have to work with what we have. I think it's worthwhile to join and do volunteer work for the Libertarian Party, and to use the opportunity to push it as far as we can toward Rand's kind of politics. Being a member of the Party shouldn't need to imply that said member thinks it's just wonderful. It's a shambles, truth be told. But given the dismal state of the competition, I have no problem supporting it even in its current state. No one, after all, expects Democrats and Republicans to beleive every word in their respective party platforms, or even most of them. The point is that they have umbrella organizations that push the political discourse toward, respectively, Socialism or Traditionalism. We don't have such a thing, but we might if the Libertarian Party gains appeal.

Another thing I liked was Branden's clarity on the War in Iraq. As I've said many times on this blog, it's not that I don't respect the position against the war, it's more that I don't respect the people who oppose it. More often than not, they seem to be suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome and grasping at straws to justify opposing one of his policies. They oppose the war not because they're against it, but because they don't want to give Bush the satisfaction of pulling it off.

Branden really cuts through the fog. He says he opposed it before it started because he felt it was a distraction from hunting Al-Qaeda, which just so happens to be one of the reasons for opposing the war that I respect. Notice that he's not talking any squishy nonsense about winning over Muslim radicals through "understanding," which can't be done, or of convincing the International Community that we're right, which shouldn't be bothered with even if possible - he recognizes America's right to self-defense and the moral imperative of kicking some barbarian ass. He then goes on to say, on the subject of Abu Ghraib, that it wasn't so much immoral as stupid. All it accomplished was allowing people to let off steam. Torturing people for information to save lives in war is morally justifiable if it's done with a purpose in mind, and not to satisfy base emotions like the desire for revenge or to blow off steam or whatever else. This is exactly my position on it: the people being tortured were not signatories to the Geneva Convention, so they officially have no protections. We are free to torture them, and indeed they torture us, so I would even encourage it in some cases. But I agree with Branden that it shouldn't be gratuitious and without purpose. We want to make sure we are only torturing people who are actually guilty and have information to give us, for one thing, and that we are only torturing them then when we actually expect them to talk. Torture should never be done for emotional reasons, never for revenge or payback, right.

They then go on to Israel, and Branden makes an interesting point - namely that the relationship between the US and Israel is more symbiotic than most people think (they develop a lot of our military technology). His support for funding for Israel follows the same lines mine does - that it's the only remotely civilized nation in the region and that we get a lot out of the relationship as both a shield for our own interests and in terms of the afforementioned trade. The argument against aid that he offers is one I haven't heard before, which is that our aid has resulted in Israel being overly dependent on the US when it's really capable of standing on its own two feet and in fact should do so. He blames US aid for keeping Israel in the quasi-socialist state it's currently in. I will add this to my list of reasons for opposing aid to Israel (which I do - but then, I oppose foreign aid in general. If president, I would cut off aid to all coutnries, and Israel would be one of the last to get cut off).

Branden then mentions that he likes Camille Paglia, on which point I agree. I don't agree with a lot of what she says, but she's generally on the right track and is certainly a breath of fresh air in the stolid, hyper-PC feminist movement.

He then outlines that his main political difference with Rand is that he thinks the primary purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, whereas Rand would say it is the sole purpose. He insists that this difference is minor - and it is, but I'm on Rand's side here. The government exists only to defend individual rights. It should be the military, the court system and the police and nothing else. Branden argues for a role in rebuilding after natural disasters. I'm willing to be open-minded, but my current position is that this is something that insurance companies can and should take care of. My own "subtle" disagreement with Rand on politics is on taxes. The government should have powers of taxation, albeit highly limited and specified powers. Rand thinks the government should be financed by anonymous donation, which I completely reject.

Next they're off to ethics, and here I find myself very much in agreement with him. He essentially makes the point I made yesterday - which is that Rand does a good job spelling out the broad foundations of her philosophy in a consistent and convincing way, but she leaves out important details - lets relevant questions go unanswered. His personal example has to do with her foundation of morality in not surpressing man's rational judgement.

What's tricky about that is, does that mean you do what you want with his irrational judgment? Her theory of rights has to be broad enough to include the right to be irrational, but you don't see that in the way she has formulated it. ... Don't misunderstand me; I agree with the principle of grounding ethics in the fact that reason is man's basic tool of survival and well-being. But some clarifications were needed that Rand did not provide.

They move on to a very interesting point, which is that people with consistent moral codes, even if that code is wrong in some way, will have a healthier sense of self-esteem. Based on personal observation, I think he's right about this.

As a child I was forced to go to Sunday school (Presbyterian). Most of the kids just endured it, but I would ask all kinds of questions that the teachers (poor volunteers!) couldn't answer. One of the "answers" they tended to give that frustrated me the most when I asked why I should believe in God (as it turns out, I shouldn't) was "People need a purpose in their lives." I HATE that answer precisely because it's on the right track. I do believe that people with a purpose are happier, but this avoids the real question, which is why God should necessarily be that purpose? Anyway - I bring this up because Branden uses it to say something interesting:

Take a prisoner of war who is a religious person. He might be able to survive that experience better than a person with no belief system, because he has a support system in his brain. Now, if you are the unusual person who's created a philosophical support system, that is fine - but most people lack that. Regardless, upsetting as it may be to orthodox Objectivists, I think you can show that in the short run and in that environment, a person who has some overarching faith has a better chance of surviving.

Right. One of the areas where I think Rand was unfair was in her dogmatic rejection of religion. Now, don't get me wrong - I agree with a rejection of religion. Religion is unhealthy, psychologically damaging because it encourages people to believe in fantasies as a way of avoiding reality. Best case scenario is we get rid of religion. However, there are things worse than religion, and Rand characteristically refused to see any complexity in this issue. Religion can be a source of strength at the same time that it is a weakness in other ways. There are steps on the path to enlightenment - there's gradiation here. Better someone who believes in a worthwhile fantasy than someone who simply believes in Hedonism, or in Marxism.

Branden then goes on to say some very useful things about people who invest in a false belief system only to see it come crashing down around them. Does this not hurt their self-esteem, the interviewer wants to know? The implied question here, of course, is what Branden thinks about his own split with Objectivism.

When I was an orthodox Objectivist, I did feel like I understood the world - in a way that I don't fully feel today. I regret the fact, but I make peace with it. It's called growing up. Sure, I liked the control, but the control was illusory. So why am I mourning the loss of an illusion?

And then this

One aspect worth mentioning is this: we often in our disillusionment over-react to what we used to believe in. We should always ask ourselves what is worth retaining from it. A lot of people are too quick to shun philosophy completely, to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And again, right. People like to make clean breaks with things, but that's foolish because there was something that attracted you about your former philosophy. A better approach is indeed to figure out what it was and try to retain as much of the good as you can. This is another thing that gives one pause about Ayn Rand as a person, I think - the easy way she was able to cut off from a lot of her old friends. Reality isn't always like that. People drift apart, fair enough, but you can't simply deny that you once cared about a person you once cared about, even if you realize that they are not who you thought they were exactly.

In more detail:

One of the mistakes that Rand makes is that after she condemns a belief or an action, she goes on to tell you the psychology of the person who did it, as if she knows. I focus my judgment on the action and not on the person.

Here I see both sides. It's true that over-speculation about a person's motives is futile. At the same time, I don't believe there is any such thing as a person who focuses only on actions and never on motives. The world would be incomprehensible that way. But the point Branden is building up to is right, which is:

Now, there are some people who are so clearly evil ... But even there, I've come to feel the following: if there is a mad animal running around, eating people, I may have to shoot him. I don't think: Oh, you rotten bad dog, you. There's nothing you can do except shoot him.

