This year gave us two types of men: Edward Snowden and Phil Robertson, or, the man of reason and the man of faith. The young man represents the spirit of youth; Snowden is an idealist who fled his own country for Hong Kong this summer, told the world about indiscriminate government surveillance on the entire population of the U.S. and made thoughtful arguments against government control over people’s lives. He was praised here first before many others even addressed what he did. He was called a hero by Ayn Rand’s heir. He was passionately defended by a prominent conservative intellectual who reported that Snowden had been moved to act by a foreign film about Communist surveillance.
Yet Snowden was roundly denounced for his whistleblowing act of heroism by leftists, conservatives and others, especially those from the Clinton/Bush/Obama administrations, and attacked by government. Tea Party types who made a movement based on opposing government control, challenging the welfare state and demanding new, radical solutions to U.S. problems were split on Snowden’s status as a hero.
They shouldn’t be. Edward Snowden is in every sense the best news of 2013, if America is to remain even partially free. Stating that he does not trust the Obama administration, he brought forth bold new evidence at enormous risk to his own life. From his efforts, we know that the government tracks the American people with the latest technology and captures detailed information about every individual without regard to the law. We know that the government lied about doing this. We know that not a single enemy attack or terrorist siege has been prevented, not that it would make mass surveillance right if it had. We know that the ways and means of government surveillance of Americans is enormous, alarming and unchecked. A federal judge challenged the constitutionality and rightly compared the statism to George Orwell’s novel 1984.
All of this is thanks to Edward Snowden.
Snowden brought Americans together in a way that opposing ObamaCare never could, even paving the way for a more unified, principled opposition to that unconstitutional act of fascism. He did so by thinking, speaking and acting on his own judgment, something few Americans do by my observation. He singularly enlightened the West and changed the world and he did it going by reason, of course, not taking Big Government on faith.
Most Americans do the opposite, as we saw in abundance by their rallying to the defense of an archaic old man who thinks, looks and talks like the mass murdering religious terrorist who destroyed the Twin Towers. He goes by faith, not by reason. He is primitive, not cognitive. His name is Phil Robertson. He leads the religious clan at the center of America’s most watched cable TV program.
During an interview with GQ, Robertson said blacks he observed were fine before civil rights laws were passed and gays, drunks and adulterers among others are going to hell. Robertson, a fundamentalist Christian, has previously made similarly ignorant statements, such as promoting the marrying of females as children, and the cable network suspended him when his new comments were widely broadcast. They did so on the grounds that his views are repugnant to their business ethics. When conservatives, including religious conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, erupted in a fury to defend Robertson on improper grounds, i.e., free speech – ignoring that the suspension does not violate the First Amendment – the network buckled to pressure and restored Robertson to the airwaves.
The man of faith triumphed. That he did so at the expense of another group that touts faith (belief without evidence) in dogma, GLAAD, an irrational gay activist group, is irrelevant to what matters. Robertson brought forth vile and repulsive views, in crude expressions reducing sex to the use of orifices, spreading irrationalism to a wider audience. He singularly darkened the West and changed the world. His dark, malevolent beliefs were defended, sanctioned and accepted based on faith, i.e., in conservatism, in false views of what constitutes free speech, and above all in God, tradition and religion.
Robertson is the opposite of Snowden.
Robertson’s mob is emboldened and they are gathering. What we witnessed in 2013 in the Duck Dynasty media backlash, as with other cultural shifts toward irrationalism, is the mainstreaming of religious fundamentalism. The left’s faith in the welfare state was legitimized long ago by conservatives – the right accepts the left’s morality of altruism – and now the right’s faith in the religious state is being legitimized by the left, and also by secular rightists and libertarians such as Camille Paglia, in return. It’s the convergence of left and right in the name of faith, not reason.
We’ll suffer the consequences soon enough. Phil Robertson’s martyrdom has already paved the way for the emergence of another faith-based media celebrity: former quarterback Tim Tebow, who has been hired as a college football analyst by Disney’s ESPN for college football’s SEC Network in 2014. On Monday, Jan. 6, the athlete made famous more for his prayer than for his ability will make his first appearance as an ESPN analyst. “Tim is a SEC icon with a national fan base and broad appeal,” said ESPN programming executive Justin Connolly.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a devoutly religious person being popular in the culture. What the Robertson/Tebow broadcasting victories represent is a triumph of ignorance over knowledge, humility over ability, and, in Robertson’s case, depravity over dignity. Anyone who read what Robertson said knows what I mean. It’s bad enough that a publication that once heralded the civilization of man is cashing in on an old bigot’s popularity – and Robertson’s disgusting GQ interview is another instance of the coarsening of the culture which in turn feeds the rise of the religionists – and providing a platform for condemnation of gays, alcoholics and those who have sex outside of marriage, let alone marriage of children and Robertson’s other repugnant views and we should not be surprised if the rise of the Robertsons nets new primitives getting their own shows with high ratings, followings and streams of newly disgusting commentary. Nor will those inclined to denounce such primitives find speaking out easier in the wake of the Robertsons’ rising again.
