Announcing Killing Cool

I am happy to announce the publication of my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Due out September 2014

Now published

The book is about the way in which many Americans live in a fantasy, creating a fantasy self and a fantasy version of reality. This false self is often based on an artificial sense of life that is pasted over one’s real sense of life. Examples include people who try to be cool or chronically ironic, macho or ultra-femme, but there are hundreds of other types. Such people do not live in reality, often do not have a firm sense of what reality is, or possess a firm sense of the reality of other people.

I deal with many variations in eleven essays. In the title essay I treat two types of Cool and how they both depend on a mystical notion of the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. In “Sex and Power, Hugs and Wonder” I discuss a pair of erroneous, and common, theories of values: one that says that our values are basically those of animals and one that says that our values are basically those of children. “Faith and the Bubble Universe” deals with ways in which Christianity can entail a kind of fantasy world and the nature of legitimate versus illegitimate error. “The Vampire and the Last Man” examines the troubling popularity of vampire stories and attempts to ferret out its causes. The concluding essay, “The Sleeper Awakes,” offers three ideas that could help the reader better live in reality.

The approach of the book is autobiographical and compassionate. My observations grow out of my own experiences and I share those experiences in an effort to make philosophy, psychology and culture criticism approachable. And although Killing Cool is technically a work of ethics, I do not moralize or condemn, but instead offer understanding for the people who trap themselves in boxes–and try to light the way out of them. I point out a lot of problematic character types in American society, but I suggest methods for growing out of them, too.

If real reform is to come to society, I believe that Killing Cool is a good place to start. Arguing about politics is to little avail when the arguers are living in a fantasy world: They will not hear the arguments anyway. The way to break the logjam is to entice people into choosing reality. Then we can have a real discussion.

Killing Cool is available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle ebook. You can preview the book there.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions and feedback. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact me for a reviewer’s copy at keefner.books@hotmail.com.

Surrender in The Fountainhead

Guest blogger Carrie-Ann Biondi is an associate professor of philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College and Co-Editor-in-Chief (with Irfan Khawaja) of the journal Reason Papers.

It’s my contention, which may sound counter-intuitive to many Objectivists, that the title of this post is not an oxymoron.(1) But isn’t surrender to give one’s self up to an enemy, to relinquish ones’ values, to give in to the less-than-best? Isn’t that immoral on Ayn Rand’s view? Well, it depends on what one means by “surrender.” Rand was sensitive to and used multiple senses—both positive and negative—of the word “surrender.” After combing through The Fountainhead with this issue in mind, I was surprised to find at least fifteen instances of this word throughout the novel and that most of the uses are positive ones. There are three contexts of use, with one being negative and two being positive. I’ll describe and briefly analyze these three contexts of use, and conclude both that Rand by far uses “surrender” in a positive way and that she is right to do so. (2)

First, here is the negative use of “surrender,” when it means to give up one’s values. There are only a few places where this occurs, most prominently in relation to Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. One instance occurs when Peter visits Howard Roark after he is fired from John Eric Snyte’s firm and then opens his own office: “Keating wondered why he should experience that sickening feeling of resentment; why he had come here hoping to find the story untrue, hoping to find Roark uncertain and willing to surrender” (p. 130). Another instance is when Ellsworth counsels giving in to flings rather than pursuing true love: “When consulted on love affairs, Toohey counseled surrender, if it concerned a romance with a charming little pushover, good for a few drunken parties . . . and renunciation, if it concerned a deep, emotional passion” (p. 302).

In both of these cases, Peter and Ellsworth hope that others will pragmatically surrender in cowardly fashion either to convention or meaningless whims. In short, they hope that others give up on being people of devoted principle. Both of them are viciously motivated. Peter, who is second-handed, lacks integrity and resents Howard’s independence and sterling character. Ellsworth desires to control others and gets perverse pleasure from emotionally manipulating others so that they will become dependent on him. Peter is one of his victims in this regard.

Second, here is the most common positive use of “surrender,” which occurs in a sexual context and reflects Rand’s views about the passionate response of one romantic partner to another. While Rand focuses primarily on a female’s surrender or submission to a man, she also has an interesting scene where Howard surrenders to Dominique Francon, so I include that here as an illustration of Rand’s broader point about the nature of romantic love. Its occurrence is always between Howard and Dominique. Here are a few examples (though there are at least six like this):

“It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt . . . . He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted. Then she felt him shaking with the agony of a pleasure unbearable even to him, she knew that she had given that to him, that it came from her” (p. 218).

“Then she looked at him. She stood naked, waiting, feeling the space between them like a pressure against her stomach, knowing that it was torture for him also and that it was as they both wanted it. Then he got up, he walked to her, and when he held her, her arms rose willingly . . . her mouth on his, in a surrender more violent than her struggle had been” (p. 274).

