So, big Ayn Rand 1 fan here. Big. Bulbous. I’ve worn out many a pillow fantasizing over that woman.
No, seriously, though, I just got done reading a couple of the new Ayn Rand bios that came out…what…the other year? And it struck me how interesting it was that her philosophy came to be embodied in an organization — a collective, a group — that negated the very values it espoused.
What’s even more ironic is that the group dynamics of the self-parodically named Rand Objectivist “Collective” functioned exactly like those of Left Wing extremists (i.e. Communists/Marxists) in Japan [famously reconstructed in the movie “光の雨”] and elsewhere — down to show trials and excommunication. All that didn’t happen in Rand’s case was people getting physically beaten and/or killed, they just got yelled at a lot, and people who didn’t go to boarding school are surprising fragile in the face of verbal abuse. I’m telling you, go to boarding school, you will not give a ###k. Actually, that’s probably not universally true; I crumble quite neatly when scolded.
We’re not done yet. This is the Internet and so Godwin’s Law applies. What’s even more ironic is that the Nazi military (or, the German military under the Nazis), the Wehrmacht or whatever they insisted on calling themselves instead of using a perfectly Germanic English name, for reasons of expediency, became really ethnically diverse in its recruiting. Think about it: an army built around a belief system so rigid that not even Russians were blond enough to escape its wrath…ended up looking suspiciously like a United Colors of Benetton ad.
You’ve got to love the contradictions and object-lesson-like paradoxes of history; if you wrote some of this stuff as fiction, nobody would believe you.
OK, so…today’s lesson, kids, is this:
AJATT can and, left unattended, will become a cult or cult-like if you follow it to the letter (and humor alone will not save the day). You don’t have to be a male genital organ about it, but never withdraw your right to give me, or any idea I share with you, the figurative finger. More importantly, never stop reading other people’s ideas, many of which will be bad and bad for you, yes, but some of which will be good. In a way, the cure for bad information is more information, especially random, weird, outside-the-“outside-the-box”-box, serendipity-prone information. That is, not merely an increase in information quantity (which, by itself, actually starts to be bad for you relatively quickly), but an increase in the number of different qualities of information — the spread, if you will…basically, ecleticism.
Ayn Rand didn’t herself develop a cultus, but she did permit it to grow and, not being a man, she was ungentlemanly to her inner circle. Oh, zing. No, women and minorities are great. (Also, to be fair, she was tired of getting trolled by the both sides of the political spectrum, so she enjoyed the safe space; it really is a shame, because she and Hayek and Friedman should have been BFFs, but instead she was kinda isolated from them. In fact, if you think about it, Rand got trolled for almost every major thing she ever was, did or believed: trolled for being Jewish, trolled for her father’s economic success, trolled for thinking capitalism is a good idea, trolled for her absence of religious belief…).
Anyway, for real, though, this is yet another irony of many groups and organizations: not only do they rapidly violate their own central dogma, but it’s almost never the top person that turns them cultish, it’s the followers, usually led by a lieutenant of some kind. Rules are enforced top-down, but the demand for rules in the first place is almost a always bottom-up phenomenon. Think of your friend who’s always going: “there should be a law/for against that…” without engaging her second-order thinking to realize that the morass of existing laws, enforced and unenforced, is part of the problem to begin with.
Money, of which I am also a fan, is valuable because we believe in it. Similarly, cults are cultish because people, the followers, the underlings, insist on giving up their autonomy; they demand it; they demand rigidity, calling it “structure” and “discipline”; they demand that their freedom and dignity be taken away — and if you can’t take these away from them, they’re gonna go find someplace that will. They want that stern, tough, “fatherly” love and if you don’t convincingly give it to them (passing their “crap-tests” of your resolve), they will find someone that does.
You see it everywhere. A friend of a guy I read a lot of, once said (and I paraphrase): “after birth, most human beings spend their lives looking for a new place to plug in their umbilical cord”.
You see it everywhere. That’s why hardcore sects are more lastingly popular than loosey-goosey ones. 2 It’s sort of like BDSM (betcha didn’t see that coming!); M especially. A lot of people can’t seem to get their (morality) fix if someone isn’t giving it to them hard; it has to hurt for it to feel good to them. You see the same in medicine and exercise; many people like painful workouts and side-effect-laden medications; nothing else feels “real”.
You see it everywhere. Kids who loudly and openly rebel often want someone to come down hard on them: if they didn’t want that, they’d just go have their fun quietly. One can drink, drug, hump and cut school very discretely without drawing attention to oneself if one so chooses.
And I’m no different, really. I jump from one conviction (in a method or theory of set of ideas) to the next. And that certainty that mental frameworks — “thought systems” — can provide is like a security blanket; there you are, all wrapped in a warm tortilla, heated by the zeal of a convert. But I think that that may be key — the jumping part. Perhaps you want to be a true believer long enough and deep enough to benefit from (and empirically test) the ideas, but not so long that you are damaged by them and lose your autonomy for real.
Externally imposed (and thus coercive) information control of any kind, from any source, I think, is the big red flag. Never let anyone, friend, family or troll, force you to read or not read anything — and they will try if you let them; they so effing will; the areligious fundamentalists (of which the Communists were one type) will do it; the religious fundamentalists will do it; your hockey buddies will do it; your effing book club will do it; they (or some subset of them) will attempt to mock, browbeat or actually just beat you into reading or not reading what they want. And you must never, ever give in. Not for one moment. Control of your body is imprisonment; control of your mind is slavery. So, perhaps in all things, but especially in your reading list, by all means take suggestions, take advice, but not orders, especially not exclusionary orders.
