Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Am Not John Galt

My foray into the writings of Ms. Rand was really a matter of coincidence. Two nearly simultaneous events stirred me in her direction. First, I tend to regularly check CNBC, as a way of keeping abreast of the churnings and whirlings of global capitalism. Earlier this month, I came across an article praising Rand, whose philosophy defined the economic outlook of the Reagan White House. With leftists in the White House, she's more relevant than ever, crowed the article, which was written to pitch a book written by one of Objectivism's disciples.

Second, I read a short blog response to Atlas Shrugged written by a conservative with whom I've often gently jousted in past, one that showed him enthusiastic about many aspects of her ideology of self-actualization. In the face of that sympathy, though, he expressed some discomfort with certain aspects of her worldview. Like most conservatives, he's a Christian, and that makes embracing some of her views...difficult.

The reason for this dissonance can be found throughout her book, but nowhere more strongly than in the radio speech of John Galt, the great noble and mighty man of mystery who acts as the mostly unseen influence over the world of Atlas Shrugged. The radio address comes as he seizes control of the airwaves, bumping the weak and bureaucratic president so that he can deliver his monologue, to which the nation pays rapt attention.

And oh, what a monologue. It runs for fifty-three full pages of the book. As someone who preaches regularly from written texts, I did a quick calculation. That's a four and a half hour sermon, with no music, breaks or pauses. Even by Baptist standards, that's starting to get a little long. Even Rush Limbaugh runs out of steam before he can complete a rant of that magnitude. The idea that everyone would sit and listen to this shows that Ms. Rand may have lacked a grasp of 1) how humans process information and 2) the capacity of the human bladder.

This is Ayn Rand's Sermon on the Mount, the pinnacle of her philosophy, and the conceptual lynchpin of Atlas Shrugged. And what it is, unfortunately for conservatives who want to embrace her, is completely antithetical to Christianity. By this, I don't mean it opposes the institutional church. I don't mean that it raises concerns about the way in which Christians have used power to oppress others. It sets itself in explicit and ferocious opposition to the heart of Christian faith.
Link
As Galt/Rand does the monologue thing, most of his invective is against the moral and ethical code that he views as having enslaved and destroyed humanity. That dark and oppressive morality is, as he puts it, "...to serve God's purpose or your neighbor's welfare." For the entirety of this defining speech, Galt/Rand assails the "mystics" who would give themselves over to God, and those "moralists" who would give themselves over to neighbor. The enemy of human actualization is, for Rand, the Great Commandment.

This is, to put it mildly, a non-trivial issue. As someone who'd known the oppression of Soviet Russia, Rand hated communism, and her seething hatred of the state made her philosophy seem appealing to American conservatives. But as much as she hated commies, she hated Jesus most of all. Her whole philosophy is carefully constructed in intentional, fundamental and irreconcilable opposition to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

You cannot be Christian and believe what Rand believes. I do not say this by way of assailing her, because she and I would agree.

And with that agreement, I think my conversation with Ms. Rand has come to a conclusion. Always nice to end with agreement.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A High and Lonely Destiny

It's slow going. Reading Atlas Shrugged is not providing me with one of those transforming philosophical/literary experiences. This isn't Brothers Karamazov or The Stranger. It seems more analogous to one of those long, long road-trips on superslab, where the scenery is just endless sameness and the only thing to break up the journey is keeping tabs on the mile markers. And they seem to go by with way too little frequency.

Ayn Rand does have a rather..cough...interesting style as a writer. She manages, somehow, to be both flowery and coldly inaccessible at the same time. Hers is a form of romanticism that seems to have sprung from the industrial 20th century, and her writing, for me, is like trying to read the music of Wagner. It's big, bombastic, and on a scale that has little to do with lesser mortals. The emotional subtleties of actual human existence are nowhere to be found. Every moment is a grand and towering gesture, all brass and kettledrums, brimming over with Meaning with a capital M. And yet, in the thick of all that fervor, it seems strangely inhuman.

Her characters...at least, the ones she presents as moral exemplars...all have an aesthete's disregard for every human being who does not meet their standards of profit, power, and pursuit of self-interest. Again and again in the first 100 pages we hear from them that human beings generally...and Mexicans in particular...are worthless parasites living off of the creative genius of a few glorious demigods.