Right. My response here would be, though, that it's only in the cases of those "some people who are clearly evil" that we can completely throw psychological speculation about their actions out the window. True evil is incomprehensible - or if it can be comprehended I'm not sure it's important to bother trying. The more pressing concern is putting it at a safe distance - which usually involves, as Branden puts it, shooting it. When someone is not completely evil, it's often worthwhile to speculate on why they did the thing we disagree with. But Branden's right, I think, if what he means is that that's never the main point. One doesn't ever truly know what's going on in another's head, and the main concern in life, really, is getting your own shit in order, not in dwelling obsessively on the failings of others. I would add that I don't think this is a fault of Rand in particular; it's a general female failing. (All disclaimers about sex generalizations naturally apply here, blah blah blah...) When men break with friends and move on they usually just break and move on. People who sit around obsessing over psychological details trying to painstakingly reconstruct the person's hidden inner motives in a light favorable to them personally - that strikes me as something that women do a lot more than men. Not just Ayn Rand.

Branden then goes on to say some things about Arab suicide bombers I find really refreshing - namely that they're probably not evil but just products of their culture, but that he would still kill each and every one of them without hesitation. I think this is a just view of the current conflict. Nothing annoys me more than listening to the hand-wringers on the left who want to be pals with the bombers and see things from their point of view. How completely irrelevant. If someone is trying to kill you, you kill him right back (hat tip Mal). But it's almost equally annoying to hear Bush droning on constantly about how what we're fighting is "evil." I don't think it's "evil" either. "Primitive" would be a better word. We're talking about people like you and me who grew up in a tribal society that has never encouraged them to think for themselves, to be fair, to be rational, or to form judgments on anything independent of what the local street preacher says. It's justified killing them, yes, but calling them evil is ... well, it's not really accurate.

Then we get into some psychological mumbo-jumbo about how "everyone has a story." What Branden seems to want to say here is just the opposite of what he said earlier. Now, suddenly, there is a good psychological explanation for why everyone does what they do. Well, fine, so there probably is. I still object to using this as an excuse for sloppy behavior. I want to be clear about this: we ALL do things we regret. But one of my favorite of Rand's essays was the one in The Virtue of Selfishness about mistakes - where she writes that mistakes are inevitable, but that this is not an excuse for them. A serious person, having made a mistake, will seek to understand why he did it and take steps to avoid doing it again. Well - I feel the same way about all our backgrounds. We all have shit in our past that causes us to behave irrationally and to do things we regret. Nothing in anyone's background really sets them apart from anyone else. The measure of a person's character isn't what he suffered but what he does about it. So Branden's missing the mark here. Yes, everyone has a story, but that story is only interesting if they manage to overcome it. Only then am I really interested in hearing their excuses - because they've now become a useful guide for any of the rest of us who may be struggling with similar personal problems.

They next get into Rand's infamous dislike of humor. Branden tells a famous annecdote about how once he was appearing on a TV show and Rand wouldn't watch because she thinks he smiles too much. In other words, people talking about serious things have to behave themselves seriously. Branden's response is essentially "what bunk!" But I think this is one example of people misunderstanding Rand because they fail to take her background into account. One of my friends who lived in Russia for some time often complained about this - about how in public you are absolutely not supposed to smile. It's fine at parties when getting drunk (which has a whole different meaning for Russians...), hanging out with friends, etc. But on television, in the subway, at school, whatever - there's no smiling. I think Rand probably brought this attitude with her from Russia - the same way she brought the attitude (which Barbara Branden called "curiously old-fashioned") that women have to do all the cooking, that beautiful women are necessarily slim, that there are stark sex differences, that women all want to be man-handled. Some of this may be her own ideas, true. But I think a lot of it is simply slavic. As is her writing style, actually. The fact that she likes almost no American authors (in fact, I can't think of one outside of Mickey Spillane), and the fact that she writes such stark, cold, idea-driven books that nevertheless managed to be "passionate" in some sense of the word - all of these things are distinctly slavic. The extent to which her childhood culture still had a hold on her by the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged is majorly underappreciated, in my humble opinion. And that includes this public humor issue. (Note: there is at least one book that pays proper attention to this.)

As an interesting aside on this - although I disliked Stranger in a Strange Land quite a lot (Heinlein is really hit or miss with me. I loved The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and liked several of his other books. But there are some I simply hate - and Stranger in a Strange Land is one of them), one thing that stuck with me was the description of people belonging to Mike's cult as "humorless." They don't get jokes. I now see this as further evidence that Heinlein was heavily influenced by Atlas Shrugged (something I've suspected since I read it), and that a lot of his latter-day writing was an attempt to be "a more sophisticated Ayn Rand." It's one of the things I really dislike about Heinlein: you can almost read the envy out of the words. She is what he wanted to be as a writer, but she thought of it first, unfortunately for him.

We then get into homosexual marriage, and I would express qualified agreement for what Branden says here, especially when he says "At a deep level, I do not really care about the issue one way or the other." ME TOO! It seems like an amazingly dumb issue, even for a country where the two major parties are essentially the We Hate Our Country Party (the Democrats) and the Jesus Loves Me BUT NOT YOU This I Know Party (The Republicans). But if we have to talk about it, then the proper solution seems to be to just scuttle marriage laws and let people draw up private contracts instead. Clearly, homosexuals are equal citizens deserving of equal rights - and it IS unfair that they can't give their property to someone they love the same way us normal folk can. However, I will not go so far as to say that I am completely comfortable with homosexuality, because I am not. And I will not pretend that I hold homosexual marriages in the same esteem as heterosexual marriages, because I do not. I do not even believe in them, really. Saying that homosexuals are like heterosexuals save one minor difference is like saying that men are like women save one minor difference. It simply isn't true; the "one minor difference" counts for a lot. But fine, as to whether homosexuals deserve equal legal rights - absolutely they do. Branden starts off on the right track on this saying that he would prefer civil unions to outright marriages, but I think he goes way off the rails when he talks about years of human tradition of being monogamous, etc. That's a very strange argument for a Libertarian or Objectivist (even "reformed") to make. Tradition simply is. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's a terrible mistake. Modern man can and should look at it objectively and leave aside that which isn't useful. I don't think "B-b-but it's always been this way!" is a cogent argument for anything. I suppose in situations where all other things are equal we might bias our judgments to what's worked in the past - but all other things aren't equal here since we're talking about denying a group of people something that they seem to really want. What I especially disagree with is his tacit assumption that legal marriage is acceptable in the first place - whether or not on the basis of tradition. It seems to me that, while enforcing contracts is the government's job, defining marriage, or ANY aspect of the national culture, is not at all. If gays want to marry, let them marry. If religious people don't want to call it marriage, let them not call it marriage. But whatever else we do, let's not let the government call the final shots here. The government can just stick to enforcing contracts, and that includes marriage contracts. People have a right to dispose of their property. They do not have a right to demand that other people accept and pretend to be comfortable with their lifestyles. Branden says more or less this - but then he gets into the typical dumb conservative argument that allowing gay marriage will open up Pandora's Box and things like bestiality and polygamy will come out. First of all, there's nothing whatever wrong with polygamy, in my opinion. If gays are allowed to marry, then so should polygamists be. File it under "property contracts" like everything else. Second, what does Nathaniel Branden care or even have a right to say about the definition of marriage? Shouldn't that be something for the culture to decide on, in aggregate, on its own? It isn't the kind of thing that should be enforced. Again - outside the government's job description.

Moving on to sex:

I remember a friend of mine, who was 42, met a girl who was 17 or 18 years old. And they had a great romance that lasted about a year. And they remained very good friends afterward - it just wasn't the end of the game for either of them. My point is: a relationship can be wonderful without being "forever."

