January 30, 2008

And Edwards is out, too

NYT: Edwards Drops Out of Race for President

If I could still plausibly claim to be a citizen of the Republic of California, then I would have a serious dilemma on my hands. Clinton's policies are slightly more left-of-center (not to mention concrete) than Obama's, but I'm worried about what twenty-seven years of continuous governments by two families (the Clintons and the Bushes) will do to our democracy. (Think about it: assuming Clinton is elected and re-elected, a large percentage of eligible voters will have never lived under a president who was not named either Clinton or Bush. Already the youngest voters in this year's election were born in 1989 and 1990, after George HW Bush took office, and the oldest twentysomethings can't remember life under Reagan.) On the other hand, Obama's calls for `hope' and `change' are at best meaningless and at worst Democratic pandering to conservatives taken to the highest possible level. (As Glen Greenwald put it, `in almost every significant case, what "bipartisanship" means in Washington is that enough Democrats join with all of the Republicans to endorse and enact into law Republican policies, with which most Democratic voters disagree'.) People are pissed off at Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for doing precisely what Obama is saying he'll do if elected, and yet Reid's vice is Obama's virtue. This doesn't make any sense.

Really, California Democrats are, IMHO, faced with a choice between two very mediocre candidates. Fortunately, as Indiana does not hold its primary until more than three months (May 6) after Super Tuesday, the nomination will have long since been secured de facto by the time I get to vote.

January 27, 2008

Allowing people to have children is, apparently, not Pro-Life

A bunch of Catholic MPs in Gordon Brown's government, `linked to the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group', are throwing a fit, insisting that they be allowed a free vote on a bill.

[Transport Secretary] Kelly recently met Geoff Hoon, Labour's chief whip, to ask for voting restrictions to be removed from much, if not all, of the bill. At the moment MPs will only be allowed a free vote on any amendments that are tabled on abortion. Defence Secretary Des Browne is also understood to have concerns. All three [sic] ministers are prominent Catholics. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of Britain's four million Catholics, has condemned the bill as 'profoundly wrong'[.]

What sort of abominations will the bill allow? What grave sacrifice of human life will it make to the dark gods of the selfish feminist gynocracy?

None whatsoever. On the contrary: the bill allows people to become parents, if they so choose. It does not allow any killing of babies, whether actual babies or foetuses. What it does do is `allow children to be born [sic] by IVF without a father's involvement'. `That change would mean they [IVF clinics] were [sic] no longer able to deny treatment to lesbians and single women, with a child's birth mother and her female partner being regarded as legal parents.'

This shows two things. First, Dennis Campbell, health correspondent for the Guardian, needs to brush up on counting, how to use the hypothetical mood, and the difference between pregnancy and birth. Second, `Pro-Life' only means pro-parenthood for the right kind of parents.

January 26, 2008

Pretty much every conversation I have with a non-academic ends up sounding like this

From Adventures in Ethics and Science.

Dr. Free-Ride is washing the younger of her two offspring before bedtime. Younger Offspring has some unconventional ideas about the relationship between body and mind.

Dr. Free-Ride: Fascinating. Does that mean that your body and mind only feel like 'you' when you can get them to behave a certain way you want them to?

Younger offspring: Uh ...

Dr. Free-Ride: Or when they're acting in a certain unified way rather than acting in different directions?

Younger offspring: Mmm ...

Dr. Free-Ride: What's you theory on this? Can you explain it to me?

Younger offspring: You know, I'm in the water now, and I should get washed soon so there will be time for stories.

January 24, 2008

Kucinich resigns

AP: Democrat Kucinich quits White House race. Apparently not without good reason:

Kucinich, 61, is facing four challengers in the Democratic congressional primary March 4, and earlier this week he made an urgent appeal on his Web site for funds for his re-election. Rival Joe Cimperman has been critical of Kucinich for focusing too much time outside of his district while campaigning for president.

His decision comes a month after the death of his youngest brother, Perry Kucinich.

Kucinich's run was always symbolic anyways. He might actually do a little bit of good in Congress, so it's fair that he drops out now, saving what money he has to fight off these challengers. And I had no idea about his brother. I can't imagine how Kucinich has done as much as he has over the past month -- demanding a recount of the New Hampshire primary, and suing for access to the debate in Nevada, just for a start -- while grieving the loss of his brother.

Thanks, Dennis, for putting as much time and energy into your presidential campaign as you could.

Since Dodd, my #2, dropped out a while ago, my endorsement goes to Edwards. I'm not comfortable choosing between Clinton and Obama, even over the #2 spot -- basically, neither of their policies platforms is sufficiently progressive for my endorsement.

Noticing class privilege.

Via Adventures in ethics and science, an interesting exercise in class consciousness. As a classroom activity, line the students up, and have them take one step forward for every sentence that is true for them. No discussion until every sentence has been read. As a blog activity, mark the ones that are true for you.

