Philosophy – Page 3 – God of the Machine
Aug 062003

The first anthropological survey of Objectivism was Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. This, so far as I know, is the second, and a good deal of field work has gone into it. Some of my best friends are Objectivists, and most of the others are recovering Objectivists. I’ve been to Objectivist boot camp, twice, and met most of the high-ranking clerisy at one time or another.

Objectivism attracts a disproportionate number of Jews, to put it mildly. The original Objectivists were the group, including Alan Greenspan, that gathered around Ayn Rand while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. They called themselves “The Collective” (a term fraught with too many layers of irony for me to parse in a single paragraph), and every last one was Jewish. A WASP Objectivist friend of mine once asked Michael Berliner, the chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, how many non-Jewish Objectivists there were. “Only you,” Berliner said.

It is also surprisingly popular with homosexuals, despite Objectivism’s at best ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. The Internet is lousy with gay Objectivist and Rand-influenced blogs. It makes sense if you think about it. Jews and homosexuals are rootless and persecuted minorites who are logically attracted to tradition-busting philosophies. Objectivism is one; communism, in which they are also prominently represented, is another. The role of the Jews in the International Communist Conspiracy is well-known, and we oughtn’t to forget that three of the Cambridge Four — McLean, Burgess, and Blount — were homosexual.

Objectivists exhibit an odd cognitive dissonance about drugs — not their legalization, of course, but their use. The majority opposes them vigorously, on the grounds that man must be in full focus as often as possible and that drugs are a form of “blank-out.” But there is a good-sized pro-dope faction as well, although they usually know enough to keep quiet about it. Even Dagny Taggart and John Galt imbibed on occasion, illicit drugs are human inventions after all, and if we can improve on our natural state, well, why not? Several Objectivists of my acquaintance used to drop Ecstasy together every weekend. They had all carefully worked out their “Randian” rationalizations, of which “psychic lube job” was the briefest.

My predecessor Tuccille has many of the other details right. The early Objectivists, as he points out, did an awful lot of smoking, including almost every one of The Collective. After all, Ayn Rand smoked herself (from a holder, natch), as do all the heroes in Atlas Shrugged: the enduring symbol of Galt’s Gulch is the cigarettes stamped with the dollar sign. And Tuccille’s anecdote about Murray Rothbard and his unregenerate Catholic wife is true to the spirit of The Collective if not, perhaps, the fact:

Well, if Murray Rothbard’s wife was a Christian there could only be one logical explanation for it: she had obviously never read Ayn Rand’s proof that a Supreme Being does not, will not, and could not exist. Ever.

[Nathaniel] Branden hustled her into an adjoining room and sat her down at a desk with a handful of Rand’s anti-God essays. Joey, relieved to be out of earshot of all this talk of second-handers and floating concepts, pored over the pamphlets while the meeting continued in the other room. When she completed her assignment and returned to the gathering, the drone of conversation suddenly stopped and she found herself skewered by twenty pairs of drilling eyes.

Branden took the initiative. “Well?”

“I found it all very interesting, Nathan.”

“She found it very interezting.” Branden repeated the information to the others at no extra charge. “Anything elze?”

“The arguments are very good, but I’m still not an atheist if that’s what you’re getting at.”

Rand decided to take over. This was unquestionably a matter that demanded her personal intervention. “You haf read ze proofs?”

“They’re all very good and thought-provoking, Ayn. But you don’t shake a lifetime of religious faith with a few articles. I’ll have to think about it for a while.”

“You haf read ze proofs and you ztill inzist on wallowing in your mindless myztizizm? Faith is irrational which means…”

“Which means zat faith is immoral,” said Branden.

“Which means it is anti-life,” said [Leonard] Peikoff.

“Which means it is anti-man,” said [Robert] Hessen.

“Which means it is anti…anti…” said Barbara Branden, searching for a suitable phrase.

Zose z’s in Branden’s speech are not typos either. Yes, Nathaniel Branden, Canadian-born, went so far as to affect a Russian accent. Anyone who doubts it can hear the evidence on the tapes of his early lectures at the modestly-named Nathaniel Branden Institute. Tuccille notes elsewhere that Rothbard probably fell away from Objectivism because he was tired of hearing his name pronounced “Rossbot.”

