Jan 26, 2012

Should a movement have watchmen?

A movement has no gatekeepers. That means there is no way to stop destructive individuals from entering the movement. Yet, there must be quality control at some level to prevent damage to efforts to reach the goals of the movement. To detect dangers, a movement needs watchmen as lookouts.

JOB REQUIREMENTS. The individuals who choose to be watchmen and exercise quality control, in some manner and at some level, are necessarily "self-appointed." Such a function is open to anyone who sees a danger worthy of action and has the skills to take appropriate steps -- which means mainly the ability to present an objective argument proving his charges against other individuals in the movement.

Objectivity means drawing all ideas logically from facts of reality. To be objective, an indictment of one individual by another must present facts as well as an argument leading from those facts to the indictment. The facts must be presented with specificity; pointing in the general direction ("Look at his writings!") is not specific. The argument must cover the steps required to move from evidence to conclusion. The indictment must be clear.

Debates among various watchmen are inevitable and desirable. The accusers are akin to prosecuting attorneys. There are defendants, rightly or wrongly accused. There are also the ladies and gentlemen of the jury: anyone who studies the issues, makes a judgment, and acts accordingly. However, there is no judge to set rules of procedure. Nor is there a bailiff, a policeman, or a jailer.

EXAMPLE APPROACHES. There are many optional approaches available to watchmen who are ready to make charges. Here are two examples to consider for their particular methods:

(1) http://www.dianahsieh.com/ff

(2) http://www.checkingpremises.org/

They are widely separated in time. In some ways, they are different in their purposes and methods. The first consists mainly of an annotated list of links to the author's own discussions on particular topics of false friends of Objectivism. The second, in most (but not all) of its tabbed pages (as of the day I viewed it), also consists mainly of links to other writings critiquing individuals the accusers think are pseudo-Objectivists. (The second site is new and the content is evolving.)

A third effort to consider is an apologia, a coherent essay which offers a defense against charges:

(3) http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2012/01/on-some-recent-controversies.html

I have identified the particular writings above because of their virtues, whatever faults they might also have (which must be judged within the context of each project's purposes). Generally, in the links cited both sources are serious and dignified. They deal with issues, which here means individuals and their ideas. They eschew foul language, "hot headed" outbursts, hyperbole, street talk, and other symptoms of profane culture.

CONCLUSION. Does a movement need watchmen? Yes, to protect the movement's efforts to reach its goals. The responsibility of being watchmen is heavy. It requires diligence in research, thought, and argumentation. It also requires the strength to withstand scrutiny.

PERSONAL NOTE: A BRIGHT FUTURE. I judge a movement by the actions of its best individuals, which includes, in part, their efforts to (1) set an example for rational behavior and (2) discourage violations of etiquette. (By "etiquette" I mean principles and rules of behavior that facilitate trade among individuals in a society.)

I have been a student of Objectivism for fifty years. In looking at the best behavior of particular individuals in recent controversies, on both sides, I see some signs of increasing personal maturity and interpersonal civility -- both of which are prerequisites for the trade of ideas, a trade that strengthens a movement. I also keep in mind a generalization: In controversies, the best individuals in a movement are often quiet until they are ready to make a thoughtful statement, if one is even worth formulating.

In preparing to write The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, I read about conflicts in several movements (such as the movement to overthrow the Enlightenment). Compared to those movements, the Objectivist movement is healthy and growing stronger. For this and other reasons, I am objectively hopeful for the future of the Objectivist movement.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. -- I "know" some of the individuals involved in the controversy above, but only through the internet. For personal reasons, I dislike a few and I have ceased communicating with them. The issues in the sites above, however, are not personal issues, but issues of individuals accused of misrepresenting or otherwise damaging the Objectivist movement.

Jan 18, 2012

Ayn Rand on Selecting a Presidential Candidate?

In Vol. 3, No. 3 (March, 1964) of The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand published "Check Your Premises," an essay that offers "a few basic considerations, as guidelines in deciding what one can properly expect of a political candidate, particularly of a presidential candidate" (p. 9, col. 1). What were those guidelines?

(Caution: My notes below are not comprehensive. The following quotations are passages that I have selected because I think they make points applicable to all times, including our own. Occasionally I have summarized intermediate steps in her presentation. Reader, beware. Read the article for yourself; you can purchase the TON collection at the Ayn Rand estore or, printed, on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Objectivist-Newsletter-1962-1965-Ayn-Rand/dp/1561141496/.)

A FOCUS ON POLITICAL PRINCIPLES. "One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy -- only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only a political consistency that we can demand of him; if he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

(Does the statement above mean that Ayn Rand was advocating either (1) not investigating or (2) ignoring the results of an investigation of a candidate's more fundamental principles, that is, his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics? I think she was advocating neither. Why?

