The Last of Her Kind

I tend to read streaks of related books. They can be related by author or by subject. I think everybody reads streaks by author. Right now I’m in the middle of a Ward Just streak and a Howard Swiggett streak. (I hope to write an essay about Swiggett someday.)

I really like streaks by subject. Last year, doing research for a book I’ve been writing, I read four novels and one play about intellectual mentors who lead their protégés to commit crimes and/or get themselves killed. (The best of these is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.) This intersects with another streak about boarding schools and colleges.

My latest streak is about radicals, terrorists and extreme altruists. The first book was Ward Just’s The American Ambassador, and I’m planning to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Marge Piercy’s Vida, as well as a non-fiction work about Theodore Kaczynski.

I just finished the second in this streak, a novel entitled The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez.

I loved this novel. It tells the story of three women starting in 1968: Georgette, the narrator, who is looking for love; Ann, Georgette’s roommate at Barnard, who is a stone radical; and Solange, George’s sister, who runs away from their squalid home and abusive mother at the age of 14, embarking on a physical and spiritual odyssey. In these three women we have three of the paradigmatic types of young females of the era: Cosmo girl, radical and hippie. (All we’re missing is a women’s libber.)

It doesn’t have a lot of plot and it’s not told in perfect chronological order. It’s more like a new friend telling you about herself, partly in order, partly with vignettes strung together by association and partly with events revealed only when she feels she can reveal them. One Amazon reviewer labeled this narrative “stream of consciousness.” I generally hate stream of consciousness story telling, and I easily followed the logical and emotional thread of Georgette’s account, so that was not a problem for me. It’s really an imagined memoir.

I’m trying not to give away more than is necessary to communicate the set-up of the story, but since the jacket copy refers to the central event of the story in vague terms, so I feel that my doing so as well does not constitute a true spoiler. Ann does something very violent which changes her life and several lives around her. Nunez is brilliant in creating a situation of perfect ambiguity, in which Ann’s action can be seen as either justified or irresponsible, depending on your premises (rather like Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th). This action superbly integrates Ann’s character, the political beliefs of the people involved, and the tenor of the times. We see this action from the perspectives of quite a few people in the story and it is a good example of the starkly different interpretations people can have of an event.

The novel focuses mostly on 1968 – 1978, but it covers events since then as well, alluding obliquely at the story’s end to 9/11. I really enjoyed following up on the story’s characters. We’re so used to seeing a 1960s radical or hippie frozen in time, forever 20 years old, that we forget that such people grow and change – or fail to grow and thus destroy themselves.

Please do not get the idea that this novel is a nostalgic tale of those “far out” times. It’s not. While we view the characters through Georgette’s generally sympathetic eyes, we are frankly shown the consequences of their beliefs and actions, and many of those consequences are brutal. At the same time, the novel does not shy away from showing how unpleasant being poor and/or black in America can be. I could imagine that both a hard-core liberal and a hard-core conservative could enjoy this book if they were honest with themselves, because it is perfumed by the air of truth.

Author Sigrid Nunez

In some novels by and about women – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is frequently alleged to be an example – men come off rather badly. At first this seems to be true of The Last of Her Kind, which had not one but two rapists, various drug dealers and Mick Jagger among its characters. But some of the minor men, though they seem like losers, are genuinely nice guys. And just when you thought there were no wonderful men in Nunez’ world, we encounter one: decent, loving, cultured, loyal. And we see him grow.

Georgette is a narrator who is nice to spend time with. She may not be some people’s idea of ambitious, but she is earnest, a good observer and well read. She drops in interesting references.

One of these references is to a French philosopher named Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). When some in the press compare Ann to Patricia Hearst, Georgette compares her to Weil. Weil was a hard-core altruist. When she was six years old and heard that the soldiers fighting in WWI had no sugar, she refused to eat any herself. During WWII she basically starved herself to death in sympathy to citizens in occupied France living on meager rations. In between she taught Greek classics, became sympathetic to Roman Catholicism without being baptized (she came from a family of agnostic Jews), and expounded mystical ideas on God, the self, the void, beauty, etc.