Still, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand is over thirty and shows its age. The Rachmaninoff-loving all-black-dressing dollar-sign-pin-wearing chain-smoking Objectivist of the mid-60s has gone the way of the dodo. There is no longer one type of Objectivist, if there ever was. In fact there are four.1

1. Protractor. Protractor couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand the novelist, but Ayn Rand the philosopher drives him crazy. He can’t beat the arguments and is too honest to ignore them. Objectivism faintly embarrasses Protractor, like his Songs from the Wood CD, but not so much that he won’t adopt the philosophy or listen to the album. Protractor is second only to Bully-Boy in his familiarity with the Objectivist ouevre, which he picks over constantly in an effort to find something, anything, that he can quarrel with.

Protractor likes science; he is often a computer programmer. Only Protractor, because of his unfortunate habit of actually listening to arguments, can be converted to Objectivism as an adult. He has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, but he does admire Mr. Spock.

2. Bully-Boy. Bully-Boy read The Fountainhead at twelve and mastered the finer points of the Objectivist epistemology by the time he was old enough for high school. To establish his bona fides, Bully-Boy will hasten to assure you that he doesn’t agree with everything that Miss Rand said. A popular point of contention is her article arguing that no woman should be President of the United States because no self-respecting woman would want to be President of the United States. See? I disagree with that. I’m no slavish follower!

Bully-Boy proselytizes tirelessly, but only with Protractor does he get anywhere. His habits are solitary, largely because no one can stand him. His best friend, if he has one, is Twitchy, never another of his own kind. Often he will serve as consulting ideologist to a school of Sense-of-Life Guys.

Bully-Boy aspires to join the clerisy, among whom his favorites include Nathaniel “The Most Rational Man on Earth”2 Branden (pre-1968 only), Leonard “I’m Not the Pope”3 Peikoff, and Harry “I’m More Randian Than Miss Rand”4 Binswanger.

3. Sense-of-Life Guy. It’s all good for Sense-of-Life Guy, who finds in Ayn Rand an echo of his own child-like wonder at the marvels of the universe. His favorite Rand novel, being the shortest, is Anthem, and he has never quite managed to read Galt’s speech all through despite several desultory attempts. Sense-of-Life may not be much for literature but he is very fond of pictures, in which his taste runs to Maxfield Parrish and airy-fairy British academic stuff like Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema. He often paints himself, with predictable results.

Sense-of-Life Guy is the most gregarious of all Objectivists, and is often, though by no means always, an enthusiastic advocate of Better Living Through Chemistry. Sense-of-Life Guy has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, of whose very existence he is only dimly aware.

4. Twitchy. Twitchy has one overwhelming appetite that he hopes Objectivism, which seems to have all the answers, will either justify or cure. Sometimes it is for religion (“you haf read ze proofs?”), sometimes for drugs, sometimes for homosexual sex. He scours the Objectivist literature on his specialty, in which he is a match in learning even for Bully-Boy. A gay Twitchy once argued to me that it is “irrational” to choose a sex partner on the basis of gender because “one’s gender is not a moral choice.” Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer “got a light?”

Twitchy’s role model among the clerisy is David “Truth and Toleration” Kelley, ex-communicated for maintaining that it’s OK to argue with Marxists and Kantians. Twitchy always smokes. Wouldn’t you?

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have a sudden strange hankering to listen to Songs from the Wood.

1Men only. Objectivist women, in my experience, are perfectly normal.
2Rand’s description (pre-1968 only).
3I only act like him.

(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. Mg comments. Uruloki comments.)

Jul 312003

“In the adversity of our best friends we always find something that is not displeasing,” La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665, identifying Schadenfreude — “joy in adversity,” an almost literal translation of his aphorism — for the first time, although more general strictures against envy date back to the Ten Commandments and beyond.