As I settle in with Ayn Rand's band of sternly romantic, self-absorbed, and emotionally distant protagonists, I find that they remind me of someone else, someone from another story I first read long ago. That someone is Jadis, Queen of Charn. As she puts it in the Magician's Nephew:
You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny.
That the White Witch of Narnia would be a heroine in Atlas Shrugged is, I think, rather telling.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ayn Rand: The Adolescent Uber-Frau

The introduction of my 35th Anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged is not like any other introduction I've read. It's "written" by a disciple of Rand, and is most notable for a complete unwillingness to in any way presume to say anything about her work. Providing historical commentary or giving any sense of where the book fits in the history of Western thought would have been nice, but that jes' weren't happening. Instead, we hear that only Ayn Rand can meaningfully tell us about Ayn Rand. Copious quotations from her notes are then provided, as evidence of her amazing and unparalleled mind.

Skirting around the edges of the book are similar praises, many written by herself. The "about the author" section? She wrote it. We hear her pronounce, on the back cover, that her thoughts were so unique that she was obligated to "..originate a philosophical framework of my own." She admits that she bears a philosophical debt to Aristotle, who also loved reason, but that's the only influence we hear her express. Everything else springs from her own totally new and previously unarticulated font of critical reason.

This strikes me as painfully adolescent. Pretty much every pubescent humanoid passes through a stage where they are utterly convinced of their own uniqueness. No one before has ever thought as they think. No one has ever loved as intensely as they've loved, or been so sad. The fires of teen hormones and the transition to adulthood create an intellectual and emotional self-absorption that most of us, thankfully, grow out of. We connect to other human beings. We realize the common struggles we all share, and we grow up.

For Ms. Rand and the adherents to her movement, that appears not to have happened. Admitting a sense of connectedness to other thinkers would have required admitting conceptual dependence on others...and that might have messed with the fevered self-esteem that lies at the heart of objectivist morality.

If she had made that leap, she'd have realized that the philosopher she is most indebted to isn't Aristotle. Instead, "objectivism" and the themes it sounds of the heroic individual standing above the weak and slavish masses have their strongest conceptual connection to the Dark Philosopher, the Master of the Aphorism, Mr. "God Is Dead" Himself, my old pal Fredrick Nietzsche. Sure, Rand's schtick is filtered through some radically capitalist presumptions. But her nihilism and his are peas in a pod.

Having recognized that fundamental kinship, I wonder if my own Will to Power will permit me to muster the Will to Keep Reading Ayn Rand. I figure it will. If I can manage to choke down books by Joel Osteen, I'm sure I can manage Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas Shrugged, Then Looked for His Reading Glasses

I had, believe it or not, never actually managed to read any Ayn Rand. She's one of those authors who is viewed as a necessary element of a well-rounded education. Somehow, though, it was my lot to never be assigned The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Lately, though, I'm feeling stirred to remedy that.

Why?

Well, because Ms. Rand speaks deeply to the heart of the American conservative. I make it a point to read the blogs of folks who believe that health care reform is evil, and who view progressives and Democrats as evil, and who are, when I comment on their musings, happy to let me know just how hopelessly wrong I am. Sometimes, amazingly enough, they are people I've come to like.

For those folks, Atlas Shrugged resonates powerfully. The way that Ms. Rand articulates the purpose of humankind harmonizes with and informs the ethos of American conservatism, both through the objectivist philosophy she expresses in her writing and the way she writes. Understanding her mindset is, as I see it, a good way to grasp the spirit that moves in the hearts of the Right.

Earlier this week, I went to pick up the book at the library. This, I suppose, was getting off the to the wrong start. Libraries are a public good, and given what I know about Ms. Rand's view of government, are probably off limits to most objectivists. There were four identical copies of Atlas Shrugged on the shelf, all new fat bricky paperbacks. I opened one. It was bigger than I thought, at one thousand and sixty nine pages. Hmmm, thought I. For an author whose philosophy claims to be rooted in rational precision, that's a whole heck of a lot of text. But the page count was a bit misleading. Unlike the countless high school students who bump up their font size to flesh out their papers, this book could have been several hundred pages longer.

The font was tiny to the point of being abusive, perhaps 8 point, maybe less, making no compromise for those among us whose vision is not perfect. I'm still better than 20/20, but the idea of reading over 1,000 pages of microscopic prose suddenly seemed daunting.

But I know Ms. Rand well enough to know that it was appropriately daunting. She had nothing but contempt for the weak. Was I weak, one of the parasites who lack the courage to even enter the hallowed gates of Objectivist thought? It was a challenge. It was a test. I committed myself to continue. I would not be so easily cowed.