“She tried to demonstrate her power over him. She stayed away from his house; she waited for him to come to her. He spoiled it by coming too soon; by refusing her the satisfaction of knowing that he waited and struggled against his desire; by surrendering at once. . . . He would lie at her feet, he would say: ‘Of course I need you. I go insane when I see you. You can do almost anything you wish with me.’ . . . The words did not sound like surrender, because they were not torn out of him, but admitted simply and willingly” (p. 311).

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

While some commentators have found problematic the violence mingled with pleasure in passages like these, what is clear from both the larger context of the novel and Rand’s own remarks (3) is that she intended this kind of intensely pleasurable form of surrender as a positive experience. Despite the inverted language that Dominique uses at times (as the internally conflicted person she is for almost the entire novel), she loves Howard. Their love-making is an ecstatic submission of the best in Dominique to what she adores most in Howard. This is Dominique at her most whole-hearted until she resolves her internal conflict at the end of the novel, when she finally embodies with ease a desire for unified happiness in public and across her whole life, awakening at last “with the sun in her eyes”: “[S]he knew that she could not have reached this white serenity except as the sum of all the colors, of all the violence she had known. ‘Howard . . . willingly, completely, and always . . . without reservations, without fear of anything they can do to you or me’” (p. 669). As Lloyd Drum remarks, “Ultimately Dominique’s surrender contains all of the basic themes of The Fountainhead. It is more than a surrender of the body to bodily pleasure. It is a surrender of the soul to the ecstatic possibilities of the human spirit.” (4)

Third, here is the less common positive use of “surrender,” but which is arguably the most general and powerful. It concerns the sense of surrender that, as Joshua Zader insightfully notes, is “closely aligned” with love and occurs “in some spiritual and personal growth traditions.” (5) There are three instances when Howard, Dominique, and Gail Wynand each surrender out of love, but not in a sexual context. The first instance occurs when Steve Mallory is working on the sculpture of Dominique for the Stoddard Temple, but without much luck until Howard walks into the back of the room: “Then he saw what he had been struggling to see all day. He saw her body standing before him, straight and tense, her head thrown back, her arms at her sides, palms out, as she had stood for many days; but now her body was alive . . . a proud, reverent, enraptured surrender to a vision of her own, . . . the moment touched by the reflection of what she saw” (p. 336).

Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) (6)

The second instance occurs when Howard relaxes after a swim at the home he has built for Gail and Dominique: “She [Dominique] thought: This is the tribute to Gail, the confidence of surrender—he relaxes like a cat—and cats don’t relax except with people they like” (p. 586).

The third instance occurs when Gail reflects on his power in relation to Howard while they are on a cruise together on Gail’s yacht: “As he stood at the rail, watching Roark in the water, he thought of the power he held in this moment: he could order the yacht to start moving, sail away and leave that redheaded body to sun and ocean. The thought gave him pleasure: the sense of power and the sense of surrender to Roark in the knowledge that no conceivable force could make him exercise that power” (p. 603).

What is striking about this third use of “surrender” is the experiential and moral rightness of it. Somehow, this is not a giving in to some force external to one’s agency, but rather, is a profound expression of one’s deepest sense of self. These three individuals are most truly themselves when they surrender to a love they feel for one another that is rooted in a love of their own best selves. I find Scott Schneider’s gloss on this idea helpful: “In all three cases, the surrender is of one’s will to emotions/values. In the negative case, they are false values or anti-values. In the positive cases, struggling against these values would be contradictory, since the values in question go to the person’s core, and surrender is the recognition of that.” (7)

Surrender as an integrative expression of one’s highest values can be seen as a spiritual journey toward self-understanding, growth, and wholeness. When commissioned by Hopton Stoddard to build the Stoddard Temple, Hopton articulates (as the conduit for Ellsworth’s planted words) the non-religious spirituality that Howard has about his self/work in the face of Howard’s admission that he does not believe in God:

“We want to capture—in stone, as others capture in music—not some narrow creed, but the essence of all religion. . . . The great aspiration of the human spirit toward the highest, the noblest, the best. The human spirit as the creator and the conqueror of the ideal. The great life-giving force of the universe. The heroic human spirit. . . . You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark—in your own way. I can see that in your buildings. . . . [W]hat I want in that building is your spirit . . . , Mr. Roark. Give me the best of that” (pp. 319-20).

Howard is then described as having “learn[ed] something about himself, about his buildings, from this man who had seen it and known it before he knew it” (p. 320). This is the very thing that Henry Cameron also saw and told Howard about at a more fundamental level, when he saw a photo of Howard’s first office shingle “Howard Roark, Architect”:

“And I know that if you carry these words through to the end, it will be a victory, Howard, not just for you, but for something that should win, that moves the world—and never wins acknowledgement. It will vindicate so many who have fallen before you, who have suffered as you will suffer. May God bless you—or whoever it is that is alone to see the best, the highest possible to human hearts” (p. 133).