The word, however, is inexact. Imagine one of your friends coming down with a terminal illness, or having a miscarriage, or being hit on the street by a falling piano. There certainly exist some people who are envious enough to wish, or bring, such catastrophes on others. Helmut Schoeck gives several grisly examples in his magisterial book Envy, like the German nanny who pushed a pram off a pier, drowning her charge because, according to her own account, she couldn’t bear the fact that she was childless. But I retain enough residual faith in human nature to doubt that the emotion is general, or even common.

It is failure, not mere bad luck, that universally gladdens the human heart. I have a friend who is a prolific and hopeless writer. Secretly I root for him to fail: his success would be further discouraging evidence of the inability of the world to distinguish bad writing from good. If he were a better writer I am sure I would root for him to succeed. I am rooting not for failure but for justice: the fact that my friend is involved is immaterial. Would I rather he fail then improve? Probably. Which is the ignoble part. Similarly, Michael Blowhard (yes, it’s all Blowhard all the time over here) marvels, with an unseemly touch of glee, in the improved attitude of waiters and store clerks in the wake of the crash. Mostly I think he just wants better service.

Schadenfreude runs especially high among professional colleagues, the best judges of what their fellows do and don’t deserve. On Wall Street hearts leapt when John Meriwether’s Long-Term Capital Management busted — and sank again when the government bailed them out. Other hedge fund managers rooted against Meriwether because he had been claiming to make 40% returns for years on virtually riskless bond arbitrage, which is impossible. In fact he had been gambling. To make 40% per annum you have to leave certain risks unhedged, and LTCM happened to be hugely exposed to the risk that a government would default on its own bonds. The Russians did so, and ka-boom. Now Meriwether was widely envied, among other things for being the hero of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. (In the famous scene from the book, Salomon chairman John Gutfreund proposes a game of liar’s poker for a million dollars. Meriwether counteroffers a game for ten million, and Gutfreund folds.) But so far as I could tell, the Wall Street celebrations, though tinged with green, were mostly for his chickens finally coming home to roost. The feeling seemed to be that it was just that he finally went broke.

If we must import from the German, then, I propose Fehlschlagenfreude, or “joy in failure.” It would be more accurate, if less euphonious.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

Jul 292003

You might be a junk scientist if:

You prophesy disaster in some remote future. It is safest to choose a date in the long run, when we’re all dead, but even the less judicious have little to worry about: by the time D-Day rolls around people will have forgotten what you said. If someone does happen to remember, you can either issue a new report revising your predictions, or, as a last gasp, maintain that you were right in general, even as your every specific prediction has been falsified. Or both.

You deal in poorly-understood, multi-causal phenomena, traditional playgrounds for the scientific crank. Cancer and climatology are especially popular.

You have trouble with extrapolation, like Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Health, who concluded that college drinking causes 1,400 deaths annually, by taking the total number of alcohol-related deaths among people 18-24 and multiplying by, uh, the percentage of them in college. (Note that this is supposed to establish that college drinking is especially dangerous.) Social science: it’s easy!

You are famous for work outside your field, like Paul Ehrlich, a bug man best-known for speculation on overpopulation and global cooling (yes, cooling); Barry Commoner, the cancer-biologist-cum-nuclear-testing-authority-cum-geneticist; Rachel Carson, an expert on chemicals by virtue of her master’s in marine biology; and Stephen Jay Gould, another genetics authority, trained in paleontology. The press, notwithstanding, can be relied on to refer to you as “Dr.,” “Ph.D.,” or “distinguished scientist.”

You do a lot of testifying for plaintiffs in class-action suits. Extra credit if this is how you make your living.

Jul 262003

“To generalize is to be an idiot,” William Blake famously generalized. Blake has sympathizers at Crooked Timber, where Brian Weatherson and Henry Farrell, rake Randy Barnett over the coals for his j’accuse to “the Left,” which has apparently been “living a lie,” en masse, and now more than ever:

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic [sic], election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies.