French Philosopher Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

Weil was definitely anti-materialist. She gave away most of her salary. She often slept on the floor. She probably died a virgin, because, although an affectionate person, she did not like to be touched. T. S. Eliot likened her to a saint, and she had a considerable influence on both existentialist and Catholic thought in the decades after her death (although that influence has waned since the 1970s).

Weil and Ann from the novel are each in some sense “the last of her kind.” Both are altruists all the way down, although Ann has sex and is an atheist. Ann is definitely a lot angrier than Weil, who could be beatific in her enraptured contemplation of God.

Perhaps Ann has more in common with Bill North, Jr., the terrorist in The American Ambassador. Both have nothing but contempt for their parents. Like Bill, Ann does not call her parents Mom and Dad, but Sophie and Turner. Both have no sympathy for those who do not share their views. There is a slight difference between them in that Ann generally thinks it possible to make a difference working from within the system, while Bill is so alienated from bourgeois capitalism that he sees kidnapping, bombs and murder as necessary and deserved. Simone Weil, from what I’ve read so far, was not a violent or hateful person. She did try to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but she was so near-sighted and such a bad shot that no one would let her get near a gun!

I am trying to build up a portrait of the radical/terrorist/altruist type. What I am seeing so far is that they all belong to what I call the Cult of Suffering, by which I mean the intellectual-emotional position that the suffering of others should be our primary fixation in life, while the health and happiness of the fortunate (including ourselves) is not important and may even be a sign of exploitation. I am sure there are commonalities that I do not have enough examples of to identify yet. I don’t think I see what Ayn Rand called “the hatred of the good for being the good,” but the jury is still out. It’s a little risky to use fictional examples in my sample, but I feel they can illuminate the often tangled and diffuse mass of information surrounding real figures.

I think such a study – which I admit I am carrying out unsystematically – could be valuable in understanding the operation of morality and in figuring out how we can have a stable society. Besides, it’s interesting!

I invite you to share any insight you have on these subjects or any book or movie recommendations.

Lessons of The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part One and Part Two, are often placed near the top on lists of the greatest movies ever made. But is there anything else to these stories besides violence and well-dressed criminals?

The movies – and to a lesser extent, the novel – get to me in several ways. At one level, The Godfather draws me in just because it is about serious people. The Corleone family are very focused on their enterprises. They are not trifling or easily distracted. They deal in matters of life and death, and they generally decide these matters with great planning and deliberation. Things do not turn out well for the people in the story who act impulsively or venally.

Furthermore, the Corleones have discipline. They are trying to get something done and they toe the line in the effort. The Corleones value loyalty to the group. Renegades and deviants do not fare well in this world. In addition, the Corleones have a culture of accumulated wisdom. Don Corleone’s ideas are what steer the family through its trials.

It is a rare thing in a motion picture to see serious people acting rationally and strategically, and even if it is in the irrational context of crime, it is a pleasure to watch. The book, but even more the movies, convey a kind of weight that is lacking from most stories. These people are so wonderfully not frivolous!

You might think that this sort of seriousness might be found in other stories about business, i.e. legitimate business, but there aren’t a lot of examples of this. I can think of one outstanding exception: Executive Suite. Most books and movies about business usually portray executives as ridiculous or amoral. At least The Godfather doesn’t portray its characters as ridiculous.

Nina Foch and William Holden in “Executive Suite.”

In a way, that the Corleones’ enterprise is crime is almost incidental. While they use violence to solve problems, we don’t see the day-to-day criminal activity that is the foundation of the their empire. We don’t see the gambling parlors or the union racketeering or any of the rest of it. We do know that the Corleones won’t touch prostitution or drugs, which makes them slightly less abhorrent, if not exactly noble.

The first two Godfather movies – the only ones worth considering – feature two exquisite characters: father and son Vito and Michael Corleone. (The concept of the exquisite refers to a portrayal of character that is at once archetypal and concretely realistic. Such a portrayal involves the integration of unexpected or even paradoxical attributes. For more on the exquisite, see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

What makes Vito’s character exquisite is the juxtaposition of a ruthless violence with a style of reasonableness and traditional values. Vito is not some Scarface-like screaming maniac. He is imperturbable. He is willing to negotiate. (Although his idea of negotiating sometimes involves making you an offer you can’t refuse.) Further, and this is clearer in the novel than in the film, he is straight-laced about sex – he expresses contempt for one of the other Family leaders for being a pimp. And he does not wish to get into the drug business.