ADULTHOOD [up to and including college]:
If your father went to college
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college (My mom earned an Associate's degree when I was in high school, but never got her Bachelor's. `College' is ambiguous -- does a JC count? I'm going to count it for half -- so starting, but not finishing, college.)
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe (Studying abroad for a semester in college -- on the cheapest programme you could imagine -- seems to just barely qualify. My brother's never been to Europe, and my mom's only been twice.)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels (I can recall only two vacations where we stayed in hotels. Every other vacation was either boatcamping or visiting relatives. I don't think two trips count as a sufficiently general trend.)
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall (My mom made a lot of the clothes I wore through about fourth grade, and we occasionally had a few things from Goodwill. I still shop at Goodwill more often than the mall.)
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (They weren't common until my junior year of college. I didn't get a cell phone until I came to Notre Dame a few years ago.)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries (Mostly natural history museums.)
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (We heated our house with a wood-burning stove. I never knew the financial cost, but I certainly knew first hand the cost in terms of time and labour -- we got a couple cords every August, and I had to help stack and split it.)

If your body does not bear long-term signs of malnutrition.
If you had orthodontia.(Only because my mom didn't give us pacifiers, didn't really bottle feed us, and didn't let us suck our thumbs.)
If you saw a doctor for anything other than emergencies or school-mandated shots. (I had routine checkups every year or so up through about 6 years old.)
If you heated your home with clean-burning fuels or had properly vented heating. (Well, wood is cleaner than coal, but it's nowhere near as clean as natural gas. And we couldn't really afford natural gas. I'm not counting this one, since I counted the last heating one.)
If you grew up in a house without vermin. (Rats and cockroaches? No. Ants? Oh yes. Every summer.)
If you had running water.
If you had a basement or foundation under your house.
If you had an indoor toilet.
If your parents and immediate family were outside the criminal justice system. (I'm assuming traffic tickets and a DUI don't count.)
If you yourself remained outside the criminal justice system.
If your parents had a new car. (My dad had to drive a LOT for work, so he would buy a new car ever 4 or 5 years, then sell it and buy a new one when the old one racked up about 250,000 miles. I don't think my mom has ever owned a new car.)
If you never went barefoot so that you could 'save your shoes for school.'
If your parents never argued in front of you about having enough money for food to last out the month.
If you ate hunted and fished meat because it was a recreational activity rather than as the major way to stock a freezer. (Occasionally we'd eat caught fish while out on the boat. No hunted meat.)
If your laundry was done at home in a washer rather than in a lavandaria.
If your hair was cut by a professional barber or hair stylist instead of your parent. (My mom gave me every hair cut I had until I left for college.)

My family, at least until my parents split up when I was in junior high, was pretty much in the middle of the middle class. At least, if you examined us as a unit. What this list brings out was the class divisions within my family.

Let me explain by getting a bit personal. Between the time her parents divorced -- when she was just a few years old -- and her mother married a very wealthy cattle rancher -- when she was in high school -- my mother grew up poor. And she returned to the life of poverty after being effectively disowned by her mother when she was 18, and didn't really achieve a middle-class lifestyle again until my father was done with school and earning a decent income, in her early 30s. My parents divorced when she was in her late 30s or early 40s (I'm too lazy to figure out exactly how old she was at the time), and, while she's had some successful years since then, her income has been extremely variable from year to year (as often happens with home businesses, especially ones that are closely tied into the state of the housing market).

So my mom has spent the vast majority of her life either poor or just barely in the middle class. My dad, on the other hand, came from an upper middle class family, and has never had to really worry about money at any point in his life. He hasn't always been able to afford every luxury he wanted, but he's never been worried about how to put food on the table or heat the house.

The biggest luxury in my dad's life has been his boat. He's had a sailboat since before I was born, and it has always absorbed a huge chunk of his income. So, while my parents were married and our family was right in the middle of the middle class, we sacrificed a lot of luxuries -- cable teevee, central air, two new cars, fancy vacations -- for the sake of the boat. This placed certain additional burdens on my mom: having to prepare most every meal, even when we were on vacation; having to split firewood to keep the house warm during the day; having to clean the house herself, instead of having a cleaner come in once a week while she sewed and spent time with her children; never getting her own new car; and so on. And, because of growing up in poverty, my mom also had a self-reliant attitude towards things like clothes and haircuts, and so happily took on even more work.

In short, in order for my dad to enjoy a hobby reserved for the upper-middle class, my mom took on the burdens of a lower-middle class mother. And yet, this list isn't sensitive to that class division within my family -- although, to be fair, it didn't really affect my class status.

January 22, 2008

The telos of the Randian humanum

I promise, this will be my last post on Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

As a eudaimonic theory, Rand's ethics is teleological: an action is good if, and only if, it contributes to or is part of a certain good end. This good end is eudaimonia, the good life. But what is this good life? Considering these questions reveals an equivocation in the Randian argument.