Henry, in reply, takes a meta-approach:

Big Dumb Generalizations like Barnett’s have two dead give-aways. First of all, they talk in grand terms about the Left (or the Right) as if it were some sort of groupthink monolith, where all speak for one, and one speaks for all. This rhetorical trick allows them to take some fringe notion advanced by an Indymedia crackpot as incontrovertible evidence that everyone to the left of Barry Goldwater is living on Pluto. Second, as Kieran [Healy] makes clear, their tendentious generalizations are usually reversible so that its trivially easy to swap around the good Right and the bad Left. For example, a leftie could just as easily write an agitprop article about how the Right was living in a dream world in which the administration hadnt made false claims about Iraqs nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.

Henry first objects to “Big Dumb Generalizations.” Barnett’s is Big, certainly; Dumb, possibly, although neither Henry nor Brian deigns to say why; but mostly the trouble seems to be that it’s a Generalization. The objection is to generalization as such. One wonders exactly what kind of generalizations, if any, about “the Left” and “liberals,” or “conservatives” and “the Right” for that matter, Brian and Henry would consider valid.

If I were to claim that the Left supports more business regulation than the Right, I would seem to be on solid ground. Yet Marx, for one, vigorously opposed business regulation, which he thought would meliorate the harsh effects of laissez-faire, lull the proletariat into false consciousness, and postpone the glorious day of the socialist revolution. Have I, too, entered the Land of the Big Dumb Generalization?

And yes, such generalizations, like playground taunts, are reversible, in the I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue sense. It does not follow, however, that their reverse is equally true. Randy says that “the Left” claims that Gore was elected and Bush was selected. You can quibble over how much of the Left is implied in “the Left,” but anyone who reads blog comments knows that some of the left claims exactly that. But if a leftie, by Henry’s hypothesis, wrote a mirror-article in which he claimed that “the Right” believes that Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, he would be laughed at, because no one, to my knowledge, has ever said any such thing.

Barnett has a real argument, which Brian and Henry do not bother to extract, that runs as follows: Leftists are apter to believe in “socially constructed” reality. (This much strikes me as obvious. Of course not all leftists believe in “social construction,” but everyone who does is a leftist.) People who believe that all reality is “constructed” are apter to construct their own. QED.

One could answer by claiming that few people on the left believe Barnett’s litany; this, alas, requires recourse to grubby facts. Or one could answer that “Left” and “Right” are essentially meaningless terms and ought to be retired, the way Jacques Barzun tried to retire “classic,” “romantic,” and “modern.” I’d sympathize with either approach. But to object to a generalization on the grounds that it’s a generalization — what are you guys trying to do, put us bloggers out of business?

Jul 192003

Over at Crooked Timber Daniel Davies poses two related questions: why is snitching universally considered wrong, and why do moral philosophers have so little to say on the topic?

A great deal of the traditional antipathy to snitching is less toward the act than the actor. The snitch is personally nearly always an unpleasant character, currying favor with the authorities, whether it’s the Mafia snitch bargaining for immunity, the institutional snitch seeking glory in the newspapers, or the fourth-grade snitch after a little gold star. Still, this is not the heart of the matter.

Snitching involves a conflict of loyalties to the abstract — an external code of morality, or an institution — and the personal — your friends, gang, colleagues, classmates. (Or, to put it another way, to the larger group and the smaller.) The weaker the commitment to the abstract norm, the stronger the taboo against snitching. It is strongest of all in criminals, who have almost no faith in the abstract code and for whom the conflict therefore scarcely exists. Only if the behavior harms the gang itself, like skimming off the proceeds, does omerta go by the boards.

By the same token, the stronger the loyalty to the smaller group, the stronger the taboo against snitching. As one of Davies’ commenters points out, it goes harder for whistleblowers in Europe, where the bureaucracy is regarded as the Godhead, than in America, which is rather less reverential.

In some special cases of snitching there is also a knowledge problem, and moral philosophers tend not to interest themselves in knowledge problems. You don’t tell your best friend’s wife that he has been cheating on her partly because no one outside has been significantly hurt — the abstract loyalty is close to nil — but mostly because you don’t know enough about the complex, imperfect structure that is their marriage to disturb it. A man’s got to know his limitations.

