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...


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