So into the introduction I went.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health Care is Not a Right

This last week in the Wall Street Journal, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey managed to cheese off his entire customer base by arguing vigorously against health care reform. His position is that the market should be in control of health care provision, because health care is a service like any other service. It's not a surprising position for the Chief Executive Officer of a for profit corporation, even if the clientele of that corporation happen to be wealthy progressives who are almost universally in favor of a more progressive approach to health care.

In his article, though, Mackey went well beyond arguing for market-based options, and dug down to the philosophical heart of the conservative case against socialized medicine. That case, in his words, rests on this foundation:

While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America.

I'm not quite sure how careful a reading of our founding documents went into this statement. As I recall, our Declaration of Independence includes this little statement:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Some folks might argue that medical care, food and shelter are things without which that first little inalienable right is not possible.

But I'm not going to make that case, tempting though it may be.

Instead, I'm going to agree with Mr. Mackey.

Providing health care to all is not a right, at least not as "rights" are shallowly understood among Americans whose sense of moral commitment begins and ends with themselves. It is not something that I demand for myself, because I am owed it. Instead, I view the provision of health care to all as a moral responsibility. Not a right. A responsibility.

In that sense, Mr. Mackey has pegged it. Food, shelter, and medical care are all similar. Food is not a "right," but we as an ethical people would not tolerate folks starving to death in our midst. Shelter is not a "right," but those of us who have shelter recognize that we have a basic moral responsibility towards those who would otherwise suffer. Where the ethic of the market fails, and Lord does it fail, nonprofits and government are forced to step in.

For those whom the market has failed, or who have run out of resources to participate in "mutually beneficial market exchanges" with their oncologist, we are..as a people..morally obligated to provide care. Government, as an instrument in the hands of an ethical people, needs be a significant component of that care.

That option is worth pursuing not because we want it for ourselves. It is worth it because we as moral actors recognize that it is the most effective way to provide care for others.

Why conservative and putatively Christian Americans can't recognize this is beyond me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Nation of Orcs

Reading my way through a collection of the often willfully esoteric poetry of William Blake, I've come across his nearly indecipherable "America: A Prophecy." This whirling mashup of arcane imagery casts America as a place of radiantly demonic energy, and Americans allied with a godlike figure that exists only in the peculiar mythology that Blake created for himself: Orc.

Orc, in Blake's mythology, is not really kin to the semi-human beings of Tolkien. Orc is the demon of radically unfettered passion and creativity, the mortal enemy of Urizen, the demon of order and reason. For Blake, America is a land of creative energy, fierce and wild and warlike:
The plagues creep on the burning winds driven by flames of Orc,
And by the fierce Americans rushing together in the night.
This, at least in Blake's often self-absorbed poetics, is a good thing. But for all of Blake's joy in the expression of the self, I think we as a nation seem to be trending more towards Tolkien's vision of Orcdom lately. The idea that somehow shouting and bellowing at one another represents civic dialog seems quite in line with the ethics of Mordor. Whoever shouts loudest must be right. Truth? Civility? Kindness? Mutual respect? To heck with those things. Better to howl with glazed eyes, to berate, to belittle, and to insult.

We also love, love, love our violence. Things that are bigger and louder and more garish are inherently better, and the more impressively hyperkinetic and/or bloodspattered something is, the more we like it. How else to explain the success of willfully stupid films like GI Joe? An audience made up entirely of Orcs would find such a film utterly entertaining. They'd follow it with a Saw movie marathon, of course.

Perhaps Blake knew more about where we were headed than he let on.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jesus, Blake, and Beer

As my second day at the beach winds down, I find myself reading. After a day that involved consuming a diet-busting bucket of fries as big as my head and carefully carving out yet another sprawling sandcastle, what better way to relax than with the romantic era poetry of William Blake?

Blake and I have a funny relationship. Several years ago, I spent time with one of the now-passed matriarchs of the church. She was a brilliant woman, sharp and wise, but her memory had been shattered by Alzheimers. Her soul was still brightly present, though, and she was good company. Speaking with her was like speaking with a shaman having a peak experience. Our conversations were inscrutably random, yet still suffused with meaning. Though she knew me, she could never remember my name. I would tell her, because she would ask, but though I told her a hundred times, she knew me only as "William Blake."