To be more specific, I want to look at a piece titled `Nozick and the Randian argument', by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. This piece was published in what is apparently a libertarian journal, The Personalist, in 1978. I like this piece better than anything I've actually read by Rand, as the argument is both more systematically worked-out and actually presented in premiss-conclusion form (although it's frequently unclear how their conclusions are supposed to follow from their premisses). I'm going to focus on just the following part of the argument, which is roughly the first half:

1) Life is an ultimate end, an end in itself, for any living thing.
2) To be a living thing and not be a living thing of a particular kind is impossible.
C1) Thus, life as the kind of thing it is is the ultimate value for each living thing.
4) A human being is that kind of living being which can be designated as a rational animal.
C2) Thus, life as a rational animal is the ultimate value for each person.
5) A rational animal is an animal whose mode of consciousness is characterized by ... conceptual awareness.
C3) Thus, conceptual awareness must characterize one who lives as a rational animal, and one only lives as a rational animal in so far as one engages in conceptual activity.
6) The conceptual mode of cognitive contact with reality is man's [sic] only means of determining how to deal with reality so as to sustain his own existence.
7) Actions taken in accord with judgments of how to deal with reality are man's only means of dealing with reality so as to sustain his own existence.
C4) Thus, living as a rational being means, minimally, acting in accordance with conceptual judgments.

Note that I've skipped some bits that weren't relevant to the subject of this post.

Initially, (1), life is understood simply as a matter of continued existence. It must be, because Rand is talking about living things in general here -- and the primary difference, Rand thinks, between living and non-living things is that the existence of the former is precarious. A living thing's existence can be terminated. Hence, she argues, it must act (voluntarily in some cases, involuntarily in others), in order to preserve its existence.

Moving on, in context, (4) is actually a conclusion derived from (5), (6) and (7). For now, ignore (2) and everything that follows from it -- focus just on the argument involving (1) and premisses (4)-(7):

1) Life is an ultimate end, an end in itself, for any living thing.
6) The conceptual mode of cognitive contact with reality is man's [sic] only means of determining [forming judgements of] how to deal with reality so as to sustain his own existence.
7) Actions taken in accord with judgments of how to deal with reality [so as to sustain one's own existence] are man's only means of dealing with reality so as to sustain his own existence.
5) A rational animal is an animal whose mode of consciousness is characterized by ... conceptual awareness.
[C2'] Thus, living as a rational animal is the only means by which a human can achieve her or his ultimate end.
4) [Thus,] A human being is that kind of living being which can be designated [defined] as a rational animal.

The argument to (4) narrows the scope: we're not just thinking about living things in general, but humans in particular. Unlike other living things, humans use rationality to survive. Note that (6) and (7) regard rationality in a purely instrumental way. In both of these premisses, rationality is a means to the end of sustaining one's existence. Rationality is the primary instrument by which humans achieve their ultimate end, viz., life, understood as simple existence. Call this the instrumental attitude towards rationality. Only bare existence is the end in itself, for the instrumental attitude.

(C2') bears some resemblance to (C2). Both speak of the importance of living as a rational animal for a human being. However, while (C2') reflects the instrumental attitude towards rationality of premisses (6) and (7), (C2) asserts that living as a rational animal constitutes the good human life. Call this the ethical attitude towards rationality. On the ethical attitude, humanity's ultimate ends are defined by the exercise of our capacities for rational thought.

Now, (C2) is supposed to depend on (4) and (C1). If I'm right, and (4) is, not a premiss, but a conclusion that depends on (6) and (7), then somehow the Randian argument has moved from the instrumental attitude to the ethical attitude. Maybe (C1) bridges this gap.

C1) Thus, life as the kind of thing it is is the ultimate value for each living thing.

No, clearly this is the ethical attitude. The move from the instrumental attitude must come earlier. Since (1) is ambiguous, the only place this move can be accomplished is at (2).

2) To be a living thing and not be a living thing of a particular kind is impossible.

This is again ambiguous. Here's another statement of (2), from elsewhere in the text:

It is impossible for a living being to be and not be a living being of some kind -- there is no such thing as unspecified life, ie, life existing in some abstract way. Thus, the nature of a living thing -- the kind of thing it is -- determines whether the life of the entity is achieved. (192-3)

The authors then go on to assert (C1). So the second quoted sentence is just a statement of (C1), with the ethical attitude. The first clause of the first sentence is (2), leaving the second clause, after the dash, to explain (2).

There are two problems with this explanation. First, it is built on a gross failure to understand the type/token distinction -- they have confused the general concept of life with all its instances. Compare this assertion with the following:

It is impossible for a human being to be and not be at some specific place -- there is no such thing as unlocated humanity, ie, humanity existing outside of space and time. Thus, the location of a human being -- its particular cultural context -- determines whether the life of the human being is achieved.

