Oct 2, 2011

The Most Important Books in My Life

At 67, I am beginning the last phase of my life. I am looking back, and one pattern I see is the role of books in my development. They awakened in me the possibility of a life worth living; they helped me solve personal problems that threatened my progress; and they provided the particular information I needed to achieve my four highest personal values: my work, my free-range lifestyle, my friendships, and my favorite leisure activity, reading fiction for happy endings.

The list that follows is a salute to the authors of the books that have enriched my life. The list may also remind those who labor to write books that your writings do have influence, even though you may never see the results.

The following list is organized by category, but the categories are roughly chronological in terms of their first appearance in my life. Not included are the earliest books and comics; none stand out to me now, though I remember reading them avidly for the action and for the exotic situations, as in the long series of Tarzan comics.

1. FICTION. At the age of 12. around 1956, I read Carey Rockwell's Stand by for Mars! (1952). This Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure, written for a juvenile audience, is a story of ambition, extraordinary circumstances, and success. It was one of many science fiction stories -- particularly of "future history" -- that I consumed in the following 20 years. (In junior high school, I was intrigued by history but could not make sense of it as a system.)

At about age 15, I began reading Conan Doyle's many Sherlock Holmes short stories. They introduced me to a logical mind, one that explicitly begins with sense-perceptible facts and proceeds to a conclusion that solves a problem -- all in exotic conditions uncovered in everyday life. What I yearned for at this time was a methodical way of dealing with life. I went through a period of near-suicidal depression.

Over the years, I learned that one question matters most in selecting fiction: Would I want to be alive in the world this storyteller has created? I can now answer "Yes!" for casual fiction writers such as Louis L'Amour (Utah Blaine), Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe series), Agatha Christie (Miss Marple series), Robert B. Parker (Spencer series and Randall series), Tolkien (Lord of the Rings trilogy only) and Keith Laumer. They are the writers whose stories I have collected, kept, and will read again and again until the end.

2. PHILOSOPHY. At the age of 17, in March of 1961, I watched a morning television show, an interview of Ayn Rand about her recently published book, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Her book offered the elements of a framework for viewing my world and my life as a whole. The book, especially the title essay, introduced me not only to her philosophy, Objectivism, but also to the subject that would become the core of my life: the history of the lives of the philosophers. I soon read Ayn Rand's novels and -- by writing to the address printed at the end of Atlas Shrugged -- began obtaining the few, short, nonfiction works that were slowly emerging. I now had the framework I needed, but understanding it and applying it would require a long time. Fifty-one years after seeing that interview, I am still learning and applying.

3. HISTORY. In a Medieval History class at Tulane University, around 1964, I read sections of R. R. Bolgar's The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries. It gave me details that showed that ideas cause history, as Ayn Rand had held. Since then I have purchased hundreds of books on history. A few admirable examples are: John Marenbon, Early Medieval Philosophy and Later Medieval Philosophy; Frederic C. Lane, Venice, a Maritime Republic; and Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte.

4. MONEY. When I began working my first professional job, as a writer in a marketing department of an electronics company, I followed the advice of a woman I met there; she was a refugee from the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution: "Live on one paycheck, and invest the next one." I paid my debts from school and began to look for ways to invest for the future. I wanted to retire early. (The men in my family died young; so, I was told, I should expect the same.) That was around 1969. I read a variety of books on "Austrian" economics and a few on personal investment. The one book that best represents that stream of books is Harry Browne's much later Why the Best-Laid Investment Plans Usually Go Wrong: How You Can Find Safety and Profit in an Uncertain World. I retired at age 45. I have followed Browne's "permanent portfolio" idea for 35 years. (I generally ignored the other half of the book, on a "variable portfolio.")

5. HEALTH. I faced heart disease at the age of 30. A wise doctor gave me a choice: take drugs for the remainder of my life or change my lifestyle. I chose the latter. Among other books, I read Live Longer Now: The First 100 Years of Your Life (1974) by Nathan Pritikin and others. (I have not studied the current version of the Pritikin Program.) Within 15 months, by following its guidelines, I lost 75 pounds and banished my heart disease.