Hear, hear! I've gotten really tired of this in my own dating life. Isn't it enough just to enjoy someone's company without having to obesess over making things last? People should associate freely sexually. They should be with whom they like while they like that person and then move on when done. There is absolutely no point pretending to have feelings one doesn't have, and it's insulting to suggest that if a relationship wasn't "forever" that it was meaningless.

If you love somebody, honor that. Don't make yourself insane if you can't explain all the reasons for it. They will surface in time.

Right. Another annoying tendency lots of people seem to have - they want you to explain your attraction to them. Forget it - attraction just is. And one thing the Bible got right was that it's the attraction that matters more than the deed. Attraction is immediate and real. If you've coveted your neighbor's wife, you've already cheated. I take love as an immediate - either present or not. It's a fact, not something that is "built" or "worked on."

Branden segues into his "Muttnik Principle," which is sort of a theory of the (psychological) value of interaction based on playing with his dog. Some description of this can be found in the comments section of this entry of Chris Sciabarra's blog Not A Blog. The idea is that there's a joy of self-discovery in interaction - and that this is part of the reason we like pets (because it's pure and immediate interaction, stripped of the intellectual layer that goes along with interacting with humans). I completely agree - both with the principle as an explanation for friendship with people and as an explanation for friendship with animals. (The one thing I DON'T like about it is that it apparently meant dogs especially. I am a dedicated cat person and dislike dogs, though I can get along with some of them - my sister's supercool dog, for example, and Noah's supermellow dog - on a case-by-case basis.)

And then comes the best line in the whole interview:

Most of the failings of Objectivism all pertain directly or indirectly to issues of psychology.

Branden's personal bias aside (he is a psychologist), he's right. Most of Objectivism's weak points involve failing to appreciate the complexity of human thought.

There's some thoughts on the importance of ethnicity and reproduction, but nothing profound - and that's the interview.

It was a nice read. I still don't have an opinion about Branden one way or the other, not having read enough of his published materials (though I'm inclined to dislike him for some reason I can't quite explain to myself yet - maybe because his opinions seem too easy, made for public consumption rather than honest and personal) - but a lot of what he says in here is really refreshing. Especially, I think, the appreciation - one that I share - that Rand was on the right track, but the details were lacking. After publishing Atlas Shrugged, it was fine for her to give up novel writing. But if she were going to insist that her novels were the foundation of a cultural movement, as she did, then she should have spelled out the particulars a bit better. It would have been fine for her, as so many writers do, to publish her books and say cryptically that she hoped they would "mean something" to people - but she didn't. She insisted that they were the textbooks of a radical new philosophy clearly expressed and not open to free interpretation by the reader. If that were truly the case, then in my opinion, and apparently Branden's as well, there was a lot of "expressing" left to do...

The Virtue of Clear Language

An interesting comment on an earlier post about Objectivism questions my assertion that disliking cynical people is part of Objectivism's cultural ethos. On the surface, this is exactly right. After all, a cynic is typically someone who despairs of finding anyone motivated by anything other than selfishness. Since Rand likes to talk about Selfishness as a virtue, then it would seem impossible for any Objectivist in good standing not to be a cynic. Far from being a vice, cynicism would be seen as virtuous behavior in such a system.

The problem is a common one where Objectivism is concerned: Rand has an annoying habit of deliberately misusing words as a provocation gimmick. She would call this being challenging and serious - but in fact it's an abuse of language on some level.

I'm not totally unsympathetic; I do this myself in my refusal to use "liberal" to describe leftists. Originally that word meant what we now have to say "Classical Liberal" to express: a supporter of roughly the kind of free-market minarchist politics I myself support. On some level I'm abusing language. People say "Liberal" more or less interchangeably with "Democrat" these days, so one could argue that the meaning has changed. I persist in this, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I think the terms were clearer back when present-day "liberals" were Social Democrats and present-day "libertarians" were "Liberals." And in fact the problematic nature of the term "libertarian" is a case in my favor. It's not entirely clear what "libertarian" means, even applied to the party that supposedly represents the concept. That party admits anarchists like Murray Rothbard and law-and-order types like me all under the same roof. It's only slighly clearer than "Republican!" The sloppy use of "liberal" to describe people who, historically speaking, are just the opposite of "liberal" is a mixing of technical, political science-level terms with informal public discourse terms. We don't need a precise definition of "Republican" or "Democrat." In fact, these have other meanings when not associated with the respective parties. A "republican" in the PolySci use is typically someone who favors the abolition of monarchy in favor of a representational system. A "democrat" is someone who favors direct franchise for everyone - and sometimes even direct democracy. Likewise, a "liberal" should be someone who supports a minarchist, market-driven political economy. But this is hard to maintain when its informal definition is more or less the opposite of this! Maybe the only thing that I will ever be willing to support that idiot George Lakoff on is his attempt to replace "liberal" in informal discourse with "progressive." Of course, Lakoff chooses "progressive" to stack the deck in favor of the policies he advocates, but at least there's historical precedent. In the 19th century (and into the 20th) there was a party that is more or less the modern Democratic Party that called itself the Progressive Party. He can have the word "progressive" if he wants. I just want a label for my beliefs that doesn't sound as goofy as "libertarian," damnit, and "liberal" is not only etymologically accurate for what I stand for, it's also historically the word people used to describe people like me! I want it back. Second, I think it's not too late to change back. There are still enough people (but only barely) who are willing to use it for what it used to mean that this isn't hopeless.

But OK, Rand has a similar argument for using the word "selfishness" the way she does. She claims that the word as presently used stacks the deck in favor of altruism as the basic moral principle - and this because "selfishness" lumps people who act in their rational self interest into the same category with those who pursue their own pleasure without any consideration for, and indeed at the deliberate expense of, others. And fair enough, as far as that goes. I think Rand is right that a lot of ethical thought is sloppy for just this reason. People think that because ethics is the branch of philosophy that governs how we behave toward others (at least socially) that virtue necessarily involves the ability to place the values of others above our own. Rand is right to fight this tendency.

However, I'm not sure she's right to misuse the word "selfishness" to describe her cardinal virtue. And indeed, in her own book of essays on the subject she admits that what she really means is "rational self-interest." I personally don't think the deck is stacked so far in favor of altruism that people have lost the ability to understand what is meant by "rational self-interest." Quite the contrary - "rational self-interest" was invented precisely to address the problem she thinks she's identified (i.e. that there isn't a word for "rational self-interest"). It's a term that was invented to describe someone who pursues his own values without callous disregard for others - someone who refuses to sacrifice his values for others, but acknowledges the right of others to do the same.

The irony, of course, is that in misusing "selfishness" to mean "rational self-interest," Rand is effectively destroying the concept that goes along with the general-use term "selfishness." As far as I know, she's offered no replacement term for the vice "selfishness," that is, the vice of using other people as a means to your own ends without regard for their values, feelings and rights. This is strange since that kind of selfishness is, in fact, the cardinal vice of Objectivism. The climax of Atlas Shrugged, indeed, involves the protagonist submitting to physical torture rather than agree to become a dictator.

And this is my, and I suspect anyone's, main frustration with the way she expresses herself. Objectivism isn't a cold-hearted philosophy that encourages the pursuit of one's goals at the expense of others. That Nietzsche's domain. But given Rand's choice of words, it's impossible to fault anyone for getting that impression. There's something Orwellian in trying to redefine popular terms so that they only express virtues.

Now, I do have a bone to pick with regard to the word "cynical," however. I reject the notion of morality that says that virtue is only the ability to look beyond one's own interest. I agree with Rand that the question isn't one of capacity for sacrifice. In fact, no system that calls itself moral should promote sacrifice, as that is a destructive and irrational basis for behavior. Sacrifice is only meaningful when someone does it in the service of a higher value, and the interests of others in the abstract - as in, the interests of others whom I haven't met, don't know and therefore cannot possibly care about - is an absurdity as a higher value. One cannot value something he doesn't know! So in this sense I do think the word "cynical" as it is generally used stacks the deck in favor of altruism.