All of these religious/spiritual words are Rand’s own way of reaching toward something about the self, a loving embrace of one’s true self in its richest complexity that often reaches and moves beyond discursive, conscious thought. If we trust, perhaps surrender, to the best within us and listen to what it shows us, then we can grow as individuals and in connection with the best in others. “[T]he highest possible to human hearts” is found there in those places beyond words in the world and in our self in that world. It is often precisely consciously held beliefs—false ones—that get in the way of individual wholeness. The examples of Dominique and Gail show this point. They both fight Howard tooth and nail because of their fears and false beliefs. Dominique’s salvation is that she finally embraces in a fully embodied and integrated way her love of what Howard rather than Gail stands for. She finally gets one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxims, which could have been uttered by Rand: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. . . . It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Many might not be comfortable with Rand’s uses of “surrender” in The Fountainhead, but her carefully chosen language is undeniably there and needs to be contended with for what it is. The language of surrender provides insight into what it means for heroic man to be a person of “self-made soul” and to become who he potentially is.

——————————————-

(1) This essay began as a July 29, 2014 Facebook post of mine, “Surrender in The Fountainhead,” in partial response to a more general Facebook discussion on the nature of submission, surrender, and obedience and whether any of these could be compatible with Objectivist principles concerning rationality and choice. I would like to thank various participants in both the general and specific discussions for their thoughts and feedback on this topic. My gratitude especially goes to Kurt Keefner for engaging in extended discussion on this topic and his generous invitation to share his blog space, and to Joshua Zader for his feedback on and promotion of these discussions.

(2) All citations to The Fountainhead are to the 1971 New American Library edition.

(3) For example, Rand’s remarks such as rape’s being “a dreadful crime” and “if it’s rape—it’s rape by engraved invitation,” seem intended to convey the consensual nature of Dominique’s sexual surrender to Howard; see Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael Berliner (New York: Plume, 1997), pp. 282 and 631.

(4) Lloyd Drum, July 29, 2014 comment on my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

(5) Joshua Zader, July 29, 2014 comments on his Facebook re-posting of my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

(6) This description of Dominique reminds me of the painting “Joan of Arc” that I chose to include above in this post. It’s stunning to see in person, especially her eyes beholding a vision of her own.

(7) Scott Schneider, July 29, 2014 comment on my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Surrender, But Don’t Give Yourself Away

As part of a discussion on Facebook, my friend philosopher Carrie-Ann Biondi defended the occasional positive connotations of the term “surrender.” At first this idea stuck in my craw. I knew she did not mean “turning the other cheek” or “Resist not evil” or any such New Testament notion of being submissive, but I was concerned that surrender inherently meant splitting oneself in two, into the part that surrenders and the part one surrenders to. Carrie-Ann assured me that this was not the case and later wrote an essay about usages of the term “surrender” in The Fountainhead. After further consideration, I think I pretty much agree with her about the positive connotations. I’ve run her essay as a guest blog here so that the reader can check it out, and I’ve written a follow-up essay in which I’ve tried to elaborate and extend her ideas. I don’t claim to have captured everything that Carrie-Ann meant, but I think I’m on to something worthwhile regardless.

There seem to me to be several kinds of surrender that are healthy. They are diverse, but they have a similar underlying emotional dynamic. The overall pattern seems to be that one exerts a kind of control that one gives up in favor of allowing oneself to be vulnerable to something or someone. When I say “vulnerable” I mean allowing oneself to be affected by something without the attempt to protect oneself from it or manage it, so that you’re “giving yourself” to whatever it is.
Here is my heart, open to the world.
I prefer the metaphor of vulnerability to the metaphor of surrender, but “vulnerable” does not have a verb form, so I will use “surrender” with the caveat that what I mean is “allow oneself to be vulnerable.” Let’s examine some of the forms of control and surrender and look for deeper commonalities.

A first and basic kind of control is what we might call self-management. In this variety a person is focused on a goal and drives oneself to achieve it. One’s actions and even one’s mental states are planned and disciplined. This form of control is most prominent among ambitious people, but it can be found to varying extents in almost anyone who is not completely impulsive. People who self-manage to a high degree can have trouble letting beauty or tenderness into their lives, and to do so they have to learn to relax and surrender to the moment instead of always living in the future. We see an example of this in the scene in Atlas Shrugged where we first meet Dagny and she hears the melody of Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. She tells herself “Let go—drop the controls—this is it.”