Michael describes Vito to his future wife Kay as a man of great responsibility, like a senator or a governor. And that’s part of the key to Vito’s character: he is the head of a family and he takes care of that family. He has a certain kind of twisted parentalism, as befits the moniker “godfather.”

Another element of Vito’s character is that he believes himself to live in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. As a refugee from Sicilian Mafia violence who emigrates as a child to the jungle of Little Italy, he is somewhat justified in this belief. He sees society as a great war of all against all. And the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. In a world of war, it is Machiavelli’s rules that apply, not Jefferson’s. Vito is a lot like The Fountainhead‘s Gail Wynand in this regard.

Vito has no taste for cruelty, however, and although he is quite comfortable with ruthless coercion, he would never harm a woman or a child. He is not a sociopath. He is just making sure that he and his are safe in a world fraught with peril.

We could take the Corleones to be modern-day Medicis, a dynasty using cunning and the occasional act of violence in order to survive and prosper in ever-dangerous times. If Italian Renaissance history is not your thing, we could compare the crime families in The Godfather to the Great Houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune, who are into vendettas, poisons and swordplay.

Lorenzo de Medici

By either analogy the Corleones can be seen as a kind of nobility, at least in the fantasy world they occupy. Perhaps we might see nobility in general as the ability to maintain dynastic survival in a world of violent competitiveness: nobility as evolutionary fitness over the long term. If you are a force to be reckoned with, you are noble, but if you are a wood chip in the flood, you are of no account and are common.

Vito’s son Michael is similar to his father in some ways and different in others, but is still exquisite. Like Vito, Michael is a “reasonable man.” He is ruthless, too. And he does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. But he is not rooted in traditional values and except for one romantic encounter, which significantly takes place in Italy rather than America, he is cold. Almost the first thing he does after his father dies and he assumes unequivocal command of the Corleone Family is to murder the heads of all the other five families in New York. This goes beyond what is necessary, since only two of the other families had plotted against him. His father never felt it necessary to be the only one left standing: Michael is driven by a desire for safety, which is nice way of saying that he is paranoid.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

At the same time his men are butchering half the gangsters of New York he also has his sister’s husband garrotted, because he was a traitor. In doing so, Michael wounds his sister enormously. This, Vito would never have done. In The Godfather, Part Two, Michael’s paranoia escalates until he drives off his wife and his adopted brother. Then he has his real brother murdered.

To understand the message of Michael’s life, we might wish to consider a concept that has long circulated through the Objectivist and libertarian worlds: the prudent predator. This type embodies the question: what if you could commit crimes with virtually no chance of getting caught? Wouldn’t doing so be in your “rational self-interest”? I believe the answer to this question to be No. My point, however, is not to rejoin that debate but to note that Michael Corleone is a great example of the type. And The Godfather, especially Part Two, has something to say about the type, because it chronicles what happens to a prudent predator.

The type has been dealt with in literature before. One common device in good stories about evil, like The Godfather and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is to show that even when evil does not get punished by the law, it still suffers by its internal logic. Call it “the operation of cosmic justice.” It is the operation of this principle that makes the Godfather stories moral, even though none of the major characters is ever tried for his crimes.

One reason why the prudent predator is impractical is that he sees other people not as people, but as objects to be used. This view is not conducive to the good life, needless to say. Michael never gets arrested, but he does become a social atom. He is capable of hurting anyone, even his own brother, and by the conclusion of The Godfather, Part Two, he is a solitary being, living in his beautiful lakeside house with his haunted memories. If the survival of the fittest is the rule you choose to live by, then as the winner you get to survive by yourself.

You might think that Vito is a prudent predator as well, but Vito is too well connected to other people. Maybe his connection to others and his somewhat traditional values are just superficial. Maybe deep down he could become like Michael. But he gets through life without descending to that depth. I would say that this is because he is from an Old World culture.