I take "cynicism" in its broader meaning - which is to say the belief that people are without virtue. My own moral system needs a term to occupy this spot - and so I've simply used "cynicism," assuming people will understand. For my moral system, that means people who believe that mankind is essentially a bunch of animals pretending to be civilized. I despise this view. I think people are, for the most part, overwhelmingly good. They are often weak, but most people I meet are basically good people who want to do right by themselves and their fellow man. I have a positive view of the human race, and that is what I meant when I said that part of the ethos of Objectivism that I liked was that it rejects cynicism. What I meant, and perhaps should have said more clearly, is that Objectivism encourages optimism and belief in the sincerity of men. It doesn't sneer and it isn't sarcastic.

But alright - one of the things that gets old about sympathizing with Objectivists is the constant need to have to explain points like this. Rand could have saved us all a lot of trouble by expressing herself more clearly. But of course, it sells more books (and by this I do mean "reaches more people;" whatever her other faults, Rand was not money-grubbing) to title them provocative things like The Virtue of Selfishness.

I also ran across a funny comment on Amazon today about just this issue. It's in the section for this book - Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence. See what I mean? In this sense Objectivism is more than a little like Chomsky's linguistic theories. Whether or not Chomsky's theory generates sentences like it claims has yet to be proven to me, but it definitely generates a lot of books...

Anyway, one commenter writes:

To his everlasting credit, David Kelley has noticed that there's something missing from a philosophy whose adherents need to be told that it's okay to be nice.

HA! Right. Objectivism is offputting in exactly this way. Nothing in Rand's essays does, mind you, but her novels definitely do present as heroes people who seem callous and cold. Now I will personally admit that there is something about this kind of arroagance that I find attractive, and I'm not hiding the fact that this image is one of the trappings of Objectivism that I like. But attraction to certain images aside, Objectivism as spelled out has no problem with and indeed encourages people to be kind. It just takes some issue with the traditional definition of "kindness," getting into which would take more space than I really have here.

I should probably reiterate that, although I admire Rand's thought and have been influenced by it, I don't buy into it enough to call myself an "Objectivist" personally. I don't mind being identified with it, but I'm not, strictly speaking, a believer. Rand's tendency for this kind of dramatic theatrics in her use of language works well in her novels, but I do think it gets in the way of her philosophy.

In any case, that should clear up what I meant by saying that I don't like cynical people.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Barbara Branden on Smoking

OK - last Objectivism-related entry for today, I promise! But reading on the internet for the original post, I ran across this interesting page on Barbara Branden's site. It has to do with smoking and her belief that it isn't really addictive.

I'm posting this here because I've always felt the same way. Admittedly, I was never a really heavy smoker, nor did I make a habit of it for that long. It was something I swore I would never take up. I enjoy running - and though I'm out of shape now, I wasn't always, and I will be back in shape by the middle of the summer. Smoking and running obviously don't mix, so it's nothing that I ever want to do permanently and had intended never to do. But when they put the smoking ban here in Bloomington into effect, all my hatred for the anti-smoking movement boiled over and I started doing it just to piss people off on campus. I found I really enjoyed it, so I kept at it for a semester or so.

What was interesting to me was the total lack of craving. I was never addicted. At all. Sometimes I would want cigarettes, but this wasn't any more pressing than wanting a cup of tea or a shower. And when I quit, I just quit, and it never bothered me.

Branden writes about this from the point of view of someone who smoked two packs a day for 50 years and had great difficulty quitting. The basic argument (which she gets from a book) is that smoking isn't actually addictive - that people have been misled into thinking it is. Whatever addictions people have to cigarettes are psychological more than chemical.

I can't exactly follow her to the conclusion that there is nothing in a cigarette that is physically addictive. The way I understand it, there are lab studies to back up those claims. But I agree that a review of the evidence is probably in order.

I think this for a couple of reasons. First, I've met a lot of people who quit smoking, and there's great variation in how much difficulty they report. But the main constant seems to be that those who have trouble with it have a whole host of other nervous habit traits that go hand-in-hand. They're obsessively neat, they have a constant need to fiddle, oral fixation, whatever. All truly addicted smokers I've met have independent neuroses it seems to me. Meaning I'm not convinced it's really the chemicals in the tobacco that explains their inability to quit. Second, the anti-smoking movement is so blatantly irrational that it's downright offensive. I have absolutely no trouble believing that the kind of people who self-identify as anti-smoking crusaders would lie, cheat, and misrepresent to get their way. There is simply no obvious explanation for the vitriol that smoking inspires in some people. They claim they're worried about public health, but that simply cannot be true (since there are any number of other harmful things out there, such as alcohol, that they don't get equally worked up about, and since many of them, indeed, indulge in these very things). They claim they're worried about protecting non-smokers from second-hand smoke, but this also simply cannot be true, as many of the restrictions they support go a good deal further on that point than is really required. I don't know what motivates them to behave as they do, but clearly it has nothing to do with rationality or their stated aims. Such are exactly the kind of people who fabricate results and/or exaggerate the conclusions of independently supportive studies.Finally, I've noticed that most of the cases of people who successfully quit "cold turkey" are people my grandfather's age (indeed, he's a case in point). You hear a lot about people in their 70s who decided one day, after decades of smoking, to quit, smoked their last cigarette, and never looked back. But I know of almost no one in my own generation that can tell a similar story. Which means: the "problems" people face quitting are probably products of their culture more than anything. People from the generation before 70s (when everyone got in touch with their mothers and their needs and started making a living providing people with excuses for their worthless sloppiness) haven't been conditioned to blame all their problems on other people. They may have grown up in the red 30s, but the general ethos of the independent American was still around them in a way it isn't around us today. More to the point, they grew up before we were innundated with anti-tobacco propaganda that would have done Hitler (himself a fierce non-smoker, by the way) proud. No one told them that quitting would be the struggle of their lifetimes, that they would require endless seminars and gimmicky help kits. They didn't know it was going to be hard...and so it wasn't.

Well, I'm not an expert on this, so no doubt someone will want to tell me what a boob I am for pushing this theory. I don't care - something in my gut tells me I'm right. If you wanna quit smoking, just quit already. Stop giving the government fodder to further control the lives of your fellow citizens with your whining.

I made this very point - namely that addiction is always a choice - in last semester's Philosophy class. Needless to say, that made everyone really angry. Further needless to say, I think all the people who got angry are morons.


Pretty Cats

In doing some internet reading for the previous entry I ran across some truly beautiful cats. They're Diana Mertz Hsieh's cats; she's involved in the Objectivist Movement and was Nathaniel Branden's webmaster for years, as a volunteer, it seems. She has since decided to stick with orthodoxy and renounce the Brandens, whom she claims she never fully trusted.

Anyway - she has two truly beautiful cats. (As it turns out - Ayn Rand was also a huge cat lover, feeding her cat ground beef, because the cat insisted, in the 30s when she could barely afford to feed herself.) These are Oliver and Elliot. Oliver in particular, who looks a bit like and seems to have the same personality that my cat Marten does. Marten's also a stunningly pretty grey male longhair with an iron will - a bit of a bully who insists on having things his way, but really a good friend, skittish, playful, and loyal (not generally a hallmark trait of cats) in the end.

Pictures of her pets are here.