All of this is less a topic for philosophy than literature, which has had more to say on the subject. The snitch-lit classic is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, an unregenerate celebration of the snitch. While in Ibsen’s play no one supports Dr. Stockmann except one friend and his family (and his wife only dubiously), in the American remake, Jaws (props to Ian Hamet for pointing this out), Mayor Vaughn, the town’s alleged representative, has the support of almost no one. America attenuates local loyalties, which attenuates the taboo against snitching.

(Note: Last paragraph rewritten, after rereading An Enemy of the People. The moral is not to discuss books you haven’t read in fifteen years.)

Jul 122003

Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination — some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its best interests
And in the interests of life.

–J.V. Cunningham

Some artist, I’ve forgotten who, was asked how to sculpt a lion. It’s simple, he answered: you take a block of stone and chip off everything that doesn’t look like a lion. The modern technique for sculpting identities is similar.

First you chip off your job, which isn’t your self, not really. It’s a gig, what you have to do to pay the bills. Here the hedge-fund manager and the Starbucks clerk find common ground. I have known many people who worked in finance, some of them multi-millionaires, and to a man they thought of themselves like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities — in Wall Street, perhaps, but not of it. Yet if everyone is in it but not of it, then Wall Street must really not exist at all.

Next you chip off your appetites, which are not your own but are foisted on you from without by the evil purveyors of tobacco, junk food, and consumable sundries. The rash of lawsuits, tirelessly chronicled by Walter Olson at Overlawyered, against corporations for supplying goods that we want to buy can be viewed as a form of identity-shifting. It isn’t really me scarfing down Big Macs or smoking two packs a day, or it wouldn’t be if the hidden persuaders hadn’t somehow wormed their way inside my sacred soul.

Then you chip off your parents, who embarrass you, your schooling, which you despised, and your religion, which is silly. Why do people still consider the Virgin Birth a miracle when half of the residents of Manhattan were produced by one?

Reduced, at last, to a received taste in art, a few second-hand political convictions, and a nagging smugness that makes you impossible in polite company, you assert that this husk, this handful of dust, your inviolable self, is the most important thing in the world. And you don’t end up with a lion, either.

(Dept. of Faint Praise: “the most philosophical spin on fast-food lawsuits you’ll read this month.” —Walter Olson)

Jun 222003

Eddie Thomas has a longish and interesting post up about “Whiteness Studies,” in which he is characteristically more generous and fair-minded than I’m about to be. Eddie is firmly anti, but one of his commentators, Ted Hinchman, makes the best case in their defense:

What exactly is supposed to be wrong with inquiry into the formation and career of the concept of racial whiteness?

It seems obvious that the normative concept of whiteness had and still has as its core function the justification of a species of social prejudice — once the concept is in hand, you can call this ‘racial’ prejudice. Of course, it doesn’t follow that you can’t use the concept in other ways. When you say ‘White folks are sometimes plagued by racial guilt,’ you obviously aren’t justifying racial prejudice. But you’re using a concept that wouldn’t exist were it not for others’ use of it to justify racial prejudice. And it seems obvious that the justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency…

One might teach a course on the history of the concept of gravitational collapse without provoking hue and cry in the blogosphere. Or of the concept of evolution. Or of the concept of time (I don’t mean the rough draft of Sein und Zeit). So why not a course on the history of the concept of whiteness?

Now this is an argument, for good or ill, but try as you might, you just cannot expand an argument into a curriculum. In my day you had to take eight courses in your major; what might those be, for the aspiring Whiteness Studies major? (Rest assured that today’s course will be tomorrow’s department.) You have the two-semester intro on the social construction of everything, the sophomore-year history of slavery course, with special emphasis, naturally, on the United States, a couple of senior seminars on mortgage discrimination and the difficulty of getting a cab — somebody help me out here. There remains post-graduate work, which I can’t even fathom; doubtless this indicates my own insensitivity.

It isn’t much of an argument either. The concept of “whiteness” may have originated in the well-grounded observation that some people have fairer skin than others. It is obvious to Ted Hinchman that “justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency”; it’s far from obvious to me. “Normative,” then, colossally begs the question. If you wish to demonstrate the social construction of race, then you must demonstrate it, not assume it.