Fifteen years later, my long, cascading series of other medical problems accelerated. Two books, which I read around 2002, led me to solutions to many of the problems. The first, which I still use, is for posture correction: Pete Egoscue's Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain. The second did not solve my many inflammation problems directly, but it did lead me to a diagnostic tool (an elimination diet) and then to a dietary solution: The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health, by John A. McDougall, MD. Thanks to Egoscue and McDougall, years of physical misery were coming to an end.

Books have provided information and fuel, and thus they have helped me shape my life to be what I wanted it to be. Thank you, to all the writers who labored so long and hard.

Burgess Laughlin

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

May 8, 2011

What is profane culture?

This is the last in a series of three posts sketching my preliminary understanding of democratic, sacred, and profane culture.

In an online column, Dennis Prager, a tireless advocate of Judaism, discusses a song, "Fuck You," nominated in 2010 to be the Grammy Awards' Record of the Year. Prager says:

[T]he music industry, from producers to artists, is largely populated by people who regard social and cultural norms as stifling. Their professional lives are dedicated to lowering that which is elevated, to destroying that which uplifts, and to profaning that which is held sacred.[1]

A "song" such as "Fuck You" is considered profane by Prager because he holds that all individuals, as the creatures of a perfect God, deserve respect. (The term "fuck" also demeans sexuality.) In a religious context, a profane act is one that violates, demeans, or affronts the sacred, where "sacred" refers to God or something closely related to God.[2]

SECULAR EXAMPLES. I think the concept "profane" is valid in an objective, secular context as well. The profane is that which violates, demeans, or affronts the sacred in man. (See the previous post, "What does 'sacred' mean?")

The weapons in the profane assault on the sacred in man include the following.

1. Speech, in many forms. The issue here is not a curse or other expression that pops from my subconscious after I accidentally drop a brick on my foot. Instead the issue is the conscious choice of a word that assaults one's sense of the sacred. Examples include: (a) "Trash talk," which is "disparaging, taunting, or boastful comments especially between opponents trying to intimidate each other" (The Merriam-Webster online dictionary). Trash talk is communication used between individuals who are in conflict with each other, not trading with each other. Trash talk thus abandons etiquette -- the set of rules and principles designed to facilitate trade between individuals for mutually selfish benefit in society.[3] (b) Sexual terms used as a verbal assault and expressed in demeaning slang ("screw you"). (c) Terms that reduce a value-charged situation to a foul concrete ("makes me vomit"). (d) Slang terms for human organs or bodily functions -- when they do not even need to be named in a particular context -- often with a psychologically revealing special focus on excretion ("sack of shit," "pissed off"). (e) Unearned, undignified, and unwelcome familiarity ("Hey, bro!" or individuals as "folks"). (f) Gangster ("gangsta") talk, including terms of violence and denigration of others. (g) Foul language in general, including fig-leaf acronyms ("WTF").

2. Ways of dress, such as shoes with intentionally untied laces, sagging pants, and torn clothing (as a sign of "poverty chic") -- all for "effect."

3. Personal mannerisms such as slouching or moving in a deliberately jerky or otherwise undignified manner.

4. "Art" that demeans the sacred, directly or indirectly -- such as "gangsta rap" or a painting of a beautiful woman whose skin is marred by disease.

5. Styles of confrontation with other individuals, such as an "in your face" style of speaking that is loud, harsh, insulting, condescending, or physically an invasion of the victim's personal space.

6. Graffiti and other forms of vandalism, as assaults on property rights and other values.

7. Ridicule of an objective valuer, for example, laughing at the holder of objective values by belittling his accent or weight -- allegedly as "humor."

8. Attacking someone while avoiding responsibility, for example, by hiding behind the verbal shield of "jus' saying'" or "just kidding." This approach also denies the target the dignity of being faced openly and honestly, as well as respect for his ability to defend himself as a rational being.

ORIGINS OF PROFANE CULTURE?. I see two possible causes of widespread, sustained profane culture -- psychological and philosophical. The common psychological cause -- easily observed and traced to its roots -- is envy, which is hatred of superiority (real or imagined), or, as philosopher Ayn Rand stated it, "hatred of the good for being the good."[4]

The philosophically motivated democratic movement strives to make everyone equal, often at the price of lowering the high. Is it the cause of profane culture, which tears down the sacred? I seldom see serious, long-term advocates of democratic culture explicitly encourage profanation. What I do see is advocates of democratic culture sanctioning profanation by remaining silent about it. In my experience in speaking with advocates of democratic culture, their usual justification for silence and sanction is their claim that profane culture is merely another manifestation of the culture of "the people" and therefore deserves toleration.

APPLICATION. The kind of world I want to live in is one that rejects the profane and reveres the objectively sacred. Profane culture appears in the lives of upholders of the sacred only if there are no gatekeepers for the sacred or if the gatekeepers are lax. "Open" online discussion groups -- in which any anonymous person can say anything -- are an example.

Making Progress is not an "open" discussion group. Your respectful comments -- additions, deletion, or corrections -- about my notes above are welcome.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] Dennis Prager, "'F_ _ _ You' from the Music Industry," in "Dennis's Columns," at dennisprager.com/columns.aspx?g=e952f04d-ae6b-4187-accb-fc26591ed637&url=f---_you_from_the_music_industry. For more on my philosophically negative but personally mixed views of Dennis Prager, see: reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2010/03/prager-on-reason-and-mysticism.html and http://reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2010/08/dennis-prager-mystic-activist.html. [2] For a Christian's discussion of sacred and profane in a religious context, with Biblical quotations: jackhammer.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/sacred-common-and-profane-culture/. [3] For discussion of insults: aristotleadventure.blogspot.com/2008/07/cause-of-history-ideas-or-insults.html. [4] For the concept of envy in Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism: Ayn Rand, "Envy," The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Apr 30, 2011

What does "sacred" mean?

This is the second in a series of three posts sketching my preliminary understanding of democratic, sacred, and profane culture.

. Normally I see the term/concept "sacred" used by religious individuals, for example, Biblical writers writing about the prescribed construction of the sacred Ark of the Covenant, at Exodus 25, and the penalty of death for touching the sacred ark, at 1 Chronicles 13:9-10.[1] Religionists typically apply the term/idea of "sacred" to elements of their own religion, which is a worldview based on mysticism. Sometimes advocates of conservatism -- the ideology defined by the four essential values of God, Tradition, Nation, and Family -- use the term "sacred" to describe personal characteristics such as honor. Even then, the religionists often tie this use of the term back to their religion through such supernaturalist notions as "God-given rights."

OBJECTIVE MEANING. Does "sacred" have meaning outside a religious context? Philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) explains the historical background for such a concept:

But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before man graduated or developed enough to have a philosophy.[2]

Within that frame of reference, Ayn Rand points at

a special category of abstractions, the most exalted one, which, for centuries, as been the near monopoly of religion: ethics ... with the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur, which pertain to the realm of man's values, but which religion has arrogated to itself . . . .[3]

In a religious and therefore supernaturalist context, she explains, such concepts as "sacred" have no earthly referent. In a secular context, however, such concepts do have objective meaning. Ayn Rand continues:

What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man's dedication to a moral ideal. ... It is this highest level of man's emotion that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man.[4] ...

[Consider] the look on a child's face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph .... If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that if there is such a concept as 'sacred' -- meaning: the best, the highest possible to man-- this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone.[5] (Bold added)

A PERSONAL DEFINITION. What is the sacred in man? I use the term sacred to refer to those personal attributes -- and their artifacts -- that an individual requires to survive and flourish. Examples are his pride (moral ambition), his dignity, his capacity for exaltation, his central purpose in life, his faculty of reason, and his self-esteem.[6]

I think that an objective man psychologically has a "sense of the sacred." It is an expression of his awareness -- at all times, even if only in the background of his mind -- that his life is his fundamental value and that maintaining that value requires -- as inviolable -- certain other supporting values to be sacred.

A man who has a sense of the sacred does not laugh at himself; nor does he sanction diminution by others. A man who has a sense of the sacred is dignified and he is respectful to others -- as were the moral characters of Ayn Rand's novels and as was the novelist herself.[7] A man who has a sense of the sacred is a man who strives to be the best he can be in all ways -- from the quality of his work, at whatever level it may be, to his manner of dress and style of speaking. In contrast, a profane man not only accepts low standards, he flaunts them.

Next post: What is profane culture?

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] For a Christian's discussion of sacred and profane in a religious context, with Biblical quotations: Kent Brandenburg, "The Culture War: Sacred, Common, and Profane Culture," Feb. 21, 2008, on the weblog Jack Hammer, at: http://jackhammer.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/sacred-common-and-profane-culture/. Brandenburg rejects multiculturalism, egalitarianism, skepticism, and other modern ideas that undermine the idea of the sacred in Christianity. He is a clear and entertaining writer -- and a worthy opponent in the war between reason and mysticism. [2] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Playboy's Interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, p. 10, cited in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, under "Religion," p. 411. [3] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Playboy's Interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, p. 10, cited in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, under "Religion," p. 414. [4] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Introduction to The Fountainhead", 25th Anniversary Edition, reproduced in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 415, excerpted from The Objectivist, March 1968, p. 4. [5] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Sacred," in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, quoting from "Requiem for Man," Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 303. [6] For the meaning of "exaltation," see Andy Clarkson's inspiring and informative collection of comments, at his weblog, Exalted Moments, http://exaltedmoments.blogspot.com. The antidote for encountering elements of profane culture is the experience of one's own exalted moments or even merely the observation of others' exalted moments. [7] In Ayn Rand's novels, examples of moral characters, at various levels of achievement, having a "sense of the sacred" are Howard Roark (The Fountainhead), Austin Heller (The Fountainhead), John Galt (Atlas Shrugged), and Dagny Taggart (Atlas Shrugged). (For the latter, I am thinking in particular of the scene in which Dagny Taggart kills the guard outside the torture chamber.) For glimpses of Ayn Rand's own sense of the sacred, study Scott Connell, 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, available at the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

Apr 24, 2011

What is democratic culture?

This is the first in a series of three posts sketching my preliminary understanding of democratic, sacred, and profane culture.

Understanding a culture in a particular period involves identifying not only the elements of that culture, but their interrelationships too. Are there patterns among the cultural elements? Which of the elements are causes and which are the effects?[1] This post is a sketch of one pattern among many in the overall culture of America today.

ORIGIN. The democratic movement is the movement of individuals who are striving to establish and expand a democratic society.[2] The term "democracy," for these individuals, names a concept that covers far more than only a particular form of government. One democratic activist, Yale University professor of constitutional law Jack M. Balkin, explains his view of democracy and identifies the root of the democratic movement:

The ultimate goal of our constitutional order is not merely to produce democratic procedures but a democratic culture: a culture in which all citizens can participate and feel that they have a stake, a culture in which unjust social privileges and status hierarchies have been disestablished. . . . Democracy inheres not only in procedural mechanisms like universal suffrage but in cultural modes like dress, language, manners, and behavior. Political egalitarianism must be nourished by cultural egalitarianism.[3]

Democratic advocate Randy Fullerton Sardis, an admirer of Balkin, elaborates:

Democratic culture is about individual liberty as well as collective self-governance; it concerns each individual's ability to participate in the production and distribution of culture. Removing the political, economical, and cultural elitists from their thrones and allowing everyone a chance to participate in the production of culture, sounds like a wonderful idea in my opinion.[4]

Culture, in its broadest meaning, refers to all those artifacts which can be produced by individuals in one generation and bequeathed to later generations. Democratic culture is the set of cultural elements produced by members of the democratic movement as part of their effort to create democracy.

EXAMPLES. Examples of democratic culture include: magazine articles calling for "net neutrality"; rap music lyrics berating the "elite"; Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls's book Theory of Justice (1971); a progressive income tax used to fund redistribution of income from the most productive to the least productive; "stakeholder" organizations who try, in corporate stockholders' meetings, to influence business policies and products to benefit "the people"; tax-funded "public" libraries that give everyone equal access to information; and support for folk art or the "everyday art" of "the people."

PHILOSOPHICAL ROOTS. Certain institutions are also examples of democratic culture. An institution is an organization designed to continue operating even after the resignation, retirement, or death of the founding members. For instance, consider one particular institution, The Center for Democratic Culture, which is housed in the Sociology Department of the University of Nevada. Its CDC Mission Statement reveals the institution's underlying philosophy:

The Center for Democratic Culture ... derives its philosophy from American pragmatism, which regards democracy as an ongoing experiment in collective living and institution building. Democracy, according to [philosopher of Pragmatism] John Dewey [1859-1952], begins at home in a neighborly community, and is first and foremost a quality of experience.[5]

"Quality of experience" is a euphemism for life in an all-encompassing culture and society of egalitarian collectivism. And that is what democratic culture is: the culture of egalitarian collectivism.

Next post in this series: "What does 'sacred' mean?"

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

[1] For a brief explanation of the principle of cultural detection: Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels, hardcover, pp. 143-144, the first one and a half pages of Ch. 7. [2] For the nature of a movement: "What is a movement?," July 5, 2008, on Making Progress, at aristotleadventure.blogspot.com/2008/07/what-is-movement.html. For an objective definition of political "democracy," as a dictatorship by the majority of a society, see: aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/democracy.html. [3] Jack M. Balkin, "The Declaration and the Promise of a Democratic Culture," 1999, pp. 6-7 of my printout, www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/declar1.htm. (Caution: The text duplicates some paragraphs.) [4] Randy Fullerton Sardis, "What is a Democratic Culture?," Feb. 3, 2009, p. 3 of my printout, on the weblog at atuuschaaw.blogspot.com/2009/02/what-is-democratic-culture.html. [5] For the CDC's mission: www.unlv.edu/centers/cdclv/mission/index2.html under Mission/Statement in the upper left corner.

Feb 23, 2011

David Allen's "Getting Things Done," as Integration

I recommend David Allen's book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, New York, Penguin, 2001, 267 pages.

Amy Peikoff has fully reviewed the book in The Objective Standard, here. The special point I am focusing on in this post is that the Getting Things Done system is a tool of integration, at multiple levels.

"Teaching you how to be maximally efficient and relaxed, whenever you need or want to be, was my main purpose in writing this book," says Allen (p. xi, emphasis added). That is what Allen does. As the subtitle says, he presents an art, that is, a general method that employs judgment, which uses free will and a growing body of knowledge.[1] He applies that art, which requires an investment of time to learn and automatize, to achieve both higher productivity and greater relaxation at the same time. No one needs to postpone a relaxed attitude until after work hours. That is an example of integration.

One element of Allen's system of Getting Things Done is what I call The Total Inbox. The idea is to place everything that enters your world and demands your attention into a single depository. This is the collection phase, and it too is an instance of integration. It brings together the many channels that affect us daily: phone calls, emails, letters, requests made at meetings, and nagging demands from one's own subconscious ("I really should do something about ...").

The next phase, processing, performs a cognitive integration. For each input (such as a bill received in the mail) that goes into the Getting Things Done system, one must identify its nature (a legitimate request for payment), categorize it (deserves prompt but not immediate payment), and state an action that will move one a step closer to a solution (write a check on the 14th of the month). The thinking required here is a form of integration in that it identifies facts and connects them to one's values and actions.

After the inputs are collected and initially processed, they can be organized into a systematic way of dealing with them. For me, that means a short interconnected set of lists of projects and the next-action to take for each one. Lists, however, are useless unless one reviews them regularly and then acts on them.

Those are the four stages: Collecting, Processing, Organizing, and Reviewing. This personal management system connects the philosophical (one's hierarchy of values) to the psychological (both the random flashes of insight and the ill-timed naggings issued by the subconscious) to the existential (action in the world as it is and as one wants to make it).

For me, David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, required several days to read and annotate and then another day to implement. The result has been a higher quality life, one in which I have peace of mind in knowing that I have accounted for everything within my control.

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

[1] I learned this from Harry Binswanger: hblist.com.