Something Like a Review

Dr. Purdom is doing some volunteer work for the county helping draw up new voting districts. It's an interesting problem he's working on - namely, how do we draw up districts and then distribute voting machines to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to vote? In the extreme cases, theoretically speaking, the voting lines go to infinity! But of course that's just theory. In reality, what it means is that the wait time for a machine is unacceptably long, and that there are enough people waiting there and enough arriving to replace any who leave that the problem never resolves itself. What they're gearing for, apparently, is a "steady state" - a state where a new voter arrives, on average, as often as one finishes, on average.

I feel sort of the same way about my backlog of books I'm meaning to read. There seems to be an infinite number. In reality, of course, there isn't and can't be. But there are now so many books I've promised myself at one point or another to read that even if I arrived at a state where I added fewer than I was reading over a given time interval I think the situation wouldn't resolve itself. Since I have a finite lifespan, my reading list is infinite for all practical purposes.

Recently I came across a review for this book - which I didn't know existed. It's called "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics," and as anyone in the know will guess from the title, it's a direct response (20 years too late, I should add) to Barbara Branden's biography of Rand - The Passion of Ayn Rand. And The Passion of Ayn Rand is a book I've been meaning to read since at least 1995, probably 1994.

So I moved it to the top of the list and read it, finally, this week.

My interest in the details of Rand's life started when I was a member of a an online discussion forum called "DigiaLiberty." I'm sure it's long defunct, but what we were pushing for was to establish an online currency to replace the US dollar. It's roughly the same idea as the Liberty Dollar. I was then and am now opposed to fiat money - such as the kind we spend every day in this country. Well, the group quickly got off topic when people started arguing about whether or not to take Ayn Rand seriously. I'd read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged for the first time only recently, and I knew little about the details of the author's life (I didn't even know she was Russian!). It was shocking and interesting to hear about the fatal affair with Nathaniel Branden (whose name, of course, I had to look up) and listen to people who had been around in the 60s talking about their memories as members of the Objectivist Movement. I did some digging and ran across The Passion of Ayn Rand - and since it was written by Nathaniel Branden's wife, it seemed like a good place to start.

And then one thing led to another and ... well, you know how it goes. I picked up bits and pieces of the story on the net over the years, and especially from a book called The Ayn Rand Cult. But I never got around to reading The Passion of Ayn Rand until this week.

First a couple of words about the issue itself. For anyone not in the know - Barbara and Nathaniel Branden were arguably Rand's first serious followers. They were Canadians, living in the US to attend UCLA (Nathaniel in Psychology, Barbara in Philosophy). They met in Winnipeg (Nathaniel - whose birth name is Nathan Blumenthal) in the late 40s because of shared admiration for The Fountainhead. One of Barbara's friends introduced her to Nathaniel apparently hoping she would go bug someone else about the book. Well, while at UCLA, Nathaniel found out that Rand was living in California and sent her a letter with philosophical questions about The Fountainhead and We the Living. They were the right questions - Rand felt it was the first really intelligent letter about the books she'd gotten, and she responded. One thing led to another, and eventually the Brandens (not yet married - still Blumenthal and Weideman) were visiting Rand nearly every day at her house. They all became good friends. When the Brandens moved to New York to go to graduate school, Rand followed them (she loved New York and apparently hated living in California). She was in the middle of writing Atlas Shrugged, and would show them bits of the manuscript. Once it was published, Rand was catapulted to fame, and letters from admirers began pouring in. There were so many questions to answer and so much interest that Branden was able to found the Nathaniel Branden Institute - which started out as a lecture series on her philosophy. Objectivism became a cultural movement, with Rand as center and Branden as the organizer.

The dirty laundry involved is that Rand ended up having an affair with Nathaniel - with the full knowledge of both her husband and Barbara Branden - and this despite the fact that he was 25 years younger than her. The relationship blew up in 1968, and Rand cut the Brandens off completely. She publicly denounced them, shut down the Nathaniel Branden Institute (even though she didn't own it), never spoke to Nathaniel again, and only spoke to Barbara again in 1981 - not long before her death. As a consequence, the Objectivist movement faltered, lost momentum, and more or less ground to a halt. Recently interest is reviving, but there is no longer a central "fountainhead" person or organization who speaks for the movement (though officially it's Leonard Peikoff).

I can't say exactly why I'm interested in this. In fact, it was on those discussion boards at DigitaLiberty that I first heard the aphorism "An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it." I completely agree - the details of a thinker's biography, though perhaps historically interesting as a basis for the formation of his ideas, are irrelevant to the merits of his ideas, which stand on their own. It shouldn't matter what kind of person Rand was: her ideas are sound and should be studied.

But I think I can offer a two thoughts by way of explanation. First - Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy. Indeed, that's one of the main reasons I like it so much. I usually prefer science fiction novels to the ordinary kind - and for largely the same reasons that Rand prefers Romanticism to Naturalism. I don't really see the point in writing books that simply reproduce the details of life - details that I can go out and see for myself. The kinds of books my mother reads bore me to a thousand-year sleep. No - I like books about, as Rand would say, the world as it could and should be, not about the world as it actually is. But of course, one of the elements of a good fantasy is that it makes you wish you could live the lives described in it. The interesting thing about Atlas Shrugged is that the author and several of her associates claimed that she actually was the kind of person described in that novel. Since I have never met anyone who fully fits the bill, probably part of my interest stems from a curiosity to see just how well Rand herself lived up to her own ideals. The closer she came, the more hopeful I can be about finding Galt's Glutch. Second - more than any other public figure I'm aware of, details of Rand's biography are used by people to avoid having to take her ideas seriously. I got a good example of this over the summer, in fact. I brought up Ayn Rand in an email, and the recipient wrote back that she was "crazy." He knows little of her ideas and has never read one of her novels, but he has it on good authority (ah, but from where?) that she was "crazy." I don't blame him for this and I didn't get angry about it - because what's probably happened is that he's heard it repeated so many times at parties and such that it seemed credible. No one has time to go checking out every claim they've ever heard; hear something repeated often enough, and unless you have good reason to care, the efficient thing to do is simply to believe it. For better or worse, Rand has the image of a "pop philosopher." It's one of "those movements" that sprung up in the 60s, when people were restless to know all the answers and to save the world by tomorrow, or at least the end of the week. It isn't serious philosophy or serious literature - just one of those things people get into when they're young. Well, there's some truth to that, I think. And that image (and the grain of truth on which it's based) keep this tactic going. But make no mistake - it is a tactic - employed originally by people who don't want serious discussion of Rand's ideas going forward. And it's been very successful. Unfortunately for Rand, as for most Libertarian thinkers, both major "sides" in the American political "debate" have a stake in this. The Socialists don't want people looking out for number one, and the Religious Right doesn't either, though for different reasons. I do get frustrated being laughed at when I mention that Ayn Rand has had more influence on my thinking that probably anyone else, and that Atlas Shrugged is my favorite novel. And it is indeed especially frustrating that most of the people doing the dismissing seem to base their opinion not on any familiarity with the writing, but just on rumors they've heard about details of Rand's personality and biography. (That there is an ideological dimension to this - that it's not just a progression of rumor - should be obvious. I'm not aware of any other thinkers who are so roundly dismissed on this basis. There are, as far as I am aware, embarassing personal facts about virtually every famous thinker, and yet Ayn Rand fans are the only ones who ever seem to have to actually answer for them.)

So I guess my interest is partly from curiosity whether the claims that there are real John Galts in the world are true, and partly from natural curiosity at the details of the biography that has been used so effectively to shut down discussion on Rand's philosophy.