Whiteness Studies advocates insist on the one hand that race “is based on a fantasy” and on the other that everything be viewed through the lens of this fantasy. This WaPo story notes that “most [advocates of whiteness studies] are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race.” Of course people who really want to “dismantle notions of race” do not invent an academic discipline entirely devoted to such notions. Professor Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin encapsulates this cognitive dissonance in a single, convenient web page. He surrounds race with quotation marks, then asks his students, “How long can one watch television or read a newspaper or magazine without encountering anything but white people, or mostly white people?” I’m not sure: how do you tell?

The central premise of Whiteness Studies, and all social construction arguments, is that one’s thought is somehow externally constrained. This is our old friend, the prisoner of consciousness, which has a long and disreputable history. Plato shackles us in the cave, which keeps the Forms forever inaccessible; Kant in our faculties, which distort the true, “noumenal” world; Marx, himself bourgeois to the core, in our “class,” which renders us incapable of seeing that our arguments are mere bourgeois apologetics. Plato, Kant, and Marx granted themselves special get-out-of-jail-free cards, necessarily, to permit them to make such arguments. Such cards, however, are now for sale, like indulgences: whites will be permitted, with the aid of other, more tutored whites, to transcend their white consciousness for a modest tuition fee. Not so modest at Princeton, one of 30 universities that currently offer instruction in Whiteness Studies; but hey, who said enlightenment comes cheap?

Jun 202003

Niceness counts, your mother used to tell you, and so it does, for you and me. When you are one of the best in the world at what you do, niceness stops counting. I am reminded of this by the sportswriters’ treatment of Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, and his unearthly bat speed, unerring plate discipline and perfect balance make him a joy to watch. The pleasure he has given anyone who enjoys baseball, including some sportswriters, can never be repaid. He is also rather surly with the media and disinclined to give interviews. Tough. Nobody cares about how Barry Bonds’ relations with the press except the press, and if they had any respect for greatness they would keep quiet about it.

Babe Ruth, in another era, was celebrated for promising to hit home runs for sick children, although by the authoritative account he was a lout. But really, does anything matter about him except the way he played baseball?

I have quoted Yvor Winters before on the relations between distinguished poets and scholars, but his words serve equally well to describe the relations between great athletes and sportswriters:

To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after some years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him, but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

David Halberstam, he’s talking to you.

Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, has an anecdote about a distinguished jurist, a member of the Supreme Court, who was profiled in a newspaper article the largest point of which was that the jurist rose early every morning and cooked breakfast for his family. In the forty-odd years since Barzun’s book was published his anecdote has been reprised countless times, almost exactly in the case of Justice Rehnquist, about whom ten people could tell you that he put stripes on his gown and sings Christmas carols for every one who could tell you a thing about his jurisprudence. This is supposed to “humanize” great men. By “humanizing” is meant “making seem more like you and me,” although what is interesting about the great is precisely what makes them unlike the rest of us. These “human” qualities are attractive or unattractive, according to the disposition of the writer: they are always irrelevant. I don’t want to see great men humanized. I want to see them praised, or even damned, for the qualities that make them great. Everything else is pornography.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

May 132003

Let’s see what we’ve got in the ol’ mailbag…

An anonymous “family member” of the late Ty Longley, who doesn’t specify whether he has in mind the nuclear, the extended, the Family of Headbangers, or the Family of Man, takes exception to my discussion of Mr. Longley’s alleged second career:

Um, dude, I am a family member of Ty’s and can personally attest, that he is not the “Tybo” in porn. First of all, try searching under the porn name Tybo on the internet….it’s a chic [sic].

Le Freak, c’est chic! But fair enough, especially since my original source was a porn blog — like you were expecting The New York Times. I take Mr. Member’s advice, and plug “Tybo” and “porn” into Google, noting with alarm that my own item is the first entry. Eventually I happen on this, which is a bit sketchy, but it looks like the right Ty Bo, since the dates, 1999-2000, coincide with the dates in my source. Trouble is, the URL includes “gender=m,” so I’m willing to wager this is not a chic we’re discussing. And really, what female porn star in her right mind would call herself “Ty Bo” anyway?