Vito doesn’t get through life unscathed, however. He is shot and badly wounded by rival criminals because he refuses to modernize by entering the drug trade with them. His traditional values, if that’s what they are, are not enough to protect him from the logic of criminal “progress.” An Old World man like Vito is not going to flourish in the remorseless evolutionary struggle of the New World. But if the modern American world forces a Vito to die or become a Michael, and if that world forces a Michael to become a murderous robot, then can we say that being a prudent predator pays?

So what do Part One and Part Two add up to? Part One chronicles the descent of a once good man into evil. Part Two shows how he suffers due to his fall, while also showing his father’s rise. In the long run, the Medici approach might work for a time among rooted, Old World, types, especially in the Old World where clients look to their patrons with loyalty, but it does not work among “individualistic” Americans, who eventually force godfathers to become monsters. Michael ends up like a shark, the perfectly ruthless killer whose fate it is to swim alone.

At the level of Michael’s character, we could see the Godfather movies as a tragedy. Michael’s tragic flaw is loyalty to his father, whom he sees as a great man. This loyalty is what motivates him to join the family business and commit his first murders when his father’s life is in danger. (Francis Ford Coppola’s friend George Lucas tried to craft a similar tragic flaw for Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy, but it was not convincing.)

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

So the Godfather stories are at once a tragedy, a portrayal of human seriousness and twisted nobility and a commentary on the prudent predator. Such richness is what makes great art. But there is an additional dimension.

One overarching theme of the story, in my opinion, is the importance of creating a just society. In a society like Sicily or big city America, would-be great men are crushed and have to resort to violence to protect their self-esteem and the ones they love. No doubt some men rose to legitimate greatness from such a milieu, but it probably took a titanic struggle and an almost irrational optimism to do so. It would be understandable for other men to think they had to play by Machiavelli’s rules.

I don’t think that in the end The Godfather is really about crime and criminals. For one thing, the Corleones are a fantasy. Real criminals are almost all thugs, not Renaissance princes. And crime just doesn’t carry that much thematic weight. So what is the story about if not crime?

One way to understand a novel or movie is to look at its social context. For example, the movie The Untouchables, which tells the story of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone, is “really” about the War on Drugs and how we have to embrace ruthless means to fight it. On the other hand, Public Enemies, which tells the somewhat similar story of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of John Dillinger, is about the War on Terror and how we have degraded ourselves by the way we have fought it. The Untouchables is from 1987 and Public Enemies is from 2009, and this is not mere coincidence.

The social context in which The Godfather stories were created was threefold: 1. the Civil Rights Movement, which had turned to Black Power, because a number of vocal African-Americans believed that America’s 300-year war against black people was not going to be ended by a few Congressional acts. 2. The Vietnam War, which showed that even the Federal government could not be trusted. 3. The battle against police corruption, especially in New York City, which revealed the dirtiness of the law. (This third story is taken up in another movie with Al Pacino, Serpico.) The Godfather, novel and movies, are a commentary on what happens when the social contract is not honored and indeed is not honorable.

The Godfather illustrates what happens if injustice, oppression and corruption are allowed to create conditions of war in American society. The oppressed turn to violence and domination in an attempt to protect themselves and to establish a reliable social order. A certain type of powerful person will either try to rise within a just society or exercise his power to create a new one, in this case, a society within a society. And such men will exploit opportunities created by society, especially victimless crime, the laws against which are after all another form of injustice and oppression.

These attempts to establish a safe and prosperous zone outside of mainstream society do not work, of course. In fact, they engender something that is as bad as the conditions that spawned them. But ambitious, intelligent and indomitable men will create their “families” or gangs or sometimes even new religions, if they are not allowed to achieve their greatness through normal channels.

But as I say, the criminal class is beside the point: The Godfather stories aren’t about criminals: They are about great men who will not be squelched. They are about 1960s radicals. They are about Malcolm X. If you don’t want a war of all against all, then those in power and those who can influence those in power must establish a just society. That was a message for The Godfather‘s time, and for ours.

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Malcolm X

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.

Rights as Aura; Rights as Rules

I think there are two ways, broadly speaking, that we could look at individual rights. It may be that they are both valid within their own contexts, but there is a tension between them.

The first and more popular idea is “rights as aura.” This holds that a right is something that attaches to a person like a moral force field. This kind of right is “absolute” in the sense that it can be defined in a vacuum and in that it is never acceptable to “violate” it. The language of the Declaration of Independence, which holds that rights are “inalienable” and “self-evident” partakes of the aura theory, at least rhetorically.

The most extreme example of the aura theory is Murray Rothbard’s “non-aggression axiom.” That term makes it sound as if rights are completely intrinsic, a given like existence itself. Many of the problems of libertarian thought, especially anarchist thought, stem from granting rights this sort of acontextual status.

The other idea of rights holds that they are principles, like rules of a game, that are used to achieve the kind of society that is best for man. The Utilitarian defense of liberty might play out something like this. Pushed to its extreme you might get a liberal view like legal realism, which holds that laws are just politics disguised as science. I would argue that there is more to this theory than these unsavory associations suggest, however.

There are elements of both views in Objectivist thought. Man is an end in himself not the property of anyone else. That isn’t an “axiom” or “self-evident,” but it is an absolute. You could look upon it as like an aura, but that will prove problematic later.

However, it is not a right. It is a obligation, perhaps the only unchosen one that Objectivism recognizes. It is not a right, because, as Leonard Peikoff points out in OPAR, the question of rights never comes up until you are trying to organize or reform a society.

Well, OK, you might respond, a right is just the obligation of recognizing others as ends in themselves construed as a societal principle. It’s an aura-in-context.

That’s certainly better than the basic aura idea, but it still doesn’t quite come to terms with an inconvenient fact: Society has “overhead,” i.e. requirements qua society. This is not the same thing as saying that that groups have rights, but it does mean that rights have to take into account the overhead.

The obvious example of overhead is that for society to function, the individual has to give up his “right” of retaliation. I can know for a crystal-clear objective fact that John Smith robbed me, because I know him and I saw him do it. In the “state of nature” the moral thing to do would be to go over to his cave, take back my property and beat him up or kill him, depending on whether I thought he would bother me again.

But “society” can’t function if I act this way. Rand said it was because the use of force needed to be put under objective control, but this is not exact. My action against Smith might be perfectly objective—but it’s not publicly verifiable in and of itself. It has to be objective in a way that the rest of us can see too. The need for public verifiability is a big part of the “overhead.” If I try to exercise my “natural right” of retaliation, society, through its legitimate government, is correct in sending men with guns to block my action, even though I am NOT initiating force against anyone.

Along with this would go the right of subpoena. We cannot settle criminal or civil disputes if we cannot compel people to testify. And yes that means going over to their house with a gun and forcing them to go down to the courthouse, even if they haven’t ever initiated force against anyone in their whole lives. The overhead demands this. So much for the aura, at least simplistically understood.

Let’s take a harder case. It would be right to get rid of the entire welfare state. But if we had the political ability to wipe it out with the stroke of a pen, would that be a good idea? What about all the 75-year olds receiving Social Security checks? Should we stop sending them that money? I would say that it would be deeply immoral to cut them off, even though they have received far more money than they have contributed (even with interest). We have an obligation to phase out Social Security gradually, without beggaring anyone, even if that means continuing to have taxes to do it. Yes, I mean sending the tax man to your house with a gun to make you pay.

Kind of violates the aura, doesn’t it? Yet the morality of this course of action should be obvious: As a society, through our elected representatives and with the support of the majority of the populace, we made a commitment to people who bought into a system in good faith. Either we honor that commitment, even though it shouldn’t have been made in the first place, or we do terrible harm to vulnerable people whose greatest sin was wishful thinking. That doesn’t seem like a difficult choice to me.

The fact is that although rights are based on something a bit aura-like, namely the recognition that we are all ends-in-ourselves, they are just as much a practical tool for realizing a certain kind of moral ideal of society. A society where force is never initiated against the innocent is not a possibility, because people living together create irreducibly social dynamics that have to be worked around. Individual rights are the principles or rules that allow us to best achieve our moral goals in a social context. It will not be perfect in the Platonic sense. It does not reduce our allegiance to the principle that all people are ends in themselves to admit that the initiation of force is necessary in certain limited cases, in order to create a society that is as just and pro-life as possible.

Perhaps we could say that rights are absolute in a contextual way, but they do not constitute an aura.