This conclusion is a sort of relativism that Rand strongly rejects. Second, the juxtaposition of the two sentences in the quotation shows that the move from the instrumental attitude to the ethical attitude is nothing more than an equivocation. Living being, in the first sentence, means bare life, mere continued existence, not flourishing. This has nothing at all to do with the normative notion of flourishing life in the second sentence. Consider the `unlocated humanity' passage again: the fact that every instance of humanity is located at some specific place in space does not imply that one's particular cultural context determines what it means for one to have a flourishing life.

January 21, 2008

My students think I want to kill them with pitchforks

I recently got back my student evaluations from last semester. Evidently, some of them thought my grading was a bit harsh.


For the record, there was no significant difference between my distribution of grades and those of the other five or so TAs.
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Christian =/= theocrat

I got home from school today to see numerous complaints on liberal and progressive blogs about a flyer the Obama campaign is putting out, featuring the phrase COMMITTED CHRISTIAN and quotations from Obama involving faith. There are also lots of comparisons to an ad the Huckabee campaign used a while back. I don't feel like copying and pasting all the various links, so I'll just point to Glenn Greenwald, who seems to have the clearest statement of the criticism.

the brochure seems designed ... to signify to South Carolina's many Christian voters that Obama is one of them and therefore should have their vote for President, much the way that Huckabee sought to court the evangelical vote that was so critical to the GOP Iowa caucus.

Right. Except for not-the-fuck-at-all.

Huckabee's ad, like the rest of his campaign, is meant to appeal to the theocratic sort of evangelical -- that kind of person that thinks the American legal system needs to be torn down and rebuilt according to his interpretation of the Bible. Aiming to destroy the secular and tolerant principles on which our system is based, the theocratic evangelical's political philosophy is profoundly illiberal. To put it a bit crudely, Huckabee is trying to attract the support of the Christian, capitalist-friendly version of the Taliban.

By contrast, the copy of the Obama ad sounds to me like a man who has grounded his desire to fight for social justice in Christianity. Which really shouldn't be objectionable, as such, especially on Martin Luther King Day.

The big difference between Huckabee's base and Obama's base is that the Christian theocrat wants to subvert liberal democracy, replacing it with an illiberal Christianist regime, while the Christian progressive's embrace of liberal democracy is based on her faith. Yes, they're both `Christians', but one's metaphysical beliefs are not the same as one's political philosophy.

Now, maybe you think that Obama really isn't as progressive as, say, MLK, much less Hillary Clinton, and that therefore the progressive Christian should vote for Clinton instead of Obama. But that argument has nothing at all to do with (a) whether Obama is a committed Christian, (b) whether Obama should be campaigning on that committment, or (c) whether doing so makes him somehow `like Huckabee'. Unless Obama's pamphlet is somehow supposed to suggest to voters that he's going to establish the Christian States of America, he's not at all like Huckabee.

And just because I can't get over the irony: We're having this dispute on Martin Luther King Day? Seriously?

January 20, 2008

Rand's eudaimonism

I've had the `pleasure' of reading a bunch of Ayn Rand this weekend, along a criticism (by Robert Nozick) and response (by two Objectivists) of the foundations of her ethics. The reading has mostly been quite annoying -- the arguments are usually imprecisely stated and blatantly invalid (conclusions that have nothing to do with their premisses), lots of failures to make important distinctions (and lots of space wasted on what seem to be quite unimportant distinctions), and some seeming inconsistencies (of the assert-P-on-page-n, assert-not-P-on-page-n+1 variety) and circularities.

Skip to the end of all that, though, cut away the business about life being the ultimate value and the vague appeals to `metaphysics', and what you have is basically an eudaimonist account -- an ethics based on the notion of a good life.* Rand's eudaimonia (which, for the purposes of this post, I'll treat as synonymous with both `happiness' and `good life') is characterised by individualist rationality - the exercise, by the individual, of her capacities for `conceptual judgement'. The best human life, then, is one in which the individual acts according to (or possibly just in accordance with) the judgements produced by the exercise of her own reason, without either forcible interference from others or herself forcibly interfering with the actions of others.

But is this coherent? Notice the addition of the qualifications in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Rand doesn't want to allow `parasites' to go around stealing the products of other people's hard work. Everything they have they should acquire by hard work and fair exchange. So eudaimonia, for X, consists not just in

(A) X acting according to X's reasoned judgements,

but also

(B) Y not forcibly interfering with X performing A, for all Y, and
(C) X not forcibly interfering with Y performing A, for all Y.

For A-C to be coherent, it must be the case that

(1) there can never be a X and Y such that X's reasoned judgement is to forcibly interfere with Y performing A.