All it takes to counter the rising tide of the irrational is one voice of reason to object. Like the child in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, Edward Snowden pointed and named the reality of Big Government and gave America cause to rally for justice. His heroic example may lead to new, bold acts by radicals for a society based on reason and rights, though there will undoubtedly be new, bold acts, such as the continuing faith-based death spiral ObamaCare, by those in the opposite camp. 2013 delivered in two men powerful evidence of both.
Leonard Peikoff delivered a speech that changed my life 20 years ago today.
His talk was titled “Health Care is Not a Right”. I was in the audience at the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, when he delivered it. I can attest that Dr. Peikoff, his speech and the audience response were a breathtakingly brilliant exercise in objective communication. What made the speech exceptionally powerful was his mastery of the extremely difficult subject, his radical theme, understanding his audience, the context of the presentation and its stirring delivery.
I had been acquainted with the trials of working in medicine. I knew firsthand that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), created by government control through the HMO Act of 1973 by Nixon and Ted Kennedy, were ruining people’s lives and livelihoods and that – other than Ayn Rand, who had passionately argued against government-run medicine including Medicare – only one serious intellectual had made a moral case against socialized medicine. I’d read Dr. Peikoff’s ingenious “Medicine: The Death of a Profession” (1985), based on his speech at Ford Hall Forum in Boston. His explanation had opened my eyes to the spreading bureaucracy of socialized medicine and alerted me to the fact that the emerging new jargon was to be questioned, challenged and not taken lightly and that to do less was to sanction the insidious creep of dictatorship.
When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, vowing to offer “health care that can never be taken away”, I knew that meant individual rights that will instantly be stripped away; the right of the doctor to practice medicine, the right of the drug company to make and sell drugs, the right of the health insurance company to assess, measure and price risk, terms and treatment – and of course the right of the patient, policyholder and individual to choose his or her own health care including whether to own a policy. I knew that medicine was, as a profession, dead or dying and I knew that President Clinton’s “health security” was a monstrous ideal. An organization started as a grass-roots effort to stop it and invited Dr. Peikoff to address its Town Hall Meeting on this date in 1993.
There were conservatives, libertarians and others among the speakers. The Red Lion’s ballroom as I recall was packed with hundreds of people from across southern California. I saw and talked to people who were truck drivers, waitresses, families, businessmen, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, doctors, nurses, housewives – all Americans uniting against the prospect – which we’d been told was imminent – of total government control of medicine. Several people spoke, some droned on. None made a moral case for capitalism. Then, Leonard Peikoff stepped to the podium.
He was electrifying. With passion, vigor and reason, like a surgeon cutting with precision, he railed against the premise of the Clinton health care plan. His argument that health care is not a right was an undeniably concise, clear case yet its thesis was framed with an unmistakable reverence for life, liberty and the founding American ideals. I was first on my feet as I rose amid the thundering applause and saw in my peripheral vision the audience rise in a kind of wave – row after row after row – while applauding in an explosion of energy I’ve not seen since. I was fixed on the face of Dr. Peikoff. He was clearly moved by the response.
I think I had known then that he was the son of a doctor, that he had once been a pre-medical student and that his brother was a doctor. I, too, had loved ones who worked in medicine. I think I appreciated how personal this issue – freedom versus slavery in medicine – must have been for the speaker. I became emotional, feeling an intense swell which comes from knowing that someone you love is under siege by those who seek to put him in chains. I thought it was just me … until I looked around. Tears were streaming from people’s faces. The feeling in the hall was not fear, pain or guilt. It wasn’t exactly anger, though a strong sense of justice had been evoked. It struck me as a response based on an overwhelming sense of justice – the feeling was an affirmation: this is good, right and just – mostly matched by a strong sense of resolve.
I was later hired to write about the Clinton health care plan for the group that sponsored Dr. Peikoff’s talk, Americans for Free Choice in Medicine (AFCM). We helped to stop the plan, which was killed before it was even proposed as legislation. It wasn’t as easy as that and the effort was an enormously fast and constant stream of disseminating facts and evaluations. Looking back 20 years later, I credit Dr. Peikoff’s “Health Care is Not a Right,” which, it must be noted, was not sponsored by any Objectivist group or anything with Ayn Rand’s – or Peikoff’s – name on it, with propelling the crusade against the Clinton health care plan. The talk’s brilliantly integrated abstractions and concretizations are logical, rational and very persuasive. It provided high-octane fuel to ignite the moral passion of those opposed to government control. It bought us time to win over men such as Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop among others, including some who later formed alliances such as the Tea Party-oriented Freedom Works and it allowed groups such as the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) to spread Objectivism.
It is impossible to convey the sense of doom that hung over the country’s medical profession during those days. The Clinton health care plan was inevitable, we were incessantly told. And many believed it. The most ardent believers were on the right. Only one man stepped forward first to declare that the notion that health care is a right is a moral abomination. He did it 20 years ago today. That we as a movement can even conceive of calling the nation’s 3-year-old dictate ObamaCare – which at once names the dictator and mocks his dishonesty – and steadfastly fight for its repeal is possible thanks to Leonard Peikoff.
It is true that we’re losing the battle for freedom. ObamaCare is law. Today, Republicans compromised again in favor of the welfare state. One of the chief Republican welfare-statists, a smooth-talking, mealy-mouthed conservative congressman from Georgia named Tom Price, went on Fox News today and answered, after evading Charles Krauthammer’s question whether health care is a right, that conservatives hold that the government has a moral obligation to provide health care to all. That the question is even asked – in a forum on Fox News Channel, which didn’t exist 20 years ago – owes to the power of a rational philosophy. We should be grateful to Leonard Peikoff for interpreting, advancing and acting on it. We should finish what he started.
America is not the world’s police and it ought to be unnecessary to have to declare let alone debate that an attack by the U.S. on Syria would be an outrage.
But the Obama administration, backed by every major Democrat and Republican and largely by the press, too, is on the verge of taking the U.S. to war with Syria. It’s bad enough that Obama is proposing to align with rebels that by credible accounts are allied with the Islamic terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and it is monstrous to subject this nation – having already been subjected to the longest war in our history – to another war with no purpose other than helping others. But the U.S. government has, to my knowledge for the first time, explicitly rejected U.S. self-interest as the cause for initiating the use of force against another country. Obama’s stated purpose for going to war is pure altruism – the morality of helping others for the sake of helping others – to the exclusion of self-interest and the fact that both sides of Syria’s civil war are jihadists for Islam. The altruism is the point, its proponents agree.
This war, currently being debated by Congress, is a crucially climactic, possibly ultimate, test in our lifetimes between the ethics of egoism and the ethics of altruism or between good and evil. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is right that the United States is “not Al Qaeda’s air force” when he argues that we should not go to war with Syria. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is right to declare as he did in Time that he refuses to “vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory.” But these are deeply flawed Christian politicians who can go bad – and, on crucial issues, they have – because they have no moral defense for acting in our own self-interest. A nation hurling itself into war in solidarity with victims of chemical weapons won’t be stopped on practical, even Constitutional, grounds.
The ethics of self-sacrifice must be challenged, rejected and replaced with the ethics of self-interest, which ought to be our sole criteria for foreign intervention, as the Founding Fathers, who warned against foreign entanglements, understood.
The opponents and proponents of war with Syria are proving philosopher Onkar Ghate right that the fundamental political conflict of our time is not between left and right. The conflict is between the rational and the irrational, between reason vs. faith, with leftists and conservatives converging into a single, dangerous pre-dictatorship based on faith in the state – the NSA, TSA, ObamaCare, anything dictated by government – with Obama, McCain and Fox News leading us into submission. President Obama, a pure nihilist whom I’ve called the Nothing Man, openly expresses disdain and outright contempt for having to communicate anything about the issue of going to war with anyone for any reason. He embodies the nil, the nothing, in this sense; a kind of walking (or in his case loping) Grim Reaper.
Two years ago, I had a long discussion about war with John Lewis months before he died. I had studied under his instruction in war history and read his book, Nothing Less Than Victory, and Dr. Lewis was the best war historian I knew. We talked about 9/11, the jihad, Syria as a flashpoint, the prospect of Obama as a warmonger and the people treating someone like Obama as a deity in total faith. He warned against all-out world war born of our refusal to identify, name, confront, kill and wipe out Islamic jihad.
Attacking Syria brings America closer to total, nonstop world war and destruction of western civilization. Some Americans, including war veterans and other individualists, are awakened and emboldened by Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s efforts and Edward Snowden’s heroic whistleblowing and they reject the emerging government-controlled society by speaking up against war with Syria. In ethical terms, the debate over Syria separates the selfish from the selfless. The question demanding to be answered right now is: which one are you?
Filling up on arts and philosophy at this year’s Objectivist Conference (OCON), I enrolled in courses and general lectures by favorite teachers and intellectuals and I attended a screening of Love Letters (1945) with commentary by one of my filmmaker friends, who, appropriately, wrote and directed an Academy Award-nominated movie about Objectivism’s fountainhead, Ayn Rand. This was the first OCON in Chicago, Illinois, near where I grew up, and I attended shortly after my article on Ayn Rand’s life in Chicago was published. Combined with visits to the John Hancock Building, The Drake Hotel and Taliesin, I enjoyed every minute.
Chicago Reach for the Stars: Milgram, Siek and Hoenig
OCON was held at the Westin Michigan Avenue across from a skyscraper, so my favorite general session, “Chicago Reach for the Stars,” turned out to be an appropriate title for what was an innovative approach to communicating to a general audience, though I have to admit I was skeptical of the title at first, despite being well acquainted with the session’s instructors, English professor and Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram, arts scholar Stephen Siek and hedge fund manager Jonathan Hoenig. They each valiantly and breathlessly presented a condensed series of what were really like vignettes – the session was too short and it felt rushed – and their trio of presentations were excellent.
Dr. Milgram, a friend whom I had interviewed for my article, explained in her instruction on Ayn Rand in Chicago that in the summer of 1926, the refugee from Soviet Russia was immersed in films, family and fiction. 21-year old Ayn, not yet known by that first name, kept a movie diary, had done some film writing and saw more movies per day in Chicago than at any other time in her life. We learned that she saw the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney on March 26, 1926, at Chicago’s Roxy theater and that she’d rated it “not even zero”. I liked knowing of course that my favorite writer was reviewing movies before she was assigned to write movies – Dr. Milgram said that young Rand had especially liked The Volga Boatment (it earned a five plus rating), which she thought was a sexy melodrama directed by Cecil B. DeMille about an aristocratic heroine and princess who meets a strong, handsome peasant named Fyodor. They’re alone together and in conflict with their political loyalties, which sounds to me like a compelling plot premise, when they must take shelter as newlyweds, with the princess disguised as a peasant, because she is engaged to Prince Nikita. Things take a darker turn, and Dr. Milgram explained that the movie is neither political nor philosophical but it is dramatically tense. Young Ayn Rand saw the motion picture at Warner’s Orpheum theater in Chicago.
There was more, about three sisters – Anna, Sarah and Minnie – who sold dry goods, helped with Ayn Rand’s English skills and they all used to get together on weekends. Our teacher said that the future author of Atlas Shrugged would never forget what her relatives had done for her, inscribing a copy of her first published novel, We the Living, to one of them, and that while in Chicago she wrote four original screen treatments and a short story, “The Husband I Bought” (The Early Ayn Rand). Ayn Rand would soon be on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, where she’d spot her future husband, Frank O’Connor, by chance on the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie about Jesus Christ and, as we learned from Dr. Milgram, she’d soon meet DeMille himself by chance, too. She impressed The Ten Commandments filmmaker enough to spark his interest in her work but his story editor did not like young Ayn Rand’s stories – she denounced Rand’s story, “The Viking’s God”, as the work of “an erotic mind” who will “never become a writer of any ability.” DeMille hired Ayn Rand anyway as a junior screenwriter. Shoshana Milgram’s talk on the first part of Ayn Rand’s life in America was an exciting glimpse into the bustling city life of a vivacious young intellectual who became Ayn Rand, the person who made the books, movies and philosophy we were gathered to study and apply to our own lives.
Stephen Siek, a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who recently wrote a biography of England’s piano sage Tobias Matthay, spoke eloquently about the Windy City as a magnificent treasure trove of architecture. Calling Chicago the “birthplace of distinctly American architecture” where some of the greatest architects trained, Dr. Siek took us swiftly and gracefully through the late 19th century, showing photographs on slides from 1858 and forward in time to the Great Chicago Fire, which he told us burned for 36 hours, melted sidewalks and destroyed 18,000 buildings, and taking us to the time when young Frank Lloyd Wright, apprentice to architect Louis Sullivan, said ‘we’re building on the prairie here’. Chicagoland was remade on soil which is very soft clay – even softer closer to the lake – that’s perfect for making buildings that stir the imagination, inspire the soul and make history. Tapping Chicago’s once indomitable spirit of strength, he told the powerful story of a Chicago real estate entrepreneur who had survived the great fire but lost his home. The real estate salesman was soon seen again offering to sell private property after the fire, Dr. Siek solemnly told us, posting a sign that read: “All gone, but wife, children, and energy.” No city, Siek explained, was more vital than Chicago.
Chicago had the first iron-framed or steel-framed skyscraper, he said, introducing us to Daniel Hudson Burnham, public face of an architectural firm (he got the clients), and to John Root, who, according to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, is the engineering mastermind behind a building Wright loved, and later updated, named the Rookery (it’s still there; Siek urged everyone in the spellbound audience to visit). Taking one’s breath away with a picture of the Rookery’s lobby, which is Root’s design, I marveled at the cantilevered staircase, which Siek described as something out of a Jules Verne story. Wright later put his office at the Rookery. Dr. Siek, who is also a friend and an amazing artist in his own right – I enjoy listening to the beautiful music he plays which I have on my iTunes recordings – brought the lecture to a climax with tales of Sullivan and Wright, lumber magnates, debating architectural scholars and, finally, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, which hired the greatest architects in the world and gave us the only World’s Fair building that remains standing on earth: an art museum which is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a place of reverence for me when I was a child. Siek closed his lecture – and promptly introduced the next speaker – with a word about Wright’s masterpiece, the prairie styled Robie house. The exhaustive talk concretized architecture’s abstractions, applying this fine art to reality, in a way that was made easier by Shoshana Milgram’s portrait of a relentless and ambitious young writer Ayn Rand. The final installment cashed in, giving everything a brash, Chicago touch.
The last talk, titled “Chicago: City of Traders”, was by Fox News guest and hedge fund (Capitalist Pig) manager Jonathan Hoenig. He reminded the Objectivist audience, which needs reminding despite loosening up over the years, that capitalism and freedom – and life – are not always tidy; like Dr. Siek’s story of the real estate salesman after the fire, and Dr. Milgram’s tales of Ayn Rand’s ruthless pursuit of happiness, the trader principle may be activated in blunt, abrasive action that requires people to get up and at ’em. Never has this message been more relevant than now, when Objectivists (and others who claim to want to live in freedom before we die) can and do tend to be rationalists, pretentious academics and ivory tower intellectuals.
Hoenig, donning a vest and explaining in often disjointed fragments how futures trading works in Chicago, demonstrated that Chicago is a financial center of the world; a bold city of big shoulders, as Carl Sandburg once wrote, that bought into the concept of an exchange before New York City (theirs came later after New York and Boston wanted nothing to do with commodities markets). Tellingly, in sync with Drs. Milgram’s and Siek’s themes of hardworking middle-class people, Chicago trading was made initially and primarily by producers who were booksellers, farmers, grocers, tanners, druggists and hardware merchants. Yelling and booming and gesturing in live action for the audience what it means to trade in raucous signals of buying and selling – the requisite being assertiveness, as in life – Hoenig quoted Ayn Rand from her essays in Philosophy: Who Needs It, observing that the Chicago Stock Exchange was founded in 1972 with influence by economist Milton Friedman – the exchange was created by a Nazi concentration camp survivor – and explaining speculation as essential to capitalism and, by implication, to life.
Ayn Rand’s O. Henry – and Ours: Ingenuity, Optimism and Warmth
Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D. taught a course (I’ve previously attended her courses on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, Victor Hugo and Sinclair Lewis) on one of my favorite writers, O. Henry, and it is a personal conference highlight. Starting off with a reference to a line from one of O. Henry’s stories that neatly contains his trademark twist – “He is dead and I killed him …” – she offered insights into his work, which requires more than most short story writing that one check one’s premises, and she provided the life story of the man who’d once been William Sidney Porter. We learned, for instance, and with a bittersweet twist befitting one of his surprising tales, how becoming O. Henry was an ultimately painful, tragic journey (as a writer’s life often is) that began with his writing for the Houston Post, turned on a series of dark, mysterious choices relating to a criminal charge and time in prison and culminated in an extraordinary nine-year writing binge and exceptional career that leaves a legacy of stories based on a benevolent universe premise and O. Henry’s post-penitentiary view that disaster is not inevitable.
Contrasting Thomas Hardy’s Tess, in which people can’t change their stories (Tess is doomed), Milgram showed how O. Henry, whatever his crimes, created fiction that expresses the idea that what might be is what ought to be and that what ought to be is what might be. Citing a short poem as evidence that O. Henry held that happiness is possible here on earth, she noted that O. Henry also did not take domestic failings lightly; in more than a couple of stories, he writes about men who abuse their wives. And O. Henry’s fictional rich people are not automatically villainous – he “does not curse the dollar” – and the poor people are not automatically virtuous. At the time of her death in 1982, Milgram said, Rand owned 11 volumes of O. Henry’s works. Reading from another source, Milgram observed that his style and structure contain compactness and swiftness of resolution with a distinct ability to divert and amuse.
Shoshana Milgram suggested with good reason that, for young Rand in Communist Russia, O. Henry may have offered the hint of an un-Soviet world. Tracing Rand’s interest in his work to her writing, Milgram notes that two early Rand stories bear similarity to his work and may constitute an influence: The Night King and Escort. In Rand’s stories, as against O. Henry’s, people do not tend to get away with the crime. Neither did O. Henry, if in fact he did commit a crime as accused at the National Bank of Austin when he worked as a teller (it doesn’t help that he skipped town upon indictment). He’d been trying to launch a start-up publication called the Rolling Stone and the enterprise wasn’t going well, so he was working at the bank and he wound up in an Ohio prison after fleeing to Honduras (which had no extradition rules) and returning to the U.S. to visit his dying wife. One of his ideas before the legal trouble had been to move to Chicago for a writing job. Jumping bail when he was told to report for trial in Austin changed his life.
The class read and studied several stories, including Friends in San Rosario,The World and the Door, A Retrieved Reformation, which evokes Hugo’s Les Miserables, and, of course, Gift of the Magi about two “foolish children” who turn out to be newlyweds that are rather wise. It’s his most famous story, and Ayn Rand had a negative view of the tale, which she described as dramatizing “the futility of altruism.” Milgram wonders whether there might have been a problem in the Russian translation in some version that Ayn Rand might have read – certain Russian versions showed that the couple’s love is based on admiration and shared joy, not sacrifice, though both versions erroneously had gifts not gift in the title – and in any case Rand pegged it as a “sadistic horror story” in the December, 1976 Objectivist calendar. We discussed Gift of the Magi, which I liked, and other O. Henry stories such as An Unfinished Story,The Ransom of Mack and, briefly, Cabbages and Kings. Though it wasn’t assigned for class, I’d also read The Last Leaf at the suggestion of my mother, a retired English teacher who’d enjoyed the story as a girl, and it was pointed out to me that it seems clear in retrospect that O. Henry’s tale of a dying artist who might be saved by one, final masterpiece involves a same-sex couple.
O. Henry was probably an alcoholic. He died at the age of 47; he’d been drinking and had neglected his health and he was admitted to a hospital with cirrhosis of the liver and the most dilated heart his doctor had seen. O. Henry had diabetes, too. The writer known to his friends as Will Porter is said to have said “turn up the lights; I’m afraid to go home in the dark” before he died. Shoshana Milgram read from a play by Upton Sinclair in which a ghost character of Will Porter’s wife encourages us to remember O. Henry as a storyteller who was the voice of the forlorn.
Philosophy professor Robert Mayhew taught a course about one of the great works of literature, which has survived in fragments. Dr. Mayhew was emphatic that Aristotle’s Poetics be studied with caution, as book two is essentially lost and, as he put it, we are lucky for what we do possess. Even the one text that has survived, he instructed, is not all that it could be; it’s “the least well transmitted” and it’s in the worst shape – one has to fill in gaps – because Aristotle wrote these texts in the fourth century. That, he explained, complicates everything. So how what we have of Poetics is itself complicated, with scribes making copies of copies moving from magiscule to miniscule, raising problems (i.e., moving all CAPS to no punctuation, no accentuation, etc.) and this applies to any ancient work. These are textual corruption issues and Poetics was neglected in a way that most of Aristotle’s works were not. Also, there was a radical change from papyrus to codex manuscripts, so it’s likely that only a single copy of Poetics survived. The upshot: Poetics is an imperfect text.
We owe much to scholars, he said, explaining that Poetics likely consists of Aristotle’s lecture notes which are often elliptical. According to Dr. Mayhew, Aristotle’s Poetics are likely to mean literary creation, which includes epic, tragedy and comedy. So, the title really means something like expertise in literary creation and, while Poetics is broader than poetry, it does include poetry. The first part is a general introduction to literary creation as a kind of mimesis; a type of imitation, as a representation, and Dr. Mayhew suggests that Aristotle is talking about representational art, with detailed discussions of tragedy, epic and comedy that would have been handled in book 2. Again, he warned that the text is tough.
Yet, as one goes through the table of contents, one sees in Poetics the importance of plot and this – the primacy of plot in literature – is what Ayn Rand and Aristotle have in common.
On background, Dr. Mayhew (editor of Rand’s The Art of Non-Fiction and several studies of Rand’s fiction) said that there are two contexts important to understanding the meaning of Poetics: 1) Aristotle is not projecting all possibilities in literature, and 2) Plato had an extremely negative view of what we know as representational art. In Republic, for example, he sought to ban art. Plato argued that art is a product of inspiration and mania, not a rational skill, so it doesn’t involve knowledge and, since art is representational, it is twice removed from reality (remember, reality for Plato is the forms) and art is therefore a copy of a copy and thus worse, less significant, less a bearer of truths than physical concretes, Finally, Plato asserted that art is dangerous because it is emotion and emotion, he argued, must be repressed; in other words, art is emotionally evocative so art is dangerous. Plato also said that art is not conducive to proper moral development, so representational art should not exist; we should have only background music or Spartan marching tunes; Homer is acceptable only if heavily censored. Mayhew observed that this is why Friedrich Nietschze dubbed Plato an enemy of art.
Aristotle answers each of Plato’s points in Poetics, asserting that literature is a skill with certain principles which can be learned by reason; he proposed that literature is an imitation of reality but said it’s a useful one from which we can learn; it’s not removed from universals – in fact, it deals with essentials – and literature is more philosophy than history. It moves us closer to reality. Aristotle also responds to Plato with the view that literature does arouse emotions and there’s nothing wrong with that and he insists that literature can be and often is conducive to one’s proper moral development which is, in fact, necessary. So Poetics is in part a response to Plato and Aristotle thinks the ability to produce art is related to reason; it’s not something that comes from the outside with those consuming it as some type of passive vessel. Aristotle asserts that the ability to create literature, sculpture, architecture, etc. are the product of reason – not divine intervention or madness – and that there are good ways and bad ways of making art. Aristotle sees art as a body of knowledge and he says that there are limits and rational standards that art must live up to in order to be art. Furthermore, Dr. Mayhew explained, Aristotle held that poetry is not just meter; there is literature that doesn’t have meter and there are two main modes of literature: narration and dramatization. Aristotle, Mayhew maintains, holds like Ayn Rand that art is the product of reason, though he does not sufficiently stress the difference between fine art and utilitarian creation (Mayhew added that this is what Aristotle scholar John Herman Randall claims – that Aristotle makes no distinction at all).
When asked about recommending an English language translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, he said that he doesn’t have a favorite, but Richard Janko’s translation is good, and Penguin’s edition by Malcolm Heath is good, too. Mayhew concluded that Aristotle agreed with Ayn Rand that art is as rational as technology and that Aristotle would have disagreed with Rand that industry is as spiritual as art, though, to Aristotle’s credit, he regarded shipbuilding as similar to art. But it is clear that Aristotle holds that plot is the primary way in which the poet or fiction writer recreates reality; Aristotle thinks you can’t separate thought and character completely in a good play. Dr. Mayhew said that Aristotle wrote that literary structure is more important than what you’re structuring; that well-constructed plots should neither begin nor end from a random point and that the middle of the play is the intensification and climax and the end is its resolution. In fact, plot parts should be presented in order and in magnitude, neither too small nor too large. Length should make the work easy to remember. With regard to an artist being selective, Aristotle praises Homer for trying not to include the entire Trojan War in his epic. So it seems clear that the father of logic sees a plot as an integrated series of events – he criticizes episodic tragedies as events that do not follow logically – and Aristotle notes that nature is not merely a series of episodes like a bad tragedy. In chapters 10 and 11 of Poetics, Aristotle refers to the best kinds of plots, which “present a story in terms of action [which] means to present it in terms of events…”
On the last day of the course, Robert Mayhew brought Aristotle’s Poetics back to Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged is based on Aristotelian ideas, noting that she probably discovered that it was Aristotle’s principle that we should portray men “as they might be and ought to be” (which he said she referred to nine times) sometime between 1944 and 1945. Rand encountered this reference in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock. But does Aristotle think people should be portrayed as they ought to be as Ayn Rand means? Mayhew says the answer is a qualified Yes, though he said that he thinks she should have left off quotation marks which Mayhew says he thinks she included because she was relying on Nock’s translation. Certainly might be and ought to be are not the same to Ayn Rand as to Aristotle; she states her literary goal as the presentation of the ideal man; Aristotle says the tragic playwright should present a great person who is brought down by error or morality. To Aristotle, some breach or error brings down an otherwise good person (Aristotle describes this person as an intermediate of the good and the bad).
So, to Aristotle, we shouldn’t see wicked men going from bad to good – nor should we see great men becoming bad – because it doesn’t produce pity or fear and that is the purpose of tragedy. This way, Dr. Mayhew suggests, they’re not hit by a bus out the blue; their demise is based on a character flaw, like newspaper magnate Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead, whose ending is tragic, not caused by some accident, and Aristotle writes that the second best structure is that which some would say has a double structure like Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the suitors go from being good, to living it up, to ending up dead, while Penelope and Telemachus go from being virtuous to a good life. Aristotle’s purposes of literature are contained in two passages that give us a lead into his viewpoint: he says that music (which includes literature) should be part of an education which is appropriate to a free and noble man. There are three core, character requisites, according to Aristotle: education, catharsis and amusement or realization. These arc toward the child’s moral development.
Aristotle says the young are not yet ready for the study of ethics because they are still guided by feelings and require an education. So, he says, the young should not be exposed to malice and depravity. Most important with regard to education, Aristotle says, is education that can take on a certain quality, such as when we see a play or hear a piece of music and certain tunes evoke certain feelings. Mayhew said that Aristotle’s remarks on the role of art and moral development are good – he reminded the class that Ayn Rand wrote that “art is not the means to any didactic ends” – and Mayhew said that, while he used to think that Aristotle thought that art held a didactic function, he doesn’t think that anymore.
While it is not clear what Aristotle thinks is the purpose of art, moral education is certainly part of it, Mayhew argued, and we have more to learn about his views on catharsis. In Greek, catharsis means purgation, in a medical sense; a cleansing of disease and purification in a religious sense. There is one mention of catharsis in Poetics (so maybe Aristotle says more in book 2, which is lost) and Robert Mayhew suggests that this interpretation of catharsis – the moral development of children, with catharsis aiming at moral purification – might well be true: In other words, art can contribute to the habituation of moral virtue as a release and reduction of excessive emotion. Robert Mayhew’s thesis is something to think about, especially for and among those who choose to think.
Naming himself after St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic who claimed that he answered God’s call to “repair my church in ruins”, a 76-year-old priest from South America became the first Jesuit pope yesterday and, breaking from small, hierarchical rituals, reminded the world that people currently want to believe, i.e. have faith, more than they want to choose to think, i.e., follow reason. Contrary to those who claim that it doesn’t matter, the Catholic Church is meaningless, etc., the naming of the new pope is, I think, a serious new sign that civilization is in trouble.
It’s not that this pope—who is accused of aiding and abetting a dictatorship in his native Argentina, which he apparently as much as admits to doing, which is hardly surprising in a country that welcomed Nazis after World War 2—is hostile to sex without procreation, such as homosexuality and contraception, or that he is as contemptuous of capitalism as Barack Obama or his nagging wife Michelle. The sign stems from the fact that, as far as I can tell, most people are choosing to ignore or evade the overwhelming evidence that the Catholic Church, which is paying out millions of dollars in settlements to people who credibly claim to have been sexually abused as children by priests operating within a system that’s apparently influenced or ruled by a secretly repressed sex cabal, is 100 percent corrupt and immoral.
That people—conservatives, leftists, otherwise rational people of all types, judging by social and mainstream media—really want to believe is not astonishing. We are regressing, not progressing, and besides a New Left president, we now have a “Third World” pope who chose to emulate St. Francis because, according to a Vatican spokesman, he has a “special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, [and] for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.” These last two words, were real justice possible among Catholics, should mean those who toil, struggle and strive to make money and live honest, rational lives in pursuit of their own selfish happiness; be they any color, sex or economic status. But no one has any reason to think that Pope Francis will spare condemnation of those who seek to profit and act selfishly here on earth and we have every reason to think that he will not. Instead, Pope Francis should be expected to change the Catholic Church only in order to fix what he believes is broken – which is to say make it a more consistent organ for spreading altruism and other rotten ideals.
At that, secular and rational people should not snicker at Pope Francis, who may, like his predecessor, be a transitional figure, or wonder how anyone can take him seriously. The point is that they do—more than ever—and those of us who reject Judeo-Christianity, religion and mysticism ought to stop snickering, get serious about fighting the irrationality that’s engulfing the world, advocate for a philosophy of living on earth and live by example—including by means of rational, not pedantic or dogmatic, activism—a rational alternative to a life of submission. The fact of Pope Francis is an ominous, not humorous, sign that we are running out of time.
Filmed in Malta between March and June 2008, Agora, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), takes place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt.
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The story concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism through the lives of three individuals: astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the last director of the surviving library in Alexandria, and two young men in love with her: a bright, willful student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her equally intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella). The motion picture will be playing in both New York and Los Angeles by June 4, 2010.
Director Amenabar, whom I first met and interviewed at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss his haunting, Oscar-winning The Sea Inside in 2004, talked briefly with me about Agora from Spain during an interview by telephone. The South American-born composer, writer and director, who speaks in a thick Spanish accent, talked about Agora’s ideas.
Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia an agnostic or an atheist?
Alejandro Amenabar: She is obviously looking for something [meaningful] but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these [moral] codes that get people to kill each other.
Scott Holleran: Yet you told the New York Times that Agora is “a very Christian film.” Why?
Alejandro Amenabar: It all depends on what we consider by being Christian. We see Hypatia being merciful and we see [the Christians] torturing her and [wanting to] skin her alive so in that sense I found that the character Hypatia is more Christian than those killing people. The movie’s not against Christians and Jews; it’s against fanatics. I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set. The problem is when people of faith start killing people who don’t have faith. Personally, I lost my faith when I did The Others [in 2001] and at the time I considered myself an agnostic. Now, I consider myself an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t identify with taking care of the people nobody wanted. So [in Agora] I tried to show that side of Christians—as good people.
Scott Holleran: What was the turning point?
Alejandro Amenabar: When I was doing The Sea Inside, I became aware [lead character] Ramon Sampedro [played by Javier Bardem] was an atheist. It’s not that I don’t want to believe and it’s not that I don’t want to believe in something superior or that I didn’t read the Old Testament or something. I prefer to call it nature. When Einstein was studying the theory of relativity, he was looking for something higher—but he was using reason. I try to do things from a humanistic approach. I do have a moral code but I know that you don’t have to live by the Ten Commandments to be a good person.
Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia a martyr?
Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. Again, I found links to her story and to the story of Jesus Christ. They were dragged through the streets, tortured and killed. We don’t know if she knew what was coming. The fact is that she was a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal to a man. She was very prominent in the city.
Scott Holleran: Agora’s marketing has been underwhelming; the film isn’t indexed on major online movie resources. Why isn’t Agora being promoted in the United States?
Alejandro Amenabar: It’s not an easy film. It looks like an epic film but it’s not a traditional epic. It’s about astronomy and it’s also this weird mixture of history and science—and you expect her to have an affair.
Scott Holleran: Have there been any threats from religious fundamentalists?
Alejandro Amenabar: No.
Scott Holleran: Is Agora making money?
Alejandro Amenabar: Yes, though it hasn’t made all the money that it should. In Spain, it’s done very well and in Italy it’s doing very well but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit in the United States. We made the movie just before the financial crisis and in these times people just want comedy or horror or action. Agora is not that movie.
Scott Holleran: Some critics have said your film is strident. How do you respond?
I understand the criticism. It’s a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.
Scott Holleran: Has Agora been screened at the Vatican?
Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. From what I have heard, no one said anything. I think there were some priests and journalists there and there was no reaction at all.
Scott Holleran: Why was Agora submitted to the Vatican in the first place?
Alejandro Amenabar: It was the distribution company—I think they wanted to check the reaction of the Vatican and also for the translation into Italian [from English]. There’s one scene in which Cyril reads from St. Paul and [the Vatican] tried to look for the softest version. In the English version, it’s taken from the King James version of the Bible. But I don’t think there is a softer way of saying that women should shut up.
Scott Holleran: Do you think fundamentalists are corrupting Judeo-Christianity?
Alejandro Amenabar: I consider myself a moderate. I think Hypatia was a moderate. I don’t like big revolutions with a lot of blood and violence. I don’t like extremism.
Scott Holleran: If a philosophy is good, shouldn’t it strive to be consistent?
Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. But [a good] philosophy has one principle and that’s that you can refute what your master taught you. Einstein’s biggest idol was Isaac Newton and he dared to refute Newton—he was able to come up with improved theories. Sometimes, you have to play against what your masters taught. Ptolemy was saying one thing [about astronomy] and Copernicus was brave enough to challenge him.
Alejandro Amenabar: To me, it’s a difficult question. I always say it’s a story of a woman, a civilization, and a planet. I tried to see the earth in perspective. I tried to look at the earth as small—as small as possible.
Scott Holleran: Yes, you frequently pull the camera back to emphasize man’s smallness. Do you see man as small and insignificant?
Yes and, at the same time, as great—you see these highly developed people as small as ants knowing so much about the universe. So the movie shows man at his best and at his worst.
Scott Holleran: What is your personal favorite scene, as seen within the context of the final picture?
Alejandro Amenabar: There’s one shot that I love, when we see the earth as very, very little and you hear the screaming of the women and children—and we’re lost.
Scott Holleran: Which scene was hardest to shoot?
Alejandro Amenabar: The destruction of the library.
Scott Holleran: Why is it called Agora as against Hypatia?
Alejandro Amenabar: We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation [it’s pronounced hy-pay-shuh]. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas—this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.