Until further notice, then, God of the Machine regrets that we are unable to regret the error.

On a more serious note, Casey Fahy (scroll down a bit, and, um, dude, get some permalinks) wants to know why I doubt the story about turning turkey guts into Texas tea. Presumably I would believe it if only I, like Casey, were an optimist. Why am I not an optimist? Take it away, Ambrose Bierce:

Optimism, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof — an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, turkey guts. Well, I’m not a chemist, and neither is Casey, but Greg Hlatky is, and he’s read the patent. At any rate, the merits of this particular claim, which appear to be small, are beside the point. This is a matter not of optimism or pessimism, but of epistemology. Every day interested parties, like our “tall, well-tanned entrepreneur” of the Discover story, make pie-in-the-sky claims whose technical merits most of us are utterly unqualified to judge, even if we’re willing to do a lot of homework. You therefore have three choices. Door #1: Ask one or several people who might know and take their word for it (my choice in this case, by trusting Hlatky, but not always available). Door #2: Accept them out of hand. Door #3: Reject them out of hand. Rejection is provisional: you can always change your mind later if more evidence comes in. You’ve wait-listed the claim, so to speak. Acceptance is a different matter. No matter what private reservations you may harbor at the time, your brain files away the “fact” that, for instance, we can make oil out of turkey guts, and six months later you’ve forgotten what your doubts were, if you ever had them. A vast amount of error can be traced to this sort of “optimism.”

(Update: Gregory Hlatky, himself, comments.)

May 112003

[OBLIGATORY] Accusations of hypocrisy are, of course, a form of tu quoque. Bill Bennett would still be a self-righteous prohibitionist gasbag even if he didn’t lose millions at slots. His books are good or bad, his arguments valid or invalid, regardless. Like Evan Kirchhoff and Ken Layne, I find his choice of game far more damning than the fact that he gambled at all. Slot machines are for little old ladies wearing stretch pants and a gardening glove.

Bennett’s case may not even rise to the level of hypocrisy. This has nothing to do with the fact that he never specifically condemned gambling, instead directing his ire toward pot-smoking, adultery, and other vices in which he apparently did not personally indulge. I am perfectly willing to stipulate that Bennett, on his own principles, should have objected to gambling, although he did not. The arch-hypocrite in literature is Tartuffe, who preaches virtues in which he does not believe to enhance his own position. Insincerity distinguishes the true hypocrite. Though Bennett made his pile by declaiming against vices analogous to gambling, which complicates the problem, there is no evidence that he is anything but sincere in his flogging of the Ten Commandments. His sin is not Tartuffery but weakness. If I resolve to rise early to write (and I do) and then sleep in instead (and I do) this makes me, technically, a hypocrite. I daresay that most of us are technically hypocrites. Real villainy comes not from doing what you think is wrong, usually, but from doing what you think is right, or from not caring about the difference.

Hypocrisy plays especially badly with lazy thinkers, as Eugene Volokh more politely points out, because it is easy to detect inconsistency between thought and behavior, hard to detect inconsistency in thought, and harder still to detect plain error. Naturally Bennett is vulnerable to such accusations. He understands this, which is why he’s announced that he will stop gambling.

Lining up someone’s convictions with his personal life is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition. If you defend gambling, and gamble, then you’re no longer disinterested, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and gamble, then you’re a hypocrite, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and don’t gamble, then you’re a smug puritan, and your argument can be disregarded. If you defend gambling, and don’t gamble, then you lack personal knowledge of the horrors of gambling, and your argument, again, can be disregarded. Only vice’s ex-“victims” are presumed to have the standing to make an argument at all. They dominate the discourse, and unsurprisingly, they’re all for laws. This is a recipe for prohibitionism.

Of course Bennett is technically a liar too, but come on. A gambler who says he’s “pretty close to even” is like a fisherman who says it was this big, or a rug merchant who says he can’t lower the price. Everybody knows what “pretty close to even” means. It means “I lost a lot of money.” [/OBLIGATORY]