(1) doesn't seem at all plausible. Suppose, first, that X's considered judgement is to assassinate Y. Certainly this would interfere with Y acting according to his reasoned judgements. In this case, A is incompatible with C, and (1) fails. Second, suppose that Z now gets involved, and, acting on her considered judgement, stops X. This case is even more problematic for Randian eudaimonia than the first, because now Z's forcible interference in X performing A, by preventing X from forcibly interfering with Y performing A, brings about C. That is, one violation of C is necessary for another instance of C. For a third example, identify Z with Y: X is attempting to assassinate Y, based on his considered judgements, but Y is attempting to stop X from assassinate her, based on her considered judgements. The considered judgements of these two individuals have lead to an impasse; it is impossible for either of them to lead a good life. (Compare these three scenarios to the following premiss in the Objectivists' response to Nozick: `In a social context, the initiation of physical force ... by one man against another serves to destroy the precondition for living the life of a rational animal, since acting upon one's judgment becomes impossible.')

How can Rand avoid these dilemmas? She could say that some people simply can't lead a good life -- X and Y are simply doomed. because of their conflicting interests. But Rand actively denies this. In `The ``conflicts'' of men's interests' (in The virtue of selfishness), Rand argues that such conflicts can never exist (though she completely fails to consider these sorts of possibilities, instead worrying about whether to save a drowning stranger and two people who are both competing for the same job).

The only other option I can see is to introduce qualifiers into (A). So eudaimonia, for X, will consist, in part, in X acting according to X's reasoned judgements, except when G. But, for G to function as an additional constraint on X's reasoned judgements, it must be something independent of those judgements. For other eudaimonists, these are community standards, or something similar -- if my reasoned judgements tell me to do something wildly out of line with the standards of my community, then I shouldn't follow through on them. Rand, of course, can't make this move, as it amounts to subordinating the individual to the community.

The only constraint Rand seems to be willing to countenance on an individual's actions is rational human nature. But this is not independent of X's reasoned judgements -- after all, they're the product of her rational human nature -- and hence cannot provide additional constraints on them, just as modus ponens is no additional constraint on an argument that is assumed to be logically valid. In order to solve the dilemmas, then, Rand needs an argument for (1). But this is where we started. Rand's options seem exhausted, and no progress has been made.

* If this is right, then Rand can be added to the list of twentieth-century female ethical thinkers that challenged the prevailing utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethics and political philosophy using an eudaimonist approach. Other thinkers on this list include GEM Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, Carol Gilligan, and Martha Nussbaum. Note that, as I understand things, of these six, only Gilligan and Nussbaum would be considered feminists.

An odd quantifier shift fallacy

I was flipping through the course packet for my Intro class this semester, and the professor included a chapter from some contemporary textbook. The chapter includes this paraphrase of Anselm's second ontological argument:

Premise 1: A being that cannot be thought of as not existing is greater than a being that can be thought of as not existing.

Therefore, if God can be thought of as not existing, then a greater being that cannot be thought of as not existing can be thought of.

Premise 2: God is the being than which nothing greater can be thought of.

Conclusion: God cannot be thought of as not existing.

Which is a little weird. But it's the ontological argument, so I guess weird shouldn't be a surprise.

Let Gxy abbreviate `x is greater than y' and Tx abbreviate `x can be thought of as not existing', and g name God.

(1) (x)(y)([-Tx & Ty] -> Gxy)
Therefore, Tg -> (Ex)(-Tx & Gxg)
(2) (x)(-Gxg)
Conclusion: -Tg

Even if we include both premisses in the inference to the `therefore', it's invalid. The hypothesis that God can be thought of as not existing does not imply that there is something which cannot be thought of as not existing. That is, a model in which only g exists, and g does T, is entirely consistent with (1).

One might try to read Anselm as instead arguing from

(1') (x)(Tx -> (Ey)(-Ty & Gyx))

Then the `therefore' follows by just instantiating the universal quantifier. Notice that (1') follows from the conjunction of (1) and

(1'') (x)(Tx -> (Ey)-Ty)

That is, `if something can be thought of as not existing, then something else cannot be thought of as not existing'. But what does the first clause have to do with the second? Maybe (just maybe) you can argue from the contingent-yet-actual existence of my chair to the existence of a necessary, first cause sort of being -- something had to cause my chair to be, and something had to cause that thing to be, and so on. But that won't work if the something is, say, my pet unicorn. Logically speaking, there's no reason to rule out the model with the empty domain -- in possible world terms, there's no reason given at this stage of the argument to rule out the possibility that nothing (not even God) exists.

January 17, 2008


From a DK diary, via Paul Krugman.

The UnFair Tax

I know I link to Ezra a lot, but well, he writes some good stuff. Anyway, he's got an article up about why Mike Huckabee's "Fair Tax" proposal is not very fair. Next week he's promising to have a post exploring some ways that you *could* do a fair consumption tax. I think it's a safe bet I'll be linking to those as well.