I am not an Objectivist. I am frequently accused of being one (most recently in a Philosophy class I had to take last semester), and I do agree with a lot of Rand's thought, but not to the extent that I would wear the label. Specifically - I agree with her wholeheartedly, down to the minor detail, on politics (save one issue: I think the government should be allowed some limited and clearly defined powers of taxation, though nothing like the criminal system we have now). On other issues I agree with her in basic principle but am inclined to think that she hasn't given things a sensitive enough treatment. For example, I am in large agreement with what I read in The Romantic Manifesto - which covers her ideas on art - but am also willing to admit that I don't think anyone understands what art is well enough to make the generalizations she does. I thoroughly enjoy some art that doesn't fit the bill. For example - the movies of David Lynch. There's ultimately something unsatisfying about The Romantic Manifesto - and I think the problem is that there's so much more to be said about all this than she really says. The basic principles are right, but a serious study of asthetic philosophy requires a PhD and years of devoted learning. What's a bit offputting about it is that Rand writes as authoritative a book that should more properly be seen as an introduction, a foundation. And I have that frustration with a lot of her writing. It gets worse with her moral philosophy. Again, I think the basic principles are right, and I live by them in my own life. I absolutely agree without reservation with the famous credo in Atlas Shrugged -

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

This is indeed the foundation of morality - as much as is the Golden Rule. But I don't think this requires people to be arrogant (though I admit that arrogance turns me on in women) and cold, nor does it mean we have to be indifferent to suffering. And in theory Rand would agree - but she writes her characters in such a way that it sounds like this is what she's advocating. A more useful collection of essays on ethics than The Virtue of Selfishness would have dealt with more difficult situations, well-known conundra or historical events. Which isn't to say The Virtue of Selfishness is a bad book. I really like it and found it helpful. But again, one gets the impression that we're just scratching the surface. Her general answer to any question dealing with practical morality was to advise people to imagine what John Galt would do in a similar situation. Yes, great, but that's the whole problem. John Galt barely makes an appearance in that book - just like Howard Roark before him in The Fountainhead. There aren't enough details about him to allow us to truly imagine what he would do. We're given the broad outlines, but none of the particulars.

Nowhere is this feeling more acute with me than in her positions on psychology - which are simply pedestrian. I agree with her that a great deal of what is passed off as psychological problems are just philosophical or moral problems by another name. But we're sidestepping the more interesting issue by saying so, which is: what chain of events makes a person deny reason? What's the attraction? How do we cure it? It's one thing to say that reason and emotion come to complement each other with effort. In fact, I found this position - which is in the Commencement Address that she gave to West Point - completely convincing. But it would have been worth spelling out in more detail the process of transformation here. What are the pitfalls? Is there such a thing as false emotionalism? What stages does a typical person pass through in becoming more rational and learning to harmonize with his emotions? How long does it typically take? Are different teaching strategies more or less appropriate to people from different backgrounds and with different experiences? If sexual jealousy is irrational, why do so many people suffer from it? Is there perhaps a biological basis, and if so, how do we look beyond that? Etc. There's a wealth of important but unanswered questions. The Devil's in the details, but we only get the broad foundational principles.

(Don't get me started on her epsitemology, which I find uninformed, to put it mildly. She clearly hasn't read any primary source Kant and doesn't seem to have even bothered with secondary source readings on everyone else. If it is true, as she says, that the only philosopher to whom she owes any debt is Aristotle, then that is so because he's the only one she bothered to read seriously.)

But I don't want to sound only critical. I said that Rand is the most influential thinker in my life, and I meant it. If I were to count up opinions that I now hold that are the result of having read a convincing argument from someone else - as opposed to having thought of it myself - I think the lion's share of these would owe to things that I read in Rand. And it's not just that - the whole ethos of Objectivism is attractive to me. I like goal-driven people, arrogant people, absolutes, clear speech, believers in reason, people who can't make smalltalk, lack of use for sports, skyscrapers (God, I love skyscrapers!), cities, industry, progress, material things, money, people who love their lives and aren't cynical. I believe in a utopian future, I believe that technology and science will save the world, I believe that life here on earth is good enough that there is no need to dream of an afterlife. I believe that most problems in the world are simpler than people think, that they have obvious solutions that people are simply avoiding. We could spare ourselves a lot of grief if people would just put some value in their lives, take themselves seriously, and think. I do not believe in marriage, nor do I believe in religion, nor magic. I think that if Dominique Francon were real and Howard Roark were real, then he would have raped her just like it says in the book. And in fact, it was that scene that made me stand up and take notice of a book I otherwise hadn't been too impressed with. When Rand says it was based on "wishful thinking," I completely believe her. It's my ideal too. So it isn't just the ideas but the expression of those ideals. Objectivism has a style I really like and respond to.

So in this sense the story of the whole sordid Branden affair is important to me. I am intensely interested in Rand's work, and so too also in her personally.

Having now read Barbara Branden's book, I guess I would say that I don't really see what all the fuss is about. In the first place it doesn't strike me as being all that critical of Rand. If it is, it's critical in the same sense that makes Jews into "self-hating Jews" in certain circles when they say anything south of that Israel is the pinnacle of all human civilization. Branden criticizes Rand, right. She paints her as vindictive, callous, inconsiderate, and somewhat jealous. From what I can tell from the bits of reading I've done, that's not too far from the mark. But she also gives a good and highly sympathetic psychological profile of why Rand was the way she was. And I should add, I think, that I find the portrait of Rand independently highly believable anyway - because I was exactly like that in junior high. I've always had a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" with Ayn Rand - that I could easily have turned out like that, with all the same neuroses and egoistic hangups, if certain events in my life hadn't happened the way they did.

Branden's book is criticized for being self-serving, for choosing its details, for being contradictory and for projecting most of the blame onto Rand when some of it clearly lies with her and her (ex-)husband. Fine - all these things are clearly true too. It would be foolish to take one biography as cannon on any historical figure, and especially when the biography is written by someone with a personal stake in how the story gets told! And yes, there were some obvious contradictions in the book. The most glaring, for me, was the way she talked about Rand's 1979 appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. It gets two mentions in separate chapters near the end of the book. In the first, it was a "disaster," particularly the part where Rand confronts a woman in the audience who was a former Objectivist. (The full video, by the way, is unsuprisingly available on YouTube.) In the second mention Rand conducted herself well, effortlessly answered all the questions, and enjoyed herself.

So which is it?

I think anyone who saw the clip would agree that it's more the second than the first. It's true that Rand gets short-tempered with the woman in question and probably doesn't give the best answer she could have (really, there was no need to get angry) - but it's equally true that the question was malicious, pointless and unfair. It kinda pissed me off too. The woman starts by saying she is a former member of Rand's "cult" and then, after taking that back, implies that no mature person could believe in Rand's philosophy. Somehow, Donahue seems to want to audience to believe that Rand was asked a fair question when it was clearly an attack. But fine, Rand could have dealt with it better by simply pointing out that the woman was accusing her of being immature. She didn't have to take the question seriously.

Probably it's true that there's some hostility on Branden's part. And yes, it's true that the book has too much ad hoc psychologizing without information to back up its claims. But I think there is a place for such books as well. The Passion of Ayn Rand shouldn't be taken as a studied biography so much as Branden's personal impressions. A lot of the information about Rand's life is useful and informative, but nothing about the book claims to be final or authoritative. Branden doesn't come out and admit her biases, but neither does she really conceal them, I don't think. And in any case, the encomium that is the last chapter should be enough to convince any non-believers that Branden truly is impressed with Rand, her life, and all that she achieved. I have no problem with her putting a human face on the legend - I am not aware of a perfect person, especially not a perfect famous person, in existence.