Randy Elrod's portrait of Dagny Taggart
Randy Elrod’s portrait of Dagny Taggart, available at http://www.randyelrod.com/dagny-taggart-atlas-shrugged-my-latest-watercolor-between-the-pages-series/

Second, we have the control of reserve. Even very open people do not completely expose themselves to strangers. One has to get to know and trust a person before one “surrenders” to them by “letting them in.” To let someone in is to allow oneself to be vulnerable to them. This form of surrender can range from friendship to romantic love. This is the paradigm example of surrender as trust.

Our third kind of control is sexual. One does not let just anyone in—to one’s bed or body. While I do not wish to overstress this matter in the way Ayn Rand does, I would say that this is a somewhat asymmetrical situation, that men do most of the pursuing, women do most of the resisting (controlling) and surrendering. Women are more physically vulnerable to men than the other way around, although men and women are of course both emotionally vulnerable where romantic love is concerned.

Fourth is what I took Carrie-Ann to mean in an earlier discussion of surrendering. Here the form of control is refusing to admit that you are wrong when at some level you know you are. What is necessary here is to surrender to reality, or, to be exact, to give up the false belief you have been clinging to in favor of what you really know (at whatever level). Maintaining the false belief dis-integrates the self, because you are holding your deeper knowledge at bay and compartmentalizing yourself. Surrender in this situation heals the breach. Note that even in this epistemological situation there is still an element of vulnerability because you take a chance on your ability to survive without the false belief.

A quote from Eugene Gendlin is appropriate here:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Fifth and last for this essay is the desire to overmuch control one’s experience that in Killing Cool I label “Pretending.” What one Pretends is a false self defined by a pseudo sense of life, as when one tries to be hip or chronically ironic or inappropriately seductive. When one Pretends, one falsifies reality and reduces other people to convenient cartoon figures. In the book I develop several methods of addressing the problem of Pretending. One of them, which I call centering, involves letting reality in and thus could be said to be a form of surrender or allowing oneself to be vulnerable.

Due out September 2014

Due out September 2014

There is a sixth form of control and surrender I wish to discuss, but it would take a disproportionate amount of space, so I will save it for another essay. I’ll say this much about it: It has to do with the nature of focus. Focus, or paying attention is how we cognitively engage the world. But as it turns out there are several ways of focusing one’s attention and they have different effects on the organism. It may be advisable to stop focusing in the typical Western, problem-solving way sometimes for the sake of mental health. Doing this may also be experienced as a kind of surrender.

So what is the common emotional dynamic to all these forms of surrender? I would say that it is trust. Trust means letting your guard down and allowing yourself be vulnerable. Normally when we think of trust we think of trusting another person, but trust more fundamentally means trusting yourself. Before you can “drop the controls” or admit that you were wrong, you have to trust that you can handle the situation, that being vulnerable won’t get you killed or badly hurt emotionally. Even when one is sure of this, there can still be a raw edge to the experience of vulnerability that makes the experience that much more piquant and valuable, much like love—for there can be no love without trust, no trust without vulnerability, no vulnerability without surrender.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Authenticity and Ecology

I often take what you could call an ecological approach to problem solving. I don’t believe in forcing a solution on a situation except when it’s absolutely necessary (which it sometimes is). Instead I would rather harness the natural forces in the situation to take care of the problem. And I would take a hard look at what I or other people are doing that might be creating the problem in the first place.

This is definitely the way I look at achieving authenticity. The path to yourself consists largely of getting out of your own way and then following your natural desire for awareness. These two steps are trickier than they sound, but the solution still comes from within.

The alternative is the force-fit. I think that that way of solving problems is emblematic of Western thinking. It can be very powerful, but sometimes it makes problems worse. For example, children who don’t want to go to school are routinely made to, sometimes kicking and screaming. That’s the force-fit. But at the English school Summerhill, no child is forced to do anything (beyond obeying certain elementary safety rules). Many stay away from classes at first, sometimes for months. But eventually their desire for learning and the atmosphere of trust that has been built up motivates them to go.

When I worked as a Big Brother at a Youth Service Bureau back in the early 1980s, I took a course in parenting. It advocated never using punishment (the force-fit), but instead using natural and logical consequences. If your child refuses to go to bed at bedtime, let him go to school sleepy the next day so that he gets it. If he doesn’t come home for dinner when called, don’t let him go out after school the next day. He can try again the day after. This is an approach to child rearing based on causality (the natural ecology of the situation) rather than on duty (the force-fit).

Adult examples abound as well: heart surgery is the force-fit. Healthy eating and exercise are the ecology. I know some readers are going to bristle at any positive mention of ecology, but if you look at the situation dispassionately, you can see the merits of what I am saying. The idea of a self-correcting free market is a kind of ecological system, and government intervention is the force-fit.