The Fountainhead is a piece of crap

I've studiously avoided Ayn Rand, but this semester I'm sitting in on a political philosophy seminar that's starting off with a nod to Rand's egoism. For the first meeting last night, we watched the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead. Rand personally adapted her novel to the screen -- indeed, at her insistence, the tedious and hyperbolic trial speech (running about 6 minutes, according to Wikipedia), was included in its entirety despite the director's desire to tighten things up. My review is below the fold.

First, the basic plot, for those of you lucky enough to have neither read nor seen this horrible novel and too lazy to read through the Wikipedia synopsis. Howard Roark is an uncompromising, individualist architect whose modernist designs are, besides being incredibly ugly, hated by the architectural establishment. Peter Keating is his parasitic conformist kind-of-friend and fellow architect, who is initially successful because of his mediocre talent and willingness to conform to the stylistic dictates of the establishment. Ellsworth Toohey is Roark's great nemesis -- the architectural columnist for The Banner, Toohey's desire is to control others by promoting a philosophy of conformity, mediocrity, and anti-individualism. Since Toohey cannot bend Roark to his will, he naturally wants to destroy Roark. Dominique Francon is Roark's love interest; more on her later. Gail Wynand is a newspaper magnate, editor-in-chief of The Banner. At the beginning of the narrative, Wynand has become wealthy and powerful by pandering to public opinion -- The Banner celebrates mediocrity and conformity, with Toohey as its public face. However, after encountering Roark, Wynand realises that uncompromising individualism is the only true virtue. While he endeavours to follow Roark's model, he is ultimately unsuccessful, and temporarily reverts to pandering to public opinion for the sake of his financial interests in the third act. For about half of the narrative, Wynand is married to Francon, despite her complete lack of affection for him.

In the first act, young Roark is spectacularly unsuccessful because of his unwillingness to compromise his unpopular designs, while Keating has rapidly risen to the top of the profession by embracing a mediocre and ugly design aesthetic. Roark is so unwilling to compromise his principles that he eventually takes a job in a quarry rather than produce ugly buildings. Meanwhile, Francon has withdrawn from a world of hideous mediocrity. Meeting Roark by chance, they are initially drawn to each other, but Francon is frightened of what a cruel, conformist world will do to an individual spirit, and withdraws. At the end of the first act, Roark receives a commission from an admirer of his work, a wealthy industrialist and `self-made man' who is otherwise unimportant to the plot.

The second act sees Roark's star rising. Toohey attempts to oppose Roark's success, inciting a public opposition campaign using his newspaper column -- a campaign which Wynand approves to increase the sales of his papers. This campaign is unsuccessful, and Roark receives commission after commission. Francon and Roark meet again, but again she is more worried about what society will do to an individualist spirit, and she runs off to Wynand. Several years later, with Roark a successful but controversial architect, Wynand commissions Roark to design his country home -- a `temple' to his wife. Wynand has complete forgotten the smear campaign against Roark, but Roark does not hold this against him. Wynand comes to admire Roark, and despite the romantic tension between Roark and Dominique, the three become close friends, a tightly-knit group of individualists. Peter Keating, meanwhile, has gradually lost his prominent position, and in a desperate bid to recover, agrees to attempt the design for a low-cost housing development. Due to his mediocrity, Keating is unsuccessful, and turns to Roark for assistance. Roark agrees, because solving the low-cost housing problem is something that happens to personally interest him (and not, in particular, out of any desire to help the destitute and homeless), but only if Keating does not allow the design to be compromised -- it must be built according to Roark's design, or not at all. Of course, this does not happen, and the establishment architects appropriate Roark's design `for the common good', modifying it. At the end of the second act, Roark destroys the nearly-completed development in an act of civil disobedience.

The third act focusses on Roark's trial. It is never clear exactly what the charges are supposed to be -- presumably, the destruction of the buildings owned by the developers -- but the two sides are Randian individualism versus the `collectivism' of the establishment. Toohey condemns Roark in the court of public opinion, Wynand betrays Roark by letting Toohey do it, but Roark triumphs in the end.

On to my analysis. In terms of a piece of literature and film, this thing is godsawful. The writing is stilted, hyperbolic, and repetitive, with all the subtlety of a brick in the face. Every single line is clearly intended to identify a character as either a noble individualist, a parasitic and contemptible conformist, or, in Wynand's case, torn between the two. To call the characters two-dimensional would be too generous. Every major character is either an annoying sycophant or an arrogant douchebag; none of them are in the least bit likable, but I suppose this is deliberate on Rand's part. Apparently we're supposed to admire the fact that Roark doesn't give a shit about anyone but himself. From a film standpoint, the acting is horrible, the music is overwraught, and the cinematography is listless and uninteresting. The passion between Roark and Francon is as smouldering and compelling as a bucket of water.

In philosophical terms, Rand is sort of the crib notes version of Nietzsche, only on steroids. Wikipedia gives a reasonable summary of Rand's individualism:

Rather than using "selfish" in describing choosing one's interests over and against the welfare of others, she described an act as "selfish" if it remained true to one's ideals against the influence of history and society. "Selflessness" is the concept of losing one's self, not merely acting without regard for one's self or in the interest of others, but as being unable to determine and form one's desires and opinions.