I'm independently incined to believe Branden's account anyway. It seems believable. In the comments section the Amazon entry on The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a reviewer from New Zealand writes the following:

With "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" James Valliant scores what may turn out to be Objectivism's biggest own-goal yet. An unprecedented combination of wiggy conspiracy theorizing and bug-eyed idolatry, the book has not only succeeded in dividing the struggling Objectivist movement for the nth time, but has the potential to scupper what's left of Rand's reputation for good...For example, when Branden, at 38 some 25 years her junior, breaks off with Rand for the luscious young Patrecia, Rand construes it thus:

"I am convinced that the clearest and probably conscious fear in his mind was the fear of admitting that I was 'too much for him'...I was too much for him - in every sense of the phrase and in a deeper sense than would apply to the type of men he despises. I want to stress this: *I was and am too much for him*. This is my full conviction, reached with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind..." And so on in similarly excruciating fashion.

This makes a lot of sense. The very fact that Rand was in this relationship for so long in the first place should be good evidence to the doubters that she was an egomaniac. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with dating someone 25 years younger than you, but generally speaking the older women in these relationships understand when the man moves on to a younger woman. It's one of the well-known sex differences, in fact, that men tend to prefer younger partners and women older ones.

Also, there's the oddity of the breakup with Branden - the fact that she roasted him in public without ever really explaining herself to her confused followers, that she let the movement wither as a result. Whether or not the explanation Barbara Branden gives is right in all its particulars I don't know and can't say - but it seems very plausible and should, for that reason, be taken seriously untill someone cares to produce counterevidence. Indeed, the obsessive movement to ban the book on the part of the Ayn Rand Institute - which essentially forbids members from reading it - does more than anything to convince me that there's at least something to what Branden writes. That, and the fact that there's an Ayn Rand Institute or an Objectivist Movement at all. What person who takes her philosophy (as stated, I mean) seriously would really want to join such a thing? The whole point is independent thought based on reason. An lecture institute for discussion is one thing. A political movement is one thing. But a cultural movement is quite another. Its existence is brazenly at odds with the kind of novels she wrote and ideas she developed. It isn't hard to get a picture of Rand as a monstrous hypocrite - whether or not it's actually true.

Nathaniel Branden, as it turns out, has his own account of the split, which I may take up next.

And yes, I fully intend to read Valliant's book as well. I will order it in February, when the new version of the Atlas Shrugged audiobook comes out (or will check it out of IUCAT if it becomes available before then).

To make a long story short (too late!) - I read The Ayn Rand Cult and was very much aware that it was a hatchet job, though no doubt not completely removed from reality. I didn't get that impression at all with The Passion of Ayn Rand. The author seemed sincere, if a bit self-serving, and the book didn't suffer from the same kinds of glaring contradictions and factual inaccuracies that Walker's book did. I consider it an important piece of the puzzle.

Of course, it is ultimately a meaningless puzzle. I'm not big on biography as a general rule, and I find myself somewhat at a loss to explain why this one is interesting to me. But it is interesting, and so I keep reading...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I am the Arm, and I Sound Like This

This is mostly in response to a comment on an earlier entry in which I defended the existence and quality of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - the "prequel" movie that appeared about a year after the series proper was cancelled.

A lot of fans of the Twin Peaks TV show understandably dislike the film. There are good reasons not to like it. It's much darker and lacks a lot of the quirky fun of the show, it doesn't really resolve the series cliffhanger, it features few of the characters we came to know and love from the show (most importantly: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, the de facto star, makes what amounts to a cameo - he isn't an integral part of the story at all), it isn't really about the town so much as the murdered girl, and - I think most of all for a lot of people - it casts a different actress as Donna Hayward.

I admit, all of these things bothered me too. And yes, especially the casting of Moira Kelley as a "different Donna." That really bugged me the first time through.

It took me some time to appreciate Fire Walk With Me - but once I learned to like it, I found that I really liked it.

Commenter Charles - author of the excellent In Twin Peaks photoblog - makes a cogent case against it, though, so I wanted to respond. (I started in the comments section - where this probably really belongs - but found I had too much to say.)

The basic assertion is that FWWM switches focus from a fresh, atmospheric exploration of the mysteries of the haunted woods (which feature prominently in the series) to a banal, familiar story of familial sexual abuse. And that's certainly fair enough - Fire Walk With Me does indeed involve a major shift of focus of precisely this kind. And yes, the story of the haunted woods is fresher and more engaging than the offputting sexual abuse story. Honestly, who wants to watch a story about sexual abuse? It's disquieting in a wholly bad way - not in the thrilling way the TV show was.

All the same, this shift is, in fact, one of the things I liked about the movie - so let me explain.

It's well known that David Lynch drifted away from the TV series as it went ahead to universal fan annoyance. The reasons given at the time were that he was working on outside movie projects, but we now know this wasn't stricly true. Mostly, he just got bored - because the show wasn't taking the direction he wanted. Lynch was clear early on that the show wasn't really about Laura. Unconfirmed (but completely believable) rumors, in fact, have it that he didn't want to reveal Laura's killer at all. Ever. Laura was a MacGuffin - the White Rabbit leading you into Wonderland, a "hook" to get you involved in the real story, which, of course, is the afforementioned fairy-tale town, its quirky inhabitants and their lives, and most of all the looming presence of the nearby haunted woods.

But it didn't turn out that way. ABC forced them to wrap up the Laura Palmer mystery in the second season, and pretty much any fan can tell you that the episodes leading up to that revelation were the worst they filmed. They felt forced and cheesy - what with Albert Rosenfeld, of all people, telling Cooper he had to follow his path! Give me a break. All the mystical "investigation methods" that came off as original and humorous in the first season were thrown at you from all directions just to convince you you were still watching the same show. The final irony, of course, is that once they gave away the big secret (which wasn't really so secret by that point anyway) they lost what remained of their viewers. Lynch, it seems, had been right all along. And why wouldn't he be? If he wrote a show about a town, it stands to reason that forcing it to be about a murder mystery instead would screw things up.

It should have been obvious to everyone that the show was about the town from day one anyway. Go back and watch the pilot: very little time is actually devoted to the particulars of the case. The lion's share of screen time goes to filming everyone's reactions to the news that Laura's been killed. We're being introduced to characters, not suspects, and so I understand Lynch's frustration with how things turned out (though, as usual, he really has no one but himself to blame - he egged everyone on with that final scene about the stolen locket).

Charles is right that "those woods" are crucial to the series - more central than the murder mystery plot for sure. But I'm not so convinced they're crucial to the story from Laura's point of view. And the movie - at least the second, longer half of it - is really the story from Laura's point of view.

This is one of the things that I think is both interesting and masterful about the movie: it's sort of the negative image of the show. In the show, Laura is meant to hover just out of sight. We only see her as a picture, and in the memories and imaginations of the people who knew her. She's not a real person in the show, she's an image - and that's fine because the show isn't really about her.

In Fire Walk With Me there's an element of "you asked for it, now you're gonna get it!" People wanted to know about Laura and her murder, and so now we've been told. Does it make us happy? No - and that's the point - it isn't meant to. The picture everyone idolizes is a real person, as it turns out, and murder isn't just a fun puzzle to be solved.

From Laura's point of view, the haunted woods don't matter too terribly much. She's a victim of them, and that's of more pressing concern to her than the larger metaphysical issues of what they are and what's inside them. It isn't an "inability" on the part of the movie to deal with "those woods" so much as just the fact that it would be inappropriate to do so. They're peripheral to the story that's being told.

Accodingly, there's a shift in sprituality in the movie that I liked. I don't think the movie is any less "spiritual" or "mysterious" than the show - it's just that we've swapped religions. The show is pagan. In the show, it's the land - the location - that's imbued with spiritual power, and the mythos is decidedly Native American. It's been suggested that BOB is the Wendigo, and there's a case to be made there. The movie is Catholic. It's Christian. It's about suffering, confronting evil, embracing love and final salvation. There are mysteries here too, but they're not of the same kind.