Like, I think it was some Swedish guy who once said: people talk a lot about freedom of speech and exercising it, but the real freedom that is in danger (and rarely exercised) is freedom of thought.
Control of your body is imprisonment; control of your mind is slavery.
Obviously, some information is bad for you. We know reading the news is bad for you. But it’s one thing for you to choose, freely, to not read the news, and another thing altogether for someone to force that upon you and block your access to it. It’s one thing for you to choose to go to bed early and another thing for a boarding school to use force and lighting arrangements to make you bed early. The result looks similar but it’s totally different on the inside; it’s like the difference between healthy-slim people and eating-disorder-slim people: they can look the same, but they are totally different on the inside.
Jon Biesnecker called it the Tyranny of a Single Source of Information. And this is perhaps the worst and most common form of tyranny in the world today. It’s the worst because schools promote it and schools are common, so it seems “normal”; it seems asymptomatic, thus making it difficult to detect.
The AJATT method, and any other method, must not be your only source. For two reasons:
1) Actual Bad Information: The things that I’m wrong about
a) The things that don’t work for you
b) The things that I didn’t know about when writing
2) Omissions of Good, Qualifying, Contextual Information: The things that I’m right about, but take for granted when writing and so neglect to spell out; these are things that would qualify and clarify statements that, lacking qualification and clarification, you (rightly) misconstrue.
(1) is obvious. (2) is the reason dots fail to connect. (2) is the reason why so many people have trouble with mathematics in school — skipped steps, suppressed premises, gaps in logic that appeared self-evident to the instructor. (2) is the reason people spin their wheels — working hard, suffering and getting nowhere.
So, let’s bring it back down to language-learning: maybe pick up a textbook from time to time. Do it. You might even learn something. That’s not sarcasm, by the way. As anti-textbook as AJATT (justifiably) is, it is for this very reason that you need to pick up a textbook now and then, just to shake things up a little. To show you what sucks and to help you as well, because no one is immune to good ideas. And no one is immune to bad ones either. 3
- To tell you the truth, I knew literally nothing about her until an AJATTeer mentioned her because I once wrote a blog post that had a title that was eerily similar to that of one of her later non-fiction books. Since I don’t like reading fiction (except comic books and sci-fi short stories, and Asimov’s Foundation, which reads like a short story), I read the Cliffs’ Notes of her novels, then read her non-fiction directly. But she did say a lot of cool stuff. And a lot of nonsense, too: she was a woman I mean human being after all 😛 . Oh, you chicks like it, don’t act like you don’t like it. ↩
- So, for example, shooting in the dark, without looking at actual stats to check this out, I would bet that Reform Judaism, on the whole, for most people, will probably never be any more than a transition phase out to full-blown secularism or into various levels of deeper orthodoxy; anecdotally, it seems that even non-believing Jewish people find orthodox practice more fulfilling. Ditto for Unitarianism.
It’s often suggested that Rand was a moral absolutist because, ultimately, she was culturally Russian — thus grim, verbose and melancholy — and had no grasp of Anglo-Saxon humor and negotiated compromise of the kind that brought about constitutional monarchy in the UK. I call BS on that. First of all, England’s king was beheaded, too. Secondly, human beings in general hate middle ground because it feels too shaky. And it doesn’t stir the blood; it doesn’t inspire. Case in point: “All Japanese All The Time” is a misnomer, but “Some Japanese All The Time” or “Plenty of Japanese, Young Man!” just…yeah. Human beings only ever settle on middle ground out of fatigue.
More cases in point: Mormons hate “moral relativism” much more then they hate Baptists; Baptists hate Mormons for “not being Christians” much more than they hate Buddhists and Muslims for “not being Christians”; people hate what is closer much more than what is far away — during the Troubles, Catholic and Protestant Northern Irelanders would fight each other long before they’d fight Japanese people. Mac and PC people hate each other more than they hate people who don’t use computers at all.
People hate what is closer much more than what is far away. And so middle ground is hated because it is also close. So close, but so far. A bisexual girl-friend of mine tells me that many lesbians she meets actively dislike bi-girls for being “traitors” and “not picking a side”. ↩
- Indeed, everything you’ve just read might be completely wrong. From immunology, for example, we learn that weaker diseases — that spread fast but do not kill — stick around longer; killing your hosts isn’t smart. Similarly, it’s been suggested, within the now-unpopular (and even, it seems, semi-discredited?) field of memetics, that cults need to strike a balance between strictness and mass suicide.
OK, screw all this big talk. We’re not going to come to any conclusions here; we’re not going to make the Good Society by dinnertime tomorrow (although we do have plenty of Good Enough Societies around the world already) because we, as a species, haven’t quite yet figured out how to do it (or how to do it and keep it safe and stable long enough to not get overrun and lost to history) yet.
PS: I didn’t get into it here, but groups explicitly built around philosophies and ideas are not the only ones subject to dynamics that are antithetical to all their core beliefs and purposes. It happens in, of all places, ostensibly for-profit companies all the time, and with stunning regularity. There’s no logical reason that any large company should fail to turn a profit; there’s no shortage of manpower or smart ideas. That, then, leaves the illogical reasons: companies fail make money because they spend the better part of their time and energy doing things that don’t make money and forcibly disallowing things that do.
PPS: Don’t even get me started about what educational institutions do to learning…
PPPS: If you want a book that’s got smart science, smart economics, smart sociology, no dogma and no utopianism — Rand without the fat and bitterness, Hayek without economese — try Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves”. ↩