At least, this is what Rand says. She's not consistent in applying this, however. I'll illustrate this by examining each of the five major characters in turn. So, at best, this characterisation is an oversimplification.

Keating is the easiest: he is clearly shown to be unable to determine and form his own opinions and desires. However, he's not a villain; he's just contemptible and pathetic.

Roark is also supposed to be easy to categorise: he doesn't give a shit about other people's opinions at any point in the film, and therefore is a selfish hero.

But contrast Roark with Toohey, the great villain of the narrative. Toohey achieves greatness and power -- at least temporarily -- by manipulating the opinions and desires of others. But he clearly has his own opinions and desires. He's entirely selfish, in both the standard and Rand's sense: he chooses his own interests over and against the welfare of others (even as he appropriates this rhetoric for his own gain) and never compromises his principled, Machiavellian pursuit of power.

Furthermore, Roark's groupies -- Francon and Wynand -- should properly be seen as just as contemptible as Keating. They're identified as praiseworthy not for being individualists but because, unlike Toohey, they think Roark is the shiznit. The times when Wynand is portrayed negatively are especially telling: Wynand twice chooses to demonise Roark for the sake of maintaining his wealth and power as a newspaper mogul. Clearly, in these cases, he's acting according to his own desires and opinions -- like Toohey, he's choosing to pursue his own power according to his own best sense of the way to do that. So, like Toohey, he can't be fairly demonising for not being an individualist, because he acts in a selfish way (in both senses) consistently throughout the film. Rather, he's demonised when he doesn't kiss Roark's ass and sing his praises.

Francon's in a similar position. Up through the middle of the second act, Francon is portrayed as disgusted and fearful of the world. Roark's presence in her life, starting in the second act, finally gives her courage and purpose. She is clearly inspired by Roark's professions of individualism. That is, like Keating, she derives her desires and opinions from others -- Roark rather than Toohey -- and, hence, is no more of a true individualist than Keating. At the end of the second act, she happily risks her life to help Roark destroy the housing development, with no expectation of anything in return from him. Does that sound consistent with Rand's opposition to altruism to you?

Now, from comments Rand made throughout her life, it's clear that she identifies heavily with Roark and the other positively-portrayed selfish assholes of her works of fiction. Consequently, the real villains in Rand's universe aren't `conformists' or `collectivists'. They're other individualists who are Rand's rivals. Similarly, the real heroes aren't `individualists'. They're people with whom Rand identifies, and their groupies.

Rand's philosophy isn't individualist at all. It's a cult of personality, built around the worship of Ayn Rand, sycophantically praising her for her complete and utter assholitry.

January 16, 2008

Another Quick Note

Just in case anyone out there cares, I'm officially on Facebook these days. I must say that I do prefer it to Myspace, if only because I haven't come across any horrifically ugly modified pages and the site also has tons of games.

My Random Thought Of The Day

Hey, when you're walking around with change in both pockets, does anyone else imagine that you're wearing spurs?

January 15, 2008

Let's just top that racism off with a nice big scoop of sexism, too


Though women and men have roughly the same credit scores, the Consumer Federation of America found that women were 32 percent more likely to receive subprime loans than men. The disparity existed within every income and ethnic group. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to get subprime loans than comparable white borrowers.

Unlike earlier analyses that revealed clear racism on the part of lenders -- Black and Latin@ applicants were actively encouraged by loan officers to apply for larger mortgages than White applicants of the same income and credit score, and hence got worse terms for their loans -- this article does not suggest explicit racism. Instead, blame is laid on the fact that women are generally poorer than men.

Which is rather dumb, since the analysis controls for income.

“The striking thing is that the disparity between men and women actually goes up as income rises,” said Allen J. Fishbein, director of credit and housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America. Among high earners — defined as people earning twice the median income — black women are as much as five times more likely to receive subprime mortgages than white men.

A better explanation? Not structural sexism, but good old fashioned misogyny.

Mr. Fishbein said that even at high-income levels, mortgage brokers may assume that women are less confident to negotiate or shop around, and so offer them higher rates. A survey in 2006 by Prudential Financial found that two-thirds of women graded themselves at C or lower in their knowledge of financial services or products.

The payments rates are astounding. One woman bought a $130k house four years ago. Her initial payment was $841 a month, which is about 0.65% of the principle. Assuming a 30 year mortgage, at that payment she would pay the bank just under 232% of the principle. But her payment more than doubled after 2 years, to $1769 a month. That's 1.36% of the principle. Over 30 years, she would pay the bank just under 472% of the principle, or about $613.6K.

Nearly two-thirds of a million dollars, for what sounds like a dinky little townhouse in a lower middle class neighbourhood. At an average $15 an hour, 40 hours a week, 51 weeks a year, it would take someone 20 years worth of work just to earn that much money. That's half of your life's wages, just to buy a house.

