Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ayn Rand's weird obsession with a killer

As much as I have come to dislike Ayn Rand, I was initially hesitant to believe this story about her idolization of a murderer. But it seems pretty well sourced.

As revealed in a book of Rand's journals, when she was about 23 she wrote of her admiration for a fellow named William Hickman, who was executed by hanging in 1928. Rand quoted Hickman saying "What is good for me is right," while stating her feeling that this was "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard."

Why was Hickman executed? Well, long story short, it turns out that he kidnapped the twelve year old daughter of a wealthy banker, and sent several taunting ransom notes over the next several days. When the father finally paid the ransom, Hickman returned the girl.

In pieces. He took the money, threw the upper half of her body in the street, and drove away. He then eluded capture for about a week before being taken, tried, convicted, and executed.

Needless to say, Hickman became a deeply unpopular guy... but in recounting the incident, Rand said that the public's hatred was "because of the man who committed the crime and not because of the crime he committed."

She went on to say: "The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the 'virtuous' indignation and mass-hatred of the 'majority.'... It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal..."

Um, no. Most people don't have worse skeletons in their closet than murdering a little girl, chopping her into pieces, and throwing those pieces at the distraught parent. And it's not loathsome to hate a guy who would do that. I don't know about you, but to suggest that public outrage over a genuinely outrageous act is somehow wrong indicates an extremely backwards ethical system to me.

Also interesting to me is where Rand idolizes his, er, "unconventional" lifestyle choice by denouncing a typical life thus: "What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career..."

To me this suggests nothing so much as one of those hideous Christian sermons where the preacher proceeds to ridicule and dismiss anything that might serve as contributing value and meaning to a person's life outside the religion. You know... "Human relationships aren't reliable; your friends will abandon you. You'll work for 40 hours a week at a soul crushing job that will leave you feeling empty until you retire, impoverished and alone..." Etc. Nothing gives your life meaning, of course, except Jesus Christ.

It's a profoundly negative message, because many people DO find satisfaction and fulfillment in careers, relationships, hobbies, and other worldly pursuits. But religions do their best to rip that satisfaction away and leave people feeling like they'll be miserable without the current product being sold. I was just reading a few chapters of "The Conquest of Happiness" by Bertrand Russell, in which he praised the possession of a zest for life, finding joy in even the trivial things that you like doing.

Rand's worship of her perceived "superman" always seems to have come at the cost of a certain overall contempt for most of mankind -- who, it seems, are constantly being portrayed as deserving to die in a train wreck, or have their kids murdered by superior men.

Friday, March 13, 2009

From Russell the Blogger

Just a random observation: lately I've grown very fond of referring to people in conversations as "[First name] the [Occupation]".  I started doing it ironically when Joe the Plumber was a running political joke.  But now I'm starting to like it. It's useful shorthand for referencing someone who is not known to the audience; it establishes both their name and function.  That way I almost never need to answer followup questions about who I'm talking about and why.

Thus, people at work are "Susanne the Analyst," "Gary the Boss," "Yolanda the Carpooler," etc.  Then I've got Elliott the Contractor, Dan the Financial Adviser, Calvin the Friend of Ben, and so on.

By the way, be sure to check out my recent post about Ayn the Author.  ;)

Oh please don't go

I just read a great story about people who want to "Go John Galt" (like in the book Atlas Shrugged) but appear to be completely unclear of the concept.

None of the people Dr. Helen interviews is actually Going Galt. More to the point, neither is Dr. Helen. She claims to be "mulling over ways that she can "go Galt". Allow me to help her out (along with Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, et al.) To Go Galt, she should:

(a) Identify those things that she does that are genuinely creative and productive. If there aren't any, then the fact that it will be difficult for her to Go Galt is the least of her problems.

(b) Refuse to do those things in any way that allows society at large, as opposed to a small circle of like-minded individualists, to benefit from them.

It really is that simple. If she and the other bloggers who are calling on people to "Go Galt" don't do this, the only explanations are that they don't have the guts to do what they are encouraging others to do, or that they recognize that nothing they do counts as creative or productive, or that they just aren't thinking about what they write.

This is great comedy, see. At least in Atlas Shrugged, the people who packed up and left society were people who actually did stuff. They made steel, they ran railroads, they were engineers and inventors and manufacturers.

The people who are now saying "Let's leave and they'll all be sorry!" aren't even successful in Randian terms. They're pundits, untalented entertainers, professional bloggers, belief-tank chairmen, and people who make a living by shuffling small green pieces of paper around from one place to another.

Having such people withdraw from society is an empty threat. It's Douglas Adams' B-Ark. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, the planet of Golgafrincham got rid of a useless segment of their population by telling them that the planet was about to be destroyed. They led people to believe that the A-Ark would contain the scientists, inventors, artists, and thinkers; the C-Ark would contain the laborers; and the B-Ark would contain everyone else, such as insurance salesmen and management consultants.

There was no catastrophe. The people supposedly going on A and C arks stayed home, while the B-ark was programmed to crash land.

The people who now fantasize about "going Galt" have an inflated sense of their own importance to society, and few would be upset if they ran off to a similar fate.


While searching for references on this post, I discovered a post from yesterday by someone who had already made exactly the same connection.  I thought about killing this post, but hey, great minds think alike.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The targets of my shameless fanboyism

When I got to thinking about posts I could write on Castles of Air, I got to pondering cool stuff that I like.  There aren't a huge number of things that reduce me to shameless fanboy praise; normally I tend to be critical of even things I like.  However, there are certain topics where, if someone brings them up, I can't help jumping in and waxing poetic about their sheer awesomeness.  In no particular order except for my stream of consciousness, they are:
  • Joss Whedon
  • George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire
  • Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach
  • Douglas Adams
  • Back to the Future
  • Blizzard Entertainment
  • Valve Software
  • The Internet
  • Web 2.0
  • Senator Al Franken
  • PZ Myers
  • Star Control II
  • Steve Meretzky's A Mind Forever Voyaging
  • Richard Feynman
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic
  • Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime
  • Jon Stewart
  • Most books by Ken Follett
  • Jim Henson
  • Chuck Jones
  • W.A. Mozart
  • Gilbert & Sullivan
  • Rachel Maddow
  • Portable music devices + Podcasts
...I think that about does it.

Actually there are quite a lot of them, I guess.


    I'm trying not to neglect this blog entirely, so here's a few tidbits for you.

    Latest posts on Castles of Air:
    Also: Response to Chuck Colson at the Atheist Experience (roughly 8 months in the making)

    What's up with me:

    I am getting my house ready to sell.  It's mostly painted, and my contractor is working on redoing some of the floors this weekend.  We had a garage sale this weekend, in which I sold much stuff which originally cost thousands of dollars altogether for 1, 5, or 10 bucks each.  It was, um, not fun.  Hard work and kind of demoralizing, but the end result (besides a couple hundred bucks to pay the contractor) is that most of the loose stuff that was in my house is now largely gone, organized, or ready to sell to Half Price Books or Craig's List bargain hunters.  I guess it's a little liberating.

    I'm still holding onto my job in Temple and even sort of liking it.  The work is very purpose-driven at the moment: we have a laundry list of short feature requests from a client, and we're working through these with the intent of making them happy, as well as preparing to show off the improvements to a bunch of other buyers.  I feel valued professionally, which is a good feeling.  That will be confirmed if I get hired full-time in April.