When it comes to authenticity, the force-fit, which simply doesn’t work, is to “express your feelings” and to try to act earnest. The ecological approach is to stop acting like anything, go into yourself and shrug off the hype until you are centered. Then just be yourself.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. You will probably need to identify some bad concepts and habits in your life and check them against reality. However, doing this in a centered state is a whole lot easier than in a hyped up one.

And I don’t mean to imply that the Good Life can be achieved by purely psychological or spiritual means. Philosophy is also essential. In Killing Cool I write about the importance of the concept of the Primacy of Existence, which is the principle that says that reality is independent of the mind. A lot of inauthenticity comes from trying to shape the world purely by one’s wishes.

A good philosophy can help one achieve authenticity in many ways. But that philosophy must be lived from the inside, as it were, and not something forced onto one’s life.

Brave New Us

The two most read dystopian novels in English are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Despite the common vision of a totally controlled society they are fundamentally different. In Orwell’s nightmare vision, people are controlled by what they fear, but in Huxley’s, they are controlled by what they desire.

I would say that America is tending in both directions at once. After 9/11, the regulatory state, already bloated, has started becoming a security state. Torture, assassination and imprisonment without trial became acceptable (at least to the government) and the executive branch has made clear that it will use these methods even against American citizens. If there were another large terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is quite credible that our society might tip over into a “permanent state of emergency” style of dictatorship. This is more similar to 1984.

Preventing Orwell’s vision from being realized is an urgent concern, but in the long run I think the more likely threat comes from the Huxleyan direction.

It’s easy to dismiss the threat of a Brave New World-like order, because many of the “innovations” of Huxley’s 26th century do not exist in our world: We do not hatch all babies from bottles, we have not abolished marriage and family, we don’t divide people up into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon castes, and we do not have the perfect drug, Soma.
But of course, Huxley wasn’t really warning us against these literal specifics. They were not even on the horizon in 1932, when he published his novel. What he is warning us against is the danger of basing society on safety and pleasure and being willing to foreswear passion and risk to do so.

Have we no tendency in this direction?

Promiscuity is a Citizen’s Duty
We have not gone so far as to abolish romantic love, but dating is on the decline in favor of “hooking up,” temporary arrangements with NSA (no strings attached). Furthermore, the “enlightened” attitude is that any sexual proclivity is acceptable as long as it is practiced “safely.” I stopped reading the advice column “Savage Love” at about the time its author defended drinking other people’s urine, if that’s what thrills you. He got a doctor to say it was safe, you see, so that made it OK.

Huxley’s characters do not practice anything so blatantly degrading, but they do celebrate orgies. No doubt they have wiped out sexually transmitted diseases, so that makes it OK.

The similarities to Brave New World are not all driven by a desire for pleasure and security. The (understandable) desire of women today to establish themselves professionally is pushing back the childbearing years so far that assisted reproductive technologies somewhat similar to Huxley’s have to be used in some cases. It’s just a matter of time before an artificial uterus will allow women who can afford it not to have to carry babies at all. I seriously doubt that most women would want to forego the connection they feel to their unborn child, but some ambitious and/or rich ones will. It could become a trend.

Moreover, the divorce rate and the frequency of childbirth out of wedlock demonstrate that relationships and commitment are in decline. We’re not to the point where they only last a week or two, as in Huxley’s world, but the idea of a lifelong passionate partnership does seem to be on the wane.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

Safety is Our Watchword
I mentioned before that any sex is OK (in some people’s eyes) as long as it was safe sex. Safety is an obsession in our society. You can get arrested for driving your child around without a car seat, even though people over 30 or so managed pretty much just fine without car seats as children.

Speaking of safety, I remember reading about how some concerned people started handing out bottles of water at “raves,” dances where the drug Ecstasy is consumed, because dehydration is a serious risk when exertion and E are mixed. Apparently, drugs are OK as long as they are used safely. No, we don’t have Soma, Huxley’s perfect narcotic with no side-effects, but pot and E come pretty close, and there is a very casual attitude among young people toward using them. A student I knew at George Washington University once defended to me her friends’ use of marijuana. They only partook on the weekends and they studied really hard during the week. It’s not a problem if it doesn’t keep your from working hard when you need to and you use it to unwind. This is not the drug use of the pothead or stoner, but rational, controlled use, and that makes it OK. Huxley’s characters use their drug the same
way.

Digging Holes and Filling Them Up Again
Brave New World is based on a kind of Keynesian economics where innovation and efficiency are often eschewed so as to maintain full employment. Their society creates “semi-moron” members of the Epsilon caste to operate elevators instead of just having automatic elevators. Only games (such as the hilariously named Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy) that require extensive equipment are allowed.