Today, as part of my "read stuff that opens you" stragedy, I read this little poem by Blake, and found myself thinking about some of my fellow travellers in the Presbymergent movement. They're setting up little groups of folks interested in the whole Jesus thing, and having those folks gather around pitchers of tasty microbrewed beer. Church...and beer. For some, it's a radical idea. But Blake evidently presaged emergent folk, and had figured this natural connection out more than two hundred years ago, so he wrote this little Theology Pub ditty:
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach and drink and sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is alway at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.

And God like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him and give him both drink and apparel.
Sounds about right.

Friday, August 7, 2009

One Way Jesus

It hasn't been one of my favorite praise songs.

I have a conflicted relationship with contemporary Christian music to begin with. Before I served a congregation where this was a significant form of worship, I harbored an active dislike for "CCM." It was, as far as I was concerned, nothing more than predigested treacly Jesus-pop, carefully focus-grouped and image-managed by AmeriChrist, Inc. so that the socially isolated teen children of fundamentalists could delude themselves into thinking they're "edgy" and/or "cool."

I've since come around quite a bit. I've seen it used in worship, and realized that it's not nearly as annoying as I originally thought. I've gotten to know the faith of folks who like CCM, and found it to be filled with grace. There've been plenty of moments when I've been spiritually moved by the efforts of my praise team. Thanks to their efforts, I'll often find myself humming praise music to myself when I wake up in the morning.

There are, nonetheless, some songs that still annoy me. Some of them are troubling because they say basically nothing about the faith. Others say...well...things that I don't agree with.

"One Way Jesus" had been one of those songs that fell into the latter category. The song's recurring chorus goes like this:
One Way Jesus
You're the only one that I could live for
One Way Jesus
You're the only one that I could live for
As a Christian who doesn't assume that other faiths are just the 32 Flavors of Hell, the simple chorus of this song has in past felt a bit Booyah-Buddhist-Suckah-Here's-My-Jeezus-In-Yo-Face.

The other day during worship, I had a different reaction. What I believe about Jesus of Nazareth is that his life and teachings and his whole being express the purpose of humanity. His message of compassion and selflessness, of love for God and love for others, is a universal and defining value. That message and the life it causes us to lead is "The Way." It is, as the letter to the church at Ephesus puts it, the "one hope" to which I am called.

In believing that, which I do, I'm affirming that choosing to follow his path is inherently good. Making that commitment, which I have, doesn't mean that I am therefore obligated to hate other faiths, or to view them as inherently evil. It does, however, mean that I'm making a value statement about the significance of Christ and the life he called me to lead.

Given that you can't be a progressive without a sense of direction, I figure there's nothing wrong with saying you happen to think the direction you've set yourself in is a good one.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Faith and the "Birthers"

On a whim today, I started taking a look at the "birther" movement. In the event that you've been intentionally hiding from CNN frothmeister Lou Dobbs, this is the group of right wing folk who are absolutely certain that Obama is not actually an American citizen. He's actually Kenyan. That his citizenship has been confirmed and reconfirmed is meaningless to the birthers, because all of those confirmations must be 1) fabricated or 2) evasions.

They have to be, because the "birthers" are completely convinced that they have discovered a great secret truth that has been suppressed since Obama was a baby by...well...someone. Most likely the Commie Fifth Columnists, working collaboratively with the Illuminati. It's also possible that both the K'taal Hive Mind and the surprisingly crafty Boise, Idaho chapter of the Kiwanis may be significant players.

One of the most interesting subthreads of this collective psychosis I've found...and there appear to be plenty of folks in the blogosphere who believe this...is that the birth certificate is being hidden because Obama is actually the son of Frank Marshall Davis, an influential African American progressive. According to this theory, his Kenyan father was a "beard," selected so that Davis wouldn't have to divorce his wife.

Of course, if this is true, then Obama would still be an American citizen, rendering this whole drama completely moot. Sure, but to birthers, that doesn't matter. Nothing matters. The folks who have grasped these "truths" are clinging to them with a presuppositional ferocity. Everything and anything they hear will be bent to validate what they already believe.

So...how is that different from faith? There are many folks of the neoatheist persuasion who would argue that belief in God is similar to being a "birther" or any other conspiracy theorist. If you believe in something, you'll fight to prove it's truth, bending the way you perceive reality so that reality accommodates that belief. For critics of religion like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, that willingness to disregard empirical evidence in favor of defending doctrine is the greatest danger of faith.