And lest you argue that `they shouldn't be buying a house if they can't afford it':

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which buy loans from mortgage lenders, have estimated that 15 percent to 50 percent of the subprime loans they bought in 2005 went to borrowers whose credit scores indicated they were qualified for prime loans.

Yes, they couldn't afford the usurious subprime loans. But their credit scores say a significant percentage could have afforded prime loans.

January 14, 2008

A Project!

It's been a good long time since I set any kind of blogging goal for myself, but I think I've found one. Ezra has an interesting review up at the Barnes & Noble web site of Larry Sabato's A More Perfect Constitution. Now, I haven't the book, though it certainly sounds interesting, but the central premise is that the Constitution is horribly out of date and should be replaced by an entirely new version composed at a constitutional convention. While I agree with Ezra that a constitutional convention in our modern world of politics is a potentially scary thought indeed, I am rather intrigued by what I might put into my own Constitution if I was given the reigns.

So here's the plan: I'm going to work my way through the Bill of Rights first because it's the most fun part and therefore the part most likely for me to actually do before my mind wanders. I don't think any of the Amendments are perfect, so I'll be changing all of them at least a bit. After the Bill of Rights I'll pick and choose which Amendments to discuss (I think it hardly needs mentioning that it's unnecessary to include or discuss prohibition and its repeal). If by some monumental stroke of luck I manage to make it this far I'll start my way through the Constitution proper. I have no idea what kind of timeline this is going to be on, but hopefully the posts will be at least weekly.

Oh, and I'm also going to want lots of feedback from you guys, particularly points of disagreement.

Back from vacation

and what a shitty vacation it was. Blogging to resume when I feel less mildly depressed about the state of the world and my place in it.

January 11, 2008

Preventable Deaths

Ezra's got a great post about the 101,000 people that have died from preventable illnesses between 1998 and 2002. And I heard nearly all the Republican candidates wax poetic about how we have the greatest healthcare system in the world. Link.

January 07, 2008

Request A Song

Hey Rock Banders, did you know that if you sign up for a profile on the Rock Band Community page you not only get information on your bands, but you can request songs for downloadable content. I really really really wanted to request a Dream Theater song, but ultimately decided it'd be just too damn hard to adapt to the game, particularly on the drums. Damn you Portnoy! Anyway, as a second choice I went with William Shatner's version of "Common People". Link.

Post your picks in the comments!

Here are my runners up:
Alice Cooper - Feed My Frankenstein
Anthrax - Catharsis
The Arcade Fire - Rebellion (Lies)
The Blasters - Dark Night
Boston - Peace of Mind
Bruce Dickenson - Chemical Wedding
The Cars - Just What I Needed (also, My Best Friend's Girl would rock)
Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing
Jethro Tull - Aqualung
Jonathan Coulton - Code Monkey
Journey - too many to choose from, but let's go with Any Way You Want It
The Killers - Mr. Brightside
Led Zepplin - Immigrant Song
Metallica - Master of Puppets (I think we're actually going to get this whole album)
Prince - Kiss
Pink Floyd - Have A Cigar
Porcupine Tree - Trains
Queen - Flash Gordon Theme
Queensrÿche = Jet City Woman
Santa Esmeralda - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Stevie Ray Vaughn - Mary Had A Little Lamb
Tito and Tarantula - Angry Cockroaches
The Trap - Big Girls
Trey Parker - America, Fuck Yeah

January 06, 2008

A Few Things

The Perry Bible Fellowship is the best web comic I've discovered in a long time. Link.

Gilbert Arenas cheats at Halo 3. Link.

Rez (a precursor to Guitar Hero and Rock Band) is coming to Xbox Live Arcade soon. Link.

January 04, 2008

One More Quesada

CBR has a five part interview with Joe Quesada, (1, 2, 3, 4) the last of which should be available some time later today. They discuss the recent and very controversial Spiderman story (at least among internet nerds) One More Day and it's followup, Brand New Day. There's all kinds of drama surrounding this thing, from Quesada's long stated hatred of Peter Parker being married to Joe Straczynski's online statement that his final two scripts were altered to the point that he asked for his name to be removed from the book. It's all been a pretty interesting look behind the scenes of a big comics event, but I have to say that though I haven't read the actual book, the more I read about this the more I tend to side with Quesada. I may not agree with him all the time, but he always seems quite reasonable to me.

January 02, 2008

Ron Paul

I've been annoyed during this presidential run by some of the support that Ron Paul has been getting from some young left leaning people who clearly don't understand that Paul's not just running against the war in Iraq. He's got the full suite of libertarian ideas and most of those would be pretty terrible in practice, but when he's on a stage next to most of the jokers in the Republican primary he seem pretty reasonable. Anyway, Ezra voices this frustration in a much more reasoned way. Link.