Recasting Donna really fits here too. I understand that the reason they did it was because Lara Flynn Boyle couldn't be bothered to come back. But to me that's a happy coincidence. We need a fresh look at Donna to make this movie - for a couple of reasons. First of all, the movie takes place before the series, and Donna is one of the characters for which there are some problems going to back to "page one." Donna as we saw her at the beginning of the series is very different from the Donna we know at the end of season two, and a lot of the more assertive, less innocent aspects of the latter-day Donna seem tied up with the actress who played her somehow. Second, it's important to emphasize, again, that Fire Walk With Me is the story from Laura's point of view. Laura doesn't know Donna as well as she thinks she does - a point the movie makes well, but something we also know from the TV show. Again, if the point is to show the audience Donna as Laura sees her, that task is hugely complicated by using Lara Flynn Boyle - about whose version of Donna we know too much already. Finally, what a lot of people will complain about, but something that I actually liked: this isn't the Donna we know from the show anyway. Several scenes in the movie seem hard to square with the events of the show. Donna in the show doesn't (seem to) know the extent of Laura's depravity - but in the movie she gets a pretty good look. Those scenes worked really well for me in the movie - especially as a show of Donna's devotion to her friend (a love Laura doesn't seem to be able to handle). But again, I'm not sure I could have believed them with Lara Flynn Boyle standing in for the part. Fact is, they are inaccurate. The show and the movie can't both be cannon here. And so casting a new Donna frees Lynch to tell stories that I might not have been as willing to believe in with the old gal.

The point is that the story he wants to tell is important.

The hallmark of TV in the late 80s was that it pushed the "acceptable content" envelope. Case in point - the entire second season of War of the Worlds. The only object was to try as hard as they could to get Robocop callibre violence on the small screen.

Twin Peaks was part of that. I can remember my high school history teacher coming to class fuming the Monday after the episode where Leland kills Maddy. She made her kids stop watching. But of course with Twin Peaks this violence was never gratuitous - and it wasn't just the violence. Everything about the show was cinema quality - the production values, the directing, the acting. The line between TV and silver screen was getting blurred, and Twin Peaks was the vanguard. Many think it was a watershed - that it pushed quality expectations for television series forward by a bound. I'm not inclined to disagree.

Even so, there are some stories you couldn't then and still can't tell properly on TV - and Laura's backstory is one of them. It was never intended to be part of the series, but since it was forced, the best they could do was...well, what they did. And for a show as human as Twin Peaks, it just seemed kind of flat. The murderer was her father, but it's OK folks 'cause he's really an evil spirit that jumps from person to person? Kind of a letdown, no?

I know the full implications of what was going on didn't sink in for me until I saw the movie. I don't think they did for most people. You might get it intellectually, but that's never the same thing as seeing it. Naming Laura's father as the killer is either (a) a clever solution to a whodunit - one most people wouldn't gues or (b) something really, really depraved. Given that it's David Lynch and Twin Peaks we're talking about, obviously it's meant to be option (b).

Well, option (b) is the kind of thing you can't show on ABC.

And so I liked the movie. I liked it because it put a human face on our etheral prom queen victim. We spent so much time looking at her picture, why not see things from her point of view? I liked it because it fixed what to me was the worst mistake of the series (even worse than Major Briggs and the aliens): the casual way they revealed the killer and the easy out for Leland Palmer once his secret is known. I liked it because, though I have no religion now, I was raised Christian and respond better to a Catholic thematic structure than a Native American one. I liked it because the sense of evil was convincing. Offputting to be sure, but that's what made it believable. And yes, I liked it because Donna seemed to be what she was supposed to be. I can't help thinking that they got off track with that character at some point in the show.

Most of all, I liked it because I don't think they could have made a movie about the Black Lodge and the haunted woods. It would have just ended up being Blair Witch (only better, obviously). There aren't any answers as to what the Black Lodge is or what's really going on with Bob and Mike. All they can ever do with this is just keep dangling mysteries and incomprehensible symbolism in front of us. That works when you have a series of indefinite length, the main focus of which is really the ensemble cast. But can you do this with a two-hour movie? A two-hour movie about the haunted woods wouldn't have been very satisfying, I don't think. At best, it would have been a series of obliquely-connected, dream-like images a la Mulholland Drive (a great film!) - which worked for that film but would have seemed like more of the same with Twin Peaks.

What we got - a chance to redo the revelation of the killer with religious themes appropriate to that story rather than the story about the idyllic town and its dark secret - was infinitely better.

When I first saw FWWM, I was angry that they didn't tell us what happened with Dale Cooper being possessed by BOB. That's what I went into the theater expecting. But I realize now how dumb that would have been. The storyline that Cooper's possession by BOB fits into is one that never ends. And now that I'm older, I appreciate just how shocking that final episode really was (all the good guys die), and just how cool it is to leave everyone hanging in that way. Save the pilot, the final episode is my favorite now. What they did instead was much more sensible. They told us the part of the story that they couldn't tell on television and in the process fixed the part of the series that bugged me the most.

Alright, but what about the scene in the traincar, someone will ask? The actual murder scene? Doesn't Leland Palmer hold up torn diary pages and say "I always though you knew it was me?" In other words - Bob is just a figment of Laura's imagination. The pages he tore out, we were told earlier (in the scene in Harold's house), are the ones that deal with BOB. Well, why shouldn't he be?

One of the things that's really interesting about the movie is that it goes out of its way to let you know that weird stuff IS going on. There's Cole's "blue rose" case, the ring, the woman and her grandson, Agent Desmond's disappearance(, David Bowie and his wholly unconvincing southern accent), etc. etc. All this eats up about a half hour of film time. Then we switch to a story that explains BOB - the central mystery of the show - in wholly familiar psychological terms. So what's up? Is BOB real or isn't he?

I think the point is the level of reality on which BOB exists. What seems to fascinate Lynch, what drives his movies, is the stark contrast between good and evil. If the world were evil through to the core, we simply couldn't survive it. It can't be. It's good most of the time. But there is an evil layer there, just beneath the surface - not hard to find, but not necessarily in plain sight either. And the absudity of the extremes is interesting. Dwarves and Giants - a father who adores his daughter but also regularly rapes her. Leland met BOB as a child. You see, it happened to him too.

In the series Cooper refers to BOB as "the killer" early on. Right in plain sight - the mystery was solved early. The audience should have known better than to keep wondering "whodunnit?" BOB did it. We always knew. But who is BOB?

The big strength of Twin Peaks was its ability to take perfectly ordinary things and make them seem bizarre. And of course if you stare at something too long, it does have a way of seeming bizarre. Like repeating the same word several times with different intonations. The (perfectly familiar) sequence of sounds starts to sound absurd very quickly. Evil is in plain sight, but we don't see it head on because it seems like it shouldn't be there.

The scene in the train car really hammers that home. In the TV series, the equivalent is Albert's cheesy line about how "Maybe BOB is just the evil that men do." I groaned. I groaned because it was a flippant dismissal of a really damn good question. Why DO people do bad things? But Albert's not wrong. Evil isn't some abstract force that lives in the woods. It's only evil if it hurts people. All the stuff in the woods - the lodge, the owls, Glastonberry Grove, red drapes - are just things that make us uneasy. Evil is what happened in the train car - and why it happened.

So is BOB real? Yes. And no. Depends on what you mean by real.

I feel like the truth about what happened to Laura is an important part of the story. It compliments the fantasies well. The Black Lodge and Dancing Dwarf and All That Stuff doesn't mean as much - or much of anything, really - without it. (And who really killed Caroline, by the way?)

And so Fire Walk With Me is one of my favorite movies. I really, really like it, I'm glad they made it, and I sincerely hope that someday we get to see the full 4-hour version - or at least the hour of deleted scenes that Lynch wanted to include in the DVD release.

(In the spirit of things, Twin Peaks - UK Version.)