There, I think, it helps if we understand faith not as the desperate defense of a rigid system of closely-held thought, but as something that orients us outside of the frameworks in which we find ourselves. Faith in God, if it is authentic, does not harden us against truth. It causes us to realize that truth with a Capital Tee is something that transcends us. To come closer to that truth, we must allow it to shatter our preconceptions, not just once, but over and over again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

iPhone Conversation


As I sat in the quiet little room, I could see that he was distant. Dick had been an active and dynamic part of my church for decades, but now he is alone. His beloved wife passed away several years ago, and he has no immediate family. His room is a stale little box in the higher care section of a retirement community, cluttered with pictures and the debris of a life that is now passed. As his hearing has gone to nothing, he's become harder and harder to communicate with.

He used to try to put in hearing aids when I came by to visit, but lately he hasn't even tried. No one else comes by. Why bother? As he sat in silence, nodding his head softly to himself, I found myself wondering how to break through. He doesn't sign. He doesn't lip read.

I looked around his little room for a pen and paper. Perhaps if I wrote out my part of the conversation....

But there were none to be had. He started talking, just a little bit, about the things he sees out of his window each day. His vision is still fine, and that view out of the window is all he has. So he shared, not looking over, about the helicopters that pass. About the dying tree. His gaze was distant, his words halting and slightly jumbled.

I suddenly had a thought, and switched my iPhone to the 3G network. Then, as I multi-tasked listening to him, I hit the App Store. I searched for "sketch pad," and found a nice little free app that would let me write big letters on the touchscreen. I downloaded it, and in less than two minutes, I had what I needed.

On the surface of my phone, I wrote in big, big letters: "HELLO, DICK." I showed it to him.

He looked at the phone, nodding blankly. Then, suddenly, he realized I was using it to communicate. He smiled, and looked at me, and his eyes brightened. I erased what I'd written, and wrote: "HOW R YOU?" He gave a little clap of delight.

And so we talked, him speaking in animated tones, me scrawling out big two-to-three word responses on the screen of my phone. We talked about his health, about the tooth he'd just lost, and about stuff...but most importantly, we talked. He knew I heard him, that I was listening, and we connected.

It was one of the best phone conversations I've had recently.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lying about Dying

One of the noblest Christian callings I know is that of the hospice chaplain. Where most of us recoil from the suffering and loss that human beings feel as they are either dying or losing a loved one, hospice chaplains get right in there. It's not an easy thing, but helping people come to terms with their mortality and make the inescapable process of dying something not to be feared is a serious blessing.

The pastors I know who've taken on this task have found it both exhausting and rewarding. Though they were surrounded by death, they found that serving the dying was ultimately something that reinforced both their faith and the faith of others.

Like pastors, one of the core responsibilities of medical professionals is helping alleviate the suffering that comes when our mortal forms enter their endgame. Where pastors provide the comfort to the person who is preparing to pass on, doctors provide advice on care for the body, and give the needed nutritional and pharmacological inputs to insure that those last days and hours are not spent in pain.

This, more than anything else, is why the hysteria being manufactured around end-of-life provisions in the proposed health care reform plan is utterly reprehensible. American conservatism does have some good points to make about the sanctity and integrity of human life, and can provide a needed corrective to the consumerist tendency to view human beings as commodities or through the lenses of cost-benefit-analysis.

American shout radio and the right-wing blogosphere, however, are now declaring that those services and advice about how to take advantage of those services amounts to "euthanasia." That the proposed health care plan requires doctors to provide that advice is not "radical." It's necessary. It's a charge so divorced from the reality of end-of-life issues that it's functionally insane, but that doesn't matter. Radical-right groups like the Liberty Counsel couldn't care less about what is provably true. Their purpose is to accuse and accuse until they find something, anything, that sticks. It doesn't have to be real. It just has to stir doubt and further their ideological agenda.

Seeking fertile ground for that doubt, they feed into a natural fear that our seniors feel. Ours is a society that radically isolates and marginalizes the elderly, shattering the bonds of connection and community that valued and supported grandparents and great-grandparents. Whispering what is little more than a lie into that community plays off of that isolation. It may ultimately help derail this effort to fix our broken health "system." Deception is often effective at attaining short-term goals.

But ultimately, it represents a failure. It's a failure of our system, sure. But it is, more deeply, a sign of how American conservatism has failed. When a fundamental truth about human mortality is trampled under falsehoods uttered in service of a dogmatic ideology, I find it ironic that the folks who utter those falsehoods claim to be people of faith.