1. Six months earlier, in "A Suggestion," October, 1963, TON, p. 40, col. 2, Ayn Rand -- who always emphasized (a) the causal nature of fundamental ideas and (b) the necessity of non-contradictory integration -- said, "If [the candidate] ... should ... tie his candidacy to some doctrine of a mystical nature -- we will, of course, be free not to vote for him." That means, I think, one cannot evaluate what a candidate says about his principles in isolation from his ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical roots.

2. Two years earlier, in the first question in the Intellectual Ammunition Department of the March, 1962, TON, Barbara Branden, then writing under the editorship and approval of Ayn Rand, said: "A rational advocate of capitalism should repudiate any individual or group that links capitalism to the supernatural. He commits treason to his own cause if and when he cooperates with the mystical 'conservatives', if and when he sanctions them as creditable spokesmen for the cause of freedom." The immediate context was different, but I think the guideline applies to voting as well as to campaigning for a candidate.

These two earlier quotations show, I think, that Ayn Rand was not advocating an evaluation of a candidate's statements of political principle in isolation from the remainder of his philosophy.)

PRINCIPLES VS. PARTICULAR POSITIONS. "If [the candidate] has mixed premises," Ayn Rand writes, "we have to judge him ... by his dominant trend. ... A vote for a candidate does not constitute an endorsement of his entire position, not even of his entire political position, only of his basic political principles." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

A particular position -- such as advocating withdrawal from the United Nations -- is not a principle. It is, Ayn Rand says, a "concrete." A candidate's "view on whether a nation should or should not protect its sovereignty is a principle, which covers many issues besides the U. N." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

"If a candidate evades, equivocates and hides his stand under a junk-heap of random concretes, we must add up those concretes and judge him accordingly. If his stand is mixed, we must evaluate it by asking: Will he protect freedom or destroy the last of it? Will he accelerate, delay or stop the march toward statism?" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 2)

A VOTER'S RANGE OF CHOICES. "[O]ften, particularly in recent times, a voter chooses merely the lesser of two evils" (TON, March, 1964, p.10, col. 2).

"There are many forms of protest open to us, if [an unacceptable candidate is actually nominated]: we can vote for a write-in candidate of our own choice -- or vote a straight Republican ticket, leaving the presidential and vice-presidential spaces blank -- or vote a mixed ticket -- or vote for any Democrat who is not fully committed to statism -- or not vote at all. But we cannot vote for the proposition [held by some self-styled Republican "mainstream" candidates] that we, as advocates of capitalism, are lunatics -- or for the candidate who so regards us" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

A CHOICE OF INCOMMENSURATE EVILS? Sometimes both major candidates are philosophically unqualified, but one represents a short-term, grave danger, a danger so great that even subsequent free elections are threatened by his becoming president. Ayn Rand wrote about one such situation, the electoral conflict between Richard Nixon and George McGovern:

"I am not an admirer of President Nixon ... but I urge every able-minded voter ... to vote for Nixon -- as a matter of national emergency. This is no longer an issue of choosing the lesser of two commensurate evils. The choice is between a flawed candidate representing Western Civilization -- and the perfect candidate of its primordial enemies. If there were some campaign organization called 'Anti-Nixonites for Nixon', it would name my position. The worst thing said about Nixon is that he cannot be trusted, which is true; he cannot be trusted to save this country. But one thing is certain: McGovern can be trusted to destroy it." (Quoted to me by Robert LeChevalier, as coming from "Preview," an article which appeared through three issues, Nos. 22, 23, and 24, of Vol. 1 of The Ayn Rand Letter; the quoted passage, RL says, comes from No. 22. I no longer own a copy of TARL.)

The problem here is deciding whether a particular election involves a choice of two incommensurate evils -- that is, inconsistent destruction caused by one candidate's pragmatic folly versus consistent destruction caused by the other candidate's principled, ideological design.

GENERAL PERSPECTIVE ON ELECTIONS. "An election campaign is not the cause, but the effect and the product of a culture's intellectual trends. It is, perhaps, too early to fight for capitalism on the level of practical politics, in a culture devoid of any intellectual base for capitalism" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

The full article contains many other insights applicable to today. It also provides detailed examples that illustrate the guidelines Ayn Rand offers.

SUMMARY. As an answer to the historical question -- What were Ayn Rand's guidelines for voting? -- I say she generally recommended focusing on the fundamental political principles of each candidate, while being alert to the candidate's deeper philosophy if the candidate himself tied his politics to mysticism.