Is this kind of thinking so different from the thinking that has underwritten the bailouts and stimulus packages? What’s important is making work and keeping the wheel turning, not actually using capital and labor efficiently. Efficiency is secondary, because on our view and Huxley’s, the economy is driven by consumption, not production. We, and Huxley’s citizens, don’t want real progress. What we want is social stability. Moreover, people in the twenty-sixth century, like people increasingly now, are driven by an anticipation of consumption rather than an ambition toward production.

What’s on the Feelies Tonight?
In Brave New World, a “savage” named John is brought to civilization from a reservation. He is not like the other inhabitants of the reservation, who are Indians; his parents were from “civilization” and his mother was stranded there, accidentally impregnated and forced to carry the baby, which normally would have been aborted, to term. She teaches the child to read and he gets his hands on a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, which he memorizes. Although he holds some truly awful religious ideas, such as self-flagellation, which he has gotten from the Indians, he is Huxley’s representative of the twentieth-century viewpoint in the world of the future.

John is amazed at the puerility of “civilization.” Except for one of the World Controllers, who has a library of forbidden works, no one knows anything about Shakespeare or any other artifact of culture. As a teacher in the real world, I am constantly amazed by what my students (all college graduates) don’t know. A couple of our readings in class involve Richard Wagner. All the students I have asked to read these passages aloud have mispronounced his name, and when I have polled the room, 90% of them say they have never heard of him. (Although when I hum “The Ride of the Valkyries” they usually know that.)

Ignorance of higher culture is bad enough, but our popular culture is often far worse. Look at the state of contemporary television. It’s true that our best shows are among the best shows ever (e.g. The Wire and Mad Men), but the worst shows today, which vastly outnumber the good ones, are among the worst shows ever. I am referring to reality TV and to what you might call horror TV. The Jersey Shore, The Real World, and Keeping up with the Kardashians are far worse than The Beverly Hillbillies or even Gilligan’s Island. I could easily see Huxley’s future including reality TV, with its gossip, shallow idiosyncrasies and attention to utterly unimportant events in utterly unimportant people’s lives. The chattering quality of the genre fits right in with the atmosphere of Brave New World.

It is obvious that many, perhaps most, Americans no longer feel that they have to hold themselves up to any kind of cultural standard. Even bare logic has gone by the wayside. A show like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which started out as chic science fiction, descended into mysticism and ever-more-twisted plot contrivances. J. J. Abrams’ Lost had about as much logic and realism as a peyote-induced hallucination.

But many people get caught up in these shows. They don’t know any better. They don’t have the attention spans for anything more sophisticated. I once praised Mad Men to a group of smart and educated (but young) co-workers. Only one had seen it. She agreed that it was good, but said that nothing much happened in it. I guess it didn’t feature enough explosions.

One innovation in Huxley’s world is the “feelies,” which are movies where you can physically feel things along with the characters. Needless to say, this is used to sensationalistic ends, with scenes such as making love on a bearskin rug. Well, we don’t have the feelies yet, but we do have IMAX, which is a similar idea.

We love spectacle more than ever, but where half a century ago, spectacle would have meant Lawrence of Arabia or Spartacus, which were meaningful stories with interesting characters, now it means The 300 or The Dark Knight Rising. In a kind of gruesome irony, comic book movies are becoming almost the only way we can have a moral theme in the movies at all. Movies with any moral complexity, such as Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Flight of the Phoenix and Cabaret, are much less common as major motion pictures, although the indies still keep such things alive on a smaller scale.

brave new world – brianday – on flickr

Sending a Message
One noteworthy feature of Brave New World is the use of hypnopedia and conditioning on children. Recorded moral precepts are whispered under their pillows as they slept, and electric shocks are used as aversion reinforcers on some. Members of the lower castes who are destined for exclusively urban life are conditioned to hate nature, for example.

We don’t go this far, of course, but there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours in this area. Some people think they can make their babies smarter by playing Mozart for them, an idea rather like conditioning. This is harmless, because, Mozart is a good thing to expose children to, even if it doesn’t make them smarter.

Less harmless, unfortunately, is the belief that if we reinforce a child’s self-adoration at every turn, it will foster better self-esteem, ambition and drive. According to Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, what it creates is narcissists. Twenge and Campbell mention a ditty that many kindergarten teachers like to teach their charges. It goes like this: “I am special, I am special, Look at me, Look at me.” What’s the takeaway from that song? I wonder. It also sends the wrong message to give every child in the sports league a trophy. T-shirts for four-year olds that say “Princess” or “Rock Star” are not devised to foster realism in the young.

Narcissism isn’t a problem In Huxley’s world, where children are programmed for social stability, but it is in ours because they are programmed to reach (somebody’s idea of) success. That is a significant difference. But the common element between Huxley’s world and ours is the belief that children are programmable.

It might be retorted that parents have always tried to train their offspring. True, but the way the inculcation of “self-esteem” works, it is more of an attempt to hypnotize the child into believing something rather than encouraging achievement as the foundation for true self-esteem.

Greek Letters, Not a Fraternity
At this point a reader might protest that, while there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours, there are crucial differences, too. In Huxley’s world they have a caste system and we don’t. Everyone in the future is engineered in the bottle to be an Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta or Epsilon, with the Alphas being brilliant and the Epsilons being “semi-morons.” We have nothing like this, right?

Well, we certainly don’t plan anything like this, but we do have something a bit like it and we do subtly and not-so-subtly encourage it. I am referring to both the Advanced Placement track in high school for the “Alphas” and the deplorable public high schools for the “Deltas” and “Epsilons.” We are perfectly content to doom a certain segment of the population, usually black and Hispanic, to a limited level of performance rather than to figure out how to lift them out of it. We are content to have a reliably available group of people to drive the buses and tend the lawns.

To some extent this situation is an unintended byproduct of century-old trends in American education, such as progressivism, which hold back Alphas and Epsilons alike. But as the saying goes, when a white person gets a cold, a black person gets pneumonia. We could improve everyone’s education, and that might ensure that truly no child gets left behind. Progressivism, I might add, was largely driven by social considerations. Instead of doing the moral thing and lifting up disadvantaged children, especially the black children who are disadvantaged largely because of what society did to their forebears, we have reached a disturbing pass where the Alphas and the Betas find the Deltas and the Epsilons amusing and even emulate their underclass style of baseball caps, hand gestures and music.

Not only does this demonstrate that the “top” of our society does not really know what to do with itself when it’s not at work, but also it demonstrates that the differences between top and bottom are accepted even embraced by a large segment of the population. (Let me hasten to add, that when I refer to Alphas and Epsilons in our world I do not mean actual levels of intelligence so much as education and social standing.)

The Consequences of Getting It Slightly Wrong
So how did our society get to be like Huxley’s? In answering this question I take my cue from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Our society, or “regime” as Bloom calls it, is based on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and especially John Locke who put the fear of violent death and a desire for comfort above all other values. What is required to achieve these ends is a society based on the needs of the body in this world, not the soul in the next. Note that in Hobbes’ and Locke’s way of thinking, we should be more avoiding a negative than seeking a positive.

For a long time, the ideal man was to be found in Locke’s vision of a prudent, reasonable person who was industrious and not self-indulgent. You might say that this ideal was necessary to build up to a self-sustaining level of comfort. In recent decades we have reached that level. At least we think we have, judging by the low rate of savings and the high rate of consumer debt in the U.S. We believe that we can afford to be self-indulgent.

Hobbes explicitly and Locke implicitly turned their back on religion and honor and other divisive and distracting features of the old regime. We have done them one better by deciding that a concern with spiritual matters (and I do not mean just religion) is passé. Popular culture has come into its own. Comic books are now studied in the universities. Using what I call the DeCurtis principle, after Rolling Stone reviewer Anthony DeCurtis, anything is serious if it is taken seriously.

Using this principle, it will not be necessary to ban Shakespeare, as they have done in the 26th century. All we have to do is elevate Batman to the same level. Then why bother with Shakespeare when Batman is so much easier—so much more . . . accessible?

Much of how we view high culture is based on social considerations, as it is in Huxley’s world. Some academics want to expand the “canon,” not on the basis of merit, but of race and sex. No doubt there are worthy works by women and minority authors that have been neglected, but it should be the worthiness that is the deciding factor for teaching them. Race and sex shouldn’t enter into it at all. These academics are not using considerations of stability, as in the 26th century, but of equality. But doesn’t that amount to the same thing?

In sum, what our society and Huxley’s have in common is that both value safety and pleasure above pretty much anything else, both think consumption rather than production drives the economy and the spirit, both devalue love and commitment, both are satisfied with sensations and eschew art, and both accept an implicit or explicit caste system. Considerations of comfort and social stability matter more than passion and ideals.

The picture I paint of our world is not pretty, but it does appear to be what we wanted. Perhaps it is even the society we deserve. Are there countervailing trends that could save us from ourselves? I will look for some and get back to you.

New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

The July 15 New York Times Book Review ran a review of Sam Harris’ Free Will. Reviewer David Menaker spends most of the review summarizing and quoting Harris’ book and then at the end, after many paragraphs of neutrality, tells us what he thinks.

What Menaker thinks is that Harris is probably correct. He thinks that’s sad, because determinism will no doubt damage virtues like courage and leadership. He opines that we may need the illusion of control in order to get on with our lives.

This is a common package, which we might dub the Humanistic Fatalism. It consists first of all in letting the latest scientific obsession roll over one, because after all science knows best (as it did about the cause of ulcers, right?). Next the victim sees all the negative consequences of the scientific belief. Later still, it is concluded that we have to pretend we have free will (or aren’t beasts, etc.). Lastly, depression, a longing for lost confidence.

