Thursday, September 8, 2016

Strange Bed Fellows, or, Why I Stopped Being an Objectivist

It is interesting what you find if you read enough web pages. Especially if you venture out of your political comfort zone and delve into the thoughts of those holding radically different political and economic views. Granted, I often do this solely to amuse myself with the bizarre beliefs of conspiracy theorists of the fringe -- or sometimes to indulge my love of science fiction, since it seems most sci fi criticism has been monopolized by the militant social justice set -- but I also do find it is informative to look into what the mainstream left is saying as well. As you can see in my essay "Both Sides Now" it sometimes reveals some very interesting aspects of our current political climate.

So it should come as no surprise that I found myself reading some thoughts about literary trends on an avowedly communist site. In this case, it was actually the second interest I was indulging, my love of science fiction, though once I found the author's political bias, my interest began to become more political and less literary.

The writer in question was given to rather wordy musings, clearly modeled on a combination of literary criticism and communist polemic. (If you visit enough of these sites, you get a feel for the most common inspirations.) It was a little unusual in that the literary inspirations seemed less deconstuctivist and more mainstream (I swear the fellow was aping Borges in a few places.) but other than that, it was pretty much what you find on a dozen sites, and would not have been worth mention, and certainly not worth a whole essay, were it not for a single argument.

The author, it seems, is less than pleased with the modern fascination with dark, depressing themes, with the modern fascination with "downbeat" endings, and with the modern love of antiheroes*. In his thinking, "utopian fiction" is a lost art, and one he laments at great length. His argument is pretty simple, and yet strangely familiar. That utopian fiction, by painting a picture of a world which is better than this, or which is made better through the actions of its protagonists, inspires readers with the belief that this world can be better, or, even more important, that their actions can help to make this world better.

There was more, some of it pretty silly. He seemed convinced the powers that be were manipulating modern literature to suppress utopian writers, lest there be a challenge to the status quo, and put forth a few other, equally loopy beliefs, but his main premise, that fiction should be written to inspire action, seemed oddly familiar.

Then it struck me, the same argument, couched in very different terms, had been one of the main reasons I had rejected Objectivism. Rand, in her writing on art, had posited that art existed for purely functional reasons, that it was designed only to inspire man to higher goals, and thus fiction, and all representative art, should serve an essentially propaganda purpose (not her words, but mine), motivating him to greater achievements, and thus should be centered on a heroic ideal, with the good always triumphant.

As I said, this argument was one of the first ones that turned me against Objectivism. Not just because I disagreed with the premise -- as a fan of Greek tragedies, I can see value in more than the simplistic exultation of heroes -- but also in that it pointed out to me just how much of Objectivist philosophy was far from objective. That a good deal of it amounted to Rand taking her own personal prejudices (eg her fondness for tap dance) and making them into supposedly objective truths, which her believers accepted without question.

I admit, I have my own objections to the modern style of fiction, I find a lot of it quite puerile and believe much of it amounts to little more than the output of over-aged adolescents. But that does not mean Rand is right. To my mind, it is telling that she and a communist reach the same conclusion, that art is supposed to serve, not as any sort of inquiry, or explication, but rather should have a purely propaganda purpose, that it must serve solely as a means to inspire those actions they find suitable. It is another sign of just what I find troubling about Objectivism. While their economic theories are largely correct (there are a few border cases where Rand confuses her values with truth there as well**), once we move out of economics (and to a lesser degree epistemology) her whole school of philosophy begins to resemble more and more precisely what is wrong with most authoritarian beliefs, the tendency to confuse personal values with absolute truths. (See "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism".)

It is a bit ironic, that the woman who inspired me to reject my youthful belief in communism, and inspired any number of people to faith in freedom and the free market, was herself prone tot he same errors as those authoritarians she refuted, yet it is quite true. I suppose there is a lesson there, though. No matter how clever one may be, how many points one may get right, even the most clever can still make mistakes, and we should be careful lest we confuse genius in one area with infallibility***.

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* I discussed this in "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Faux "Realism"", "Faux "Maturity"", "Disturbing Entertainment, Ethnic Quotas and Distorted Views of Pop Culture - A Potpourri of Post Topics", "Reflexive Medium Goes Mainstream", "Cranky Old Man?", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Mapping the Changes in Hollywood", and "Inversion of Traditional Values".

** I discussed one such example in "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices".

*** This is what I call the Linus Pauling mistake. It is not as common a belief as it once was, but there are still a number who think vitamin C will help cure colds and other ailments. The fact is, no science supports this, but rather it came from a personal belief of Linus Pauling. As I said, it is completely baseless, but since Pauling was such a brilliant man, many believed his claims for vitamin C, even without evidence, and thus, for decades afterward, people continued to think it was a cure, despite science completely denying it. See "Intellect and Politics", "Prestige and Truth" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (February 22, 2015)".

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