MY ELABORATION. If, as I think, a John Locke sort of candidate were to say, "I have faith in God; he created man; he gave man the faculty of reason for living in this world; and reason leads us to the need for a free society," then such a candidate would be acceptable because his supernaturalism and mysticism are detachable, so to speak, in public political discussions. We have common ground with the idea that man is a rational animal.

On the other hand, if a candidate says, "I have faith that God created man; man is corrupt; and his faculty of understanding is too limited to justify having power over others -- except that we must ban sinful behavior, at least at the local level, and wage a perpetual war of sacrifice against our foreign religious enemies," then the candidate is not acceptable.

Today another main type of candidate is the Pragmatist. (In the 1964 article, Ayn Rand discusses political pragmatism in detail.) By definition, we cannot discover his essential principles because he has no principles and therefore his job performance is unpredictable. In my view, the Pragmatist is dangerous because he can be attacked for imputed principles that he does not actually hold. Today a Republican pragmatist becomes "Mr. Capitalism" to his Democratic collectivist opponents.

With Ayn Rand's guidelines, making a choice is easier.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Jan 16, 2012

An Activist's Choices

This post is a set of notes, not a treatise. I am basing it on my experience, my reading of history (especially for The Power and the Glory), and my observation of activists during my fifty years as a student of Objectivism.

WHAT IS ACTIVISM? If you design and build skyscrapers, you are an architect; if you campaign to eliminate your city's controls on construction, you are an activist. If you make steel rails, you are a manufacturer; if you speak against tariffs on imported steel, you are an activist. If you are hired to explain elementary math to children, you are a teacher; if you work with others to abolish governmental schools, you are an activist.

If you are in business, then offering a product on the market directly benefits both you and your customers. You and they are traders. In contrast, activism for objective people means taking some form of action in society to improve the social circumstances in which individuals trade material and spiritual values. The benefits of activism are indirect.

An activist is free to choose his subject matter, scope of operation, form of action, and other factors. The choices are personal; they are shaped by one's intelligence, ability to learn new skills, and, most of all, one's deepest personal values.

In the battle for a more objective society, the battleground is wide. On one side are ranks of the enemy, standing shoulder to shoulder from one end of the battleground to the other end. They control or threaten every aspect of life. On the other side, the side of advocates for a more objective society, there are many empty spaces waiting to be filled by revolutionaries.

THE CHOICES TO MAKE. Following are some of the factors that an activist can consider in planning his activism. Planning is important because successful activism requires a long effort -- to accumulate skills, acquire specialized knowledge of subject matter, select allies, and make contacts in the appropriate media (decision influencers) and centers of power (the decision makers).

Which Issue? The essential factor in activism -- the factor that shapes many of the other factors -- is the issue you choose to work on. Beyond that, the order of the factors to consider is generally optional.

Example issues are: Regulations enforced by your local government's "Planning Bureau"; the international slave trade; the national prohibition against narcotics; the lack of civility in debate and discussion; ignorance or antipathy toward the scientific method; racism; legislative threats to your profession; altruism vs. egoism in personal life and politics; the latest in a long series of attempted tax increases proposed by your state legislature; or the whole deluge of philosophical, social, and political problems in general.

Brian Phillips, author of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs: A Defense of Capitalism As the Only Social System That is Both Moral and Practical, has chosen to write broadly about government and individual rights. He has spoken out for years in his own weblog, in a local activist network, and in national publications.

Specialist or generalist? Rather than choose a special, long-term interest, an activist can be a generalist. That means keeping up with the ever-changing parade of issues that are "hot topics" for the mass media and their audiences. Being a successful generalist requires an ability to quickly study an issue, uncover the deeper principles involved, learn the particulars of a few examples, and develop a rational alternative to the present problem.

The danger of general activism is shallowness; and generalists speaking in public forums cannot speak authoritatively. They are therefore less persuasive than specialists who have long studied the issue and practiced presenting their side to a variety of audiences. On the other hand, specialized activists must be prepared to be out of the spotlight of mass media attention most of the time -- and then be in the center of the spotlight for a brief but intense time. Socialized vs. free market medical care is an example of an issue that comes and goes in public attention; the specialists quietly continue their work regardless of the immediate attention they receive.

An example of a specialist is Bosch Fawstin, a highly accomplished illustrator and graphic-novelist who focuses on fighting Islamic aggression. He also writes and speaks out in radio interviews and at conferences.