There is something disturbing about resignation in the face of claims that are little better than sheer nihilism. It’s as if the so-called leaders of our culture had simply lost their nerve – or indeed their minds. Another chapter in the Decline of the West.

Fortunately, we do not have to let science (or more exactly, science-influenced philosophy) roll over us. There are champions of free will out there, for example Raymond Tallis, who says that man is more than an animal and we are more than our brains. (And he is an atheist, as am I.)

On a smaller scale I would add myself to the list of free will’s defenders. I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

I don’t claim to have proven that free will exists – that cannot be done any more than you can prove that you are conscious. But I do point out where it operates. Right now it operates in you, as you focus on my remarks and choose to follow them.

I don’t get into this in the essay, but I am increasingly disturbed by Harris’ worldview. He wants everything to be safe and blame-free. He wants brain-scanners to tell us what would make us happy. If there is to be a Brave New World, he will have been one of its Founding Fathers.

Nietzsche

Nietzsche has a terrible reputation among some people. To some extent he provoked this reaction by using titles like Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist. But he would have been horrified at being associated with the Nazis, for he was no statist and no anti-Semite and would have thought Hitler to be an “Underman” (i.e. a troll) rather than an “Overman.”

But even if you discount the association with the Nazis, Nietzsche is still wrong about most things. He is wrong that entities don’t exist except as linguistic fictions. He is wrong to challenge the idea of cause and effect. He is wrong in his rejection of free will. He is wrong to reduce the idea of good and evil to slave morality. He is wrong that some kind of “will to power” is the force behind inanimate and animate beings.

So why do I like Nietzsche when he is so often mistaken? First of all, he’s right about many things: he’s right about atheism. He’s right in rejecting mind-body dualism. He’s right in rejecting Christian-altruist morality. He’s right about the importance of physical and psychological health (although he thinks some of the most interesting specimens are half-sick ones like himself). He’s right in rejecting Kant’s idea of the thing-in-itself. Nietzsche is nothing if not provocative. He says things that just might be true, such as his thoughts on the origins of Christianity.

But perhaps the most important thing about Nietzsche to me is that he is concerned with greatness. We see this in the idea of the Overman. The Overman is frequently construed as the next step in human evolution, but that is not correct, because Nietzsche did not agree with Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, there have been Overmen around for a long time. Nietzsche would cite Julius Caesar and Goethe as examples.

The Overman is the fully-realized individual. His “will to power” does not consist in the domination of others but in the actualization of his potential. He does not “master” himself but regards great tasks as play. Nietzsche conceives of greatness as health, and his many insights into health and sickness are fascinating.

Nietzsche’s vision of greatness, along with the many gems of wisdom scattered among his strings of aphorisms, keep me interested in this always problematic thinker.

The Marionette Who Cuts His Own Strings

Another project I have been working on, which should be ready to publish on Kindle in May of 2012 is called “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris.” This long essay is an answer to Harris’ short book on determinism, also entitled Free Will.

I very much disagree with Harris’ examples and arguments. His biggest problem is that none of the examples of choice that he deconstructs involve using reason to any serious degree. They are just examples of selecting something off the top of your head. I agree with Ayn Rand that our reason is our free will, so this seems to me to be a striking omission on Harris’ part. It’s pretty easy to say that we don’t have free will in situations where all you’re doing talking about is letting an idea come into your head.

Anyway, I address Harris’ examples, the neurology experiments he cites and the philosophic presuppositions his case rests on. Then I give an account based on Ayn Rand’s, Nathaniel Branden’s, Leonard Peikoff’s and my thinking on the subject.

When Rand described our choice to use reason, she used the metaphor of focus. By entering into a rational state of mind we make the world clearer and can really start “seeing,” i.e. knowing. I think this is an excellent metaphor, but we need to remember that it is just a metaphor. An interesting exercise might be how to vividly describe conceptual level attention to a blind person.

I have a suggestion, which is from the essay. It might also make human volition a little clearer (⇐ note the optical metaphor!).

I would liken coming to attention to — coming to attention, i.e. standing up straight. It takes an effort to stand up straight but ultimately it reduces effort. When you stand up straight you are ready for action. Your joints and muscles are in their optimum relationship. You can move briskly and pleasurably. And you “define” yourself.

All this is true of coming to conceptual attention as well. It takes an effort to sustain but it makes everything easier as you go along. You are ready for action when you enter into a deliberative state of mind. Your inner environment starts to sort itself out as soon as you focus and can be further sorted out if you care to put in the work. It makes life clean and bracing. And you “define” yourself.

This metaphor does not settle the free will issue, of course, but I hope it does make it more intuitive what Ayn Rand meant when she spoke of “focus.”