Geographic scope? An activist can work on an issue in a geographic area small enough that he can easily and repeatedly meet, face to face, all the individuals involved. For example, a local activist could meet the city council members who are considering privatizing city-owned utilities, as well as the other activists who want privatization or who oppose it. Or an activist can work on a larger scale: county, state, region, nation, or world. An example of the last are the activists who work in organizations such as Amnesty International, which pressures governments to release "prisoners of conscience," individuals imprisoned for their beliefs, not for crimes of aggression or fraud. (I am using AI as an example, not endorsing all of its actions; I did volunteer work for AI about 35 years ago, but I have had little contact with AI since then.)

Pro, con, or mixed? In your activism do you want to mainly express support for an objective alternative -- such as explaining the nature and benefits of science -- or do you want to mainly oppose a threat -- such as a particular organization (like the Council on American-Islamic Relations), particular news agency (The New York Times), or even a particular fallacy (like the Broken Window)? If you mix the positive and negative approaches, the proportions are of course optional.

Alex Epstein is the founder and director of the Center for Industrial Progress. A model activist -- indeed an activist "entrepreneur" -- he calls his positive approach "aspirational advocacy".

In-line or off-line? Do you want to make your activism an application of your central purpose in life (CPL)? That approach is in-line activism, which means your activism is in line with, an extension of, or application of your productive purpose in life. An example would be a nuclear engineer who, in the evenings and on the weekends, fights political restrictions on building nuclear power plants.

Or do you want to move away from your CPL to pick an area of activism that has a deep personal value but no direct connection to your CPL -- as when an accountant decides to fight drug laws because he sees the destruction such laws cause.

One example of an "in-line" activist is Paul Hsieh, MD. He is the founder of the weblog Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine. He writes letters to editors, "op-eds," and other essays, criticizing proposed and current statist medical programs or advocating separation of Medicine and State. His portfolio has grown steadily through years of effort.

Social relationships? Do you want to work alone (for example, writing letters to editors). Or would you like to network with other activists focused on the same issue? Or do you want to associate with like-minded individuals on a series of intense but occasional, ad hoc projects (such as a temporary committee opposing a proposed state tax increase). Or would you prefer to be the founder or employee of an institution such as the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights? Examples are employees of The Ayn Rand Institute.

Jared Rhoads, founder of The Lucidicus Project, works directly with medical students who are looking for a philosophical foundation for freedom in medicine.

Cognitive level? To be most effective, all activism for a more objective society must be an integration of the deepest philosophical principles and the most particular facts. Which do you mainly want to focus on -- for example, propagating principles (such as rational egoism vs. altruism) or working with legislators to change the details of certain existing or proposed laws?

In other words, in the stream of philosophical ripples from the philosopher to the man in the street, do you want to be mainly a philosophical activist, an intellectual activist (who applies philosophical principles to current issues and offers alternative solutions), a principled political activist (stressing the guiding principles of proper government), or a political tactician who takes care of the detailed "mechanics" of political campaigns, such as scheduling a candidate's speaking engagements and so forth?

Apply a particular skill set you already have? Are you now a researcher, writer, accountant, filmmaker, office manager, speaker, salesman, trainer, legal adviser, clerk, or website designer? Would you like to do the work you love, but for an activist organization whose goals you support? The Institute for Justice may be an example of such an organization.

What medium? Through what medium do you expect to propagate ideas -- writing (speeches, weblog posts, magazine articles, books), speaking (in online or face-to-face interviews on radio or TV, or to "live" audiences); or focused personal communication in which you are a salesman?

Investment of time and money? Do you want to eventually work full-time as an activist, or do you want to devote part of your time each week? How much of your own money are you willing to invest in your activism; or would you like to find or create a job as an activist? Mike Neibel, author of the weblog Mike's Eyes, engages in a part-time, low-expense form of activism.

A small-scale example. My own activism is the one I know best. In influence, it is very small scale -- but I love doing it. The issue that fascinates me is broad: the war between reason and mysticism in our time. I am "specializing" in that war, but in certain defined ways.

Since I am retired (I am 67), I can devote full time to it. However, my activism is a by-product of my continuing central purpose in life, which is to tell success stories from history. Two earlier products of that central purpose in life are The Aristotle Adventure and The Power and the Glory. Indirectly both support my activism. They help spread ideas I support.

The next major product I plan to create is also a book (in eight or ten years). Between now and then, intermediate products will be mainly the posts I write for my weblog, The Main Event, but occasionally other, related articles such as book reviews for The Objective Standard, here and here. Those short-term writings are, in effect, entries in my work journal; they should become a base for the book.

As I learned initially from philosopher Ayn Rand, fighting for a better world is in fact living in a better world, a world in which I meet individuals who share my values, and we take action toward those values.

If you do choose to become an activist, welcome to a better world.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith